You don’t have to travel far for an amazing alpine adventure. – By Dana Nichols
Ready to revel in epic descents and deluxe lodges this winter? Western resorts are at the head of the biggest trends in skiing and snowboarding. This winter it’s all about pushing boundaries, on the slopes and off.
From the Rockies to the Wasatch Range, skiing off-trail or beyond boundaries is the latest on-snow trend. The classic green, blue and black lines of ski trail maps have expanded to be a medley of color, as resorts increasingly add and designate new types of terrain. Many now offer guided access to adjoining backcountry terrain, expansive snowboard parks, halfpipes as long as 500 feet, and even secret stashes for the under-10 set. Skiers and snowboarders are reading between the lines and loving it—and telling better stories around the fire.
Many Southern Californians have memories of learning to ski and snowboard on Mammoth Mountain, but there may be no better time to be a kid than right now, with a new kids club, Woolly’s Adventure Summit tubing park that opened in 2011. Also new this season: a progression park for learning snowboard tricks on small rails and jumps. “Not everybody who comes here is super pro, and we want to give them an area to build their skill set,” says resort spokesperson Joani Lynch. But plenty of storm-chasers skip the park entirely and plan their visits the day after a legendary Sierra snow dump. “The gondola line always has a crazy excitement and energy level on a bluebird powder day,” says professional snowboarder Kimmy Fasani. “Everyone’s smiling and giving high fives. Powder turns just give you the best feeling. My first couple laps are on the Paranoids and then to the backside for a secret stash of powder.”
Why Visit Now: Mammoth Mountain beefs up its kids’ tree zones this year: Narrow trails that zip and loop through snow-padded bumps and curves, spitting the pint-size skiers out onto a groomed trail, where, most likely, mom or dad is waiting. “They’re fun little areas that kids have kind of self-developed, but now we go in and groom them,” says resort spokeswoman Joani Lynch. “They’re still kind of a secret, and kids like them as a secret. It’s a place just for them where their parents don’t necessarily want to go, and it’s super fun for kids.”
Local Tip: The Night of Lights unifies visitors and locals who all gather to bundle up and watch fireworks light up the slopes for one brilliant (and brilliantly cold) night (Dec. 22).
More Info: Opened Nov. 8.; 800-626-6684; mammothmountain.com.
Deer Valley Resort
No trip to ski-happy Park City, Utah, is complete without visiting the area’s most opulent ski area, Deer Valley. The resort has invested an average of $6 million per year over the past six years in on-mountain improvements, plus some of the finest new hotels in the ski industry. An exciting upgrade this season is a new quad chairlift accessing the Jordanelle area, with its signature Deer Valley run, an especially nice place to spend a morning as it softens in the sun. This intermediate trail offers skiers a melodic fall line, sending them soaring softly over bridges and alongside slope-side homes, and rolling them cleanly over groomed perfection. Just one of the many reasons 70 to 75 percent of guests return annually.
Why visit now: Glimpse skiers in training for the 2014 Winter Olympics, such as 2010 bronze moguls medalist Bryon Wilson, 24, who practices on the run aptly named Champion.
Local tip: No snowboarders means more fun for skiers.
More info: Opens Dec. 8; 800-424-3337; deervalley.com.
Slide up, over, down and across snowbound fields, aside frosted-over backcountry lakes and quiet nature trails that become insulated in silence after a storm. Cross-country skiing isn’t just for fast-moving athletes with quads of steel. Many resorts offer complete morning-to-night experiences: Imagine waking up in a snowbound cabin on the backside of Mammoth Mountain with a mellow downhill cross-country trail out your front door (tamaracklodge.com). Pack a picnic and spend all day exploring the huge network of 90 trails that climb as high as 7,538 feet on Lake Tahoe’s Donner Summit at North America’s largest cross-country ski center, Royal Gorge—now operated by Sugar Bowl (royalgorge.com or sugarbowl.com). Head to Whistler Olympic Park for a lesson in classic cross-country skiing, the heart-pumping version known as skate skiing, or test your ability to “ski fast, shoot straight” at the center’s Discover Biathlon program (whistlerolympicpark.com).
Vail turns 50 this season, but with a temperament as youthful as ever, flaunting a high profile snowboard contest and a new Wi-Fi gondola for 2012-13. The sheer size of North America’s largest ski resort, at 5,289 skiable acres, makes it hard to decide where to begin. A good starting place is the intermediate-to-advanced four-mile Riva Ridge—Vail’s longest run—where snow is good throughout the day. Upper sections are steeper; lower sections are easier. For a healthy rush of adrenaline, Blue Sky Basin is a destination in itself and includes a run called Iron Mask where one can launch off a cornice and finish valiantly with powdery turns for several beats. Because most of the lodging at Vail is at the upscale European base village, expect to feel surrounded by bliss every step of the way—including cuddling up under a fur blanket on the perimeter of an ice skating rink to rest up for tomorrow’s ski day.
Why visit now: Burton Snowboards is moving its 31st Annual U.S. Open, the longest-running competition in snowboarding, to Vail this year. The event will feature more than 100 riders and a 22-foot pipe at Golden Peak; Feb. 25 to March 3, 2013 (opensnowboarding.com).
