Choosing a Ski Resort

Elevation/Altitude
Lift Ticket Costs with Kids
Lower Cost Beginner Lift Tickets
Availability of Cruising Ski Terrain
Ski Runs are not Comparable Between Ski Resorts
Ski Lifts
Ski Instruction
Weather Pattern: El Nino or La Nina?
Airport distance from the ski resort
Airport design
Ski Resort Variety
Ski Lodging
Ambience of the Ski Area—Big City vs. Small Town
Dining in Ski Areas
Final Thoughts

If you’re like our family, you choose to ski somewhere every spring break.  And every year, you have to re-evaluate the same question:  where should we go skiing this year?  Well answering that question is the whole purpose of this ski section.  There are multiple factors you should consider, and the ONE that I didn’t, because I was unaware of how important it was, is the elevation of the ski resort, and the elevation where you will sleep.   I’ve created a table that lists the major ski resorts in the western US by elevation, with  peak and base elevations, and also, the elevation of the city you’re most likely to sleep in.

Elevation/Altitude

Why is elevation so important?  Because many suffer from some degree of high altitude sickness, and that can have a major impact on how enjoyable (or not) your vacation is.  If you’ve ever gotten a headache, feel you can’t breathe, and can’t sleep at night because your heart is pounding at higher elevations, you might find this article on high altitude sickness relevant, especially if you’re already on some type of thyroid medication.

Lift Ticket Costs with Kids

Many ski resorts offer discounted or free lift tickets for kids.  That can have a major impact on your final vacation cost.  The ski resorts by elevation table lists the ski resorts with discounted children’s rates.

Lower Cost Beginner Lift Tickets

Some skiers (moms!) prefer the beginner terrain and should not have to pay for a full cost lift ticket.   Some ski resorts accommodate those requests and offer beginner or intermediate tickets at a considerable discount to the full-priced lift ticket.  The ski resorts that do are also listed in the ski resorts by elevation table.

Availability of Cruising Ski Terrain

The ski resorts and cruising ratings in the list were taken from my bible for analyzing ski resorts each year:  The Unofficial Guide to Skiing in the West by Lito Tejada-Flores, Peter Shelton, Seth Masia, Ed Chauner, & Bob Sehlinger, 3rd edition, 1999.  Even though an updated edition with snowboarding was last published in 2003, much of the information is still relevant, because the steepness of a mountain, the weather, and its location and ambience don’t change.

There are many other smaller ski resorts throughout the country, and there are ski resorts in the eastern part of the US.  But because most of us have spring breaks in March and even April, and most of us have to fly to our destination anyway, the western ski resorts were always a safer choice for having decent snow.   So that’s why I used their list as a starting point.  Also, those authors actually skied each resort so they could give them ski ratings.  Since I only learned how to ski in my late 30s, I am not a natural, nor will I ever get enough practice skiing one week out of every year, so accurate mountain terrain descriptions are important to me.  If a mountain is too steep, I will not be able to ski very much of it, so there is no point in me choosing a place like that.  For that reason, ultra steep ski resorts (which is what some do want!) are ranked low using this rating system.  Someone looking for ultra steeps would look for the low-rated ski resorts in the table, which would be Telluride, Taos, and Jackson Hole.  While experts might worship those ski resorts, someone like me would be terrified on one of their runs.  The ski resorts that were ranked 4 and 5 had a wide variety of runs that I could do, so I agree with the cruising ratings that the authors assigned.

Ski Runs are not Comparable Between Ski Resorts

You should be aware that what’s green, blue, and black on each mountain is relative, to that particular mountain.  In other words, you can’t compare a green on one mountain with a green on another.  Alta and Snowbird in Utah are a good example of this.  While they are barely a 5-minute drive apart (you pass Snowbird on your way up to Alta), the greens at Snowbird are steep!  My husband actually sat on a lift at Alta with another woman who paid for a lift ticket at Snowbird, realized the greens were too steep, and then came over to Alta for the rest of the day.  Snowbird allows snowboarders, and Alta doesn’t, so when our son wanted to learn snowboarding, we conveniently dropped him off at Snowbird snowboard school (say that fast three times!), and then headed to Alta.  It’s a convenient arrangement if you have family members who prefer different ski resorts.  You can even buy a ticket that allows you access to both ski resorts, so you could meet up for lunch somewhere.

