Photo by John Everett
Courtesy of Palisades Tahoe
The 1960 Winter Olympics were held at Palisades Tahoe, known at the time as Squaw Valley, and the resort continues to be a favorite of ski enthusiasts from all over.
With world-famous runs, top-notch facilities, and sustainability efforts that make a difference, these are the ski destinations to put on your list this year, next year, and every year.
Winter’s great consolation prize is the ski vacation: Waking up under thick down comforters and opening the curtains to sublime views of powder-covered peaks; strolling down snowy, lighted main streets of a ski town and dipping into this bar or that; and, of course, the snow sports themselves. In their rugged alpine settings, the best ski resorts feel far from life’s daily grind; they give you an opportunity to leave your comfort zone by taking a few risks out on the slopes—and relax with a little luxury and revelry after.
To help you plan a winter getaway, here are the 12 best ski resorts in the United States for skiers and snowboarders of all levels and budgets. (Prices reflect the 2021–2022 season. Most resorts offer better rates for multiday tickets, season passes, and tickets bought in advance online.)
Set at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, and only a 35-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City, Alta nonetheless feels a world away. Its town is far cozier than what you’d experience at most U.S. ski resorts, the mountain doesn’t boast high-speed chair lifts or upscale dining, and snowboarders are not allowed on the slopes. In short, Alta is all about a killer ski experience.
Known first and foremost for peerless powder, Alta averages 540 inches annually of some of the lightest snow on Earth. Devotees love its long, steep runs, like Eagle’s Nest and High Nowhere, but Alta’s showcase run is Alf’s High Rustler, a 1,200-foot run that starts out at a nearly 45-degree angle and is visible from the base. Looking for a warm-up run, or someplace to perfect your powder technique? Almost half of the resort’s 2,614 skiable acres is well suited for intermediate skiers; the Crooked Mile run winds gently under the Albion lift, while Devil’s Elbow and Rollercoaster are classic, rolling blues accessed by the Sugarloaf lift. Want to take your skiing to an entirely new level? Alta is the only ski resort in the world where former U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame extreme skier and fear expert Kristen Ulmer teachers her mindset-only Art of Fear Ski Camp.
Besides the mountain, Alta’s standout experience is a stay at one of the half dozen cozy lodges that dot the valley floor, all of which are slope side and typically include breakfast. The recently revamped 54-room Snowpine Lodge—Alta’s newest and only true modern luxury hotel—packs in everything you could want with a gorgeous spa, legit game room, ski shop, and lively bar and restaurant. Or get a room at the Rustler Lodge or the Peruvian (known locally as the P Dog) and hope for an overnight snowfall that closes the road from Salt Lake. You and a few hundred other guests may just get the slopes to yourselves for a couple of hours.
Book Snowpine Lodge now: From $594/night, expedia.com
Over 80 percent of this ski resort operates on U.S. Forest Service land and Alta takes its stewardship seriously. The Alta Environmental Center hosts events throughout the year, including 20 summer stewardship events—most notably, a full-circle land conservation program that’s resulted in the planting of nearly 42,000 trees and 79,000 plants since 1991. In 2022, Alta committed to matching 100 percent of its annual electricity use by purchasing renewable energy, which will reduce its footprint by an estimated 3,567 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
How did Colorado’s Aspen Snowmass become a playground for the rich and famous? By being a great Colorado ski resort. It’s actually four separate resorts—Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax), Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass—united by a single lift ticket, and each has a distinct character.
Known for mellow runs and terrain parks, Buttermilk has been the site of the annual X Games since 2002. An excellent mountain for intermediate skiers, Snowmass is home to miles-long cruisers like Sheer Bliss, and the new French Alps–inspired Alpin Room (start with gluhwein and cheesy tartiflette). Experts congregate at Highlands for steep runs like North Castle and Kessler’s as well as the hike-to Highlands Bowl, and Aspen Mountain features advanced terrain that descends directly into town—to the corner of Hunter and Dean Streets. Link all four in a day via the shuttle system or sample them over a week, taking days off to enjoy world-class shopping and dining.
