I grew up skiing the moguls on Vail Mountain and floating down the powdery, sun-dappled glades of Steamboat Resort, Colorado. When I moved to Canada, the alpine bowls of Lake Louise beckoned.
But when my son was diagnosed with autism, my husband and I wondered if we would ever ski as a family given the delayed motor and planning skills that can accompany the neurological condition. Fortunately, I found an adaptive ski program at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, where my son’s two patient instructors were pros at working with kids with disabilities, including autism.
Since that starter snowplow at age six, he’s taken adaptive lessons at resorts in British Columbia, where we now live, and he’s progressed to parallel turns. He’s no hot dogger, but he’s confident on snow. We can even ski intermediate runs together.
The good news is that many winter resorts now offer adaptive ski and snowboard lessons for riders of all ages with physical or cognitive challenges. Since about 15 percent of the global population lives with a disability, democratizing access to the mountains is important—and empowering. From west to east, here are six ski areas helping people with disabilities play on the mountains in Canada and the United States.
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
With a mile of vertical and more than 8,000 acres of terrain in B.C.’s Coast Mountains, North America’s biggest resort is welcoming winter with more lift capacity. It’s also full steam ahead at Whistler Adaptive, an organization that introduces people with disabilities to sports and recreation through supportive and safe programming. The group’s full-day private ski and snowboard lessons cost $385 (US$280) and include a discounted lift pass, equipment rentals, and a two-to-one instructor-to-skier ratio to ensure participants’ safety.
“We work with all types of disabilities, and increasingly, we’re working with people who are losing their mobility as they age,” says Shelley Milstein, director of philanthropy for Whistler Adaptive. “All guests should be able to enjoy the mountain.”
Trained coaches tailor lessons to the guest’s ability and help them progress from beginner runs to the upper mountains’ alpine bowls.
Heavenly Ski Resort, California
Straddling California and Nevada high above Lake Tahoe, Heavenly’s 5,000 acres of alpine, glades, and groomers (manicured runs) appeal equally to newbies and big mountain freeriders. After carving turns, it’s a quick trip into South Lake Tahoe for après-ski, dining, and entertainment.
The resort is also committed to helping skiers and riders with disabilities build confidence on the slopes and nurture a love of snow sports. Heavenly runs half-day or full-day adaptive lessons with personalized coaching and a focus on safety, so that everyone can experience the thrill of gliding on snow.
Instruction starts at $328 for a three-hour lesson during nonpeak season. The Epic Pass, which is good at Heavenly and a number of other ski resorts, offers a variety of discounted adaptive lift passes.
Lake Louise, Alberta
With stellar views of the Canadian Rockies, its eye-candy location in Banff National Park puts Lake Louise Ski Resort on every winter enthusiast’s bucket list. But beyond the frozen scenery, the resort’s famous bluebird days—spent tracking up the backside’s steep and deep bowls—endear the Lake to riders near and far, including those with disabilities.
Skiers and snowboarders with physical, neurodivergent, or sensory impairments can sign up for a full-day lesson at Lake Louise with Rocky Mountain Adaptive (RMA). The charitable organization aims to remove barriers to participation in recreation by providing accessible programming year-round in the Bow Valley.
RMA works with Banff ski resorts, including Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Norquay, to offer adaptive ski lessons in winter. Full-day lessons at Lake Louise cost $300 (US$217) and include instruction and adaptive equipment.
Park City, Utah
Known for its varied terrain and super-dry snow, the largest resort in the U.S. lures beginners and intermediates keen to cruise the corduroy and advanced riders intent on tackling Jupiter Peak’s knee-knocking steeps. At day’s end, glide right to the High West Saloon in Park City’s historic heart.
Park City Mountain partners with the National Ability Center (NAC) to offer discounted lessons to veterans, neurodiverse participants, and riders with physical disabilities. Half-day instruction starts at $225 and includes adaptive equipment, a lift ticket, and a buddy lift pass for a family member to tag along. Riders who demonstrate a financial need can apply for a NAC scholarship to help cover the cost of what is often a prohibitively expensive sport.
Says Tracy Meier, director of programs and education for NAC: “We will never turn someone away due to their inability to pay.”
The biggest resort in the eastern U.S. challenges seasoned skiers with killer spring moguls and pleases those who prefer flat snow with some of the longest cruisers in Vermont. Nearby sister resort Pico Mountain is usually where beginners get started on their snowplow.
Both mountains work with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, a nonprofit that provides lessons to skiers and riders with physical, developmental, cognitive, or behavioral/emotional disabilities. Heavily discounted half-day or full-day lessons include a lift ticket (good for both resorts) and equipment, and a sliding-scale fee and scholarships are also available, says Kim Jackson, director of communications and development at Vermont Adaptive.
The goal is to remove as many barriers as possible so participants can enjoy a mountain experience that helps increase their self-confidence and independence.
Three hours northwest of Denver, champagne powder gathers between the aspen trees at Steamboat Resort, creating a fluffy playground. The resort’s terrain and the town’s western heritage have made Steamboat a favorite destination for powder cowboys. But additions like Greenhorn Ranch, a beginner learning area opening this season, keep it equally popular among families.
Since 2007, the Steamboat STARS adaptive snow sports program has been opening up the resort’s 3,000 acres to riders with physical or cognitive disabilities by offering half-day or full-day lessons.
“We’re trying to introduce people to something they never thought they could do,” says STARS executive director Gardner Flanigan.
Half-day private lessons start at $180 during nonpeak season and include lift tickets and equipment (adaptive or regular), along with instructors and volunteers trained in adaptive ski techniques. Participants are matched with one or two instructors depending on their needs and ski ability. Flanigan says it’s common to see sit-skiers whooping it up in the glades or visually impaired riders skiing with a newfound confidence.
Note: Register early in all adaptive programs to request preferred dates, especially during peak season and on weekends.