Skiers and snowboarders are fond of overarching statements. “I’ve skied Utah,” they might say after a four-day road trip to three different resorts. The thing is, it’s impossible to experience a great ski area in one day. Knowing a mountain requires enough time to explore its many slopes, or even lapping the same run a few times to find a truly memorable line.
If you’re putting in the effort and money to do a big ski trip, do yourself a favor and spend some time getting to know a single destination. Instead of rushing down the highway to the next mountain, we recommend exploring one of the three following resorts this winter.
If you buy your pass and book now, you’ll save big bucks by locking in first-choice dates outside of peak times like Christmas and New Year’s, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, and spring break. Plus, if you’re a savvy ski traveler that wants to ski the entire season, buying a season pass now means you won’t have to break the bank.
How to build a ski trip around your season pass.
The season pass war between the 10-year-old Epic Pass and its debut rival, the Ikon Pass, has reached a fever pitch. For bargain-seeking skiers, this is a good thing — at least in the short term. Throughout 2018, the two passes have tried to one-up each other, adding access to new mountains in the United States and internationally. It has never before been possible to ski so many resorts with one pass for less than $1,000 USD. Both offer international access in Canada, Australia, and Japan. In addition, lodging deals abound for holders of both passes, so check resort websites before booking that Airbnb.
If you haven’t bought a pass yet, base your decision on three factors: how many days you plan to ski this year, a good local hill, and a major destination. Adult, unlimited passes for the 2018-19 season are about $900 right now. Single-day lift tickets can top $100 on the mountain, but cost less if bought in advance online. The upshot is that if you’re only going to take a one-week ski trip all winter, an unlimited pass doesn’t make sense. But add in a couple of ski weekends — provided they’re at resorts that all take the same pass — and the economics work.
Also, you want a pass that gives you access to a quality mountain in your area, assuming you’re within driving distance of the slopes. If your ski plans require getting on a plane, identify your target destination and move forward with the pass that covers it. Look into the options for a local pass, a pass for a certain number of days, or one with blackout dates to save extra money.
For Epic Pass holders — Stevens Pass Resort, Skykomish, Washington
The long-standing but always-improving champion of ski passes, the Epic Pass, returns this year buoyed by Vail Resorts’ ongoing push toward ski industry domination. They’ve added Stevens Pass Resort and Telluride to the roster this year. Plus, you can take advantage of pass-holder benefits such as the EpicMix app, which is kind of like a social network for skiers that tracks total vertical, stores photos from your season, and more.
Vail Resorts acquired Stevens Pass Ski Resort in August, adding another high-profile hill to its growing roster and boosting the Epic Pass in its war against Alterra Mountain Company. This resort is perfect for spending a few days exploring the hill without feeling tempted to head down the road because it’s the only Vail Resort in Washington. Some snowfalls can be light and dry, but the northwest can also have wetter snow, due to warmer weather. Either way, the good news is they get a lot snow — averaging 460 inches per year. Stevens Pass is also known for its legendary bowls and steep drops. Higher up, sparse trees dot wide-open powder faces, allowing for long linked turns and plenty of room to spread out. If you didn’t get in enough laps during the day, the resort offers night skiing across six of their lifts.
Where to stay
A trip to Stevens Pass Ski Area is the perfect opportunity to live out those mountain cabin fantasies. The resort lists a number of lodging options in nearby Skykomish, which is a small village west of the resort and about an hour from Seattle. About 40 minutes east of the resort, Leavenworth is a cute town boasting Bavarian-themed architecture, with cozy restaurants and pubs lining downtown along Front Street. Airbnbs tend to run in the $100-150 range for dual occupancy, though both cheaper and pricier options are available.
Keep the German vibe going with dinner at Andreas Keller Restaurant and throw down late at night at The Loft Bar and Grill. If you still haven’t had enough Euro-mountain chic, the aptly named Bavarian Bistro Bar has a schnitzel and a pint with your name on it.
How to get there
Fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and head up Stevens Pass; it’s just under two hours to the resort. If you’re staying in Leavenworth, the drive is about two hours and fifteen minutes.
For Ikon Pass holders — Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows, Lake Tahoe, California
The rival Ikon Pass, the debut offering from the newly-minted Alterra Mountain Co., is built to do two specific things: one, give the Epic Pass a legitimate run for its money by bringing together 36 destination ski resorts not under the Vail Resorts banner, and two, finally give you and your long-lost ski buddies on opposite ends of the country the kick in the pants you need to actually book that trip you’ve talked about for years.
Squaw Valley and its neighbor Alpine Meadows offers 42 lifts and an average of 450 inches of snow per year. Both have a wide range of intermediate terrain and tend to pile up on the snow by the holidays, meaning you don’t have to wait until February to get some good days in. If any in your party fret about the cold, sell them on the fact that days at Lake Tahoe ski hills are, on average, much warmer than further inland resorts in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. Plus, you can gamble and partake in Tahoe’s legendary nightlife scene after the lifts shut down. With cheap flights into Reno-Tahoe International Airport, you’re looking at a recipe for success.