Looking for more exercise? Step into Aspen’s other vibrant ski culture with uphill skiing ($69 for an Uphill Pass, free to Premiere Passholders) on dedicated routes at all four mountains. Rent the specialized skis, boots, and climbing skins in downtown Aspen at Ute Mountaineer, which also hosts events like the “Uphill Breakfast Club at Buttermilk.”
Aspen is also known for posh lodging, such as the five-star Little Nell. Located in town and at the base of Aspen Mountain, this is the place for ski-in/ski-out access, après-favorite Ajax Tavern and upscale Element 47 (try the private winetasting), a dedicated ski concierge, and wild pet-friendly amenities like a gourmet pet menu. For those who want to stay in Snowmass, check out the ski-in/ski-out Viewline Resort Snowmass, Autograph Collection, reopened after a massive transformation and the addition of a new restaurant and Ayurvedic spa.
Book Little Nell now: From $2,494/night, expedia.com
Led by ecopioneer Auden Schendler and regarded by the ski industry as one its biggest sustainability champions, Aspen Skiing Company recently defined sustainability as “the ability to stay in business forever.” One of its most notable initiatives has been converting methane into electricity at a nearby coal plant. Since 2012, the project has mitigated methane emissions and produced enough energy annually to power all four Aspen Snowmass resorts, including hotels and restaurants, and even provide a surplus for the rest of the regional utility grid.
More recent initiatives include its 2021 “Give A Flake” climate action advocacy campaign; increased pay, wages, and workforce housing (including the 100 percent electric Hub at Willits) to help create equity for employees in an ever-booming mountain town; and a new art installation created in partnership with nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW) of a “melting” gondola car in a warming climate at the top of Aspen Mountain.
With an average of 400 inches of snow falling on 5,850 acres of skiable terrain, 2,300 acres of which are perfect for beginners, Big Sky offers reliable conditions and a good place to learn. It’s one of the largest ski resorts on the continent and offers an acre of space per skiier, making it simple to socially distance on the slopes and feel as if many of the trails are all to yourself.
The resort is heading into the final chapter of its 10-year, multimillion dollar improvement plan, slated for completion in 2025. We’re talking a new food hall with six eateries, new après-ski options, and four new lifts, including a six-person, high-speed Swift Current 6 with heated seats, said to be the fastest chairlift in North America. Refreshed accommodations under the renovation also include a full reno of Big Sky’s historic Huntley Lodge and, most recently, a massive transformation of the modern, slopeside 213-room Summit Hotel.
Beyond the resort, the biggest news this season is the opening of the ski-in/ski-out Montage Big Sky, the first big-brand luxury hotel to open in Big Sky. Look forward to 139 modern rooms, six dining venues (including the northern Italian-inspired Cortina), a bowling alley, and a 10,000-square-foot Spa Montage, the first full-service spa to open in the destination.
Book Montage Big Sky now: From $1,995/night, expedia.com
As of January 2021, the entirety of Big Sky Resort’s electrical use is carbon free (through the purchase of renewable energy credits), all part of its Forever Project initiative and plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
There’s a reason Breckenridge in Colorado is one of the most-visited ski resorts every year. It features miles of excellent terrain for all levels across five peaks and nearly 3,000 acres of terrain. Peak 9 is the place to learn and ease into dozens of mellow, wide cruisers, while Peak 10 draws the experts with steep groomers and rock outcroppings.
Still, 58 percent of the terrain here is expert level, including hike-to double black diamond runs off Peak 6 and Peak 8, where you find the highest chairlift in North America at 12,840 feet. For something else big, ski Four O’Clock, the resort’s longest run at 3.5 miles, which starts as a black at the top and transitions to a green cruise near the base.
Here’s another reason Breck is special: Thanks to a high base elevation of 9,600 feet, it boasts one of the longest ski seasons in the country, and intermediate and above terrain typically remains open through Memorial Day.
The town of Breckenridge is a true classic and far more concentrated than the vast resort. Main Street, lined with shops and restaurants, might be best known for hosting the world record shot-ski (1,299 people long) during an annual Ullr Fest in January 2019. But it’s got plenty of all-ages fun too, including the huge arcade at eatery Downstairs at Eric’s. And book a stay at the new social club and hotel Gravity Haus at the base of Peak 9, where you can après in one of three new 16-foot snow cabanas (available for three seatings a day) or unwind in its Japanese-style onsen.
