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White Lines: North American Ski Resorts

For those in search of perfect North American powder, look no farther than these 10 ski resorts
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

They are the ultimate resorts, entire communities devoted to recreation. These places exist simply because they happen to be next to great mountains, mountains where avid skiers flock to do what they love. Entrepreneurs move their businesses there and telecommute. Celebrities can't stay away. This is the magical hold great mountains have over skiers: build a ski resort and they will come.  

While the proximity to and selection of luxurious hotels, restaurants, après-ski hangouts and boutiques are important when planning a ski vacation, the most significant consideration is the quality of the skiing, because that is, after all, your reason for being there. The rest is just window dressing.  

The very best slopes are skiers' mountains, where skiers can spend a day, a week or a month without having to wipe the smile off their faces. So, wax those skis, sharpen those edges and head for these 10 resorts, my picks, in order, for places with the very best skiing in North America.    

1 JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING  

Its nickname says it all: The Big One. With the highest vertical drop in the United States, Jackson Hole is a monster of a mountain, beautiful in its simplicity: one ski area, tall, wide, steep and deep. Terrain defines greatness, and Jackson has it, from cruisers and bumps to bowls and chutes, with plenty of snow to cover it all.  

What sets Jackson apart is its wide-open layout. More a series of bowls and slopes than a set of trails, the runs defy mapping. The printed map the resort provides barely scratches the surface. With few trees, Jackson is a huge open slope, and one big bowl empties into another, and so on down the mountain, with choices at every turn. This layout cannot get boring: you could ski a whole season without taking the same line twice. Jackson takes the very best part of most western mountains--the above-tree-line terrain--and multiplies it by 10.  

Jackson has a reputation as an expert's mountain, and not undeservedly. It has some impossibly difficult terrain, including the famed Corbert's Couloir, probably the hardest marked trail anywhere. But Jackson offers terrain for skiers of all abilities, and the right side of the map offers some truly superb blue (intermediate) runs. With fewer than 5,000 skiers on busy days, Jackson Hole is also wonderfully uncrowded, and skiers have entire trails, or even bowls, to themselves. If there is any drawback, it is the distance from town (about 12 miles).  

Despite Jackson's charms, nearby Grand Targhee draws many skiers for a visit, and they aren't disappointed. Even locals head to "The 'Ghee," as it's called, after a snowfall, because it gets better powder. Grand Targhee is laid out much like Jackson Hole, but is less steep and without cliffs. Beginners and intermediates will love Grand Targhee, which is among the most snowed-on resorts in the country.  

Planning a trip: Nonstop jet service from Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Chicago makes Jackson surprisingly easy to reach. The airport is just minutes from town. The best lodging in Jackson is found at the Wort Hotel, home of the SilverDollar Bar & Grille. Skiers can also stay slopeside in Teton Village.    

2 LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, UTAH: ALTA AND SNOWBIRD  

Utah enthusiasts lay claim to "the greatest snow on earth." It is not ego, but realism that fuels this sentiment, and few in the ski business would disagree. Skiers flock to Utah for its famous "Champagne powder." Like the best Champagne, which is dry with tiny bubbles and served in vast quantities, the small flakes created by fronts passing over the Wasatch Range are dry and light and exceptionally deep.  

The whole state basks in the glory of this snow, but one place gets more than anywhere else, and that is Little Cottonwood Canyon, 45 minutes from Salt Lake City. Here, Alta and Snowbird Mountains sit side by side, receiving 500 inches of snow annually. Alta bears more than a passing resemblance to Jackson Hole. Although not as big or as steep, but with more blue and green (beginner) runs, Alta is a wide-open set of bowls with far more skiing than the 40 listed trails, a virtually infinite number of routes through bowls, trees and chutes. Alta's founders went looking for great terrain and snow, and they stopped when they got here. Six decades later, it has maintained a rustic feel, and it is one of only four major mountains in the United States that still ban snowboarding.  

