For many, 2009 was the unofficial Year of the Staycation. Now, with the economy on the rebound—and with ski resorts eager to court skiers with great deals—it’s time to spread your wings and set your sights on destinations a bit farther afield than the Northeast, New England and Quebec. If that isn’t incentive enough, it’s an El Niño winter, which means bad things for local ski areas, but good things, including increased precipitation, out West. (For evidence, I submit to you the October 2009 storm that dropped up to 40 inches of snow on Colorado.) You could certainly focus on the “standards”—Aspen, Jackson Hole, Whistler—but why not buck the trend (and the crowds) and score more powder all for yourself at these choice locales?
Crested Butte Mountain Resort, CO
Think of Crested Butte (http://www.skicb.com) as Aspen without the in-your-face opulence. Tucked within the rugged Elk Mountains, this is a skier’s mountain with big terrain. Here, at the home of the US Extreme Skiing Championships, you’ll find beyond-double-black-diamond runs appropriately labeled “extreme.” The high point—literally—is The Peak, hiking-only terrain that takes you to the 12,162-foot pyramidal summit of the resort. Of course, you’ll also find runs suited to all levels of ability, so there’s no need to be intimidated by CB’s big reputation. If you do want to dabble in the more committing parts of the mountain, but you’re not sure you want to go it alone, consider hiring one of the CB Adventure Guides to show you the ropes.
Where to Stay
If slopeside lodging is your thing, then your choices here are easy: The Lodge at Mountaineers Square, The Grand Lodge or Elevation Hotel and Spa, are all located within a short walking distance of the lifts. Off the mountain, the town of Crested Butte (http://www.gunnisoncrestedbutte.com) offers a variety of options. Try the comfortable and economical Cristiana Guesthaus (http://www.cristianaguesthaus.com), Elk Mountain Lodge (http://www.elkmountainlodge.com) or Old Town Inn (http://www.oldtowninn.net). For more rustic accommodations, rent one of the 8 historic Pioneer Guest Cabins (http://www.pioneerguestcabins.com) located in Gunnison National Forest in the nearby Cement Creek valley.
Where to Eat
While there are plenty of on-mountain dining options, make like the locals and head to Elk Avenue, CB’s historic main drag. The Eldo Brewery and Taproom (http://www.eldobrewpub.com) is the town’s only brewpub and a popular local watering hole. For sampling the local fare, head to Timberline Restaurant (http://www.timberlinerestaurant.com) for smoked trout, elk tenderloin, Gunnison beef and Colorado lamb.
Grand Targhee, WY
Located in Wyoming, but accessed from Driggs, Idaho, Grand Targhee (http://www.grandtarghee.com) sits cradles by three mountains—Fred’s Mountain, Mary’s Nipple and Peaked Mountain—which are all just shy of 10,000 feet in elevation. The resort is a gem often overlooked in favor of nearby Jackson Hole. But here’s a little-known fact about GT: Because it sits on the western slopes of the Teton mountain range, it gets the first dumps of snow from winter storms, meaning a greater average annual snowfall (more than 500 inches worth!) than legendary Jackson Hole.
Even better, you’ll pay just $69 for a single full-day lift ticket, compared to $91 at JH.
Where to Stay
The Targhee, Teewinot and Sioux lodges offer slopeside lodging options. Or, consider renting a condo, townhome or vacation home (http://www.grandvalleylodging.com) located along Ski Hill Road, the access road between Driggs and Grand Targhee. Driggs itself offers a variety of B&B and basic hotel options (http://www.tetonvalleychamber.com), while Teton Valley Cabins (http://www.tetonvalleycabins.com) offer rustic log cabins both with and without kitchenette.
Where to Eat
Grand Targhee’s après ski scene isn’t exactly bustling, though it has improved in recent years (of course, folks don’t come here for the après ski… it’s all about the Tetons’ cold smoke powder). Nevertheless, the Branding Iron Grille and Watering Hole is the “it” place for on-mountain dining. For a more unique experience, make a reservation for the sleigh ride dinner. Cowboy Paul Martin and his team of horses will take you on horse-drawn sleigh through a winter wonderland en route to a high-altitude yurt where you’ll be served a Western-style dinner. Forage Bistro and Lounge (http://www.forageandlounge.com) is a good option in Driggs. If you’re still looking for more, the restaurants of Jackson Hole are an easy drive away over Teton Pass.
Utah boasts of having the Greatest Snow on Earth. It’s a bold claim, but with Great Salt Lake providing a punch of moisture (the “Lake Effect,” in local lingo), and the Wasatch Mountains providing the continental climate and the topography to wring the clouds dry, the skiing conditions are indeed sublime. Witness Snowbird (http://www.snowbird.com), one of the top ski resorts in North America. Perched high in Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the snow here is blower light, dry and super deep. Snowbird has something for everyone, including big mountain terrain that’ll challenge even the best skiers. A single day, all-access lift ticket costs $72, but for $13 more you can double your pleasure with a ticket good at both Snowbird and neighboring Alta, which together provide 4,700 acres of stunning terrain. Best of all, Snowbird is very close to Salt Lake City, such that you could be off your plane and on your skis in an hour.
Where to Stay
Snowbird offers five on-mountain options for lodging, including the Cliff Lodge and Spa, Snowbird’s flagship accommodations, which completed a $5.6 million renovation in 2006. Of course, Salt Lake City serves up more options than you’ll ever need. However, be aware that if it dumps, E Little Cottonwood Road leading from Salt Lake to Snowbird can close for avalanche control work. If you’re not staying at Snowbird, consider the town of Alta (http://www.discoveralta.com), which will keep you close to all the action.