Book Gravity Haus now: From $399/night, expedia.com
A Vail Resort that’s part of the brand’s “Commitment to Zero,” Breck currently operates on 85 percent renewable energy sourced from a large wind farm and is on track to have a net-zero operating footprint by 2030.
This Wyoming resort, a favorite of expert skiers, has been working to expand its options for all levels. In 2015, Jackson Hole carved new intermediate terrain out of the craggy mountainside and installed the new Teton Lift to service it. In 2018, it opened Solitude Station, a new midmountain, full-service lodge and ski school.
But many still come to Jackson for steep shots like Tower Three chute, long powder runs like the three Hobacks (South, Middle, and North), or the infamous Corbet’s Couloir, the entrance of which is a 20-foot cliff. And the resort is also famous for the formidable backcountry terrain just outside its boundaries. It can be dangerous, but if you hire a guide to show you around, you may end up having one of the best ski days of your life.
Need a rest day from the continuous steeps that run down Jackson’s 4,139-foot vertical rise? Sleigh-ride tours of the famous 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge will get you within an antler-length of members of the 6,000- to 8,000-strong herd that winters there every year. You could also roll into town and a stay at the new 100-room Cloudveil on Town Square with its rooftop terrace, outdoor pool, and the Bistro by local culinary legend Gavin Fine.
Book Cloudveil now: From $424/night, expedia.com
In 2019, the resort transitioned to 100 percent wind power for all its electricity needs. In 2021, it increased minimum wage pay and opened a new housing development for employees, another move toward social equity in a pricey mountain town.
In Vermont, Killington is big enough and its slopes steep enough to hold one of only two annual World Cup ski events in the United States. The resort was selected because of its 3,050-foot vertical rise and because Vermont has a deep ski-racing culture—39,000 spectators showed up in November 2018 to catch American Mikaela Shiffrin’s slalom race victory.
But it’s far from simply a steep, icy racecourse; the resort’s six mountains have options for everyone, from beginner-level cruisers on Rams Head to the 65-odd features at the Stash terrain park, which includes a superpipe with 18-foot walls. We’re also excited about its new Fast Tracks pass (from $49 a day) for priority access to dedicated express lift lanes.
Also full of options? Killington’s legendary après-ski scene. Pickle Barrel Nightclub is one of a dozen eating-and-drinking establishments on or near the Killington access road, known for its hopping musical performances.
Numerous initiatives in place here include the addition of 47 EV car charging stations; solar farms that generate 3.3 million kWh of clean energy, and a partnership with Grow Compost that diverts 202,000 tons of scraps from landfills. Killington also puts a big priority on the local community, donating $130,000 to date to businesses in town that have felt the impacts of the pandemic, monthly food insecurity programs, and the Vermont Adaptive sports program for youths and adults with disabilities.
Our favorite thing about Mammoth is that it gets so much snow that it’s usually open through May and often until July 4. California summer slush skiing is one of the sport’s most legendary adventures. Mammoth is a freestyler’s paradise, too: There are 11 terrain parks spread across the resort’s 3,500 acres, plus the groundbreaking, expert-only Hemlocks bowl is a hike-to terrain area on the back of the mountain with both natural and created features offering an apex riding experience that few outside of the pros get. Intermediates should check out some of the cruisers off the dreamy Cloud 9 lift.
Later, find a table for beers and artisan pizza at Campo in the Village at Mammoth, or grab a six-pack and check out the natural hot springs off Benton Road. Fan of Park City’s High West distillery? Check out two new pop-ups (with shot-skis!) that plan to return each year: You have to ski to get to the new daytime-only snowcat bar at Mammoth’s Outpost with après options off its Dry Creek Bar Deck at the new western-inspired Whiskey Lounge.
Families and groups will want to snag one of 12 new sleek mountain-style townhomes and condos offered through Mammoth Luxury Home Rentals; newly refreshed rooms are also available at the Westin Monache. For something right at the mountain, Mammoth Mountain Inn grants you easy and early access to the Panorama Gondola for a ride to the 11,053-foot summit and miles-long vistas of the Sierras.
