Some say that selecting the best ski resort is a subjective mission, one that should be left to travelers themselves. We recognize the spirit of that sentiment. Our simple counter: skiers and snowboarders need to start somewhere.
Consider the top 10 (plus 1 more) ski resorts laid out here to be the best places to look at first when planning a ski vacation. This is the top group according to a scoring system unique to USA TODAY, put together by ZRankings, a site that guides skiers to the right resort at the right time of the season according to snowfall history, data and expert opinions.
The rankings here weigh things like town scene, variance of terrain, lodging base, and snow quality, using both hard data and inputs from ZRankings’ network of experts. Scores are then ranked by a metric called PAF (Pure Awesomeness Factor).
This winter has brought skiers the best weather in at least 15 years, as resorts from California to Vermont hit the holidays with 100% of their terrain open. The snow and cold have continued into January, with the Pacific Coast and inner ranges of the West corralling good amounts of cold precipitation.
Skiers who have been looking for the right time to get out should wait no longer. Spring break skiing is around the corner and trips should be booked. In the west, travelers should plan with confidence as mountain snow bases are reaching levels what will ensure good conditions for spring.
Of interest to any skiers trying to get the best deal on their ski trip: all of the ski resorts below are covered by one of the two major ski passes. Vail Resort’s Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass both have extensive portfolios of resorts from California’s Sierra to Utah’s Wasatch and into central Colorado.
These are the top 10 ski resorts for 2019:
1. Telluride – Pure Awesomeness Factor (PAF) score: 99.0
Telluride has long been a recognizable destination name to most skiers, but it remains a white whale for many. It shouldn’t. The town’s old bones, tracing to the time when Telluride was a mining outpost, make for a striking foreground against the backdrop of a seemingly vertical box canyon whose upper walls reflect the sun an hour before rays hit the street in town. Top-end eateries and clever shops keep storefronts jammed and foot traffic circulating. Town runs right into the lower trails of the ski resort, with the Telluride Gondola climbing out and up into Mountain Village, a separate town where much of the ski resort operations and lodging sit. This combination of charming old buildings, striking scenery and proximity to skiing make Telluride the best ski town in North America.
Telluride doesn’t leave much uncovered on the skiing front, either. Experts will love the steepness of the Gold Hill chutes and the pure fall lines that descend straight into town. Intermediates can find plenty of blue terrain all over Mountain Village and beginners will revel in prolonged groomers such as Galloping Goose, which stretches on for 4.6 miles. More expert fodder can be had off the Prospect Lift, including the most unique in-bounds skiing in North America: a chute that descends from near the top of Palmyra Peak. Skiers seeking this challenge will need to climb 1,300 vertical feet on their own legs, however, from the top of the Prospect Chair, a task that turns most away and keeps the chute’s snow fresh and chalky. Telluride’s slopes excel in the spring, when its high elevations and northern exposures help preserve snow.
Ski Pass: Epic Pass Where to stay: The Inn at Lost Creek has one of the pole positions on the mountain. Where to eat: Tomboy Tavern, in Mountain Village, has a menu full of thoughtful dishes. Our favorite: The Schnitzel Sandwich.
A name that has always been synonymous with extreme skiing, Jackson has made major changes on its mountain to make it more beginner and intermediate friendly. From added terrain on the Teton lift, to the new Sweetwater Gondola and a new kid-friendly ski instruction center dubbed Solitude Station, the resort has been busy bolstering its case as a destination resort that can handle all skier types. It’s a good case, and the efforts are working, as Jackson has grown its skier day totals at a clip far greater than the industry as a whole.
There still remains room to roam in this Northwest corner of Wyoming, however, which is used to even larger crowds in the summer that gather to travel through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Jackson’s epicurean scene has continued to ascend, with steady standbys supplemented by edgy newcomers each season.
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: The Four Seasons is positioned particularly well on the mountain, and its service, rooms and amenities are unmatched anywhere else in Jackson. Where to eat: We can’t get away from the food at Teton Thai. Savor it.
Steamboat calls itself Ski Town USA, and it just might be. This venerable ski resort has been soaking Colorado storms for powder since 1963, and the area’s skiing roots are intertwined with those of America. This is a real place, not an Epcot facsimile of a ski town, so Steamboat has more to offer than many resort towns that have cropped up purely as tourist turnstiles. It also has perhaps the coolest and certainly one of the largest ski shops in America in Ski Haus, which sports a book section and enough spare parts to fix any ski or binding, no matter the year or model.
Steamboat receives more snow than any other major destination resort in Colorado. This year is not proving an exception, as the ski mountain has been layered in white since mid-November. Holiday season skiers this year were treated to 100% of the mountain being open with nary a rock in sight. The resort is awash in easy-going blues and true fall-line blacks that continue for thousands of feet. The steepest shots on the mountain are accessed via a short hike to its highest point. The extra work, as always, helps keep traffic down and snow fresh.
