Ski holidays to the United States are back to pre-pandemic status. Provide you are fully vaccinated, visits to the Rockies and the other mountain ranges have the green light for this winter.
So what are ski holidays like across the pond? The skiing and snowboarding experience in the States is certainly very different from the norm in Europe – even before the global emergence of Covid. Essentially, the majority or all of the ski resort services are run by one all-encompassing corporation. These include lifts, ski school, child-care, mountain restaurants and even hotels.
Ski areas are also more closely managed and regulated, with boundaries marked by signs or ropes. Heading into the backcountry beyond a boundary may be forbidden, or only allowed via designated access gates. Breaking the rules can lead to lift passes being confiscated, or even arrest.
On the flip side, going off piste within the boundary managed by the ski patrol carries minimal avalanche risk, so it’s usually safe to play in the powder here without paying for a guide.
However, don’t get the idea that the terrain is in some way tame. In America the steepest marked trails are classified as double-black-diamond runs. These are often left ungroomed, and frequent snowfalls mean they’re great fun for experts.
US resorts have plenty to offer non-experts, too, with immaculate corduroy piste grooming and a generally superb and friendly approach to the learning process. Accommodation is high-quality and spacious, and standards of service and courtesy are impressive. Lift systems are efficient, and any polite queues that form are immaculately managed.
Travelling to America isn’t cheap, and neither are essentials such as lift passes, tuition and equipment hire, which are generally much more expensive than in Europe. With lift passes, bear in mind that it can cost less to buy them in advance through UK tour operators and resort websites, and that prices and offers frequently change. Buying a pass on the day at a ticket window can be extortionately expensive by comparison.
You also have to accept that you’ll constantly be asked if you’re having a good day, but just go with the flow. Here’s where to go if your yearning for an American ski adventure this winter.
Best for powder
These linked resorts are the powder capitals of the world – the snow here is as plentiful, frequent and light as it comes. On average, they receive more than 14m of snow a year, twice as much as some resorts in the neighbouring state of Colorado, and around 30 per cent more than nearby Park City. Although most of the slopes are left ungroomed, there are some prepared runs for intermediates and plenty of steep slopes where confident intermediates can try powder.
The slopes of the two linked resorts add up to a big area by US standards – 4,700 acres. Snowboarding is banned on Alta’s slopes, but allowed in Snowbird. High-speed quad chairlifts access much of the ski area, including when making the connections between the two resorts, making it easy to get around.
For scenic eating on mountain, the Summit complex on Hidden Peak, right by the top station of the aerial tram at the apex of Snowbird’s ski area, houses a self-service restaurant and a coffee shop, and has a large outdoor terrace. Its two-storey floor-to-ceiling windows afford spectacular views of the Wasatch mountains and Salt Lake valley below.
Both Snowbird and Alta’s resort villages are small, quiet collections of hotels and apartments. Alta, which was a bustling mining town in the late 19th century, has a friendly, old-fashioned feel, while Snowbird’s modern, concrete, purpose-built base lacks resort charm. There are few bars or restaurants, except those linked to hotels, and little to do off the slopes, unless driving the 40km into nearby Salt Lake City appeals. The small resorts of Solitude and Brighton are both nearby and well worth exploring.
Where to stay
The four-star Hyatt Place Cottonwood, 10 miles from Salt Lake City, makes an excellent base for exploring the various ski areas, with a free shuttle to the bus depot at the base of Solitude for buses to Alta, Snowbird and Brighton. Downtown Salt Lake City is a 20-minute drive.
Jackson Hole in Wyoming has a top-notch snow record – almost a match for the best in Utah. However, the season is much shorter – the resort closes at the start of April to facilitate the annual migration of thousands of elk from their winter quarters outside the town of Jackson. Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows) is the snowiest major resort in California – firmly in the first division, with an average of more than 11m per year. A new gondola opens new terrain and makes it the third largest resort in North America.
Best for experts
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort does a great job of projecting a macho image, enhanced by pictures of daredevils jumping into the resort’s signature steep, Corbet’s Couloir. This narrow chute can normally only be accessed by a two-metre leap off a cornice and a sharp turn to avoid a rock. It has an initial extreme steep pitch of 50 degrees.
