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Skiing Confidential: Know Your Snow, Take a Lesson, Have Fun

Winter is time to savor alpine air, cozy cabins and powdery snow measured in feet

spinner image skiiers on mountain full of snow
Getty Images

For skiers over the age of 50, novice or expert, snow matters. The quality of the white stuff, from powdery flakes to a crusty glaze, can turn our ski experiences from epic to dud in no time.

What to Know About Ski Passes

A season pass is very likely to make skiing more affordable because the more you ski, the more you save.

The ski industry has consolidated greatly in the past decade with two companies, Vail Resorts and the Alterra Mountain Company, now owning more than 50 ski resorts around the world. Vail (the company not the mountain and town) and Alterra offer the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass respectively, season tickets that encourage skiers and snowboarders to visit a variety of resorts worldwide throughout the winter.

On a smaller scale, two other providers, Mountain Collective Pass and Indy Pass, provide two-day access to numerous other winter resorts.

Epic Pass, Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective Pass 2022/23 availability has expired, but the Indy Pass remains available. To get the best value, however, always visit the ski area and ski pass websites to research the latest costs. You may find deals and discounts on one-day or weekend passes.

But snow quality is just one element to consider when deciding to take a day trip or a snow sport holiday. Overcrowded resorts can crash a ski buzz faster than former USA Olympian Lindsey Vonn can earn a medal in the downhill. We end up swapping time on the slopes for long, cold waits in lift lines. And, let’s be honest, the cost of skiing — which varies greatly depending on place, packages, demand and more — may give us pause as we calculate a vacation budget. Yet, when everything comes together as seamlessly as a snow crystal, a ski holiday dazzles.

I did not take up skiing in earnest until I was 35, when I became smitten on my first run at a Lake Tahoe, California, resort now known as Palisades Tahoe. I was teaching middle school at the time, and I would prioritize my recreation budget for trips to various ski areas the way a beach person might save for sojourns to Hawaii or Mexico.

I’ve since skied at more than 50 areas in North America — enjoying the alpine air, diverse terrain, adrenaline and many après-ski celebrations with friends and family. At 60 I’m still loving it, which is why I encourage those with interest at any age to give it a try or keep it up.

Even now, I’m often too giddy to sleep well on the eve of a ski day. But at Utah’s Alta resort last winter I had full-blown insomnia as I watched a steady snowfall blanket Little Cottonwood Canyon less than 30 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, where the resort of Alta sits. Snow comes down here in sizable dumps often measured in feet, not inches.

My fondness for ski-only Alta (no snowboards) goes beyond snow though. I stay at Alta Lodge, as homespun an experience as you’ll find this side of the Swiss Alps. It isn’t only that I can put on my skis and head straight to the slopes from my door (ski-in/ski-out); Alta Lodge includes breakfast and a four-course dinner within the room charge, which adds a familial vibe to the dining experience. I’ve met countless guests who’ve become friends over dinner and gone on to schedule ski vacations together for years.

Whether at Alta or any other of 523 operating ski resorts in the U.S., I like to ski-in/ski-out because it takes stress off my back and knees. There’s no slip-sliding across an icy parking lot in clunky ski boots or panicked parking in a rapidly filling lot. Alta and neighboring Snowbird, touted as one of America’s top 15 budget-friendly ski resorts by travel website, offer several such ski-in/ski-out lodging options, as do many destination resorts. But check a resort’s website or call reservations to determine room rates, which may change by the day.

That’s the beauty of skiing in Utah: You have options. The Wasatch Mountains, for example, have 17 ski areas, some within a one-hour drive of Salt Lake City. Some that are further from the city have lower ticket prices and more convenient parking, so I love supplementing a couple of days at a big resort with day trips to Snowbasin, Powder Mountain or Sundance. This tactic can be employed in other areas of the country such as the Colorado Rockies, New York and Vermont — regions that are blessed with multiple resorts of every size. Booking a room or short-term homestay in Salt Lake or on the western side of Denver may also save on lodging costs, though it means getting up early, potential weather delays, and, of course, the parking.

spinner image person skiing on mountain
With nearly half of all trails rated for beginner and intermediate skiers, New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley offers options for all skill levels.
Bradd Guenser

I love driving toward out-of-the-way ski areas, glistening winter jewels that often rise out of nowhere. Several of my favorite places to ski in the West possess exceptional snow conditions, thanks to their location within arid environments, and they have smaller crowds. They’re also considered “budget-friendly” by Central Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor offers the rare opportunity to ski or snowboard 360-degrees off the top of a (dormant) volcano. Like Bachelor, in Bend, Oregon, the snow in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, has drier air that leads to lighter snow.

It isn’t just skiing off 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, or the empty lift lines and reliably sunny days, that make skiing Taos so great. The layout is quite diverse, a key consideration when skiing with friends and family who have mixed abilities. Though known for its series of expert black-diamond chutes along the ridgeline, Taos has plenty of beginner green and intermediate blue tracks as well.

Best of all, folks with mixed skiing abilities can easily join each other for chairlift ascents, then divert once off the chair to their preferred terrain. This shared but separate experience is one of my favorite facets of skiing, the opportunity to share the mountain but remain within your comfort zone. Scheduling rendezvous for warm-up hot chocolate, lunch and après also enhance the convivial vibe.

Like Utah and California’s Sierra Nevada, the Colorado Rockies are bursting with ski areas of every size. Rocky Mountain snow tends to be dry, too, though this is due more to low temperatures than an arid environment. Because Fahrenheit temps between 0 and 10 degrees are typically a key component of dry powder here, the Rockies can be very cold.

You’ll find great snow conditions at areas like Breckenridge and Keystone along the famous Interstate-70 ski corridor, but you’ll want to be prepared for averages below freezing most days. Fortunately, modern gear — from merino wool and Capilene baselayers to synthetic down sweaters, multilayer water and windproof jackets, pants and heated gloves — takes the sting out of a frigid day.

Aspen and Vail are the two other best-known areas in Colorado, but the state is home to 32 resorts, so there’s no reason to break the bank to ski Rocky Mountain powder.

spinner image skiier standing on snow-covered mountain with blue sky above
Colorado’s Crested Butte Ski Resort offers 1,500 acres of terrain and more than 162 trails.
Crai S. Bower

One of my favorite places is Purgatory Resort, located 25 miles north of Durango. Lift tickets average around $70 per day, but kids 12 and younger ski or snowboard for free. The “Purg” is also far from a bunny hill, with 105 runs serviced by 12 lifts.

Leadville, Colorado — like Durango — is a true Western town full of saloons and historical interest. It is also home to Cooper ski area, a 480-acre area near bigger I-70 corridor resorts such as Copper Mountain and Vail but without the costs. At Cooper you’ll find the same snow quality, stunning alpine views and plenty of terrain for about 30 percent of the day-ticket price at Vail or Aspen.

If you’re new to skiing, or it has been awhile, you might choose to save money on your lift ticket and spend your savings on lessons. Ski areas may feature variable terrain and conditions, but what many across the country have in common is excellent ski and snowboard schools. Veteran instructors like Josh Quentzel, who teaches skiing at Crested Butte resort in Colorado, say lessons are valuable at all levels of ski skill. Skiers “often think they can figure it out on their own,” Quentzel says. However, “a quality lesson can improve your enjoyment because it will allow you to ski with more performance, more control and less effort. It ultimately means you can ski longer and have more fun.”


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