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: The Steamboat Grand is the resort’s vanguard hotel nestled right at the foot of the mountain, including ski storage for guests right off of the snow. Where to eat: On the weekends, head to the Western BBQ Dinner at Thunderhead Lodge, at the top of the gondola. Reservations are a must as it regularly books out for weeks—bring the kids and your dancing shoes.
For the purposes of this piece, we are going to treat Alta-Snowbird as one destination, even though each resort has its distinctions, including: Alta can only be legally accessed by skiers—sorry snowboarders; and Snowbird has a tram that treats skiers (and snowboarders) to all of the resort’s considerable vertical in one straight shot up the mountain.
Distinctions aside, the two ski resorts do border each other, and can be accessed via a joint lift ticket that allows holders to cross over from one to the other (except for snowboarders coming from Snowbird). For snow seekers, Alta/Snowbird has always been hallowed ground, as the slopes here gather snow better than those of any other ski resort in North America. Join those superlative conditions with terrain that is only matched by a few other resorts and skiers will always find an indelible experience in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: The Cliff Lodge, Snowbird. This ski hotel continues to be one of the best in the business. Where to eat: The Forklift has one of the best breakfasts in Utah. Try the oatmeal.
Many people don’t realize that there are four ski resorts in and around the town of Aspen that comprise the entirety of the Aspen ski experience: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Aspen Snowmass. Each resort operates on the same lift ticket—so skiers can grab a three-day pass and use it everywhere—but each resort has unique qualities.
Buttermilk is one of the better beginner mountains anywhere, with mellow terrain and a great ski school at the base. The slopes at Aspen Mountain pour right into town along great fall lines that keep skiers working all the way down. Highlands is a favorite for powder chasers, and Highlands’ Bowl is one of the best in-bounds bootpacks in all of skiing. Snowmass offers the big destination resort experience that’s more akin to some of the other large resorts in Colorado.
Couple all of that great skiing with a town that is amongst the best in skiing and Aspen presents one of the best all-around ski trip experiences on the continent. For travelers, the Aspen airport offers better service than any other ski town airport in the west, with direct service from all over the continent, including multiple flights per day from major hubs such as Dallas, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, among others. Most travelers won’t need a rental car for a ski trip to Aspen, as the airport is so close to town that most of the hotels will pick guests up curbside.
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: If you can find an opening at the new Limelight Hotel, book it. Where to eat: The White House Tavern is always a good bet.
The resort that has come to define skiing for so many remains a flagship of not only its parent company, Vail Resorts, but also of the state of Colorado, the default destination for most skiers. Vail combines a superlative skiing experience that is huge—more than 5,000 acres—with a base that includes lodging and dining options that run the entire scale. Vail has terrain to satisfy nearly any skier and has one of the stronger snow profiles in the entire state.
Most people fly to Denver and drive up to Vail, which works. A better plan is to fly straight into Eagle-Vail airport, just 35 minutes from the ski resort. Eagle-Vail has directs from hubs all over the country, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and New York.
Ski Pass: Epic Where to stay: Hotel Talisa is a newly renovated property at the western edge of Vail’s base and has direct access to the slopes from a lift out its back door. Where to eat: Vail’s Game Creek Club offers skiers a chance to get way up on the mountain in an exclusive setting after dark that is reached via a snow cat ride from the top of the gondola. The food is outstanding, mixing classic dishes with a western heartiness befitting the setting.
The largest resort in North America offers skiers not only a big skiing experience, but also one of the best village scenes in skiing. At some point during the last couple of decades, Whistler’s village reached an après level commensurate with resorts in Austria—where the partying starts hard at 4 p.m. and continues that way into the next day. Not that all skiers at Whistler have to party, but those looking for that kind of game will find it here in the coastal range of British Columbia.
The skiing, like the partying, is huge. The vertical drop here, the second largest in North America, gives skiers long descents that test the thighs. With two different mountain peaks to explore, there are thousands of acres that work for experts, intermediates and beginners. Getting to Whistler requires a little more grinding from travelers not arriving from the West Coast, which makes it a good candidate for week-long trips for spring break or the holidays—and Whistler has a great recent history of having most of its terrain open during the latter.
Ski Pass: Epic Where to stay: When in Canada, do stay at the Fairmont. Where to eat: Get the meat platter for two at Hunter Gather. Bring your doggie bag.