Although Corbet’s is not typical of the runs here, the resort does have a huge quantity of steep slopes. Most of these are concentrated on the main Rendezvous mountain, and many locals use the Tram, Jackson’s village to summit cable car, to do laps on here. The lift’s 1,260m vertical rise (exceptional for a single lift ride) means long, long runs. The Teton chairlift also accesses some seriously steep stuff.
Jackson gets an impressively large amount of snow, but the slopes aren’t high and get plenty of sun, so snow can deteriorate quickly, especially on the lower mountain. But there’s usually another snow storm brewing.
Although Jackson Hole has a justifiable reputation for challenging slopes, it’s worth knowing there are easier options for easing into the steep stuff, including terrain around the Casper and Teton chairlifts.
Rendezvous Casual Dining at the top of the Bridger Gondola is the place to eat on the mountain. As well as self-service stations, there is a table-service restaurant, Piste Mountain Bistro, serving dishes made from local ingredients.
The town of Jackson, a 20-minute drive from the slopes, promotes a Wild West image with its wooden sidewalks, cowboy saloons and pool halls, and is a characterful place to stay. Alternatively, Teton Village at the base of the slopes has a number of comfortable hotels. There’s a bus from here to town for a night out – the last one back leaves just before 11pm.
Where to stay
The Parkway Inn hotel is bang in the middle of the town of Jackson and has an indoor pool, hot tubs, saunas and an exercise room. A complimentary resort shuttle bus stops outside the hotel. Find more of the best accommodation in Jackson Hole here.
Aspen in Colorado has four mountains, three of which offer challenging terrain. Aspen Mountain, above the town, has an array of double-black diamond runs, while in Aspen Highlands there are tough top-to-bottom runs as well as Highland Bowl – a big open bowl reached by hiking from the top lift, with steep pitches ranging from 38 to 48 degrees. Snowmass has some steep, wooded slopes and narrow, often rocky, chutes. Buttermilk is for beginners, kids, and freestylers. The lift-linked resorts of Alta and Snowbird in Utah both have plenty of steep slopes on which to enjoy their famous powder.
The lift-linked resorts of Alta and Snowbird in Utah both have plenty of steep slopes on which to enjoy their famous powder.
Best for intermediates
Most of the resorts listed here are well suited to intermediates, but Heavenly is unique. Both the ski area and the resort town of South Lake Tahoe span the border between California and Nevada. In the town, the stateline is a crossroads, with the street on the Nevada side lined with giant casino hotels. Morning and afternoon there’s the bizarre sight of people dressed for the slopes walking past row upon row of gamblers sitting at machines and clustered around the green baize tables. The Californian side is more laid back and traditional. There’s a wide choice of restaurants and bars.
The ski area has spectacular views of bright turquoise Lake Tahoe, which never freezes over, as well as the Nevada desert. There is everything here from long cruises to widely spaced trees that encourage powder forays. The ski area is criss-crossed with cruisy blue runs, and there are also plenty of blacks, plus some challenging ungroomed tree runs. Real experts will find the steepest terrain at nearby Kirkwood and Palisades Tahoe.
Heavenly is a resort that’s popular with snowboarders exploring both the powder and the Re-Mix terrain park, accessed by the Canyon or the Sky chairs on the Californian side – expect to see a high number of young Californian surfer dudes here.
Where to stay
The well-located Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel is close to the Heavenly access gondola on the California side of town. Rooms are positioned overlooking an internal courtyard, and there’s an indoor pool, hot tub and gym.
Park City, Utah joined forces with next-door Canyons, creating one ski area that’s the biggest in the US and the second in North America (behind Whistler), with more than 7,300 acres of terrain, including cruisy blue runs and plenty of easy blacks. Vail in Colorado is the fourth biggest ski area in North America, with three linked faces offering long cruises, groomed tree runs and lots of easy ungroomed terrain.
Best for beginners
The ski area at Breckenridge is divided into five varied lift- and piste-linked sectors (Peak 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10). There are few nursery slopes in the world to rival the long, wide, gentle run at the foot of Peak 9 – and a couple of those rivals are at the foot of next-door Peak 8.
The ski school offers packages of lessons, lift pass and equipment hire. Couple this with beginner-friendly chairlifts and magic carpets in the nursery areas and Breckenridge makes the ideal launch pad. For the more experienced in a group, its 2,908 acres of slopes have plenty to interest both intermediates and experts, with steeper slopes above the treeline.
