IT’S AMAZING WHAT a difference a few extra feet of snow can make. Thanks to the El Niño–induced abundance of snowfall last year, numerous ski resorts in the western U.S. were able to focus less on snowmaking and more on new ways to play in the powder — from new fat-tire biking programs in Sun Valley to new après-ski festivities in Tahoe and new Utah snowcat skiing operations offering access to thousands of acres of untracked powder.
It’s also going to be a banner season for World Cup ski fans, with a total of 16 Audi FIS Ski World Cup events scheduled to take place in the U.S. for the 2016–17 race season — the second highest ever — including a stop at Squaw Valley for the first time in two decades.
Here’s a roundup of what’s new in some of our favorite ski towns.
It appears the trend for 2016–17 ski season in Utah isn’t new lifts, it’s no lifts. Opening this season, Whisper Ridge Cat Skiing in Ogden Valley features custom-built PistenBully snowcats offering access to 30,000 acres of private terrain, plus first-descent helicopter drops and a mountaintop luxury yurt village with wood-fired hot tubs and chef-prepared meals.
“It’s great to see the Utah ski industry thriving so well,” says Paul Marshall, director of communications for Ski Utah. “Last year we had a record-breaking season with 4.5 million visitors. We’ve invested millions of dollars on new improvements and amenities across the state this year.”
At northern Utah’s Powder Mountain Resort the focus is on accessing every square foot of the 7,000 acres of the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” via a pay-per-ride Lightning Ridge Snowcat experience, a Powder Country Shuttle system (make your own tracks down mountain, ride the shuttle back up), and virtually line-free lifts — ticket sales are capped at just 2,000 per day.
Even Park City climbed on the cat skiing bandwagon with the launch of Park City Powder Cats & Heli-Ski, providing powder hounds access to more than 40,000 private acres. “We only have two ski resorts in Park City: Park City Mountain and Deer Valley,” says Dan Howard, director of communication for the Park City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But one of them is the biggest ski area in the United States with more than 7,300 skiable acres, and the other is the highest rated in the United States. Combine this with the best nightlife, restaurants and lodging in Utah, and this little city offers an embarrassment of riches.”
Sun Valley, Idaho
Celebrating its 80th birthday this year, Sun Valley Resort has 2,000 acres of superb terrain. With flights from SFO, it’s a breeze to get here, and if you book your lodging through the resort it includes free shuttle service from the airport. “Once you’re in town, most everything’s within walking distance,” says resort public relations manager Kelli Lusk, “and the complimentary Mountain Rides bus service means you don’t need to rent a car to get around.”
New this year at Sun Valley is rental of fat bikes for riding on the snow. It takes some getting used to — sort of like riding on wet leaves — but quickly becomes addictive and kids love it. Other resort programs you’ll appreciate are the Lift Ticket Exchange that lets you use one day of your three-day pass toward non-ski activities — sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, spa discounts — and the Unbeaten Path Package, offering more than 25 percent savings on lodging and lift tickets and free skiing for kids under 12.
Beaver Creek, Colorado
For those with deep pockets, Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado this year offers the new White Glove Winter Vacation, with first-class airfare, private helicopter transportation to your exclusive Trappers Cabin nestled among the aspen groves, private chef and ski guide, and first tracks on the mountain — all for a paltry $50,000.
Even if you forgo the white-glove treatment, Beaver Creek is a treat. With 1,800 acres of skiable terrain, 25 lifts and 150 different trails, you’ll rarely wait in line more than a few minutes, even on weekends. It’s so well designed and accessible that the Birds of Prey Men’s World Cup is hosted here every year.
Beaver Creek’s après-ski scene is another great reason to vacation here. At the base of the resort at the Village Plaza, you can relax with a Peppermint Patty cocktail and free chocolate chip cookies — they bake 495,000 cookies here each year — while watching lederhosen-wearing Helmut Fricker blow his alpenhorn. It’s all just crazy romantic, and great for families too.
Lake Tahoe, California
Following the longest ski season in a decade last year after 41 feet of snowfall, Tahoe’s ski areas are ready for a repeat. The big news this season is the return of Alpine World Cup ski racing to Squaw Valley for the first time in 20 years. “Tickets to the grandstand for the event sold out in 15 minutes,” says Liesl Kenney, public relations manager at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. “But there’s plenty of free viewing areas, and the March 9–12 event also includes concerts, fireworks and some epic après-ski parties.”
Not to be outshone, Heavenly’s Unbuckle at Tamarack is now ranked the No. 1 aprèsski party in North America by Forbes. Go-go dancers, DJs, drinking, dancing, giveaways, and half-priced drinks and apps keep the fun going long after the lifts have closed. And be sure to check out the new DJ Cat, a retrofitted grooming machine that’s been converted into a 52-speaker mobile DJ station.
It’s going to be another great ski season, so get out there and have fun.