Snowbird is one of those resorts that is almost always included in best ski resort lists, and rightly so. It has one of the biggest annual snowfalls in the country, and it’s the legendary Utah driy powder. It has some of the most accessible in-bounds extreme terrain that I’ve ever seen. I was fortunate enough to visit Snowbird a few times this year and shoot some of their sponsored riders. It was epic. I rode chutes like the ones I’d only previously seen in movies. Hucked sme pretty big cliffs as well. The conditions weren’t always great for photos, but we still got some pretty spectacular shots.
Statistically Wolf Creek appears to be a fairly average ski area. It’s 1600 acres, which places it solidly in the middle of the pack for ride able terrain. It has seven lifts to serve that terrain and a vertical of just over 1,600 feet. There’s no terrain park at all. There is one statistic, however, that sets Wolf Creek apart from other resorts: an average annual snowfall of 465 inches, which gives it more snow than any other ski area in Colorado. Although that doesn’t top some other hills, like Jackson Hole or Snowbird, it’s still quite impressive. Wolf Creek also has some qualities that set it apart from other ski areas. There’s the hill’s dedication environmental stewardship, which has resulted in a very low proportion of cut runs and a very natural-feeling on-hill experience. Wolf Creek is also quite community-oriented, and that is reflected in the friendly atmosphere. Then there are the proposed Wolf Creek expansion plans, which would open up 1000 acres of new, powder-covered terrain — and 700 of those acres would be all-natural black and double-black diamond chutes, gullies, and cliffs.
Telluride has always held a certain mystique for me. Growing up we watched ski and snowboard videos every year in the months before the snow fell, while dreaming of the winter to come. I lived in a small town in British Columbia. The exotic names of the ski resorts we saw always got jumbled together, Vail, Squaw Valley, Chamonix, but one always stood out — Telluride. I don’t know why, but it seemed that Telluride held a special place in the hearts of the narrators on the television. It was always spoken of with a particular reverence. When I finally visited, I found out why. Mountains surround the town on three sides. Without a serious four-wheel drive vehicle and intimate knowledge of the back roads, there is only one road in and one road out. The ski runs rub up against one side of the town so that any resident can walk to a ski lift in around fifteen minutes. Telluride is a small town in a box canyon at the end of highway 145. It’s a town with an anti-establishment tradition that started when Butch Cassidy staged his first robbery at the San Miguel Valley Bank and continued when hippies flocked there in the sixties. At one point, there was a serious movement to ban cars. These days, when the moon is full and the snow is deep, locals gather at a cabin in the bottom of a valley north of the resort. They drink, play music, and then hike up the broad pristine slope. Telluride backwoods counterculture is like none other. My trip to Telluride lived up to the legend. My days on the hill were filled with steeps and powder and our nights were spent in local halls dancing to funk with grizzly-bearded hiking booted locals. On paper, Telluride is not as big as some other ski areas. It also doesn’t get as much snow. But acres and inches are not a measure of history, culture, and passion. Telluride, no doubt, is one of the purest ski areas in the West.
When I opened up the Crested Butte trail map for the first time in my hotel room I was awestruck. I had never seen so much black on a trail map. Black and double-black diamond runs appeared to occupy more than half of the resort. About one-third of the Crested Butte’s 1,547 acres was, it turned out, was in fact extreme double-black diamond terrain. “Could this be my dream hill?” I wondered. It was one of the most hardcore-looking ski resorts I’d ever seen. This was confirmed when two of the locals took me down Rambo, the steepest man-made run in North America, and when we had to skirt around several in-bounds areas that were permanently roped off because they’re simply too steep and extreme to allow public access to them. Crested Butte has called “the last great Colorado ski town” but, although it is a great ski town with all the charm and character that one could desire, I didn’t see any reason to place it above some of the other small out-of-the way ski towns. Crested Butte certainly surpasses most resorts for ski culture and authenticity, probably because of the hardcore brand of skiers and riders that it attracts. The other side of that coin is that, while Crested Butte has all the extreme terrain a guy could want, that terrain only receives 300 inches of snow on average annually, which is 200 inches less than some of the other hills we visited. So, while Crested Butte offers some of the most hardcore terrain in the country, fresh tracks are not be as easy to come by as at some other resorts. We arrived at Crested Butte at the wrong time. Crested Butte is a real big mountain rider’s paradise. The north face is a huge area with amazing cliffs, chutes, and steeps. Unfortunately, it had been a few weeks since they’d had a good dump of snow, which is pretty necessary to enjoy that kind of terrain.
Sierra-at-Tahoe is a medium-sized ski resort in South Lake Tahoe. It’s not nearly as well-known as other resorts around the lake — like Squaw Valley, Heavenly, and Kirkwood — which would seem to make it a bit of an underdog in our Best in the West Showdown. On closer inspection, however, the idea may not be so strange. The Best in the West Tour is different from other projects that have attempted to crown the best ski resort in the USA. While others look toward giant mega resorts with large villages full of expensive condos and extreme terrain for expert skiers and snowboarders, we have been focusing more on the qualities that appeal to a large and diverse proportion of the skiing and snowboarding population. Those qualities include value, atmosphere, and terrain that appeals to the average skier or snowboarder. In those categories, medium-sized resorts like Sierra-at-Tahoe are often just as qualified as — and sometimes better qualified than — their big-budget counterparts to take the title of Best in the West.
