Where to Go for Snow

A Regional, Pro-and-Con Look at North
America’s Powdery Playgrounds

by Dan Leeth

            Summer will fade, days will shorten and the latest Warren Miller film will lie just around the corner.  That's when it's time to think about booking winter trips to snow country.

            The question, of course, is where to go.

            North America offers coast-to-coast regional options for vacationers yearning to slide down slopes.  Each tenders its own distinct advantages and disadvantages.  With that in mind, here’s a quick pro and con look at some of the continent’s more renowned winter sports destinations.

Lake Tahoe


The region:

            Nine downhill ski areas circle Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California border, and another three grace nearby Donner Pass.  Easiest air access is through Reno.

The pros:

            Lake Tahoe shimmers like a sapphire set in snowy platinum, and the slope-side views alone make the trip worthwhile.  Temperatures tend to hover around freezing and sunny days are the norm.  A third of the lake lies in Nevada, which means skiers can schuss slopes by day and stuff slots at night.  Reno, less than an hour’s drive away, offers lodging bargains not normally found in isolated resort areas. 

The con:

            Lake Tahoe snow has been nicknamed “Sierra Cement.”  Deposited when Pacific moisture hits the Sierra, flakes here can fall deep and damp.

            “Yes, sometimes the snow is heavier because the weather is warmer, but it definitely is not always true,” says Squaw Valley skier Savannah Cowley.  “Almost all of the powder days this year, I walked out to my car and just blew the snow off.”



The region:

            Home of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah offers ten ski resorts within an hour’s drive of the Salt Lake City airport.

The pros:

            Utah is known for its powder, and some resorts average over 500 inches of dry white fluff annually.  Powder hounds vie to become the first to lay S-turns down untracked chutes.  Those who prefer their powder packed will find some of the most aggressively groomed slopes around.  Resorts range from old and funky to run-hugging ritzy real estate developments.  Compared to other close-to-the-city ski resorts, Utah slopes tend to be less crowded.

The con:

            Utah has the West’s most peculiar liquor laws.  For example, happy hours are banned, draught beer may contain no more than 3.2% alcohol and restaurants can serve alcohol only to patrons who purchase food. 

            "Finally, Utah’s legislators shook off one of the quirky drinking laws," beams Ski Utah representative Jessica Kunzer.  "They eliminated the private club system," which required that bar patrons buy memberships to drink.



The region:

            The Colorado Rockies offer 26 ski areas with more than 37,000 acres of terrain.  Air access is through Denver or seven jet-served mountain airports.

The pros:

            Colorado offers something for everyone with areas ranging from family-priced resorts called “Gems” to the posh powder playgrounds of Aspen, Vail, Beaver Creek, and Telluride.  Those with a hankering for height can descend the loftiest lift-served terrain in North America.  Many resorts are closely spaced allowing skiers to sample numerous slopes, and some lift tickets cover multiple areas.

The con:

            The biggest problem with Colorado skiing is that Coloradans ski.  The worst traffic jams in the state occur on mountain-crossing I-70, and on powder-plastered weekends, lift lines often stretch for blocks.

            “People can ski Vail and Aspen midweek and have the mountains to themselves, then head to a Gem on the weekend,” suggests Steamboat Springs resident Molly Cuffe.  “It’s a great way to see another type of resort.”



The region:

            Wyoming, Montana and Idaho offer resorts with a reputation for quality skiing.  Smaller city airports handle the region.

The pros:

            This is a wide-open land featuring a stirring mix of terrain.  Wyoming offers steeps and deeps at Jackson Hole and powder at Grand Targhee.  Idaho features intermediate-friendly hills at Sun Valley.  Montana biggie-sizes everything with acres of bowls, glades and groomers at Big Sky and Whitefish Mountain.  The region proffers a distinctive Western feel with logs framing lodges, antlers hanging in lobbies and Moose Drool brew gracing bar menus.

The con:

            Around these parts, snow storms and fog are regular occurrences.  The region averages as much as 500 inches of snow annually, and not all of it drops at night.

            “We have the bluebird days, but we get a lot of snow and clouds,” admits Whitefish spokeswoman Lisa Jones.  “But we probably have two sunny days a week.”

Arroyo Seco


The region:

            Largely unknown by the general public, New Mexico features eight, taco-sized ski areas in the southern Rockies.  Air access is through Albuquerque.

The pros:

            The Land of Enchantment offers two skiing amenities not found elsewhere – adobe-walled culture and New Mexican cuisine.  The official state question is red or green? (which flavor chili do you want?), and in Santa Fe and Taos, art galleries outnumber ski shops.  New Mexico’s resorts offer surprisingly good snow, and because they’re located far from any metropolis, slopes remain generally uncrowded.

The con:

            New Mexico ski areas are small and scattered.  Skiable terrain ranges from 200-1,200 acres each, and even neighboring areas lie an hour’s drive apart.  Skiers should plan on repeated runs.

            “People ask why they should travel so far to ski in a little tiny area.  Then they go to Colorado and get so tired of lift lines, they leave.  We get them back again,” relates Kathy Pitre of Ski New Mexico.

