Best Ski Resorts in USA
Ten of the Best Ski Resorts in USA
Excellent skiing (on and off-piste), big mountains, epic descents, great scenery, excellent snowfall and great powder are just some of the reasons to celebrate winter with a ski vacation in America. But with 600 or more ski areas in U.S. including many world class resorts, which is best for you? Here’s Arnie Wilson’s pick of 10 of the best ski resorts in the USA.
There are many reasons why Jackson Hole, Wyoming is often claimed to be the best ski area in the USA. It’s wild, remote and hugely scenic. The jewels in Jackson’s crown are the magical Tetons which rise from the valley like giant sharks’ teeth. Even without its excellent skiing (on and off-piste) the scenery is exceptional and the opportunities to encounter wildlife are unusually good – from moose and elk to coyotes, Bighorn sheep and bald eagles. You can even take a day off from the slopes to enjoy a wildlife safari. The view down to the immense valley from both Jackson’s mountains – Rendezvous (with the tougher skiing) and Après Vous (a good mix of advanced and more modest terrain) is outstanding. Rendezvous is home to Jackson’s celebrated Corbet’s Couloir. Have a look over the edge. You might be tempted to jump in one day! And I mean jump!
The spectacular San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado are arguably the state’s definitive mountains. The old mining town of Telluride, like Jackson Hole, is remote – one of its great attractions. The former mountain manager Johnnie Stevens once joked that the natives weren’t really friendly – “just lonely”! The nearest traffic lights are 45 miles away, the speed limit in town is 15 mph and if you even look as though you might want to cross the road, cars will stop for you. Things are a bit buzzier on the slopes, with some superb skiing on and off piste, including the great Austrian champion Franz Klammer’s favourite run, Kant-Mak-M, named after the initials of the couple who developed the ski area, Ron and Joyce Allred and their family. The resort is split between two towns – the historic original cowboy-town of Telluride and the Mountain Village, connected by a free pedestrian gondola.
Four separate resorts in one, (all linked by ski bus) America’s most celebrated ski resort scarcely needs an introduction. The most famous of its quartet of ski mountains is Ajax, immediately above the main town. Beginners are discouraged here – not because all the slopes are challenging, but because the main trail back down the mountain (Spar Gulch) at the end of the day can be something of a racetrack and could easily unsettle beginners. The next resort, three miles along the Roaring Fork Valley is Aspen Highlands, with its notoriously steep and deep slopes off the long ridge-line between the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys. Highlands is generally agreed to be the most challenging of the four – followed by the least challenging, Buttermilk, which is why it claims to be one of the best beginner mountains in the Rockies. Last but definitely not least is Snowmass, which is treated much more as a separate resort. Snowmass is bigger than the other three put together and prides itself on its extensive intermediate terrain.
Vail claims to be America’s largest single ski mountain. As well as wonderful cruising, on runs like Lodgepole, Ledges and Born Free, and serious bumps on Blue Ox or Roger’s Run, the resort has a unique selling point: its legendary ‘back bowls’ – huge bowl-shaped areas where the snow is left to nature’s whim. This 2,700 acre system incorporates Game Creek, Sun Up, Sun Down, Tea Cup, China, Siberia and Mongolia Bowls. “The 10th”, Vail’s premier on-mountain fine-dining restaurant at Mid Vail, is named after the wartime 10th Mountain Division. During the mid-1970s, Vail became known as the Western White House. President Gerald Ford, who had a home in nearby Beaver Creek, conducted much of the nation’s business from The Lodge at Vail.
Mark Twain once said: “To obtain the air the angels breathe, you must go to Tahoe.” Heavenly straddles California and Nevada – a location which has produced a bizarre mix of casinos, alpine peaks, a magnificent high-altitude lake and 24-hour nightlife. There are breathtaking views across Lake Tahoe, with its 72-mile shoreline. There’s plenty of easy skiing, but Heavenly also has some of the best tree-skiing in the USA in locations like North Bowl Woods, Powderbowl Woods, Skiways Glades, Scorpion Woods and Dipper Woods. There are plenty of challenges too in Mott and Killebrew canyons – steep “gated” areas with a series of double-black diamond chutes. Gunbarrel, billed as “North America’s toughest black-diamond bump run” drops steeply 2,000 vertical feet all the way from the top of the Gunbarrel Express. To cross into Nevada, the best way is from the top of Monument Peak (10,067 ft). Pause here for an even more extraordinary scene: Lake Tahoe on one side, and the desert scrub of the Carson Valley on the other. After hours, if you cross the Stateline area in South Lake Tahoe, you’ll find Las Vegas-style gambling hotels, with glitzy shows at places like Harrah’s, Harvey’s and Caesar’s.