Where to Eat
Like any world-class resort, Snowbird knows how to serve up fare to hungry skiers. American at The Atrium, Italian at The Wildflower, Mexican at El Chanate and more are all on-site. As with the skiing, nearby Alta roughly doubles your dining options. Earlier in 2009, Utah legislators repealed a decades-old law requiring bars to be private clubs, and for patrons to be members of those clubs. Traditionally, bars offered inexpensive two-week memberships to tourists, but now you can drink up free of that red tape.
Squaw Valley USA, CA
With no fewer than seven ski areas—including Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar-at-Tahoe—Lake Tahoe (http://www.skilaketahoe.com) offers no shortage of options. Among the choices, though, Squaw Valley USA (http://www.squaw.com) is the grand-daddy. This winter, the resort celebrates its 60th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary since hosting the Olympic Winter Games. It’s 4,000 acres large, encompassing six peaks (including Squaw Peak, Emigrant, and Granite Chief) and 33 chairlifts to access all that terrain. It’s also the proving grounds of Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley. You’ll probably fly in to Reno to get here, and if you do, be sure to stop in at Reno Mountain Sports, REI or other local ski shops to pick up discounted lift tickets before you get to the mountain.
Where to Stay
Slopeside lodging opportunities abound, but the newest is The Village at Squaw Valley (http://www.thevillageatsquaw.com), which comprises the chic pedestrian base village at Squaw. For additional options—both on-mountain and farther afield—try Squaw Vacations or the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority (bluelaketahoe.com) to get plugged in to the area’s many choices. If you’re looking to stay in an actual town (with historic roots to boot) then undoubtedly set your sights on Truckee.
Where to Eat
The resort offers more than 30 dining options, from bakeries, pub food and Mexican, to French, pizza and bistros and much more. Don’t miss the Ice Lounge, constructed of more than sixty 350-pound blocks of ice. In nearby Truckee, Donner Pass Road is the main thoroughfare and where you’ll find plenty of additional choices to satisfy your hunger. Try the Trio Wine Bar (http://www.triowine.com), or the restaurant trio of Pianeta Cucina Italiana, Pacific Crest Grill and Bar of America (http://www.barofamerica.net). The Cottonwood Restaurant also gets rave reviews from diners.
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, BC
Sure, British Columbia’s Whistler-Blackcomb, located in the Coast Mountains, is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics Games. But that also means the resort will be mobbed with athletes, spectators and skiers. Instead of fighting the crowds, head to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (http://www.kickinghorseresort.com). Also located in BC, Kicking Horse sits perched in the Purcell Mountains, surrounded by six national parks (Banff, Glacier, Kootenay, Yoho, Mt. Revelstoke and Jasper). With more than 4,000 vertical feet of lift-served terrain, it tops the five mountains in this list. By far the most striking aspects of KH are the CPR and Redemption ridges, which feature the kind of ski terrain normally reserved for ski porn flicks (think Teton Gravity Research, Matchstick, and Warren Miller). The on-site Big Mountain Centre offers private guides who can show you the way and teach you how to ski the ridges safely, including assessing avalanche hazards. Oh yeah, and with a favorable exchange rate, KH’s cheap rates are even more attractive to Americans heading north of the border.
Where to Stay
Kicking Horse offers a variety of lodges, townhomes, vacation home rentals, suites and more to suit the needs of any traveler. Especially set your sights on Copper Horse Lodge (http://www.copperhorselodge.com), which Ski Canada Magazine named the Best New Lodge in 2007. In the nearby town of Golden, you can take your pick of lodges, hotels, B&Bs, cabins and hostels. One of the newest and best is Kicking Horse River Lodge (http://www.khrl.com), whose on-site Bugaboo Café is a great spot to grab breakfast before you hit the slopes.
Where to Eat
Without a doubt, the Eagle’s Eye Restaurant is the must-do dining experience at Kicking Horse. Set atop the mountain at 7,705 feet, it’s the highest-elevation restaurant in all of Canada. Otherwise, take your pick of the resort’s many offerings. In Golden, the dining and nightlife are more limited, and keep in mind that many of the better restaurants are located outside of town at the region’s many luxury lodges. Try the Cedar House Restaurant (http://www.cedarhousechalets.com), just five minutes outside of Golden, which features acclaimed Rocky Mountain cuisine. In-town, Eleven 22 (eleven22.ca) is the place to go.
Savvy Skier Tips
This winter, resorts are going out of their way to entice skiers with attractive deals that are kind to the wallet in this rebounding economy. Follow these simple rules for maximizing your budget:
1. Buy lift tickets before you arrive at the resort. As with the above example from Squaw Valley USA, you can often save on the cost of lift tickets by purchasing ahead of time. At Crested Butte Mountain Resort, you can save $4-5 per day on your lift tickets if you buy them online via the resort’s website. In Utah, the Ski Salt Lake Superpass can be purchased for anywhere from 1-7 days of skiing, for as low as $56 per day (far less than you’ll pay at lift ticket windows) and can be redeemed for full-day, all-access lift tickets at any of four resorts (including Snowbasin and Alta). It’s also worth stopping in at local ski shops and asking about discounted lift tickets for nearby resorts. Also, don’t forget to ask about free or discounted lift tickets for kids.
2. Package your skiing with transportation and lodging. Almost all resorts are offering incentive packages if you book lodging and/or transportation as part of a ski package. At Grand Targhee, if you book three nights of lodging, the fourth night is free. At Squaw, you can book four nights lodging with four days of lift tickets for the price of three days and nights. At Crested Butte, if you book a trip for three or more people, every third airline ticket is free. Or, get your fourth day of skiing and fourth night of lodging free. Or, kids (age 2-12) ski, stay and fly free with a paying adult. (Some restrictions and blackout dates apply, so always check the fine print.)