Destination Ski Resorts In The West

People e-mail me asking where they should book their ski vacation. So I’m putting down my thoughts. If you are not a skier, you can just ignore this. Then again, I advise all to ski (or snowboard), because of the inherent freedom involved. You’re out in the mountains sliding at the limit of your ability and you’ll get a zing and only that zing, because if you think about anything else, you fall. Skiing was hip in the sixties and seventies, now it’s a mature sport. However, if you haven’t skied this century, come back. The equipment is much easier to use.

Also, if you are considering going on a vacation ski trip, it’s best to buy a pass. Usually break even is only five days. Find out if your desired resort is on either the Epic or Ikon passes and purchase accordingly. But do it SOON, because the deadlines are almost here. Trust me, you’ll save A LOT of money. Also, you’ll never have to debate whether to go out on an iffy day. Since you have the pass, you can make just a few runs, hang out in the lodge and not be worried about getting your money’s worth.


I put Utah first because it’s got the most guaranteed snow.

In Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, and that caveat is very important.


It’s old school. A handful of lodges and no nightlife. Alta is for skiers, and only skiers, no snowboarders allowed. Alta has the best powder snow IN THE WORLD!

You see Alta is located at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon. So, storms come across the Great Salt Lake, the moisture is removed and then the clouds get caught in the canyon and it dumps and dumps and dumps. Sometimes four or five inches an hour. If powder is your thing, Alta is the place to go, unless you go to…


Now there’s a joint pass, so you can ski both, but really the resorts have different vibes. If you’re old school, go to Alta, if you’re new school, go to Snowbird.

Snowbird, with its brutalist architecture, is much newer than Alta. There’s a bit more nightlife, but not much. But at Snowbird, which is just down the canyon from Alta, there is no hiking involved. That’s the dirty little secret of Alta, to get to the best stuff you have to traverse and oftentimes hike. Snowbird is easier that way. However, there’s almost no easy skiing at Snowbird, so unless you’re at least a high intermediate, really an expert, you belong at Alta.


Solitude and Brighton are in Big Cottonwood Canyon, over the ridge, just north of Little Cottonwood Canyon. At this point most people would say Big Cottonwood gets the same snow as Little Cottonwood, but it used to be debated heavily.

Brighton is really a day resort, with few steeps. Solitude has more steeps, and there is some overnight lodging, but really, locals like Brighton and if you’re going to go to Solitude you probably don’t even need to read this, it’s your desired place.


Park City is the largest ski resort in the U.S., but to access all that terrain you’ve got to do a hell of a lot of traversing. The snow at Park City is plentiful and good, but both Park City and Deer Valley get hundreds of inches less than the resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. First and foremost, their altitude is lower. Also, there is no canyon, the clouds don’t get trapped.

There are no snowboarders at Deer Valley, but there is first class infrastructure and the best food of any ski resort in the States, really. And I’ll never forget the buffet lunch at the Stein Eriksen Lodge. The ski area is kind of weird, in that you go up and go down and most runs are not that long and there is no difficult skiing involved, but it is a fun place.

But both Park City and Deer Valley are adjacent to the town of Park City, which existed before the ski resorts, which has many restaurants and shops and nightlife and… If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe Park City/Deer Valley is your place. After all, the lure of Park City and Deer Valley is that they’re so close to the Salt Lake City airport, and the road essentially never closes. Yes, you can go to Alta or Snowbird and the road can close for four days because of avalanche danger. Which is why you want to stay up in the canyon, sometimes the road is closed and there is skiing available. But if you want to stay in Salt Lake and sample, there are days you might not be able to make it to Alta and Snowbird. The canyon doesn’t close every day, but it happens a number of times during the winter.


An amazing ski area owned by Sun Valley. An incredible amount of fun, but NO LODGING! And it’s a bit north. Don’t put it first on your list, but it’s worth a trip after you’ve been to Utah a few times. There is marble in the bathrooms, the food is excellent, and so is the lift system. However, the altitude is lower than the aforementioned canyons and there’s not a lot of seriously difficult skiing unless you hike, and even if you do, it’s not long.



Sun Valley was the first western destination ski resort, but unless you go there, you don’t really understand it.

First and foremost, Sun Valley doesn’t get much snow. Which is why you want to go there late in the season, February or March. However, because of this Sun Valley has an incredible snowmaking system. So there is always skiing.

There is the town of Ketchum, but in reality Sun Valley is a haven of wealthy home owners. There used to be business districts in Elkhorn and Warm Springs, but those evaporated.