Ski Lifts

Lifts today range from the slow-moving, old-fashioned, metal two-seaters at Alta, to the hi-speed 6-packs found at Park City, and the heated, enclosed gondolas at Snowmass.  While writing the material for this website, I started reflecting on my experiences with the lifts.  I realized that I liked the old-fashioned lifts better!  Why?  Because I’m not a high-energy, black-diamond skier.  An express lift takes me quickly back up to the top to ski – again.  I came here to relax, not to ski every waking moment!  Since I’m not the greatest skier, why then, do I continue to ski?  For the camaraderie with friends, the family time, the scenery, and the complete change of pace from my daily Florida environment, that’s why.  What made our trips fun was that we often went with another family, and the parents would ride up together on the lifts and talk.  Powder Mountain has got to have one of the longest, slowest lifts I’ve ever been on—seems like it takes 20 minutes to the top on one lift, and goes forever.  But when we’re on that lift, we just sit and enjoy the snow-covered scenery, and chat.  No cell phones ringing, no traffic, no kids nagging us.  It’s relaxing, which is why we went skiing every year.

If you like your skiing fast-paced, then you’ll like the high-speed lifts found at  modern ski resorts like Park City, Deer Valley, and the Canyons, and will hate places like Alta and Powder Mountain (which I love!).

Ski Instruction

Apparently there are no criteria for being a ski instructor, so you may end up with lessons taught by a kid, or receive standardized, professional instruction.  My very first lesson was at Winter Park, Colorado.  I did not know that altitude was a problem for me, and really could not breathe.  I don’t believe our instructor had any formal training, other than that he himself could ski well.  He told us to press down on the big toe of the foot we wanted to turn with.  Turns out I’m a little knock-kneed, so have a slight natural wedge anyway, and the only thing I got out of pressing my toe down was severe calf cramps the next day.  I could barely walk and took the next two days off.  I fell at the bottom of the last run of our class, was absolutely exhausted, and ended up in tears.  I hated skiing, and did not want to ever do it again.  But my husband had a business trip to Colorado the next year (around spring break), my son had been in the kid’s ski school and LOVED it, and so our annual trek began.

Now fast forward, and I took lessons at Brighton (non-professional), Alta (much better), and finally, Mt. Bachelor in Oregon.  I finally learned how to ski at Mt. Bachelor!  That was the most novel instruction I’d ever had, and it finally did the trick for me.  Newbies like me have a bad habit of looking down, and that throws your balance off when on skis.  Well this instructor took us down a pretty steep run (I would NOT have thought I could do it), and used us, the students, as slalom markers.  One by one, we had to ski down between each other.  There is no WAY I was going to look down and risk crashing into a fellow student, how embarrassing would that be?!  At the beginning of the lesson, he also made us completely lift one foot off the snow and ski on the other foot, then transition to the opposite foot in slow motion.  This technique gave me much better control, especially with my knock-kneed anatomy.  So with eyes up, and weight on only one foot at a time, I made perfect arcs between my fellow students down a VERY steep blue.  I could not believe it, and was ecstatic!

Weather Pattern:  El Nino or La Nina?

Changing weather patterns can mean heavy snowfall in Montana one year, followed by so little snow the following year that the resorts cease operations before their usual April closing date.   Some years the Pacific Northwest gets socked in with copious amounts of snow, others years they’re quite dry.  So do check winter forecasts before booking your trip.  Current reports for 2011-12 are predicting heavy snowfall in the Pacific Northwest, so if you’re looking for lots of snow, it might be a good year for a trip to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or western Montana.

Airport distance from the ski resort

There are some ski resorts, like Buttermilk, that are literally 4 minutes from the airport.   If you definitely want to ski the same day you fly, it would be wise to pick a ski resort that’s not very far from the airport.  Other places, like Taos, are over 2 hours from the airport.   Sometimes the drive + flight time + ski rental time leaves no other choice but to wait for the next day.  Renting skis at the end of the day is also much less hectic and relaxed than trying to get it done the morning you actually ski.  Plus, you’re not charged for that day when you rent late in the day.  So it saves both the ski shop and you some time in the morning!