Pioneer Crossing, a restaurant with great views and Western cuisine at the top of the Independence SuperChair on Peak 7 is one of the best places to eat on the mountain.
The Victorian-style town of Breckenridge is relatively good value for the US, with countless shops, bars and restaurants. Plus, there is very likely to be snow on the streets, to add to the veneer of 19th century charm.
The height of the resort – nearly 3,000m – takes a bit of getting used to if arriving directly from sea level and some visitors may suffer initially from mild altitude sickness. Avoiding alcohol during the journey and drinking copious amounts of water helps alleviate symptoms, which usually ease after 24 hours as the body acclimatises.
Where to stay
For a hassle-free and convenient stay, the huge Beaver Run Resort, with hotel rooms and apartments, is hard to beat. Its slopeside position provides instant access to the snow, there is a range of on-site bars and restaurants to choose from, accommodation is spacious, and there are two pools and seven hot tubs.
Winter Park in Colorado offers first-class facilities for beginners. The Sorensen Park beginner zone at the base of the mountain has gentle slopes and magic carpet lifts, while Discovery Park at mid-mountain is a 25-acre dedicated beginner area. As well as the nursery area, it has longer green runs to progress to and an adventure trail through the trees.
Also in Colorado is Beaver Creek, which has two beginner areas – one at village level and one at the top of the mountain, both served by novice-friendly lifts. There are also plenty of easy long green runs.
Best for charm
During the 1880s Aspen became the silver-mining capital of the world and then, after decades of neglect, its historic core was brought back to life thanks to the skiing boom of the late 20th century. This is a delightful place to stroll around in the evenings, window shopping and enjoying the restaurants and bars.
There are four separate ski areas – Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Aspen Mountain, all covered on one lift pass. Aspen Mountain is accessed from town by gondola, while the other three are reached by free shuttle buses.
Buttermilk is the smallest and least challenging area, but it also has a serious terrain park. Aspen Mountain has long cruising blue runs and short, sharp blacks, while Aspen Highlands has easy intermediate slopes, steep black runs and Highlands Bowl. This reached via a free snowcat ride and a hike from the top lift, and its steep pitches are up to 48 degrees.
Snowmass is the most extensive area, with terrain for all, and is, in effect, a self-contained resort.
Aspen has many older buildings and accommodation is within a short walk or a free shuttle ride to the town centre and lifts. However, as Aspen in general tends to be expensive, finding affordable accommodation can be challenging. It’s worth considering purpose-built Snowmass as a base if charm is of less concern.
Where to stay
For an affordable option in the centre of town, Hotel Aspen is full of character and has good views. The pool area has a hot tub, loungers and a fire pit, and free après drinks and nibbles are served each evening. Find more of the best accommodation in Aspen here.
The restored mining town of Telluride in Colorado has a classic Wild West main street and back streets lined with cosy cabins. There is also accommodation up in the ski area at Mountain Village. While not huge (2,000 acres), the slopes are delightfully varied and accessed from town by a series of lifts. Crested Butte, also in Colorado, is another restored mining town, offering much the same recipe as Telluride, but on a slightly smaller scale. Free shuttle buses run from town to the slopes (1,547 acres), which are a couple of miles away.
Best for ski-in/ski-out
Even the French would be impressed by the way the purpose-built resort of Snowmass has been developed, with lodgings and Snowmass Village Mall, housing a small cluster of shops and restaurants, lining the home runs down. In addition, there is a Base Village area at the foot of the slopes, with further accommodation, shops, bars and restaurants. Much of the lodging is ski-in/ski-out; some involves a walk to the snow, but it’s rarely very far.
Snowmass is easily the biggest of Aspen’s four ski areas – almost 8km in width and with over 3,300 acres of slopes (60 per cent of the combined acreage of the four mountains). It has superb terrain for all standards; it’s also the best ski area for intermediates.
Not only is the base area now an attractive place to be, there are also appealing on-mountain eating and drinking options. The Lynn Britt Cabin runs après ski parties, with guest DJs, a fire pit and outdoor lounge seating. And Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant has a fine-dining restaurant as well as a café area with different food options, a bar and coffee.
