Photo by John Everett
Courtesy of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
The 1960 Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley, and the resort continues to be a favorite of ski enthusiasts from all over.
With world-famous runs, top-notch facilities, and all the après-ski options you could want, these are the ski destinations that should be on your list this year, next year, and every year.
Editor’s note: Many of these locations have adapted their operating procedures to accommodate for COVID concerns. Squaw Valley, for instance, says it spent $1 million in social distancing and sanitization methods. Expect “a fleet of high-demand electrostatic sanitizing sprayers,” partitions aplenty, and a lot more outdoor seating. The resort’s COO Ron Cohen also warns of potentially delayed lift and terrain openings, especially on inclement weather days. Expect similar measures elsewhere, and always check the latest at the resort’s own pages (and local tourist boards). Then shred those slopes six feet apart. . .
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 U.S. for skiers and snowboarders of all levels and budgets.
Set at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, only 10 miles from the sprawl of greater Salt Lake City, Alta nonetheless feels a world away: There is a relative lack of modern luxury hotels and high-speed chairlifts at this resort sheltered by towering Wasatch Range peaks—and snowboarders still aren’t allowed.
Alta is known first and foremost for peerless powder—the place averages 547 inches annually of some of the lightest snow on Earth. Devotees love the long, steep runs like Eagle’s Nest and High Nowhere, but Alta’s showcase run is Alf’s High Rustler, a 1,000-foot ride 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 are beginner and intermediate terrain. The Crooked Mile run winds gently under the Albion lift, while Devil’s Elbow and Rollercoaster are classic blues accessed by the Sugarloaf lift.
But besides the mountain, Alta’s standout experience is a stay at one of the half dozen cozy lodges that dot the valley floor—every room at Alta is slopeside and most include dinner and breakfast. Grab a room at the Rustler Lodge or the Peruvian 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.
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. Snowmass is home to miles-long cruisers like Sheer Bliss. 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? Uphill skiing is allowed for free at each of the mountains in what is surely the industry’s most generous policy. Rent the specialized skis, boots, and climbing skins at Ute Mountaineer in downtown Aspen.
Aspen is also known for posh lodging such as the five-star Little Nell, which is dog friendly and features ski concierges who can help you buckle your ski boots. We like the swank Limelight (also dog friendly), known for the eclectic crowd it draws to happy hour in the wide-open lobby.
With an average of 400 inches of snow falling on 5,850 acres of skiable terrain, 2,300 acres of which is perfect for beginners, Big Sky offers reliable conditions and perfect place to learn. The resort is halfway through a 10-year, multimillion dollar improvement plan, too.
We’re talking better parking, a new food hall with six eateries, new après-ski options, four new lifts, one with heated seats, and a full renovation of the historic Huntley Lodge. The resort says it offers an acre of space per skiier, so social distancing on the slopes has never been easier.
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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. Peak 9 is a novice skier’s paradise with dozens of mellow, wide cruisers. Kids can quickly raise their games with four different levels of freestyle park, from the entry-level Highway 9 park up to Freeway, a pro-level park that features an 18-foot half-pipe. Still, 58 percent of the terrain here is expert level, including hike-to double black diamond runs off Peaks 6 and 8. To get a taste of Breckenridge’s range, 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.
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 relax in a Japanese-style onsen at the end of the day.
This Wyoming resort, a favorite of expert skiers, has been working hard lately 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.
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. 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.
Our favorite thing about Mammoth: 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 creating 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. For slopeside lodging, snag a room at the Mammoth Mountain Inn and enjoy easy and early access to the Panorama Gondola to the mountain’s 11,053-foot summit for miles-long vistas of the Sierras.
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.
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The only resort on this list without on-mountain lodging, Mount Bachelor is nevertheless worth the visit to hang out in the recreation paradise of Bend, the nearest town. 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. There’s only one choice of lodging though, as far as we are concerned. The boutique Oxford Hotel calls itself “eco-chic,” which is apt but doesn’t give enough credit to the generously proportioned rooms or the “pillow menu,” which offers a choice of six options, including the firm “Ylang Ylang” and the traditional feather pillow.
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.
Site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and, perhaps even more famously, a spawning ground for the extreme skiing movement of the 1980s, Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley in California merged with nearby Alpine Meadows in 2011 to unify 6,000 skiable acres into Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Squaw 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 Beaver Bowl. A free 15-minute shuttle connects the two hills.
In the pedestrian-friendly Squaw base village, book a room at the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn. After checking in, grab beers 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.
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 18 modern, high-speed lifts and gondolas, 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. 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 including the 19-mile Wood River Trail, which runs right through town. Get a room at the newly renovated Sun Valley Lodge, which is in 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 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.
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. The good news for advanced riders: Those beloved groomed runs keep newbies out of the 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.
This article originally appeared online in February 2019; it was updated on December 11, 2019, and then on November 5, 2020, to include current information.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Après-Ski
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