Book Mammoth Mountain Inn now: From $169/night, expedia.com
On a clear day, you can take in nearly the entire Cascade Range, from the peaks of Mount Rainier near Seattle down to Shasta in California, from the summit of 9,068-foot Mount Bachelor in Oregon. The 4,300-acres of Mount Bachelor ski resort wrap around the cone of the dormant volcano and make up the sixth largest ski area in the United States. And there’s plenty of skiing for every level. If the Summit chair is running, drop off onto the double blacks on the back side. Intermediates and beginners will love cruisers like Avalanche or Marshmallow. If it’s been snowing a lot, consider taking multiple runs on the Red Chair area, which is often overlooked by the hordes heading for runs accessed by the Outback lift.
We also like two cool access options, both new in 2021; nab a Fast Tracks pass for access to dedicated lines at nine express lifts (from $49 a day) or take advantage of free early riser beginner chairlift access to the sunrise base area, a rare perk for beginners.
The only resort on this list without on-mountain lodging, Mount Bachelor is nevertheless worth the visit, if only for the chance to experience its uniquely popular RV/van life camping community (overnight paid parking for $40 or $60 with power). For more traditional options, head to the recreation paradise of nearby Bend for a stay at the newly renovated hotel motor lodge Campfire or the ecoboutique Oxford Hotel, which has generously proportioned rooms and a pillow menu with numerous options. Bonus: Greater Bend has more than 30 breweries, from newcomers like Crux Fermentation Project to mainstays like Deschutes, so finding a place to belly up shouldn’t be a problem.
Book the Oxford Hotel now: From $267/night, expedia.com
As part of its Play Forever commitment, Mount Bachelor’s numerous initiatives include a resort powered by 100 percent renewable energy and produced by hydroelectric dams, wind, and solar and a Nordic Lodge powered by on-site solar, which has generated more than 52,000 kWh of clean electricity (enough to offset 37 metric tons of CO2). The resort also supports the Central Oregon community with a composting program that benefits local soil and more than $1 million in donations.
Site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and, perhaps even more famously, a spawning ground for the extreme skiing movement of the 1980s, Palisades Tahoe boasts some 6,000 skiable acres across eight peaks. The resort has plenty of steeps: Test your bona fides on the runs off the KT-22, Headwall, or Granite Chief lifts. Alpine is the mellower choice, with a plethora of moderate terrain like the wide runs off the mountain’s newest lift, Treeline Cirque, or the sunny backside Sherwood Bowl, with prime views of Lake Tahoe. A free 15-minute shuttle connects the two base areas.
In the pedestrian-friendly base village, book a room at the PlumpJack Inn. After checking in, enjoy beer and a slice at Le Chamois, where the deck is bustling on sunny days. More skiing history was made here: It’s the scene of the snowball fight in ’80s screwball ski comedy Hot Dog: The Movie.
Stay at the PlumpJack Inn: From $295/night, expedia.com
In 2021, Palisades Tahoe began using renewable diesel fuel created from discarded materials (like waste animal fat and used cooking oil) to power six trucks, lower mountain snowcats, and backup generators, as well as to heat several buildings.
When Vail united Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort with the adjacent Canyons Resort in 2015, they created the country’s largest ski resort. Even with the ski-savvy locals of Salt Lake City pouring in on the weekends, there’s plenty of room for everyone on Park City Mountain’s 7,300 acres, 43 lifts, and 330-plus runs.
On the Canyons Village side, experts will love the double blacks off the Ninety-Nine 90 lift (named for its summit elevation) while intermediates will enjoy cruising Apex Ridge trail off the Super Condor express lift. On the Park City Mountain Village side, head for the steep Jupiter Bowl on one of Utah’s legendary powder days, and the intermediate King Con trail makes for fast, cruisy carving in any conditions. There are several terrain parks, too—a big reason why so many Olympic freestyle athletes, including Joss Christensen and Sage Kotsenburg, call Park City home.
The town’s nightlife flies in the face of Utah’s conservative reputation. Main Street is packed with dive bars like the No Name Saloon and O’Shucks Bar & Grill, and fine dining spots like Riverhorse on Main and Chimayo are bustling all season long, not only during the Sundance Film Festival.
