THEY SAY JUST do what you love and the rest will come. Well, it came for me when HarperCollins Publishers called me out of the blue one summer day and asked if I wanted to write a guidebook on America’s western ski resorts. For an out-of-work ski bum living in a trailer park in South Lake Tahoe (mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors), it was the golden ticket to yet another year of putting off law school.
Although that guidebook is long out of print, my “Huh. Who knew?” list of ski resort surprises is still very much valid, and it’s probably three places you’ve never visited, with Tahoe thrown in for good measure. If you’ve been to at least one on this list, kudos to you. If you’ve been to two or more, call me — we’ve got some road-tripping to do this winter.
I used to live/work at Kirkwood, and Snowbasin is Kirkwood with softer snow (the runs start at 6,316 feet above sea level). A mere 90-minute flight from SFO, 40-minute drive from SLC International, and whoop there it is: 3,000 acres of Mount Ogden awesome — natural bowls, tasty tree runs, and easy hikes that access amazing terrain.
And get this: the resort even hired Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, so the on-mountain restaurants offer high-quality food at surprisingly reasonable prices. Add to this small crowds, short lift lines, and a super-friendly staff and Bob’s your uncle. Here’s a tip: fly Alaska Airlines from SFO and they’ll comp your lift ticket.
Beaver Creek, Colorado
The first time I skied Beaver Creek I asked a local on the lift “Where is everyone? This place is friggin’ awesome.” He said with five mountains to choose from, this is as crowded as it ever gets, and 20 years later it’s still as blissfully lift-line free. And with the resort’s many improvements — including 10 high-speed lifts, two gondolas, and a Chondola (a chairlift/gondola combination) providing access to 1,832 acres of skiable terrain — it’s now one of my all-time favorite resorts in America.
Visualize yourself carving down huge, wide, long, perfectly corduroyed runs, teeth hurting from the wind because you’re smiling so much. Bump runs with zippers so long they’d make YKK jealous. Free warm chocolate chip cookies served daily at 3 p.m. at the base of Chair 6. The only flaw was no direct flights from SFO, but that’s been solved this year with new nonstop weekend service from SFO to Eagle County Airport on United Airlines.
I stopped in Whitefish one warm summer day while on a cross-country motorcycle trip (“I’ll have the elk meatloaf please”) and loved it so much I came back again that winter to ski it. If mega ski resorts aren’t your thing, Whitefish is your thing. This is a skier’s resort, with 88 percent of the trails rated more difficult, most difficult, and oh dear.
More than 100 marked trails are scattered among 3,000 acres, but it’s the oodles of bowl and tree skiing that make Whitefish worth the direct flight from SFO. And the fun doesn’t stop when the lifts do. Drop into the Bierstube (“The Stube” to locals, and on my shortlist of the best dive bars in America) for an après-ski beer and Bierstube Burger, then ask the bartender for a ceremonial ring and you’ll see why I adore this town.
Lake Tahoe, California
After record snowfall last season, most of the Tahoe ski areas have invested heavily in new snow grooming and removal tech, along with gearing up for longer seasons. Mount Rose is shooting for a six-month season this year and invested more than $6 million in new grooming snowcats, snowmaking equipment, and MAGIC, a fully enclosed conveyor surface lift for beginners and children that’s the first of its kind in North America.
Homewood has upped its grooming game with the recent purchase of a PistenBully 400 snow groomer and made finding nearby lodging easier with a new Airbnb powered booking widget on its website.
Still beaming from being voted Best Ski Resort in North America by USA Today, Squaw Valley has pumped millions into snowmaking, grooming, snow removal and a complete overhaul of High Camp, including a new Marketplace that offers healthy (yes, healthy) grab-and-go meals and snacks and coffee drinks.
For Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, the exciting news this season is the new Tahoe Local “Epic” Pass, which offers unrestricted access to all three resorts, seven days a week (excluding holidays), as well as limited access to all of Vail Resorts’ mountains in Colorado and Utah. At $589, it’s a bargain.
PHOTOS BY TREVOR CLARK (SQUAW); JON RESNICK (BEAVER CREEK, VAIL RESORTS)
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Mountain Mania”.