10 Upscale Ski Resorts -- and Where to Go Instead
Big-name ski areas like Whistler and Vail are fantastic, storied places with a multitude of snow-covered runs -- but they also are fantastic places to drain your wallet. Skiing doesn't have to be so expensive. By exploring other resorts as little as five miles away, you can save money and still have a memorable ski trip.
Said to have some of the toughest terrain east of the Rockies, Killington Resort in Rutland, Vermont, is the East Coast's largest ski area. It has 155 trails and 22 lifts -- the high-speed Skye Peak Express gets skiers and riders to the top of the mountain in about five minutes. Nicknamed the "Beast of the East," Killington is home to New England's largest vertical drop: 3,050 feet. But all this comes with a price tag: A one-day pass for a Saturday in January starts at $75 online. Child care costs $116 for a full day, and ski camp for kids is about $170 for an all-day package with rentals.
If you're looking for less traffic, a family-friendly atmosphere, and a smaller price tag, Pico Mountain is just five miles from Killington (there's daily shuttle service between the two). An adult lift ticket costs $50 online, a $25 savings over the larger resort. The pace maybe slower, but that doesn't mean the level of skiing is less challenging. The mountain has 57 trails -- the steepest is Giant Killer, a double black diamond -- and a vertical drop of almost 2,000 feet. In the Bonanza Learning area, first-timers can enjoy their own chairlift and towline. For the little ones (12 weeks to 12 years), full-day child care is $85.
Located in Northern Vermont, Stowe Mountain Resort is 44 miles east of Burlington. It's home to Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield, and boasts more than 300 inches of natural snowfall a year. It also has 116 trails, 12 lifts, and one inter-mountain gondola that connects Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak. The Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge is open daily and offers numerous services that promise to soothe ski-weary muscles and wind-chapped skin. So, what's the downside? The prices. An adult lift ticket is $92. Cubs child care, located at Spruce Peak and available for 3 months to 3 years, charges a daily rate of $165. The Ski Snowboard School, open to ages 3 to 14, costs $215.
Voted the East Coast's No. 1 kid-friendly resort by Ski magazine for the 2015 season, Smugglers' Notch is just 46 minutes northwest of Stowe but couldn't be more different. The resort is completely self-contained, surrounded by three interconnected mountains: Morse, Sterling, and Madonna. There are eight lifts and 78 trails, one of which is the Black Hole, the East Coast's only triple-black-diamond trail. The price: $72 for a one-day adult pass, and children under 5 ski free. If you're renting, equipment including a helmet is $50 for adults. Full-day child care for 6 weeks to 3 years is available for $85.
At Sunday River, 135 trails and 15 lifts crisscross the resort's eight interconnected mountain peaks (Locke Mountain, Spruce Peak, North Peak, Oz, Barker Mountain, Aurora Peak, Jordan Bowl, and White Cap). Skiers who buy a full- or multi-day ticket and find the conditions lacking on their first run can invoke Sunday River's "snow guarantee" and exchange it for another day. That reassurance might take some of the sting out of an adult lift ticket starting at $89, but of course there are many other expenses at New England's sixth-largest ski resort.
Opened in 1938, Shawnee Peak is Maine's oldest major ski resort. But don't let its age deter you -- this mountain is big and varied enough to keep everyone in your group happy. A quarter of the mountain's 44 trails are dedicated to beginners and another quarter to experts, and 19 trails are lit for night skiing. Speaking of night skiing, don't miss the Monday Madness deal: An adult lift ticket is only $13 after 3:30 p.m. (the holiday rate is $19). A regular adult lift ticket is $65, and children under 5 ski free with a paying adult (Magic Carpet only). On the resort's Best Deals page, there's a special for every day of the week, even weekends, when a family of four (one person must be a junior) can ski for just $204 -- a 15 percent savings.