Now if it sounds like I’m trashing Sun Valley, I’m not. Because in truth, Sun Valley is the best ski mountain in America…BECAUSE THERE ARE NO FLAT SPOTS! Yes, 3000′ of vertical, no place to rest unless you stop. And Sun Valley is not ultra-steep, but it’s steeper than most ski areas. Dollar Mountain across the way is good for beginners and park rats, but if you’re not that good a skier, maybe you should wait to go to Sun Valley. There’s nothing like Sun Valley, but don’t make it your first trip, and beware of the amount of snow.


It’s cold and oftentimes the altitude is not that high.


Being modernized, but still not in the league of most other resorts.

Big Sky is widespread, and some of the altitude is too low, however, Big Sky has an amazing amount of truly serious skiing. Stuff that might scare you, that is truly experts only. Having said that, Big Sky is the rockiest ski resort I’ve ever been too. You’ll trash your skis. Then again, the new Montana tuning machines can work wonders. Go to Big Sky after you’ve been most every other place.


Used to be called “Big Mountain,” now is being modernized. Altitude is not high, but being this far north snow is good. They’re making a bid for the big leagues, but put Whitefish down the list unless you’ve been to a bunch of other places. There is a town, but it’s not adjacent to the ski area, you need a car.



Big mountain skiing. The only ski area in the States that resembles skiing in Europe. However, beware, the base altitude is 6,000′, which is two thousand, sometimes even three thousand, less than in Colorado. Meaning when it starts to get warm, it can be slushy. However, the vertical drop is insane. It’s 4,139 feet, I’ve never forgotten it. There are steeps galore. In truth Big Sky has stuff that rivals Jackson, but there are fewer cliffs. Everybody has got to go to Jackson once. They’ve been on a consistent run of good snow years, but historically it can be thin in the early season. As for nightlife, there is some in Teton Village, and Jackson is a short drive away… But make no mistake, this is not Aspen or Vail, people who go to Jackson Hole are skiers.



Super steep, super high and oftentimes the snow is thin. This is an expert’s paradise. Once again, don’t put it at the top of your list, but if it’s later in the season and there’s snow, you might want to go. And don’t confuse the Ski Valley with the town. There is an access road between the two, you can drive down for the night, but you won’t want to.


All the hype is about Tahoe, but the cognoscenti know it’s really about Mammoth. BECAUSE OF THE ALTITUDE!


Mammoth is at 8,000′, like the Colorado ski areas. Therefore it essentially never rains. Mammoth is a mediocre destination resort, there is a town, but it’s not homey and it’s not lift-adjacent, but…THE SKIING IS WORLD CLASS! There are steeps at Mammoth that will pucker your…

California snow is different from that at the rest of the resorts listed. Not only is it heavy and wet, it’s very intermittent. It’ll snow 60″, and then not snow for weeks. But it snows so much at Mammoth that you can always ski to Memorial Day, oftentimes July 4th, and I’ve done it. May is my favorite time of year at Mammoth.


It’s almost two thousand feet lower in altitude than Mammoth. Therefore, you can get rain. However, you can sometimes get a bit more snow than Mammoth.


Yes, there is incredibly challenging terrain at what used to be called Squaw Valley. But there is also the San Francisco weekend crowd.

You know if you need to go to Squaw. It’s about big mountain skiers. They’re either here or at Jackson Hole.

And now there’s a gondola over the ridge to Alpine Meadows…

Alpine Meadows is mellower, more family oriented.


For families. Unlike Palisades Tahoe, it’s below treeline. If you have young kids, it’s a good place.


It’s not Squaw/Alpine/Palisades Tahoe, but it is big and there is plenty of skiing, but plenty of traversing too. However, Heavenly is right by the city, there’s even a gondola from downtown. So if you like to gamble…


Not right on the lake, and also as high as Mammoth, but there is no infrastructure, you drive there every day. But there are serious steeps and…

Really, Tahoe can be iffy, especially these past few years, when snow has been light. Don’t put Tahoe first. And don’t put Mammoth first either. However, you know if you have to go to either, you don’t need me to advise you.


This is the big kahuna, Colorado gets the most press. Does it deserve it?

Well, the snow is not quite as good as it is in Little Cottonwood Canyon. You’re likely to have lighter powder in Sun Valley than in Colorado. However, there’s tons of infrastructure and LONG RUNS, longer than any other state on this list. And they can be fun. And all the altitudes are high and…


Originally built by Ralston Purina, it’s now part of Vail.

Keystone is close to Denver, so it gets more crowded than what is west.

The layout is weird. There’s a front face, and then two peaks behind it.

But the dirty little secret is, like Sun Valley, Keystone just doesn’t get that much snow. One-third less than its compatriots in Colorado. Family-oriented. I would not put at the top of your list.