If you’re a seasoned skier, the term KT-22 may have come up in conversation over the years. Most likely dropped casually from the lips of someone with an overly excited look on their face, who will then pause to gauge your reaction. Are you down, bro? This person isn’t referring to the micro-lubricant used by watchmakers. They’re talking about one of the most legendary ski lifts in the country, one that offers access to Squaw’s steepest and most challenging runs and draws pro skiers and boarders to its kickass terrain almost daily. The lift heads right from the base to 8,000 feet up with direct access to couloirs and chutes, cliffs, and general powder-filled bliss. It’s not easy, however — proceed with caution if it’s your first time.
Where to stay
If skiing is the priority, stay at the base of Squaw Valley or in Truckee. Airbnbs can typically be found for under $100 per night during non-peak times, and you’re only 12 miles away. With about 16,000 residents, Truckee also has plenty of restaurants. Check out the Truckee Tavern and Grill with the crew, or Pianetta for date night and a mellow bar scene far removed from the bros and bachelor parties of South Lake.
South Lake Tahoe is the place to be for off-mountain shenanigans. You’re looking at just over an hour drive from the ski resort, but you won’t find better nightlife at Lake Tahoe. Many casinos are just over the state line in Nevada, and the area has solid public transit and shuttle service to get you around. Whiskey Dick’s and RoJo’s Tavern are the spots to start or end a night, with the beer garden at the Basecamp Hotel being a solid après-ski hangout.
How to get there
Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the closest large airport and is just under an hour drive from the ski resort. You’ll want to rent a car if you plan to move around the lake at all, though there are shuttles available if you’re staying at the base. Truckee has a small airport with limited service. If you fly into San Francisco International Airport or Oakland International Airport, the drive is around four hours, unless you hit weekend traffic.
For powder hounds not bound by a season pass — Wolf Creek Ski Area, Mineral County, Colorado
This one’s for the true powder hunters, those not afraid to stray far away from the luxury lodges and perfectly crisp groomers of Colorado’s well-trodden I-70 corridor. In the far south of the state, Mineral County has a population of 726; but you won’t even pass through the town of Creede, the county’s only “hub,” on your ski trip. Wolf Creek is one of the few Colorado ski areas that has flat-out resisted over-development and corporate takeovers, to the point that southern Colorado locals regularly petition government officials and the forest service against development proposals that threaten to turn Wolf Creek into another destination resort for the wealthy.
As a result, this powder haven draws a parking lot full of die-hards to the top of Wolf Creek Pass every day throughout the winter. Averaging 480 inches of snow per year, the resort boasts the most powder and often the shortest lift lines of anywhere in Colorado. Keep in mind that this massive amount of snow is light, fluffy Colorado powder — not coastal cake. You can lap the Waterfall Area all day or hike to Alberta Peak for fresh tracks (an activity so popular among locals that a beer was named in its honor) and not ever wait in a line. There’s even a new lift for the coming winter, which will access even more powder in the 900-acre Alberta Area on the resort’s backside.
Where to stay
There’s no lodging at the ski area itself. If you’re with a crew and want to have a night out on the town during your trip, Pagosa Springs is where you want to be. The town is about 30 minutes west of the ski area and has a number of hotel options and a handful of fun, chilled-out bars and restaurants. Kip’s Grill and Cantina is the first place you should stop for après-ski drinks. If you’ve seen the movie Out Cold (if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and watch it right now), you’ll have a general understanding of what to expect from the vibe in the bar and the town in general. The biggest perk to staying here, however, is the Pagosa Hot Springs Resort, where you can soak away the soreness from the hill in a variety of tubs ranging in temperature from lukewarm to the piping hot Lobster Pot. Keep in mind that Pagosa is quite small, though the larger college town of Durango is only an hour away and offers a legit nightlife and restaurant scene (and also happens to be one of the 25 coolest towns in America).
For a quiet trip away from any hustle and bustle, stay in South Fork on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass. This tiny little town is home to a handful of cozy ski lodges, a couple restaurants, and not much else. But you’ll have the perk of being located closer to the airports on Colorado’s front range.
How to get there
Denver International Airport is the hub for most Colorado arrivals. After landing, you’re looking at a five-hour drive from Denver, and that’s if there’s no bad weather along the way. Colorado Springs Airport will knock an hour off the drive and often has good deals on flights during non-peak times. You can also fly into Durango and drive only an hour and a half if you’re willing to have a layover in Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, or Dallas. No matter where you land, rent a four-wheel-drive car because the ski area is at the top of the notoriously sketchy Wolf Creek Pass.