Mt. Hood


The region:

            A scattering of ski areas occupy the snow-plastered Cascades of Oregon and Washington.  Major air access is through Portland and Seattle.

The pros:

            The Cascade Mountains produce some of the biggest snow dumps in North America.  The world's annual snowfall record, 1,140 inches, is held by Washington’s Mt. Baker Ski Area.  These glacier-feeding flakes allow ski seasons to extend into summer and beyond.  The scenery is suburb and on a clear day, Northwest skiers can spot volcano after volcano poking up from the forests below.

The con:

            Ski-in/ski-out lodging is rare.  Because they are located on public lands, most Northwest ski areas lack grand base area developments.  With a few exceptions, visitors must stay in neighboring towns and commute to the slopes.

            “The positive side of that is the value,” points out Dave Tragethon of Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort.  “Room rates are going to be affordable."

Vermont Country Store


The region:

            Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York offer resorts ranging in size from a few hundred acres to more than a thousand.  Air access is through New York City and Boston as well as regional city airports.

The pros:

            They may not have the powdery appeal of the West, but Northeastern resorts offer great groomers and grand glades.  The proximity of ski areas allows visitors to sample multiple resorts on a single vacation.  Best of all, visitors here can stay in historic hotels or small-town country inns and experience the region’s Norman Rockwell culture up close.

The con:

            It’s the ice.  While racers like Bode Miller love the stuff, most people prefer ice in their margaritas, not under their skis.

            “It’s snowmaking, snowmaking, snowmaking,” counters Karl Stone of Ski New Hampshire.  “You can be one day out of icy conditions and the mountains are going to be in great shape through the technology of snowmaking and grooming.”

Ice Fisherman


The region:

            While not on most lists of prime winter destinations, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota offer resorts featuring more than skiing.  Air access is through Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago.

The pros:

            Winter has become a part of the North Country culture, and residents know how to enjoy it.  Besides downhilling, there’s cross-country skiing, river skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, ice fishing, ice climbing, ice skating and more.  At day’s end, visitors can dine at homey, Formica-tabled restaurants where thoughtful servers may apologize if the red wine’s not chilled.

The con:

            The land is flat.  Michigan’s top drop is 900 feet, Wisconsin’s reaches 700 feet and in Minnesota, it’s a lift-served 825 feet.

            “Top to bottom, that’s about the distance you ski on a mountain anywhere,” argues Jim Vick of Minnesota’s Lutsen Mountains resort.  “Ski that and most people are taking a break.”



The region:

            Canada’s Quebec province features resorts near Montreal, Quebec City and in the Eastern Townships.  International air access is through Montreal or Quebec City.

The pros:

            As the promotional cliché goes, visiting French-speaking Quebec is like traveling to Europe without the jet lag.  This is a part of Canada that really feels foreign, and that makes it fun.  Mt. Tremblant, a 90 minute drive from Montreal, offers the amenities of a modern ski-in, ski-out resort.  Quebec City allows the romantic option of staying within the Euro-like stone walls of 17th-century Old Quebec.  The Eastern Townships features small-area skiing around French-Canadian villages.

The con:

            Winter temperatures in Quebec can be so cold that even a penguin would need a parka.  Highs are typically subfreezing and lows average in the single digits.

            “The beginning of March is best,” says local resident and avid skier Martin Belleville.  “You have both the warm sun and good ski conditions.  At the end March, it’s warmer but it’s tougher to ski.”

Marmot Basin


The region:

            Split between Alberta and British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies along with the mountains of interior BC offer a host of ski areas ranging from simple to exquisite.  Major airports include Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

The pros:

            The interior mountains of western Canada receive significant dumps of dry, light fluff, and the glacier-hewn scenery can be downright breathtaking.  Four ski areas in Alberta actually lie in Banff and Jasper National Parks with scenery worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  Beyond the parks, most of the resorts are modern and offer ample ski-in/ski-out base lodging.

The con:

            The ski areas in the Canadian Rockies require a bit of an effort to reach.  The scattered resorts lie miles apart and extended drives or connecting flights are required to reach them from major international gateways.  Passports are required to travel to Canada.

            “It’s worth the drive,” insists Sarah Geddes of Sass Communications in Calgary.  “Once you’re here, you’re at a world-class resort.  Drive another hour and you’re at another world class resort.”

Whistler Blackcomb



The region:

            The region includes Canada’s famed Whistler Blackcomb resort as well as several smaller ski areas on Vancouver Island and near the city of Vancouver, the nearest major airport.

The pros:

            While the slopes around town can provide a schussing escape on a Vancouver vacation, most downhillers coming to the coast will head for Whistler Blackcomb.  At 8,171 acres, the resort offers terrain from groomers to glaciers, and it features one of North America’s top terrain parks.  The base village is pedestrian-friendly and the nightlife spirited.

The con:

            Located mere miles from the ocean, winter skies are often gray and the snow can fall wet, heavy and often.

            “It’s not always as nice as it would be say in Alberta where the snow stays light,” says Whistler resident Jamie Snow, “but there’s a good chance in the next two days you’re going to get another layer over the top and make it all smooth again.”