These linked resorts provide some of finest skiing in Utah but if you’re a snowboarder you’ll be frustrated: Alta remains one of only three American resorts where snowboarding is banned. Snowbird’s modern, purpose-built Alpine-style ski area is a somewhat strange bedfellow for Alta, an old silver-mining community which opened for skiing before the war. What unites them, via Mineral Basin, is their superb powder skiing – in Baldy Chutes, for example. The dryness and quantity of Utah’s snow is so celebrated that the state proclaims it ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’ on car licence plates, and it’s claimed that 500 inches falls most winters. Snowbird has an excellent mix of slopes, while Alta appeals more to back-country skiers, with its celebrated Catherine’s area, Greeley Chutes and Rustler area, Devil’s Castle and Wildcat steeps. Snowbird’s ‘tram’ (cable car) takes 125 skiers and boarders to Hidden Peak (11,000ft). One fairly easy way down is Chip’s run. Mark Malu Fork, a steep cruiser continues down Bassackwards onto Big Emma – one of the widest – upper beginner/intermediate trails in the Rockies.
Mammoth Mountain, not far from Yosemite National Park, is a huge dormant volcano with the highest skiable terrain in California. The area around the nearby town of Mammoth Lakes, where visitors arrive by air, is still geologically active, complete with hot springs. The ski area has more than 150 trails spread across four different areas. Dave’s Run is named after the resort’s founder, Dave McCoy who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2015. With its dramatic backdrop of the jagged Minarets, Mammoth, with slopes as high as 11,000 feet was, some said, too high, too remote and too stormy to succeed. McCoy proved them wrong. Most years Mammoth stays open until well into May. But trans-Atlantic visitors might want to stick to skiing on weekdays – the resort lures thousands of weekend skiers from Los Angeles who drive through the beautiful Mojave Desert. Although there are numerous testing chutes and steeps, Mammoth has extensive terrain for every grade of skier and boarder, with plenty of good cruising runs like St Anton, Broadway and Forest Trail.
Squaw Valley USA, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, has skiing on six peaks (not counting neighbouring Alpine Meadows) with 4,000 acres of virtually “ski where you like” terrain. Rather like some European resorts, it’s doesn’t go in for named runs as such – just an almost endless array of big, wide open bowls, bump runs and gullies. There’s certainly some challenging terrain: the daunting Palisades Chutes for example. But the rest of Squaw Peak (8,900 ft), like Emigrant Peak (8,700ft) is, by and large, quite benign. Broken Arrow (8,020 ft) has something for everyone, while Snow King (7550 ft) and Granite Chief (9,050ft) are more challenging. So is KT-22 (8,200 ft) – so-called because when the original founder’s wife hiked up in the 1940s, she only managed to get down again with the help of 22 kick turns. Emigrant Peak provides a run of well over three miles all the way down to the base area. High Camp, the centre of the resort’s upper mountain activity, has an Olympic Ice Pavilion, a pool and hot tub, and an Olympic Museum which features historic memorabilia.
When it comes to great skiing traditions, old fashioned glamour and history, Sun Valley has no real equal. Even before Aspen was even really thought of as a ski area, Sun Valley was busy importing Hollywood celebrities by the trainload. Gary Cooper was a regular. Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland were just three of many other famous visitors. For a while it was easily the most famous ski resort in America, epitomised by Baldy Mountain, with its long, glorious runs and wonderful bowl-skiing. Beginners even have their own novice hill at Dollar Mountain. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his novels while staying at the Sun Valley lodge and was buried in nearby Ketchum. But in spite of its glamorous history, the resort has moved with the times: Sun Valley Heli Ski pioneered American helicopter skiing in 1966. Its extensive territory in Sawtooth National Forest provides access to terrain for all abilities.
It’s an unlikely location for good skiing – until you remember that New Mexico is home to the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains – and is the state immediately below Colorado. The juxtaposition of desert, dotted with juniper and prickly scrub grasses, and snow-covered peaks is bizarre but exhilarating. Taos Ski Valley, a 19-mile drive from the town of Taos through the Carson National Forest, has easy slopes like Honeysuckle, Bambi, Bonanza and White Feather, and plenty for intermediates, like Porcupine and Powderhorn – but its chief attraction is its “steep-and-deep” skiing. The most intriguing of these is Stauffenberg – named for Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, a “dashing, highly decorated young count” famous for attempting to kill Adolf Hitler in an unsuccessful bomb plot for which he was executed. To the man who founded Taos, Ernie Blake, Stauffenberg was a hero. Two more pitches near Stauffenberg’s run were named after other German officers who had opposed Hitler: Oster, for Brigadier General Hans Oster, who was also executed, and Fabian, for Fabian von Schlabrendorff, who acted as “go-between” among some of the plotters.
Author: Arnie Wilson
First person to ski 365 consecutive days (FT Round The World Ski Expedition, 1994).
Areas skied: 734 – including all 38 USA skiing states and 40 heliski operations in 14 countries