Vies with Vail for the most visitations a year.

Now there is a town of Breckenridge. That existed before the ski area. There is one street with more than Park City, and unlike the main street in Park City, it’s not on a hill, it’s flat.

The skiing…

Well, you can take a gondola up from the town…

Here’s the story with Breckenridge. It’s known for being windy, and it’s also cold and it’s more wide than tall, but…

Each peak has a different character, there’s a ton of interesting skiing. And now there is the Imperial Express, the U.S.’s highest lift, peaking at just under 13,000′. Yes, the views are incredible, but so is the skiing. The top of Breck, except right under the Imperial Express, is serious. There’s great stuff sans hiking, and even better stuff if you do hike, not that you have to hike that far.

People love Breck because it’s relatively close to Denver, you only have to go over one pass. And there’s the town… You really can’t go wrong with Breck.


Gets little mention and little respect, but Copper is AMAZING! The runs are long, there’s tons of terrain for every ability, and the bowls in the back rival the top of Mammoth, and then there’s Three Bears…

The only problem with Copper is that there’s not much infrastructure at the base. Oh, there are hotels, but it’s not like Breck. Although if you have a car, it’s just a hop to Frisco. But you probably don’t want to have a car.

I can wax rhapsodic about Copper. Ski there once and you will too!


#1. But also the ski area with the most blowback. Stay away, that’s fine with me.

What you have to know about Vail is it’s got the best infrastructure of any ski area in the U.S. All the lifts are high speed, ALL OF THEM! (Well, except for a couple of short beginner chairs.) Getting around Vail is incredibly easy, and far from complicated.

Also, Vail is all connected, you can go from one end to another without taking off your skis.

And then there are the bowls. Yes, cut your tea cup in half and stick it in the mountain. Actually, there is a Tea Cup Bowl!

There are seven bowls and they span a five mile ridge.

And behind them, there is Blue Sky Basin. Which is an area with more trees, a more natural feel.

What is the downside of Vail? It’s not steep, there is truly no expert terrain. Oh, there are a couple of short cliffs, but the difficulty of Vail is not in the league of Snowbird, not even Sun Valley. So if you’re an intermediate, Vail is paradise. Also, since Vail is so vast, powder lasts longer than it does in Little Cottonwood Canyon. You can get powder all day, but ultimately you’ll be in the trees. And you’re lucky if you get two completely untracked runs. But true skiers know the best powder days are storm days.

And there is a village right adjacent to the ski lifts. It’s purpose built, it’s ersatz, but there are a ton of restaurants and shops and some nightlife, but not in the league of Aspen.

Once again, forget the pictures, if you know Vail you essentially never have to stand in line. And the pics you see are of powder days. Yes, on a powder day people line up at the gondola hours in advance of opening, but there is another gondola in Lionshead and a chair on Golden Peak that also provide access. And if you ski down the original bowls, Sun Down and Sun Up, which you’ve also seen in the pics, they’ve put in a new high speed lift this season to alleviate the wait. But, if you’re there on a fresh powder day… I start with the frontside, because everybody goes to the back. And then I go to Tea Cup or China Bowl, and eventually Blue Sky Basin. Those who don’t know the map are those who stand in line. As for the line at Chair 4 when you get off Gondola One… Well, now the lift is a sixpack, and the line moves much faster, but the trick is to ski down to Chair 10, which never ever has a line, which will take you up to Northwoods and deposits you right at the bottom of 14, which will take you to the back.

Is Vail my favorite ski area? No. But it’s where we’re located, and it’s where I’ve skied most. And Vail comes with a ton of advantages, like all those high speed lifts and the Bowls and…there is truly only one Vail. (One more thing. Vail is closer to Denver than Aspen, assuming you’re driving. But the Vail airport in Eagle is a half hour away from the ski area. But Eagle is lower and closes a lot less for weather than the Aspen airport, which is right in town.)


Right next door to Vail. Beaver Creek is the anti-Vail. Even though Beaver Creek skier Peter Tempkins always talks about the snootiness of Vail, the truth is Beaver Creek is more upscale. That’s not just my opinion, you’ll see it in all the literature.

Beaver Creek has no bowls, but it has more serious skiing than Vail. The bump runs on Grouse Mountain are iconic. And they hold the World Cup on the Birds of Prey, which is only scary steep at the very top, the part known as “The Brink.”

There’s a ton of skiing at Beaver Creek. Some at a lower altitude, so there’s an issue of amount and slush, and the village is upscale and you can also stay in Bachelor Gulch, but there is no nightlife…

Beaver Creek is for families and locals. It’s not Vail, but it’s something.