Sugar Bowl is one of the lesser-known resorts in the North Lake Tahoe area. I’m very happy about that, because it means that whenever I visit, the lines will be short, and the fresh tracks will be long. Sugar Bowl is only 1500 acres, but it feels much bigger — especially the area between the Disney Chair and the Mt. Lincoln Express, where there are cliffs, steeps, a gorgeous frozen waterfall, and chutes that rival extreme legends like Squaw Valley’s Pallisades and Jackson Hole’s Corbet’s Couloir. The locals told us that they liked Sugar Bowl because of it’s homey atmosphere, short lift lines, and friendly staff. I liked it because Brian (of Exploring Elements) and I did basically one awesome powder run all day long on the first day and never crossed a track that wasn’t ours.
Squaw Valley is the birthplace of extreme skiing in the USA and has been the backdrop for more ski and snowboard videos than I can count. It’s a destination that every serious skier and snowboarder pines to visit, and is widely recognized as one of the best and most extreme ski resorts in the world. Squaw Valley may well be the best ski resort in the USA. The extreme terrain is matched by few other resorts. Extreme big-mountain skiers and snowboarders, however, only make up a small number of the people who visit ski resorts. Squaw Valley an important fixture in ski history, and that infuses the area with interest for me. The crowd on the hill was the most ethnically diverse that I’ve ever seen. Hearing Mandarin and Spanish on the chairlift — rather than dudes talking about their pickup trucks — was refreshing. Squaw Valley has an unmistakably Californa feel to it. It has all the glitz, shine, and attitude of L.A. Some people even call it Squallywood. Squaw Valley has the reputation, the crazy terrain, and the history of an epic mountain and it’s in California, which makes it accessible to an enormous number of people. On the other hand it’s beginner’s area is not as convenient as some at other resorts.
I have to admit, I’m a bit biased because I had such a fantastic time at Grand Targhee. Emilie and I met some fantastic people there. Our hosts, local ski pros Max and Gary Mackenzie, and their friends were super hospitable and easy to work with. The snow was great. The food was good. And the people (it’s our job to interview strangers on the hill, so we meet a lot of people) were the friendliest we’ve met on the tour. That’s all fine and dandy, you might say, but how does it stack up to bigger, better-known hills like Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley? Here’s how it compares. Grand Targhee isn’t as massive as Vail or Heavenly Valley, but at 2,600 acres it has more in-bounds terrain than Jackson Hole or Telluride. There’s also some amazing backcountry terrain off-piste. Receiving 500+ inches of snow each year, Grand Targhee has one of the largest annual snowfalls in the entire country (which is why it’s considered by some to be the best resort of early season skiing around). Despite this, Grand Targhee remains relatively unknown to mainstream ski vacationers. Most times of year the hill barely sees enough skiers and boarders there to scrape the powder off the hill before it dumps again. Grand Targhee is truly one of the great undiscovered American ski resorts. Riding conditions, however, only paint part of the picture of a good resort. Convenience, amenities, and value are also important. Grand Targhee isn’t the most convenient place to visit. Tucked away on the western side of the Tetons, the mountain is about a 1.5 hour drive from the nearest airports in Jackson Hole and in Idaho Falls and even farther from the closest major city.
Jackson Hole is an epic mountain, there’s no question about it. It was even crowned the best ski resort in the USA two years in a row by Christopher Steiner in his top five list for Forbes. Not being trusting of lists that are based purely on statistics (as Steiner’s is), Emilie and I visited Jackson Hole in mid-December to test out our new gear judge for ourselves whether the hill actually offers the best skiing experience in America. Jackson Hole is certainly friendly. Although Teton Village is a fairly run-of-the-mill manufactured village of condos and shops for visitors, the town of Jackson is a real western small town with a wonderful neighbourly feel to it. When our only car key snapped because of the cold, about seven different random strangers helped us in the space of 24 hours to get the car moved to our hotel and a new key made. Jackson Hole’s 2500 acres certainly contain a wide variety of terrain. However, with 50% expert terrain and 40% intermediate, Jackson Hole is definitely a hill better suited to experienced skiers and snowboarders. The restaurants in Jackson are world class. I had the best steak of my life in The Cellar and the Mangy Moose on the hill is well-known for it’s awesome apres ski activities. In fact, nearly every meal we ate there was surprising in one way or another. We only found two things that may negatively impact visitor experience: price and convenience. Located in western Wyoming, far from any major centre, Jackson Hole is in a very inconvenient location. The isolation adds to it’s charm, but also increases the hassle of visiting. And, although there are budget options, most of the restaurants and hotels cater to visitors with a lot of money to blow on their vacation. People visiting Jackson Hole with limited funds will find themselves… well…limited.