Airport design

Airport accessibility can make a world of difference in the stress level of your vacation.  The one airport I absolutely hate is Denver.  I got stuck overnight there when flying to Alaska, and even though I was able to catch a flight the next day, my luggage took another day.  We wasted the first day of our vacation sitting around with no clothes or hiking boots, just what we had on, which really put a damper on things.  Our big event for the day?  Driving to the Anchorage Wal-Mart to buy some underwear and cheap clothes to change into.  On another vacation, a connecting flight we boarded in Denver was delayed in a severe snowstorm and had to be de-iced twice, and our 11 p.m. arrival back home somehow morphed into a 6 a.m. landing.  Can you say exhausted?

The above two examples were problems I had when I had connections through Denver.  But Denver has also been my destination, and I’ve found it takes HOURS to get out of the airport.  I am an excellent sign-reader, yet I find the entire airport quite confusing.  Rental car counters are on one level, luggage on another, exiting on another.  And then even when you finally get the keys to a rental car, you have to be driven off-site for miles before you can actually pick up the rental car!  I would add 3 hours to your landing time as the departure time from the airport area, and calculate the rest of your day from there.  In other words, if you land at 2 p.m., you could be having dinner in Denver around 5 p.m., and shouldn’t expect to see your ski lodging till it’s dark.

This is in stark contrast to some other major airports we’ve traveled through.  Salt Lake City and Reno (Lake Tahoe resorts) were both excellent and efficient.  You get off the plane, follow the signs to your luggage, which arrives shortly, then just walk across the street for your rental car, which is also parked there!  It’s possible to pull out of there less than an hour after landing.  Glacier Park Airport (Whitefish Mountain Resort – formerly Big Mountain), Redmond and Portland (Mt. Bachelor), Spokane (Schweitzer) and Vail (Snowmass/Buttermilk) were also smooth, efficient airports, and I had no complaints.

Our last family trip was to the Aspen ski area, because I had heard raves about Snowmass.  There are really three airport choices to get to Aspen:  Denver, which I rejected immediately due to past experiences; Aspen, which would have been the logical choice; and the Eagle-Vail airport, which is what I chose.   While the Aspen airport is obviously in Aspen and would’ve been the logical choice, it is often plagued with weather problems, and enough people have had their flights cancelled that I also rejected that choice and we flew into Eagle-Vail.  Aspen was also the most expensive of the three options.  I was happy with Eagle-Vail and would certainly fly there again as opposed to Denver any day.

This highlights another point–that major airports will tend to have the least expensive flights and more airlines to choose from, while the more convenient, smaller airports will cost you more, sometimes much more!

Drive time from the airport should also be considered.  If I land at 2 p.m. at Eagle-Vail, I could easily be in Aspen before nightfall.  If I land at Denver at 2 p.m., I may still be in the Denver area at 5 p.m., and then have a 4 hour drive ahead of me.   If I choose to spend the night in Denver to break up the day, have I saved any money when I now have to pay for another hotel room, and have to delay my arrival at the ski resort by another day?  Something to consider.

Ski Resort Variety

Some people are bored with just one ski resort and like the variety of being able to choose a different ski resort each day of their vacation.  There are several different ski areas in the West where this can be done.  There are even more smaller resorts in these areas, but here are the major ones:

Salt Lake City, Utah (10):  Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Park City, the Canyons, Deer Valley, Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, Sundance.

Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada (8):  Heavenly, Kirkwood, Mt. Rose, Squaw Valley, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, Northstar, Sugar Bowl.

