Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Small Ski Areas; Great Ski Areas – Western North America

There was snow on the high peaks the last couple of weeks, and our minds are already ready for skiing.

We’ve skied many places around Western North America (unfortunately, we haven’t yet skied the East), and have some definite opinions about the ski experience. Before getting into our specific comments, we should tell you our criteria: we prefer great snow, highly varied terrain, and few crowds. Although, sometimes, we do enjoy the mega resorts. So, a few of our choices.

Moonlight Basin, Montana
An incredible area, right next to Big Sky, but with better (though lesser in extent) terrain, better snow, better grooming, and far fewer skiers. It’s still in its “formative” growth stages (a good thing) – where else have you ever seen a parking lot attendant carry a guest’s skis to the base area? Big Sky touts the “best groomed blue run in North America,” but Moonlight’s Meriwether run tops Big Sky’s Elk Park Ridge by far.

Moonlight Basin -- The easy way down is to the left.

Wolf Creek, Colorado
No grooming to speak of, relatively small vertical, but great snow. We’ve honestly found fresh powder tracks five days after a storm. And actually “home-cooked” food (not factory cardboard) in the restaurant. Bring those all-mountain/powder boards, and cash (the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards).

Solitude & Brighton, Utah
These two resorts are one canyon (Big Cottonwood) over from famous Alta and Snowbird (in Little Cottonwood Canyon). The crowds are dramatically less, the snow just as good (or better, since it doesn’t get tracked out by 10 a.m.), and the terrain variety is great. No “town,” little resort lodging or nightlife, but simply great skiing.

Snowmass & Breckenridge, Colorado
Yea, these two are biggies, but still enjoyable. Breck’s terrain is underrated (much like Steamboat’s is overrated), and Snowmass has the best long runs we’ve ever encountered in the U.S. We do love skiing Ajax and Highlands, but feel that Snowmass is the best of the Aspen resorts. The town of Breckenridge has also done a decent job of managing the inevitable Colorado mountain town growth (of which Durango, for instance, is the opposite example).

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
Another big resort, but it doesn’t ski all that crowded. The parking lot may look and feel full, but the mountain spreads the ski traffic out pretty well. Plenty of varied terrain, although snow quality can be iffy and it can get COLD. Banff is the closest cool town, but it’s a 45-minute drive to Louise.

Miscellaneous Notes & Opinions:
We really love the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California – in our opinion the most spectacular mountain range on earth – but we’ve never found great snow, or uncrowded days, at any area in the state.
The “trendy” new ski area of Silverton Mountain in southwest Colorado is overpriced and overrated. You ski there to say you’ve skied there.
The biggest and the baddest (from a marketing standpoint, not with ski terrain) of Colorado – Vail – is a vast mountain. But it’s so overrun that even on a weekday powder morning you’ll be hard-pressed to find good snow after 11 a.m. And Breck grooms better.
We’re planning to explore the Pacific Northwest ski areas of Washington and British Columbia, Canada, this winter. We’ll also be returning to Utah this season to ski the Park City area – Park City, Deer Valley, and the Canyons. We’ll post reports later.

Team Atomic and one badass interloper.