You’ll also find one of the city’s best under-the-radar hotels right in town: the luxury boutique Washington School House. For a slopeside move with ski-in/ski-out access in Canyons Village, try the 153-room Pendry Park City opening in early 2022.
Book the Pendry Park City now: From $995/night, expedia.com
Also in the Vail family and part of its 2030 Commitment to Zero, PCMR is ahead of schedule; thanks to a new partnership with a solar farm outside Salt Lake City, PCMR plans to be operating on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2023.
The world’s first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley in 1936. Since then the Idaho resort has stayed on the cutting edge of ski technology; in addition to 17 modern, high-speed lifts and gondolas (and a magic carpet on Dollar Mountain), it boasts state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming machines, meaning there’s rarely a bad day to get on the slopes here.
Sun Valley is known for its long, wide-open runs with sustained pitches like Limelight and Warm Springs, so the ski of choice here is the carver, which is good for stability at speed. In 2021, the resort carved out 380 acres of new terrain, opening up some of Mount Baldy’s best and most challenging terrain, including a wide-open bowl and extensive tree skiing. The expansion also includes the extension of the gradually pitched and oh-so-smooth Lower Broadway run. Whichever floats your boat, don’t forget to pack a helmet because you are going to want to point those skis downhill and fly.
Sun Valley is also a Nordic skiing epicenter. Throughout the valley, there are more than 125 miles of groomed cross-country trails plus the 20 miles of groomed terrain on the multi-purpose Wood River Trail, which runs right through town. Stay at Sun Valley Lodge, the epitome of classic ski hotels. Schedule a treatment at the Lodge’s 20,000-square-foot spa, and soak in its new, heated saline pool. Afterward, enjoy a drink at the bar and stroll the hallways, checking out photos that document the stays of celebrity guests like Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Book Sun Valley Lodge now: From $398/night, expedia.com
Sun Valley’s continued partnership with the Healthy Forest Initiative recently resulted in nearly 18 more acres of gladed terrain, which not only adds skiable acres for its recent expansion but also improves the health of the forest via measures that mitigate overstocked vegetation and destructive insects. Also new at the River Run base lodge is Konditorei, the first restaurant in the ski industry to achieve a three-star Certification by the Green Restaurant Association.
Revelling in blue skies for more than 300 days each year, massive Vail (5,317 acres) is strung across multiple connecting peaks in Colorado and ribboned with classic intermediate runs like Born Free and Dealer’s Choice. A new big-deal learning area near the Avanti Express Lift (Chair 2) offers a skills zone with terrain-specific training via three unique lanes and a performance center for ski and snowboard instruction featuring indoor training tools. The good news for advanced riders: There’s prime powder in the resort’s famous Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin.
While some poke fun at Vail’s Bavarian village–inspired aesthetic, which was built almost all at once in the 1960s, that layout has its advantages. You can leave your car parked for the weekend and walk everywhere you need to go in the compact, pedestrian-friendly base area. Home base is steps from Gondola 1 at the recently renovated Lodge at Vail, the resort’s original hotel, and its steakhouse Elway’s (named for Broncos icon John). Vendetta’s in the village serves specialty pizzas and is a favorite après spot. After dinner, make reservations to hang with the locals at Bol, a decked-out, 10-lane bowling alley and lounge. If you prefer luxury ski-in/ski-out from Lionshead Village, you can’t go wrong at the new Hythe, which offers exclusive excursions like helo skiing with an Olympic athlete, or the well-positioned Arrabelle at Vail Square, a Rock Resort, right off the Eagle Bahn Gondola.
Book Arrabelle at Vail Square now: From $1,039/night, expedia.com
As with most other resorts under the Vail Resorts umbrella, Vail Mountain is on track to reach a net-zero operating footprint by 2030, including zero waste to landfill. The resort has also invested heavily in energy-efficient snowmaking to make more snow, in less time, with less energy.
This article originally appeared online, written by Frederick Reimers, in February 2019. It was subsequently updated to reflect Palisades Tahoe’s new name, and again on February 14, 2022, with new sustainability information from Nina Kokotas Hahn.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Après-Ski
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