Snowbird has similar terrain but a much different personality. Whereas Alta is vintage skiing, Snowbird has faster lifts, a 125-passenger tram to the summit, and a large, modern hotel. Snowbird also has a much higher percentage of expert terrain, and is opening more. The brainchild of entrepreneur Dick Bass, whose mountaineering exploits were captured in the book Seven Summits, Snowbird reflects his identity: big, tough and adventurous. Fans enjoy the long, steep top-to-bottom powder runs. While Alta and Snowbird are competitors, they enjoy a synergy, as almost all overnight guests to the canyon ski both mountains.  

Planning a trip: The canyon has very limited development, so most lodges offer full American meal plans. Many visitors choose to stay in Salt Lake City and commute for the nightlife and dining options. But on snowy days, when there is danger of an avalanche, the road to the canyon is often closed in the morning, a Catch-22 that causes tourists to miss the skiing when it is at its best. If you plan to come here, stay at the Alta Lodge, the Cliff Lodge or one of the handful of other European-style properties, and turn yourself over to the get-away-from-it-all seclusion of the canyon.    

3 TELLURIDE, COLORADO  

Although Aspen and Vail may get the majority of the tourists visiting Colorado's ski resorts, Telluride is fast giving them a run for their money. It's in the middle of nowhere, and its fans, including Ralph Lauren and Oprah Winfrey, want to keep it that way. The town is memorable, with skiing to match.  

Telluride--thought to be a clipped version of "To Hell You Ride"--is another mountain with mystique. The bumps on its long, steep mogul trails, which go by such names as Spiral Stairs, Kant-Mak-M and Mine Shaft, can burn out well-conditioned thighs on a single descent. Linking these three top-expert, double-black-diamond classics results in the longest, steepest, bumpiest run imaginable. Plenty of less publicized trails, however, also offer top-notch skiing.  

The mountain juts up steeply from town, just two blocks from Main Street. From the peak, additional runs drop off the back, down to a second base at Mountain Village, a contemporary upscale neighboring town, which is the secret to Telluride's success. By locating new construction here rather than in the older section, Telluride has preserved its Old West feel from the days when Butch Cassidy came here to rob his first bank. Telluride has the most authentic historic western feel of any ski town. Meanwhile, Mountain Village addresses the need for larger homes, hotels and additional shopping and dining. A gondola, which provides free transportation until 11 p.m. (midnight on Fridays and Saturdays), links the two. The Mountain Village area includes a lot of green and blue ski terrain, and despite its fearsome reputation, Telluride is a great place to learn to ski. Lift lines are unheard of, cruising runs plentiful, and the mountain gets a lot of snow.  

Planning a trip: Telluride has its own airport, but it closes frequently because of bad weather. A larger, more reliable airport in Montrose, Colorado, sits at a lower altitude where there is much less snow, but it is an hour and 15 minutes away.   The Peaks, a sister resort to the renowned Boulders resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, is the standout lodging. The Peaks has excellent food, great rooms, stellar service, ski-in, ski-out convenience and a branch of the acclaimed Golden Door spa, where you can relax with a much needed post-skiing massage.    

4 ASPEN, COLORADO  

When people visit Aspen, they expect glitz. They want chic nightspots and long wine lists, and they are rarely disappointed. Sometimes forgotten amidst the luster is that Aspen also has a lot of awesome skiing.  

The resort comprises four ski areas, linked by the most user-friendly free bus system in ski country. Only one, Aspen Mountain (called Ajax to confuse tourists) is in town, a stone's throw from the best hotels and restaurants. Skiers here are in for some surprises: unlike the other three mountains, Ajax does not allow snowboarding. Also, it may be the only large ski mountain in the world without a single green run. For a mountain that draws people as much to be seen sipping Martinis as to ski, Ajax is surprisingly difficult. If you do ski, and ski fairly well, this is the place to be.  

Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands are just outside of town. Aspen Highlands is the locals' mountain, the least pretentious with the most difficult terrain. It has runs for skiers of every ability, but is a must for advanced skiers who will relish the uncrowded runs, steep tree glades and perfectly formed moguls. Buttermilk is a pure beginner's mountain, and may be the best place in the country to learn to ski or snowboard.  

Snowmass is Aspen's largest and most removed mountain, more than 12 miles away. It has its own village, with more than 700 condominiums, over 90 percent of which are slopeside, making it popular with families. If you want space, not nightlife, stay here. Its size has earned it the nickname Snowmassive, and it has something for everyone, from placid learning areas and green cruisers to steep, narrow bump runs from the summit.   Aspen offers loads of quality skiing, with generally reliable snowfall, but it is in the area of off-mountain activities where Aspen has no peer, with plenty of restaurants, entertainment and recreation.  

Planning a trip: Getting to Aspen requires a four-hour-plus drive from Denver, and that's in good weather. The Aspen airport is convenient, with frequent flights, but closes often, making Aspen a good place to get stuck. Few major cities, much less a ski town, can boast two Mobil five-star hotels: Aspen has the St. Regis and the posh slopeside Little Nell. The Hotel Jerome has the best cigar menu in town.

5 THE RESORTS OF LAKE TAHOE, NEVADA AND CALIFORNIA  

The five large and 10 smaller ski resorts that surround Lake Tahoe are spread out over a 30-mile area. That's the good news for their competition. If these resorts were clustered like the mountains of Aspen or Salt Lake City, there would be little reason to ski anyplace else.  

Good skiing comes down to terrain and snow, and you will not find more of either anyplace else. Kirkwood, the area's snowiest resort, has led the United States in total snowfall four of the past five winters, and averages 593 inches, or nearly 50 feet, of snow annually. There are exceptions, such as the winter of 1995 when more than 800 inches fell, but there are few bad years.  

Tahoe has no standout mountain, no Snowmass to occupy skiers for a week. Coming here means skiing multiple mountains. The two biggest are Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, and Heavenly, which straddles the Nevada-California state line. Each anchors a number of ski areas at either end of the huge lake.  

At the northern end is Squaw, known for extreme skiing, where filmmakers come to shoot footage. As a local told me on the lift, "If God didn't want us to ski off cliffs, he wouldn't have made Squaw." Still, there is plenty of skiing for all abilities, with numerous cruisers.  

Adjacent to Squaw is Alpine Meadows, another large area that offers expansive terrain, with a little more emphasis on beginner and intermediate skiing. Alpine also has a lot of tree skiing. Northstar-at-Tahoe is the largest of three small resorts nearby, and definitely worth a day of skiing.  

The southern end draws more tourists because of its waterfront casino hotels. From South Lake Tahoe, you can be skiing at Heavenly in minutes. While glitzier than Squaw, Heavenly has equally challenging terrain: stashes of double-black terrain for experts, better hidden than Squaw's in-your-face cliffs and chutes. The hardest skiing at Heavenly is in the trees, but mostly it's a cruiser's mountain, with wide-open blues and greens, and plenty of sunshine. Closer to the lake than any other Tahoe ski area and rising right from the edge of the water, Heavenly has arguably the best skiers' views in the world. Descending the face, you feel as if you are skiing right into the blue water.  

Kirkwood is Tahoe's hidden gem, with unbelievable expert skiing. The mountain is a horseshoe-shaped ridge, with steep runs all the way around. A topographically unique ski resort, everything is in plain sight, yet a third of it is off-limits to all but the best skiers. You don't see skull-and-crossbones trail designations too often, but you do here, so take them seriously. Much of the ridge line features cornices, or over-hanging ledges, that drop into tight chutes, steep tree runs and very steep bowls. Kirkwood's expert terrain is one of the few that rival Jackson Hole's for difficulty.  

Sierra-At-Tahoe is extremely popular with locals and snowboarders. Sierra has a mom-and-pop feel to it, and has a great mix of green, blue and black runs, making it a perfect family mountain.  