For even more variety, there are decent bus services to Aspen’s other mountains (Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands), all of which are covered on the lift pass. The buses run into the evening from Aspen to Snowmass, leaving a little time to enjoy the bright lights of Aspen (14km away) after a day on the slopes. Nightlife is pretty quiet in Snowmass, but there are options including Zane’s Tavern with a pubby atmosphere, the Nest in the Viceroy hotel, and the Venga Venga tequila bar.
Where to stay
The Viewline Resort has a prime spot on the home slope, close to Snowmass Village Mall. It offers an extensive range of dining options, a spa, kids’ club and stylish, modern rooms.
In neighbouring Snowbird and Alta in Utah, it’s possible to ski to the door of many lodges. If the budget will stand it, one of the ski-in/ski-out hotels or condos in the mid-mountain Silver Lake area of upmarket Deer Valley in Utah will fit the bill.
Best for mixed-ability groups
With an impressive range of runs spread over the fourth biggest ski area in North America, Vail is a sound choice for mixed-ability groups. The slopes are split into three areas – the front face (accessed via three main lifts from downtown Vail), the Back Bowls over the ridge from the front face, and Blue Sky Basin beyond that.
Beginners have a choice of nursery slopes at village level and at altitude, and there are plenty of easy longer runs to progress to. Intermediates have long, relaxing cruises on the front face, with plenty of opportunity for moderate challenges. Experts can choose between genuinely steep double-black diamond runs on the front face, treeless, ungroomed slopes in the Back Bowls, and exciting tree runs in Blue Sky Basin.
The lift system is impressive. All the resort’s major lifts are high-speed and regularly updated. Nonetheless, Vail’s slopes can get very busy, with lift queues a problem in peak weeks.
The resort base area is huge – nearly 5km from end to end – and mostly a featureless sprawl of comfortable hotels and apartments. But there are parts where things have a bit of a focus – notably traffic-free Vail Village, which is made up of Tirolean-style chalets, built when the resort was conceived in the 1950s, and refurbished Lionshead, which has some smart lodgings to match Vail Village.
Where to stay
Vail has a proliferation of accommodation and most of it is upmarket and expensive. The Evergreen Lodge is the best-value hotel in Vail and only 10 minutes’ walk from the lifts. It has an outdoor pool, giant indoor hot tub, two saunas and a lively après bar. Bedrooms are large, too. Find more of the best accommodation in Vail here.
Mammoth in California offers a simple recipe – steep, open advanced/expert slopes at the top, giving way to long, gentle runs among trees lower down, perfect for beginners and early intermediates. Sun Valley in Idaho has something for everybody, with intermediates and advanced slopes on Bald Mountain, and beginner runs on Dollar Mountain.
Best for families
Winter Park, Colorado
Winter Park may lack the glamour of better-known Colorado resorts such as Breckenridge and Vail, but the absence of week-day lift queues will appeal to families (weekends tend to be busier due to visitors from nearby Denver). Also family friendly are the range of good-value accommodation around the lift base and the facilities for beginners.
The Sorensen Park beginner zone at the base of the mountain has gentle slopes and magic carpet lifts, while the Discovery Park at mid-mountain is the jewel in the crown. This 25-acre dedicated beginner area is served by two chairlifts and as well as a nursery area, it has longer green runs to progress to and an adventure trail through the trees.
Winter Park is the snowiest of all major Colorado resorts, receiving around 8m annually. To enjoy the powder without the kids in tow, take your little ones to the resort’s childcare facilities which are first-rate. The Winter Park Ski & Ride School offers day care facilities for youngsters aged two months to six years, and is the meeting point for children’s classes.
The base at the bottom of the lifts makes an ideal place for families to stay, with easy access to the slopes and a number of family-friendly restaurants, as well as a handful of bars and shops. Nightlife is quiet here, but off-slope activities for children include tubing and ice skating. The town of Winter Park, a bus ride away, lacks the usual shops and restaurants found in most resorts, and is a less convenient place to stay.
It’s possible to reach Winter Park by train from Denver. Fly into Denver airport on Friday or Saturday, catch a train from Denver International Airport to Denver Union station, stay the night in a hotel, then catch a 7am train on Saturday or Sunday from Denver Union to arrive at Winter Park at 9am ready to hit the slopes. This is also good for acclimatisation to the high altitude, reducing the chance of altitude sickness when reaching Winter Park – the village is at 2,745m.