Aspen, Colorado (4):  Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk

Summit County, Colorado (4):  Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain

Colorado:  Vail and Beaver Creek

California:   June Mountain and Mammoth Mountain

Montana:  Big Sky and Moonlight Basin

Wyoming:  Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee

Ski Lodging

Ski-in, ski-out lodging can be a wonderful convenience, but for someone like me with high altitude sickness, I acclimate a lot better if I sleep at a lower elevation.  In fact, climb high, sleep low is a rule that mountain climbers follow.   A good rule of thumb is to sleep below 8000 feet, or even better, below 6500 feet.  If you look at the ski resorts by elevation table, the lodging at many Colorado resorts is above 8000 feet.  But sometimes there are nearby cities at lower elevations that can serve your lodging needs.   I have always skied much worse at Colorado resorts than anywhere else, and didn’t realize the reason was the high altitude.  Your muscles need ample oxygen to work properly when skiing, and on my last and only run down from the top of Snowmass, I remember crashing for absolutely no reason.  Just lost control and ended up sitting and panting in the snow.  I’d been down steeper runs in the past, and know how to ski now, so it made no sense at the time.  But now that I know about the high altitude connection, it all makes sense.

Some hotels serve a free breakfast every morning, others don’t.  This can be a real convenience and time-saver for everyone, and that is always one of the criteria I look for in my lodging.  Do check into what breakfast really includes.  The worst ones are just “continental,” meaning a few pastries/bagels and coffee and juice.  The best hotel breakfast we’ve ever had was at the Crystal Inn Hotel in Midvalley-Murray, Utah.  Wow, fresh scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, fruit, and even a dessert like cinnamon coffee cake every morning!

Ambience of the Ski Area—Big City vs. Small Town

Each mountain ski resort has it’s own special “feel,” much like different college campuses.  You can get an education at any college, but there is a definite “feel” to each one that makes it unique.  It’s the same with ski resort towns.  I would say that Aspen is the ritziest place I’ve ever been to.  The parking meters in town have credit card slots!  While having lunch in town one day, we saw a kid, around age 10, being helped out of a limo by his driver.  I didn’t see any parents.  And at Snowmass, an attendant helps you out of the heated gondola, much like at Disney World!  Contrast this to Powder Mountain and Alta, which have old-fashioned metal chairlifts (which we love!).

Winter Park, Colorado was a very small town when we visited over a decade ago.  Just a few restaurants and shops on two sides down one main street.  That’s all we saw.  Contrast this to a big city like Salt Lake, which has everything from full-size entertainment venues to several malls, and Olympic-size skating rinks.  If you like the big city life, then you might be happier picking ski resorts close to big cities.  On the other hand, if you prefer quiet and isolation for your vacation, do choose the smaller town ski resorts.

Dining in Ski Areas

On mountain food can range from gourmet (Sunday brunch at Snowbasin) to downright awful (Powder Mountain), and everything in-between.  Reviews on food at the ski resorts aren’t that plentiful, but you could always search yelp.com, tripadvisor.com, urbanspoon.com, and chowhound.com for reviews of general dining in the area.  Our best meal ever at a ski resort was Snowbasin’s Sunday brunch.  Our meals at Buttermilk and Snowmass were excellent, and we also enjoyed lunch at Schweitzer and Mt. Bachelor.  I did not care for the food at Big Mountain (now Whitefish Mountain Resort).

Dinner while vacationing at these ski resorts is another matter.  It is very difficult to find a reasonably priced meal in Aspen, but that’s almost to be expected.  We read one menu posted outside the restaurant that offered Kobe steaks for over $100, so we ended up at the supermarket deli for dinner!  We have had delicious meals in Whitefish, Montana (Whitefish Mountain Resort), Bend, Oregon (Mt. Bachelor), and Sandpoint, Idaho (Schweitzer).  Sandpoint was especially impressive, because it’s really a small town, and yet we had the best pizza ever, and gourmet sit-down meals to inexpensive, unique, take-out sandwiches with homemade pie.   It’s a great place to visit just to eat!

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, I’ve given the vacation planner in the family a lot to think about and discuss with the rest of the family.  Now that we’re older and our son is in college, we still want to travel to ski resorts, not so much for daily skiing anymore, but for the fun of being in snow, to dine in some new restaurants, and to see new sights.  We no longer ski every year, but I do have fond memories of the years that we did an annual spring break ski trip.  If we do ski again, our destinations will most definitely be low elevation mountains, with gentle greens and blues, with activities in the area other than skiing.

iherb