From family-friendly amenities to unrivaled apres-ski scenes, top resorts carve out a niche in the West.
By Dana Nichols
Stunning new high-tech ski gear such as digital goggle displays and lightweight carbon fiber poles are exciting, but the most important standby in a serious skier’s gear collection will always be a map on which to plot favorite descents and bucket list dreams. Such maps get better with age, especially here in the West, where resorts have inimitable personalities and getting to know them is a lifelong love affair.
The adventurous can tackle terrain parks in California or experience extreme elevation in British Columbia. Their more laid-back campanions can take it slow in the Utah backcountry and kick up their heels during apres-ski in Colorado. There’s a ski or snowboard scene for everyone in western North America, where resorts continue to surprise with new and improved amenities each year.
Winter is finally upon us, and with it comes a new season of welcome escapes to fall madly for.
The wooded trails of Northstar California, easy to navigate under the welcoming posture of Mount Pluto (an extinct volcano that erupted 2 million years ago), make it a favorite resort for mixed-ability groups. More than $30 million in capital investments over the past few years—since Vail Resorts acquired the property—give this family-friendly Lake Tahoe enclave, with its beefed-up base village, a well-designed sense of ease. Groups can split up and rejoin a few hours later, since everything funnels back to the village. Adventure seekers can hike Sawtooth Ridge or drop into the black diamonds on Lookout Mountain, riders can direct themselves to the cluster of street-inspired park features under the Vista Express ski lift, and those who want to cruise corduroy will be happy with good coverage thanks to an extensive snowmaking system. Prefer to be shown around by an insider? Northstar’s Primo Private Lesson isn’t so much a class as a personalized ski or snowboard tour with a mountain veteran that enables VIP resort access to restaurants and lift lines. Of course, if you do want to learn new moves, primo instruction is included. (Opened Nov. 21; 800-466-6784; northstarcalifornia.com)
Visions of snowboarders floating mid-twirl above the lip of a halfpipe, bodies framed against bright blue sky, is quintessential Mammoth Mountain scenery thanks to perpetual sunny days that grace the legendary 100-acre terrain park network. California sun is icing on the cake at this resort, an industry innovator that offers 11 park zones and three halfpipes, and has become adept at incorporating small, progression-oriented features—such as the 4-acre bump- and berm-filled Rhythm Ridge section—in the same high-standard precision as mega features built for Olympians in training. The resort’s beating heart is the 22-foot-tall, 550-foot-long Super Duper Pipe, with the world’s best skiers and snowboarders setting the pace as they drop in fast succession. Grab a bulgur salad and fresh-squeezed carrot-beet juice at Green V, Main Lodge’s new snack bar with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, and then sit down to watch. You never know when you’ll see something special; history in the making is par for the course at Mammoth. Notably, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (which includes June Mountain) is acquiring Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, so those who buy the new Cali4nia Pass will have unrestricted access to all four ski areas. (Opened Nov. 13; 800-626-6684; mammothmountain.com)
For those who seek a departure from chairlifts, heli-skiing and snowcat skiing are choice ways to take advantage of the area celebrated by skiing purists at Snowbird and Alta (the side-by-side Utah resorts are under separate ownership and operation, but offer a special pass allowing visitors access to both areas). At Snowbird, resort-adjacent guided snowcat backcountry tours are a new approach to out-of-bounds terrain, providing yet another way to get deep into Utah’s smooth champagne powder and return home with an enviable adventure story to tell. The early morning tours hit one of five private spots east and south of the ski area boundary in American Fork Canyon. Expert guides make the call on the dispatch locale the morning of each tour, with keen eyes on safety and snow quality. Trips are tailored to advanced-level skiers in two disciplines: scenic uphill touring and advanced downhill skiing; proceeds go to the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation and Wasatch Water Legacy Partnership. Those who want actual liftoff can find heli-skiing here with Wasatch Powderbird Guides, which has been escorting visitors in this region since 1973. Reserve a single seat or the entire six-person French-made helicopter, and see areas of Snowbird and Alta that definitely aren’t on the trail map. (Snowbird opened Nov. 20; 800-232-9542; snowbird.com) (Alta opened Nov. 21; 801-359-1078; alta.com)
Reaching the altitude of Whistler Blackcomb’s signature peaks, three glaciers and immense 8,171 acres of skiable terrain is a rite of passage for skiers. Thankfully, at the British Columbia resort, even nonskiers can obtain extreme elevation. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola offers 360-degree views while soaring across Fitzsimmons Valley. Sightseers take an initial gondola ride—catch the first lift up pre-sunrise, when the Roundhouse Lodge serves breakfast at 6,069 feet. As first light wakes up grand surrounding peaks, witness the beauty of freshly fallen snow to truly feel the rush of a powder day. When riding the gondola, don’t miss the viewing platform for an up-close look at the inner workings of the world’s longest continuous lift system. Off the mountain, Whistler offers dog sledding, nighttime tubing and free ice skating in the glow of the Olympic rings. There are 55 miles of cross-country ski trails at Whistler Olympic Park, which hosted events during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. (Opens Nov. 27; 800-766-0449; whistlerblackcomb.com)
The variety at Vail Mountain, the country’s largest ski resort, continues to build on itself in a snowball effect, with a chic apres-ski scene now gaining a reputation as grand as the sprawling 7-mile-wide mountain itself. Inside this self-contained macroworld of deep powder and buzzing village life in Colorado, skiers choose from 193 trails by day and nearly as many dining options by night. Now the most difficult decisions at Vail aren’t about back-bowl versus front-side descents, but about local-made craft beers versus spirits (hint: try Powder Day Pale Ale from Gore Range Brewery and signature whiskey from the new 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co.). The newest option among eateries is The 10th, an on-mountain restaurant where guests board a gondola with heated seats, then step into slippers to dine on elk bolognese with a grand view of the Gore Range. On select dates between December and April—starting with New Year’s Eve—the venue becomes a nightclub called Décimo; past performers have included disc jockeys Paul Oakenfold and Manufactured Superstars. Thanks to Vail’s walking paths and free buses connecting the four base lodges and pedestrian villages, there’s hardly a need for a car. (Opened Nov. 21; 800-805-2457; vail.com)
Each new morning at Deer Valley Resort comes with the emergence of a fresh tableau of corduroy runs waiting to make better skiers out of all who approach them. For aspiring athletes just learning the sport—and anyone schussing down the runs—it’s the golden touch of luxury service that makes Deer Valley renowned. This 2,000-acre Park City, Utah, resort famously takes care of its snow: For 2014-2015, $6 million in enhancements have helped maintain the state-of-the-art snow-making system and upped the grooming fleet of snowcats. From trails to lodging, the resort’s elegance is experienced in the details, including overnight ski valet and specialized employees such as cheesemonger Corrine Cornet-Coniglio, hired to develop a series of signature Deer Valley artisanal double and triple cream delights. Meanwhile, on the slopes, Deer Valley’s ski school is the ultimate for beginners, with a low student-to-teacher ratio, the magic carpet-accessed Wide West learning area and approachable adventure zones spanning the resort. Also, snowboarders aren’t allowed to ride here, and even skiers arriving after the daily ticket cap is reached are turned away to avoid overcrowding. (Opens Dec. 6; 800-424-3337; deervalley.com)