Planning a trip: Tahoe resorts do not have a lot of lodging at their bases. Many people stay in South Lake Tahoe and make the trip to the different mountains by shuttle bus or car. The Tahoe Queen, a paddle wheeler that whisks skiers from South Lake Tahoe to Squaw Valley daily and returns with an après-ski party cruise, is the most fun commute in ski country.    

6 VAIL, COLORADO  

Because of Vail's scale (a week is just enough time to scratch the surface), knowing how to get around is the key to getting the most out of the resort experience. The whole mountain has more than 4,600 acres of skiable terrain, and visitors can choose to ski at any of Vail's other mountains: Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and Bachelor's Gulch.  

Vail gets a bad rap for limited expert terrain. This is not true: you just have to know where to look. The main mountain has a front and back side, which are very different. On the front, tons of green and blue runs abound, with the blacks and double blacks hidden in the glades in the center of the mountain, off the ridge under the main chair to mid-mountain, and in the far northeastern bowl.  

The back bowls--the bread and butter of the resort-- are justifiably famous. Names like China and Siberia testify to their size. Avid skiers hit the lifts early to get over the top, and spend the day in the powder of the back bowls, where a handful of blue runs are mixed with dozens of blacks.  

Vail's secret identity lies down the road at Beaver Creek, its sister resort. This upscale village presents a prissy picture, but Beaver Creek contains some of the most difficult terrain. The moguls on the Birds of Prey runs--Golden Eagle, Peregrine and Goshawk--are extremely challenging. Nearby Grouse Mountain, one of Beaver Creek's three peaks, consists almost entirely of black and double-black runs. Adjoining Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch feature more moderate terrain, a generous array of exclusively beginner and intermediate terrain runs.  

Planning a trip: less than two hours from Denver, Vail is one of the most accessible ski resorts in the country. Vail village is a European-style pedestrian area, with numerous shops, hotels and restaurants. The ritzy Beaver Creek is a small, pedestrian village with limited access, and the Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek is the top ski resort hotel anywhere, with seamless ski-in, ski-out valet service. Lift tickets are also honored at Keystone and Breckenridge, less than an hour away.    

7 WHISTLER AND BLACKCOMB,BRITISH COLUMBIA  

This twin mountain resort near Canada's west coast has been enjoying a string of record years, and is a near-perfect ski vacation destination. The planned resort village between the mountains, a guest-only pedestrian community with 200-plus shops, restaurants and hotels, has set the standard for the industry. From New England to the Sierras, resorts are racing to duplicate the village concept that was pioneered here.  

Whistler and Blackcomb have the first- and second-highest vertical rise of any ski resorts on the continent, an enviable statistic. Both have abundant above-tree-line skiing, and Blackcomb's bowls lead onto a glacier, allowing skiing well into summer. Lower on the mountain are gorgeous pine glades, and most of the blue and green cruisers. Both mountains are especially appealing to less advanced skiers, since they offer easy and intermediate routes from almost everywhere. While above-tree-line skiing at most mountains consists of only black runs, Whistler and Blackcomb let novices experience the alpine environment of the bowls, a rare treat.  

Unlike most multimountain resorts, the gondolas of Whistler and Blackcomb's main villages come within a hundred yards of each other, making it easy to ski both mountains in a single day. The resort has also become a snowboarding hot spot, with cachet stemming from local hero Ross Rebagliati's Olympic gold in Nagano.  

With huge mountains, a stunning village, and no need to ever drive or take a bus, Whistler-Blackcomb seemingly has it all. But two weaknesses prevent this powerhouse from being higher on the list. While most ski areas are broad, set up along a ridge that allows skiers to spread out, Whistler-Blackcomb's layout is high and narrow, resulting in long lift lines. There are no lifts from top to bottom, and the entire village tries to get on a handful of base lifts. Congestion continues as you ascend. All-day skiers will be surprised to find out how much time is spent in line, as three chairs are required to reach the top of either mountain. The trail layout is far from user-friendly. It can be hard to reach particular lifts, or avoid long traverses and slow-moving trails to the base.  