The original. It used to be everybody’s first stop. And if it’s not your first, it should be your second.

First there’s the town, the best ski town in America. Having said that, it’s no longer the seventies. There are too many upscale shops and too many frou-frou bogus ultra-rich people, but if you want restaurants and nightlife, this is the place. But just like in Vail, MAKE RESERVATIONS

There are four ski areas in Aspen, let me delineate them for you.


This is what all the locals call the mountain that rises right out of town. People say it’s not that big, that unlike Sun Valley the runs don’t go straight downhill without flat spots, but one thing is for sure, the runs at Ajax have CHARACTER!

Sun Valley and Ajax are my two favorite mountains in America.

But there are caveats…

There is absolutely no easy skiing on Ajax, if you are a beginner, do not go there.

Some of the most difficult skiing is at the bottom, and a lot of snow is needed to cover the rocks and the steeps.

Ajax, now called Aspen Mountain by the Ski Company, does not have the steeps of Snowbird, Palisades Tahoe, Jackson Hole or Big Sky, but believe me, it’s plenty steep. An amazing ski area.


Ersatz Vail.

If you’re staying in Snowmass, you’re almost a half an hour away from the action. If you want to go to Aspen for the full experience, do not stay in Snowmass.

The ski area is vast, but most of the runs have no character.

I’m not complaining, I love the Alpine Springs area, but all the hype about Snowmass… I don’t get it. Skiing is skiing, but…

There used to be no steeps, now there’s Hanging Valley, but the runs are not long.

The Big Burn is overrated. It’s cool, but it’s pretty flat.

There’s a ton of skiing at Snowmass, it’s just if you want this skiing experience, go to Vail.


Ah, the old days. When it was independent and the only area in Aspen with a full-time pass. It was the locals’ heaven.

Aspen Highlands is a weird ski area. It’s built on a ridge, it’s very long, but very narrow.

And despite its reputation, there is tons of intermediate skiing, but even more difficult skiing, REALLY DIFFICULT SKIING, at Aspen Highlands.

Used to be the most difficult run was Moment of Truth, but then…

They opened up and built a lift over in what is now called Deep Temerity. Yes, it used to be considered too steep to ski.

And yes, you can hike up to the Bowl. But it’s not for punters, the altitude is extremely high and it’s not a walk in the park.


The teaching mountain, the beginner’s area, although you can say the same thing about Snowmass.

But Buttermilk is much less crowded.

The secret of Buttermilk is the Tiehack side, the “expert” side. It’s really intermediate, and in the old days the lift was interminable, but now with the high speed… Tiehack is a lot of fun.

So, if you go to Aspen, you want to ski Ajax, Snowmass and Highlands. They’re all on the same pass. Buttermilk/Tiehack is only for beginners or those who’ve been to the other mountains and want another experience.

The downside of Aspen is it is not convenient. Even if you’re in town, only a couple of hotels are so close that you want to walk to the lifts.

And there’s a great bus system, that will take you to the other resorts, but it is not Vail, which is light years more convenient. But, Aspen is real in a way that Vail is not.

And a car is convenient, but parking can be hell.


The most screwed-up lift system extant. You have to take multiple chairs to get where you want to go.

The front side is mega-steep, like Sun Valley, but at points even steeper. It’s amazing. As for all those extreme areas… You’ve got to hike to them, and you’re probably not gonna.

But Telluride has the town, which is like Aspen back in the seventies, it’s too far off the beaten path to be inundated with chain stores.

And, if you stay in Mountain Village over the ridge, where the easy skiing is located, there’s an all day, almost all night, gondola that will take you into town, it’s really convenient.

But having said all this… Like Keystone, Telluride does not get as much snow as the rest of the Colorado resorts. You don’t want to go there early in the season, steep runs need a lot of snow.

Telluride is not the first place you should ski in Colorado, but you should make a trip.


Also doesn’t get that much snow. More than Keystone, but in the 200 inch range, as opposed to Vail’s 350″.

Crested Butte’s rep has been built on its expert terrain, which is truly expert. It’s not just rawly steep, like Big Sky…there are trees and cliffs… You know if you have to go ski the North Face at Crested Butte, it’s a bucket list item for truly expert skiers.

And the village of Crested Butte that is adjacent to the ski area is not the town of Crested Butte, miles down the road, where the action is…

Crested Butte is not the first place you want to go.


It’s over a thousand feet lower than Vail, and two thousand less than the Summit County resorts of Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper, so sometimes in the spring you get rain at the bottom, but…

For some reason Steamboat usually gets more snow than all of the above ski areas. It’s a big mountain, and they’re improving the infrastructure, but don’t forget, the town is miles away.