The first trail for Sugarloaf was "cut" in 1950. Since then, it has grown into one of the East Coast's biggest, best -- and most expensive -- ski resorts, with 154 trails. Sugarloaf's longest run, Tote Road, is an impressive 3.5 miles. The resort has earned the (somewhat self-proclaimed) nickname "King of Spring" because of its extra-long ski season: Snow starts falling at the end of October and continues through May most seasons, averaging about 200 inches a year. This is probably why Sugarloaf guarantees the snow conditions: If you buy a regular-price, full-day lift ticket and find the snow conditions not up to par, guest services will "make it right" before 10 a.m. That makes it a little easier to part with $86 for the lift ticket -- but not much.
With about 18 ski resorts in the state of Maine, it's hard to pick just one or even two alternatives to Sugarloaf, especially when they all have great snow conditions and a range of terrain. Mount Abram in Greenwood, an hour and a half north of Portland, claims to be the place to go to learn to ski, specifically on the Westside mountain. Of the 51 trails, 10 are beginner. An adult lift ticket is just $35 and ski rentals (skis, poles, boots, and helmet) start at $40. Towering over the southwest corner of Moosehead Lake, Big Squaw Mountain has 29 runs, including four black-diamond and eight novice trails. Adult tickets are just $25, and kids under 7 ski free. Reasonably priced lessons are available for all skill levels; the Learn to Ski package includes equipment, lift ticket, and lesson for $48.
Not much in North America can compete with the charm and quality of Vail. There are 195 trails and 31 lifts, and the resort claims that its equipment grooms more acreage each night (more than 1,200 acres) than most resorts have in total. But what's the cost? A daily adult lift ticket is $142, and a one-day demo rental is about $65. Vail does offer an online rental discount of 20 percent, if you plan in advance. The town of Vail is chock-full of dining, shopping, spa, and bar options to tempt more money out of skiers' pockets.
To avoid the crush and cost of larger resorts such as Vail, locals head to Winter Park, an hour and a half northwest of Denver and an hour and 45 minutes west of Boulder. Opened in 1978, Winter Park is Colorado's longest continually operated ski resort and averages more than 320 inches of snow annually. The resort comprises seven territories -- Winter Park, Vasquez Ridge, Parsenn Bowl, Terrain Park, Mary Jane, Eagle Wind, and The Cirque -- and advance one-day adult passes start at $113 online. The Village doesn't lack for amenities, including ski-in/ski-out lodging, spas, tubing, dining, and shopping.
One of the most visited ski resorts in the western U.S., Breckenridge opened in December 1961. With average annual snowfall of more than 25 feet, there's ample opportunity to try out the mountain's 187 trails, which are serviced by 34 lifts, including an eight-passenger gondola. The gondola is free to ride if you just want to check out the mountain views or grab a bite to eat at Ski Hill Grill (soups, sandwiches, salads, and a taqueria station). But adult ticket prices start at $132 online. Equipment rental runs about $60 a day, including boots and a helmet, although there's a discount for reserving online.
Keystone's average annual snowfall is 235 inches, which keeps its 131 trails and 20 lifts very busy -- but not too busy. This is a great place to bring family and friends for a relaxing ski vacation. Keystone has a designated family ski trail, the Schoolyard, designed for kids, beginners, and the "young at heart." The resort offers a ton of free activities -- fireworks every Saturday night over Dercum Mountain, a giant snowball launch every Monday with targets and prizes, and tubing at the Nordic Center. Kids 12 and under ski and ride free if their families stay two nights. For adults, a one-day lift ticket is $94 and a demo rental is $54. Another bonus: Some multi-day tickets and season passes can be used at Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek Resort, Arapahoe Basin, and other resorts.
A merger with the Canyons made Park City the largest resort in the U.S., with 7,300 acres of skiable terrain. The new Quicksilver Gondola links the two mountains so that skiers of all levels can easily access more than 300 trails, seven terrain parks, and 14 bowls. The cost: An adult lift ticket is $101 online, while a half-day adult private lesson is $555 -- and no, that does not include a lift ticket or rentals. Demo rentals reserved online are $52. There are nine hotels, more than two dozen restaurants, and a spa, but after spending so much on the slopes, who has money left for après ski pampering?