Weather is another sticky issue. While last season was one of the best, with lots of deep, dry powder, this cannot be counted on. Rain is a common visitor to these parts in winter, as are fog, high winds and low visibility, which can shut down the best parts of the mountain.  

Planning a trip: With fair weather and rare airport delays, Vancouver is easy to get to. The drive to the resort, under two hours, however, can be treacherous. Regular bus service is available, but the best choice is Vancouver All-Terrain Adventures, which offers a fleet of winterized luxury Chevy Suburbans. The Chateau Whistler, a gem of the plush Canadian Pacific Hotel chain, is easily the standout lodging choice, with its ski-in, ski-out valet, and a full array of facilities. Don't miss dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro. Not only is this Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner by far the top eatery in town, it is probably the best restaurant at any ski area on the continent. It also has a cigar bar with an extensive cigar selection, including the rare 150th Anniversary Partagas.    

8 DEER VALLEY, THE CANYONS AND PARK CITY:THE RESORTS OF PARK CITY, UTAH  

Scandals aside, the selection of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics Games was no mistake. The area combines great mountains with the best snow on earth. Easy access to Salt Lake City, plus the full-service offerings of Park City, means a complete complement of hotels, condos, restaurants and nightlife. Park City, like Telluride, is an old mining town turned ski Mecca. It is linked to its three ski areas by an efficient free bus system. The typical ski week at Park City will consist of all three resorts, and perhaps a day trip to Snowbird or Alta.   For intermediate skiers, the 3,300-acre Park City ski resort is a treasure, its large areas consisting of nothing but adjacent blue runs and taking all the guesswork out of map reading. While these mountains are tall, there is no above-tree-line skiing. Four high-speed six-passenger chairs make getting up and around a breeze.  

Deer Valley enjoys a reputation as the nation's most upscale ski area, with a knowledgeable staff, fine dining and high-end lodging. What is less well known is its excellent skiing, including new back bowls that offer expert skiers steep, rocky chutes. Deer Valley even prints an experts-only trail map, including some terrain excluded from the regular map. These sort of little touches--like the free driers in booths at the top of the lifts where cold skiers can dry hats and gloves between runs--permeate the resort. If there is a mountain for every skier, it is Deer Valley. The grooming is superb, and beginners and intermediates can enjoy their skiing secure in the knowledge that unexpected ice or ruts will not be encountered. Snowboarding is not allowed.  

The 3,300-acre Canyons, Utah's newest resort, has six front-to-back peaks, and most of the trails run laterally off steep ridge lines, resulting in sheltered trails that retain lots of powder. Once you choose an area, you can ride the same lift over and over, taking different adjacent trails on each run. The heart of the expert section, for example, has seven parallel double-black diamond runs off one side and an equal complement of single blacks on the other--a full day of skiing from one lift.  

Planning a trip: Park City is 40 minutes from Salt Lake. Most large hotels in Salt Lake offer shuttles, so some visitors stay in town and commute to the slopes. Park City offers a ski-town experience with a wide selection of lodging, dining and shopping.    

9 SUNDAY RIVER, MAINE  

The mountains of the East are smaller than their western brethren and do not get as much snow. To make up for Mother Nature's shortcomings, Sunday River uses the most extensive snow-making system in the Northeast, guaranteeing what are usually the East's best conditions. Slightly farther off the radar screens of skiers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut than the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, Sunday River offers something those mountains cannot: uncrowded slopes and short lift lines.  

Sunday River is a sprawling resort, set along eight adjacent peaks, and boasts the best glade skiing in the east, with an entire peak, Oz, devoted to trees. Beginner and intermediate skiers will feel at home on the many wide-open slopes and the long cruisers from top to bottom, while experts will ski Oz or head to White Heat, the longest, steepest mogul run east of the Mississippi.  