Two incredible mountains with extremely low altitudes and variable weather. 

Whistler is almost 6,000′ lower than Vail!

Which means… It can rain at the bottom, and there are issues of snow at the bottom…

If you hit Whistler/Blackcomb when it’s right, it’ll blow your mind. But I’ve been there four times, and it was only right once. Two times it rained. One time the entire four days I was there except for a few hours one night.

Don’t get drawn into the Whistler/Blackcomb hype. Best to go in January or February when the temperatures are low and there’s more snow. Or, like Mammoth, very late in the season.

The hype is about glacier at the top of Blackcomb, which is very cool, however it’s the bowls at the top of Whistler that’ll blow your mind. I thought Harmony Bowl was a breakthrough, but then they added Symphony. The maps don’t do these bowls justice, they’re gigantic.

There’s tons of skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb, but there can be rain and fog too.

Yes, you don’t have to acclimatize to the altitude, but do you want to take the weather risk?


Unless you’re Canadian, hit the U.S. resorts first.


Assuming there is snow everywhere, which is not always the case, but this year has started out strong, if you’re looking for it all, skiing, restaurants, night life…

1. Go to Park City/Deer Valley or Colorado. The plus of Park City/Deer Valley is accessibility, the closeness to the Salt Lake airport. And if you go, do not stay at the Canyons end of the Park City ski area, you want to be in town. And if you want to go luxe, and you’re not a snowboarder, Deer Valley is great, but you’ve got to get a ride into town. Park City and Deer Valley are right next to each other, but they are not connected.

2. Colorado…

Really, start with Aspen or Vail. If you’re young and hip, want to challenge yourself with terrain, and are not bothered by some inconveniences, go to Aspen. It’s four and a half hours from Denver, there are no day skiers…it’s the experience you’ve read about and want.

But if you’re more into convenience, if you want to be on the same mountain as the rest of your family and friends so you can meet up for lunch or a few runs, go to Vail. And, if you want bowls, Vail is the only place you can get them.

3. Colorado-2

Steamboat or Breckenridge. But Steamboat is harder to get to if you drive, you’ve got to go over Rabbit Ears Pass.

4. Colorado-3

If you want luxe, if you want to be pampered, if you don’t want to be overrun by the hoi polloi, then go to Beaver Creek.

5. Colorado -4

If you’re a skier first and foremost, and don’t really care about the apres-ski world… You’ll be happy at Copper, believe me.

6. Colorado-5

Go to Telluride before Crested Butte, but don’t make either of them your first trip.

7. Colorado-6

Keystone… If you favor convenience, if you’ve got a family…


Jackson Hole is a bucket list item. There’s much more easy skiing than there used to be, but really, to get the most out of Jackson, you want to be an expert. You won’t be disappointed.

But if you’re that hard core of a skier, go to Alta and Snowbird before Jackson Hole. The snow is better, if for no other reason than the altitude… It’s a different experience, but really, go to Alta and Snowbird first.

And if your goal is to challenge yourself and you’ve hit the above areas, then go to Big Sky. Actually, Big Sky’s population draws from the midwest first and foremost, Minnesotans drive there.

Sun Valley… Never make it your first choice. When you’re ready for something different, if you love groomers… At some point, everybody has to go to Sun Valley, it’s just a matter of when.

I’d go to Whistler/Blackcomb before Mammoth, but I wouldn’t make either my first trip. Honestly, Mammoth is a suburb of L.A., and you’ll feel it, so unless you’re going for the skiing…

Tahoe… When there is snow you can put it close to the top of the list, but the issue is snow. Most trips are booked long in advance, but if you can wait until the last minute…

Of course there are many more specifics. Like Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole, you can’t truly call yourself an expert until you’ve dropped in successfully.

And Mary Jane at Winter Park has legendary bumps, but really it’s Denver’s local area, kind of like Mammoth, but a lot closer to the city.

And everybody wants to say they’ve skied Vail’s bowls and Blue Sky Basin, and you’ll want to say this too. Aspen is cooler, but the only truly legendary runs are the Bowl, which you have to hike to, and the Burn, which is good, but not as great as they say it is.

Snow is everything. Without it you’ve got no ski vacation.

If you’re taking non-skiers along, you must be somewhere where there is a town, like Aspen, Vail and possibly Telluride, maybe Park City.

Don’t be esoteric, don’t try to game the system, start with Aspen or Vail, unless you’re a truly expert skier, then you can start with Alta/Snowbird.

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