Local tip: One of the best ways to tour neighboring Beaver Creek Resort is the 45-minute tours led by a forest ranger every Monday afternoon.
More info: Opened Nov. 16; 800-805-2457; vail.com. Beaver Creek opens Nov. 21; 800-226-0355; beavercreek.com.
up in the air
For those who’ve always wanted to ski the out-of-bounds expanses of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains, a new concept debuted last winter that accelerated the concept of heli-skiing: Bighorn at Revelstoke, an eight-room luxury chalet rental with its own helicopter pad in the backyard. After settling in to the three-story timber framed lodge, a phone call will beckon one of Canada’s premier tour operators to whisk you to the great snowy wide open of glaciers and pristine backcountry bowls that Canada is so well known for (bighornrevelstoke.com). Have something closer in mind? Wasatch Powder Birds has been operating from a state-of-the-art heliport at Snowbird since 1973. Longevity is a good trait to trust when being dropped off on top of an unmarked, un-groomed, completely wild and free slope (powderbird.com).
It’s nice to know you can travel to an expert-rated mountain without expecting a cold shoulder. Onthesnow.com readers voted the ’Bird “Best overall resort” in 2012. “Customer service remains our No. 1 priority, and it seems to be working,” says resort rep Emily Moench of Snowbird, where a serious 11,000-foot tram ride provides access to some of North America’s steepest proving grounds, just 29 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport. “Our first day there, we stared at the giant map and an employee came over and asked if it was our first time there, our level of skiing and [told us] ‘here is where you want to go in the morning versus the afternoon as the sun shifts positions.’ He nailed it just right for us,” Rasa, a visitor from Novi, Mich. Don’t miss Chip’s Run—a scenery-rich top-to-bottom route that’s suitable for beginner-to-intermediates who can link turns. Skiers can connect to Alta (snowboarders aren’t permitted), where the 2012-13 season marks 75 years of schussing fine Wasatch powder in the Little Cottonwood Canyon
Why visit now: One of the only resorts to construct a new lift this year, Snowbird debuts the new Little Cloud high-speed quad lift.
Local tip: Alta is part of the new “Mountain Collective,” a four-resort access pass for $349—with Aspen, Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley.
More info: Opens Nov. 17; 800-232-9542; snowbird.com. Alta opened Nov. 17; 801-799-2263; alta.com.
Past the north shores of Lake Tahoe in a dense forested mountainside that was once a timber farm, Northstar holds the sorts of snowbound treasures that skiers and snowboarders dream up when they’re far from snow: complex tree runs, deep stash powder turns and terrain parks with an infinity of varied obstacles and features. Pro snowboarder Shaun White co-designed the 22-foot halfpipe, which debuted in January 2012, and announced the resort as his primary training ground. “I pretty much have the opportunity to ride anywhere, and I chose to ride at Northstar California because it’s all-time. The park’s great and the pipe is always brand spankin’ new,” says the two-time Olympic gold medalist. Northstar has been Lake Tahoe’s most ideal beginner and family resort for years because of gentle terrain in a nice spot under the gondola, and this year debuts a new Burton snowboard park targeted at 3- to 6-year-old mini-shredders.
Why visit now: Pack your party beanie because the resort turns 40 on Dec. 22. Northstar opened 170 new acres of Lake Tahoe backcountry terrain last winter, an advanced zone of gladed tree skiing that can be accessed with a guide or via snowcat. It’s ski school is now called the Adventure Guiding and Learning Center and can include everything from a gate-accessed day on the Sawtooth Ridge to a week in the Burton Snowboard Academy.
Local tip: Refuel with a brisket grilled cheese sandwich and wash it down with a spicy Beefy Mary (a bloody mary that comes with a slice of beef jerky) at Zephyr Lodge.
More info: Opened Nov. 16; 800-466-6784; northstarattahoe.com.
There are skiers who ski to feel like a kid again, and there are those who head to the slopes each winter to throw down on the world’s greatest challenges. North America’s definitive mega-resort has two side-by-side mountains where the best experiences are available no matter what you’re seeking. The selection of terrain is so large that different zones can have their own microclimates. If it’s a clear day, make it your mission to peak four times above 7,000 feet: Top of the World, Whistler Peak, top of Symphony, top of Harmony, top of 7th Heaven. But when a storm rolls in off the Pacific Ocean and a huge dump of pow hits, you may find local advice is well-guarded. Offers professional snowboarder Braden Dean: “I’m keeping the details of my favorite runs to myself, but the Crystal Chair zone has a lot to offer. Hint, hint.” LBM
Why visit now: If you haven’t been to Whistler since the 2010 Olympics, prepare to be impressed by infrastructure that includes 220 of the world’s most powerful snowmaking guns. New this season are guided backcountry skiing clinics led by professional coaches launch right off the top of the ski area summit into the 480,000-acre wilderness Garibaldi Provincial Park.
Local tip: Fuel up with a cup of Thunderbird dark roast by organic Spirit Bear Coffee Company, available throughout the resort. Whistler started serving this eco fair trade Vancouver-based company—which supports bear habitat—late last season.
More info: Opened Nov. 22; 800-766-0449; whistlerblackcomb.com.