Planning a trip: Non-skiing amenities are still in their infancy here, offering limited options for lodging and dining, but lots of condos are available. The closest airports are Portland, Maine, just over an hour away, and Boston, three hours away.    

10 SUGARBUSH, VERMONT  

Old meets new at a resort that captures the spirit of early New England skiing, while providing state-of-the-art, high-speed quad lifts and man-made snow-making operations. Sugarbush has the best natural terrain in the state, and packs a lot of skiing onto a small mountain. The resort consists of two distinct mountains, once called North and South, but now known as Mt. Ellen and Lincoln Peak. Skiers used to have to choose between the two, but a chairlift now links them. Still, most advanced skiers rarely leave Lincoln Peak.  

Castle Rock is the upper face of Lincoln Peak, a mountain within a mountain. This area is frozen in time, accessed by a barely moving double chair and blanketed by ungroomed and all-natural snow. Many Vermont curmudgeons believe that science spoils skiing, and at least at Castle Rock, they have persevered. The trails here are steep, narrow and twisting, and definitely for better skiers.

The rest of the mountain is no slouch, with some great glades, which are not well marked and require exploration, and the steep, narrow mogul runs for which Sugarbush is famous. While mogul runs at other Eastern resorts tend to be long, straight and wide, à la Sunday River's White Heat or Killington, Vermont's Outer Limits, these are curving, thin and, when a coat of Vermont ice develops on them, next to impossible to ski. But when the sun is out and the snow is soft, the bumps are great, as are the views, easily the best in the state.  

The lower half of Lincoln Peak has lots of easier terrain, but intermediates and beginners should head instead for Mt. Ellen, which generally has less intimidating trails. When the resort gets crowded, and lift lines develop, experts can sneak over to Ellen and find plenty of challenge on the steep bumps that cover the upper portion of the mountain.  

Planning a trip: Sugarbush has some lodging and dining along its access road, most notably the resort-owned Sugarbush Inn. For ski-in, ski-out convenience, the plethora of condos are the only choice. The town of Waitsfield, just minutes from the slopes, is pure New England bliss, with Colonial buildings, small inns and restaurants. This is where most visitors stay. The closest airport is in Burlington, Vermont, half an hour away.

Vermont-based Larry Olmsted previously wrote about heli-skiing for Cigar Aficionado.

THE POWDER LIST  

For die-hard skiers, the quality of the skiing is what matters most, but some people consider other factors in planning the perfect ski vacation. Many resorts excel in ways not reflected in the quantity or quality of their terrain. If more than skiing is important to you, consider the following  

BEST NIGHTLIFE/DINING:   1. Aspen 2.Whistler-Blackcomb 3. Vail  

BEST SKI HOTELS:   1. Hyatt Regency Beaver Creek 2. TIE: Little Nell, Aspen; St. Regis, Aspen; The Peaks at Telluride 5. Chateau Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb  

BEST RESORTS FOR TOTAL CONVENIENCE:   1. Whistler-Blackcomb 2. Telluride 3. Vail and Beaver Creek  

SHORTEST LIFT LINES:   1. Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee 2. Telluride 3. Alta 4. Sunday River 5. Aspen  

BEST TERRAIN YOU HAVE TO HIKE TO:   1. Jackson Hole 2. Alta 3. Telluride 4. Kirkwood and Squaw Valley USA, Lake Tahoe  

BEST FOR SNOWBOARDING:   1. Snowbird 2. Snowmass 3. Lake Tahoe 4. Whistler-Blackcomb  

BEST FOR FAMILIES:   1. Deer Valley 2. Snowmass 3. Whistler-Blackcomb 4. Sunday River  

BEST BUMP SKIING:   1. Telluride 2. Squaw Valley USA and Heavenly, Lake Tahoe 3. Jackson Hole 4. Beaver Creek 5. Sugarbush  

BEST VALUES:   1. Whistler-Blackcomb 2. Lake Tahoe 3. Jackson Hole 4. Alta and Snowbird

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