Where to stay
The Zephyr Mountain Lodge condos offer the best blend of flexibility and convenience for families. Just a few steps from the lifts and base area amenities, the condos come with a fully-equipped kitchen, as well as access to hot tubs and fitness room.
Solitude in Utah, filming location for the 2000 film The Grinch, is an appealing destination for families. It’s quiet and convenient with good ski school. Vail in Colorado has plenty to offer, too, with the Small World Nursery at Golden Peak catering for children aged two months to six years. There are also special on-mountain adventure zones and trails, as well as kids’ snowmobiling and tubing.
Best for terrain parks
Mammoth Mountain, California
There are slopes for all abilities at Mammoth, but it’s the terrain parks that really set this place apart – they’re among the best in the world. There are 11 parks in total, with around 95 jumps, over 120 jib and rail features and three halfpipes in more than 100 acres of freestyle terrain. The parks range in difficulty from the beginner-level Disco and Wonderland to Main Park, where all the features are up to pro-rider standard. Each park is maintained to an exceptionally high standard.
The mountain, with its 3,500 acres of terrain, offers something for everyone, with harder runs at altitude and easier slopes lower down, as well as a mix of open alpine-style bowls and classic North American wooded slopes. There’s lodging at or near various lift bases on the mountain – Canyon Lodge, Eagle Lodge and Main Lodge – and in the traffic-free Village, which has a gondola link to the slopes.
There is also a sprinkling of hotels, apartments, restaurants and shops dotted around the sprawling wooded area of Mammoth Lakes, which has no discernible centre and is about 20 minutes’ drive from the ski area. It pays to have a car, although there are free shuttle buses from Mammoth Lakes to the lift bases.
Where to stay
Juniper Springs Lodge has a chairlift to the slopes right outside the door. A 24-hour reception area, fire pit area, small gym, outdoor pool and hot tub complete the package.
Breckenridge in Colorado has four terrain parks to suit all abilities. The main focus is on Peak 8 (one of Breckenridge’s five ski area sectors) with the Freeway park, one of North America’s best, featuring a series of big jumps, obstacles and a 6.5m super-pipe. Park Lane provides a variety of challenging features, while Trygves has gentle jumps and rollers for novices. On Peak 9, Highway 9 is an entry-level terrain park with small jumps, rails and boxes. Park City in Utah has eight world-class terrain parks, each maintained to a high standard. Little Kings is an entry-level park, Three Kings is for all abilities and floodlit until 7pm, and Pick ’N Shovel offers more advanced terrain with bigger jumps and features.
Best for deserted runs
Big Sky, Montana
Quiet runs are one of the attractions of American ski areas in general. But the slopes of Big Sky and linked Moonlight Basin aren’t just quiet, they feel uninhabited. On average, the resort gets around 3,000 visitors a day – that works out at about two skiable acres for each of them to enjoy. It’s routine to be on a slope with no one else.
And this isn’t because the mountain lacks appeal. The slopes add up to one of America’s biggest areas at more than 5,800 acres – larger than Vail. There’s plenty to amuse all abilities, including tree runs and couloirs for experts, and the snow record is impressive (more than 10m annually), beating that of all the major Colorado resorts.
In recent years, Big Sky has been upgrading its lifts, making the resort high point of Lone Peak and terrain such as the steeps of the Challenger Zone and the stunning, mainly black and double black terrain of The Bowl easier to get to. In 2018 it unveiled the first eight-seater high-speed chairlift in North America, from the village to the milder terrain of Andesite mountain.
The resort village at the foot of the slopes, known as Mountain Village, is small, with just a few hotels and apartments and a handful of bars, restaurants and shops set around a traffic-free plaza, plus an underground shopping mall. Most of the lodgings are widely spread around the valley. In general, life off the slopes is quiet.
Where to stay
The Summit hotel has a prime spot at the foot of the lifts for quick access to the slopes. As well as its superb location, the Summit offers high-quality accommodation, with many rooms offering good views, plus an outdoor pool, steam room and fitness centre.
Taos is out on a geographical limb in New Mexico. It’s hard to get to – 132 miles, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Albuquerque. As a consequence it’s not prone to weekend overcrowding. Winter Park in Colorado is in close proximity to Denver. However, although it’s busy on weekends with visitors from the city, during the week it’s blissfully quiet.