Beaver Creek was built up with the goal of being the most luxurious spot on I-70. That goal has been realized, and the ski resort has developed into a spot that is particularly adept at handling the vagaries of a family ski trip. The ski school is one of the three best in the country for kids and the ski resort possesses a wide swath of terrain that is kid and beginner friendly, from a short gondola near the base geared toward kids—The Buckaroo Express—to a large area at the top of the resort that is a playground of mellow green terrain and little trails in the woods. The free cookies that emerge at the end of the day at Beaver Creek’s base have grown legendary, and harder to find, but their quality hasn’t flagged, so seek them out if you can.
Adults and experts will find plenty to do here, too, with good strips of terrain that roll off the Birds of Prey lift, as well as the Grouse Mountain lift. This includes the Birds of Prey run itself, a well-known World Cup track. When the run is groomed and hard, skiers can get a feel for just how nutty the big turn is at the top of the course for racers going full speed on what amounts to a half-vertical sheet of ice. On the east side of the resort, there is challenging terrain to be found in the Stone Creek Chutes.
Ski Pass: Epic Where to stay: The entire base area is awash in top-end lodging. Try condos near the base of the Strawberry Park lift for a good balance of value and location. Where to eat: Ticino has pizza worth a wait.
Montana’s sections of the Rockies always seem a bit bigger, a bit more untamed, than other spots along the continental divide. Big Sky offers skiers an area befitting its name, with 5,800 skiable acres, the third most in North America. Compared with the other three resorts with more than 5,000 acres—Whistler, Park City and Vail—Big Sky almost never has a crowd. Lift lines here aren’t really a thing.
Experts will love the unique ride up to Lone Peak on a small tram that gives them a crack at a couloir that requires true skill to descend. Big Sky’s trump card, however, is its appeal to intermediates. It has a wide expanse of blue runs that unroll down the apron of Lone Peak at steady, unintimidating angles. Skiers can often pull up, look around, and realize there isn’t another skier for hundreds of yards. That’s the charm of Montana. The village base continues to evolve, as Big Sky looks to lure more people to its slopes. The latest addition will open in 2021: Big Sky Montage, inside the Spanish Peaks enclave at the resort. The Big Sky property will be the eighth Montage resort, and the second one positioned at a ski mountain (Deer Valley).
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: The Spanish Peaks Mountain Club offers luxury accommodations for all sizes of groups. Where to eat: Get the bison burger at Olive B’s Big Sky Bistro.
With its expansion several years ago to include what used to be Canyons, Park City became the largest ski resort—at 7,300 acres—in the United States and second to only Whistler-Blackcomb on the continent. Its vastness can present a challenge to skiers who don’t know the place well. That being said, heed our advice and prosper: concentrate single days on one side of the resort or another: Legacy Park City (this is the south portion of resort) or Legacy Canyons (the north portion). Riding the Quicksilver Gondola and negotiating the groomers to get there—especially on the north side—can take a lot of time. If you start at one end of the resort and want to ski to the other, by all means take the gondola, but just be sure to budget in a lot of time for traveling back at the end of the day.
With that rigmarole out of the way, we can tell you that there’s tons of great skiing to be had on both sides, including shots off of the Ninety-Nine Ninety lift on the north side of the resort, and Jupiter on the south side. Skiing into town in Park City is a charm only matched by Aspen and Telluride within North America. Skiers can grab a quick lunch on Main Street, or in its less-trafficked alleys: try Davanzas for pizza or, for something harder right at the base of the Town Lift, wander into High West Distillery and ask for the Double Rye, neat.
Ski Pass: Epic Where to stay: Ski-in, Ski-out properties come at a major premium in Park City. We like aiming for something on Main Street, such as Treasure Mountain Inn, which offers great value for the location. Where to eat: Davanza’s – get the pizza with veggies and sausage, or a chick-parm if you dare.
California’s Sierra offer as much of a gold rush as they did 150 years ago, but in the form of snow. The weather in this west coast range can be famously fickle—it’s far more prone to droughts than are the Rockies—but it can snow with a furiousness that is unknown to Colorado. For instance, last week Mammoth received four feet or more from a single storm. Those will be lifetime days for those lucky enough to be there.
And lucky for those who will be showing up days later, Mammoth preserves snow better than anywhere else in the Sierra, due to its high elevations (its base is 2,000 feet above that of Squaw Valley) and its large amounts of north-facing terrain. The terrain at Mammoth is varied and vast, and includes enough steep bowl skiing to keep experts sated and striving intermediates working to move up the ladder. Mammoth has always been the province of Southern Californians, but with more direct flights into Mammoth Lakes, it’s starting to attract skiers from elsewhere. It’s a mountain we recommend checking out, given the chance.
Ski Pass: Ikon Where to stay: The Village Lodge is the keystone hotel at a ski resort full of top options. Where to eat: If it’s meat you’re after, The Mogul will fill you up.
Christopher Steiner is a New York Times Bestselling Author of two books, and the founder of ZRankings.