About 35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and the airport, Brighton Resort flies under the radar. But with average annual snowfall of 500 inches coating its 66 runs, this is one of the best resorts many skiers have never heard of. An adult lift ticket is just $75, and kids under 7 ski free with a paying adult. Most ski/board shops in the valley also sell discount vouchers, and cheaper half-day, night, and twilight ticket options are worth checking out. For anyone coming from downtown, specially equipped Utah Transit Authority ski buses travel to the mountain several times a day.
About 45 minutes south of Bozeman, Big Sky gets more than 400 inches of snow annually. The resort's 300 established trails are spread across more than 5,800 acres on four mountains, providing groups of varying abilities enough options to keep everyone happy. Lines for the 23 chairlifts are typically short to nonexistent. The catch? An adult lift ticket is $106, although kids 10 and under ski free (when staying in lodging booked through Big Sky Central Reservations); children under 5 always ski free. Après skiers (or non-skiers) can head to Solace Spa and Salon, take fitness classes, hit the shops, go for a dogsled ride or snowshoe, listen to live music, dine at a variety of eateries -- the list goes on and on.
Snowbowl, located 20 minutes north of downtown Missoula, is a little mountain perfect for getting away from the crowds. Even with only four lifts servicing the 37 trails, skiers and riders rarely have to wait to get to the top of the slope. The lift tickets are also a bargain -- an adult ticket is just $46 for the day and kids under 5 ski free. Ski packages are an even better deal, as they include a one-night stay and one-day lift ticket. For $63, visitors can ski in/ski out at the mountainside Gelandesprung Lodge, which has kitchen facilities and a hot tub. Want to learn to ski? A two-hour private lesson is $85 and a child's lesson with equipment is just $25. Need to rent equipment? It's $25 for the deluxe alpine package (skis, boots, and poles); a helmet is $7 extra.
Surrounding Lake Tahoe are six world-class resorts -- Northstar, Heavenly, Sierra, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, and Mount Rose -- set in the Sierra Mountains. The Tahoe Super 4 Pack ($290) includes four days at Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, or Alpine Meadows, a more family-friendly and "off-the-radar" resort a 15-minute shuttle ride away. Another Tahoe favorite is Heavenly, which has 97 trails on 4,800 skiable acres, with 30 lifts to make it all accessible. An adult lift ticket is $102 a day, and Lake Tahoe abounds with activities when the skiing is over.
Across the lake in Incline Village, Nevada, is Diamond Peak, where a family of four (two adults, two youths) can ski for $226. An adult one-day lift ticket is just $64, and kids under 6 always ski for free. The mountain has 30 runs on 655 skiable acres, with plenty of options for a range of skiing abilities. There are six lifts, with one "surface lift" exclusive to the Child Ski Center. An all-day package for kids, which includes lunch, two lessons, ski rental, lift ticket, and snacks, is $150. While Incline Village does not have lodging, the après ski options include a movie theater, bowling alley, several restaurants, bars, and shops.
Home to the Alpine and Nordic events at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler Blackcomb encompasses 8,171 acres. The two mountains are connected by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola -- a distance of almost three miles -- which allows visitors to ski both in the same day. For the daring, there's heli-skiing and other backcountry adventures, but 200 runs provide more than enough variety for those who want to stick to established trails. It's best to plan at least two days here, which brings the lift-ticket price to more than $200 Canadian for each adult, and visitors will probably be tempted by other activities such as snowmobile tours, a tube park, brewery tours, and après ski shopping, dining, and drinking in Whistler Village.
Whistler Blackcomb is impressive, but there's no need to make the trek more than 90 minutes north of Vancouver when the area features a few other, more reasonably priced mountains. About 40 minutes outside Vancouver, Cypress Mountain was the official freestyle skiing and snowboard venue for the Olympics and boasts 53 runs, the most of any North Shore Mountain. An adult lift ticket starts at just $39 Canadian, or about $30. Another easy option is Grouse Mountain, just 15 minutes north of downtown Vancouver. This winter playground has 26 runs, 14 night runs, and four chairlifts for $58 Canadian; $48 for those who arrive after 4 p.m. for night skiing.