Every year it seems another round of resorts gets gobbled up by the downhill megacorps—the Vails and the Boynes. But instead of following the masses to over-hyped Michelin-starred restaurants, boujee hotels, and onto supercharged lifts at the corporate mountains, why not head to independently owned ski areas with a strong local spirit and a bit of retro charm? We’re talking about hopping the T-bar, flashing a wave to the owner in the base lodge, and, better yet, paying old-school lift ticket prices.
Despite the challenges of surviving as the little guy in today’s ski industry—including unpredictable weather patterns and stiff competition from the corporate ski giants—some mom-and-pop hills remain in the game. These ski areas may be less traveled or offer less vertical, but they definitely don’t lack appeal. Whether they bring the family vibes, unbeatable powder, or offer the best après around, these slopes are worthwhile alternatives to their more mainstream counterparts.
From a Native American–owned mountain to a ski bum cooperative and an impact fund working to revive an old ski town, here are a few fiercely independent mountains where the views won’t disappoint and you can still shred the gnar, often while giving back to the community, too.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
Twenty years ago, two storied family resorts divided by a ridge and 20 miles of canyon combined forces to be available to skiers through a single pass. In 2014, Snowbird sold to Powdr, but Alta remained independent under a shareholder model, and despite Snowbird’s new ownership the pass lived on.
Since 1939, Alta, one of the country’s oldest resorts, has been a ski bum’s big powder playground (sorry, no snowboarders). The mountain has some of the best skiing in the world thanks to the snow gods having blessed Little Cottonwood Canyon with the perfect storm of wet conditions from the Cascade Mountains, an arid Great Basin, and increased precipitation from nearby Salt Lake, which never freezes due to its high salinity, ultimately dumping more than 500 inches a year.
From dramatic cliff lines to steep terrain and runs you can hike to, Alta is proof that indie ski resorts still got it. And it’s a perfect place to learn how to ski fresh powder. The ski area was a training ground for the mountaineers and ski troopers of the 10th Mountain Regiment during World War II. Today, in this old mining community just 30 miles from Salt Lake City and 40 miles to Park City, you get your pick of one of five lodges. The European-inspired ski-in/ski-out Alta Peruvian Lodge will charm the ski pants off of you, or get posh in the mountain-side Snowpine Lodge. But wherever you stay, be sure to hit up après at the Alta Peruvian Bar, known by locals as the P-Dog.
What else to do: Head out to the backcountry for a guided ski tour.
Mad River Glen
Most skiers know Mad River Glen for its single chair lift—one of only two left in the country where skiers ride solo. There’s even a beer named after it (Magic Hat’s Single Chair Golden Ale). But there’s a lot more to this small but mighty mountain. Rugged in all the right ways, the trails deliver some of the most challenging terrain in the East, from uphill skiing to glades, and there’s an old-fashioned rope tow to boot. It’s home to one of the most tight-knit ski communities (of nearly 2,000 passionate shareholders) out there—snowboarding still isn’t allowed. Mad River Glen was the first and is now the only remaining cooperatively owned ski resort in the country, and it exists to protect that classic ski experience. Think lower skier density (preserved by capping off passes and tickets), less snowmaking (due to limited water supply, making snow less icy and fluffier), and strong community ties.
“Since the mid-1940s when U.S. ski pioneer Roland Palmedo left Stowe–because it had become too commercialized–to form a new ski area where sport took precedence over profit, Mad River Glen has always been focused on preserving an intimate connection with nature,” says Ry Young of Mad River Glen.
Once you’ve skied your heart out on your pick of 60 trails, follow the rambling backroads of Waitsfield and Warren to all the neighborhood hangs, like Lawson’s taproom (for a Sip of Sunshine IPA) and the original American Flatbread company to get your fill of carbs, located at one of Mad River Valley’s first farms built in 1794. Then rest up and replenish before another day on the slopes in rustic chic at Mad River Barn, or on 245 rolling acres in the luxuriously restored 19th-century Inn at Round Barn Farm.
What else to do: Sled, snowshoe, cross-country ski ,or dog sled with UMIAK Outdoor Adventures.
Visiting this wilderness town is like stepping back in time to a beloved era of skiing. The salt-of-the-earth staff and regulars are like family, and ticket prices and cost of living stay low—all while helping the community. These 67 trails on what’s now the largest independent ski area in the East got an upgrade with its first high-speed quad and an expansion to the base lodge in 2020, and this year the new owners also brought back the T-bar, by popular demand, for old time’s sake.
Saddleback Mountain’s story started out a familiar one. A local family owned the hill for years, ran out of money, and although the community rallied, they ultimately failed to find a new owner. The mountain closed for five years, leaving a devastating impact on the local economy. But what happened next changed the ski game.
At the height of the pandemic, Saddleback reopened last winter under a model no mountain had seen. Among the indie hills, it became the only ski resort in the world owned by an impact fund, Arctaris, an organization that makes business investments to turn around underserved communities. Arctaris’s goal in purchasing Saddleback—a month before the pandemic in February 2020—was to revitalize the town of Rangeley, now named a top outdoor adventure destination on the rise.
Arctaris has already raised millions to help fund new employee housing (keeping rents no higher than 30 percent of wages), and Saddleback is rolling out a staffing agency to ensure seasonal staff has work year-round—not just during the ski season. The conscientious new owner is fighting the global warming forces that are shortening ski seasons by reducing Saddleback’s carbon footprint with a 30-acre solar farm and ecofriendly diesel snow groomers. They’re also reducing plastics on the mountain and have teamed up with the Audubon Society to construct a midmountain lodge along the Appalachian Trail running down the mountain that will have a sod roof to nest the area’s rare birds.
According to Andy Shepard, Saddleback Mountain’s CEO and general manager, the concept is simple: “a community-minded investor working closely with the community to solve challenges.”
Where to stay: Ski and stay packages available at the Rangeley Inn & Tavern
Where to eat: Sarge’s Sports Pub & Grub, a staple local watering hole for after skiing
What else to do: Fat bike, Nordic ski, or snowshoe at Rangeley Lakes Trails Center.
Ski Santa Fe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Ski Santa Fe is a family-owned mountain that is perfect for families. The Abruzzo brothers have owned the place since they took over in 1985 from their parents after they died in a plane crash. Their father, Ben Abruzzo, a household name in New Mexico, made the first-ever successful transatlantic hot air balloon flight in 1978. (The brothers are avid supporters of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, named after their dad and his longtime ballooning partner, and honor him each autumn when the sky over Balloon Fiesta Park turns into a vibrant party of hot air balloons at Albuquerque’s world-famous International Balloon Fiesta.)
Through personal and financial hardship, these venturesome brothers—who grew up hang gliding and riding sail planes and now climb, heliski, cycle, and fly planes—persisted against the odds to keep Ski Santa Fe open. (They also own nearby Sandia Peak Ski Area and Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, one of the longest trams in the world.)
From one of the highest base elevations in the country of 10,350 feet, Ski Santa Fe’s chairlift pulls you to a stellar view of the unique rich cultural magnet of Santa Fe. And after a little après at the midmountain lodge, Totemoff’s Bar & Grill, slide out of your ski boots, drive 16 miles to see the city itself, and check into one of its eclectic roadside lodges, like El Rey Court.
Where to stay: El Rey Court
Where to eat: Totemoff’s Bar & Grill
Sunrise Park Resort
Skiing is a spiritual experience 11,000 feet up in the Colorado Plateau over the land of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. On the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, picturesque Sunrise Park Resort has been going strong since the 1970s, when it was named for the tribe’s Sunrise dance ceremony—a healing ritual they believe was taught to them by the mountain spirits.
Today, this is one of the few tribal-owned ski resorts in the country, along with nearby Ski Apache and Montana’s Bear Paw Ski Bowl. Ski or snowboard on 1,200 acres of mostly beginner and intermediate trails spanning three magnificent peaks, knowing they belong to a tribe that’s been native to eastern Arizona for thousands of years.
While you’re there, be sure to check out Apache’s historical park (the reserve and museum, a National Historic Landmark, sit on prehistoric ruins), then drive 30 minutes to the tribe’s own lively and always entertaining Hon-Dah Resort Casino, or opt for a quaint and woodsy stay at the secluded lakeside Greer Lodge Resort & Cabins on the edge of a national forest.
Where to eat: Dine 11,000 feet up at Apache Peak Lodge