Days are shorter, temps are falling, and the year is almost over — it’s time to plan a ski vacation. But if you always gravitate toward well-known big-name resorts, you’re missing out.
Kristen Ulmer, a former professional skier whose Ski to Live workshops teach mental techniques to improve performance on and off the slopes, has skied all over the world. Every resort, she says, has its own personality and flavor. “If someone’s like, ‘Aspen, Aspen, Aspen, glamour, glamour, glamour,’ they’re kind of stuck,” she says. “There are so many other skiing experiences you can have. I would encourage people to try on different hats and different experiences.”
For example, Ulmer’s home base these days is Utah’s Alta resort, widely recognized as one of the nation’s best. But she also loves nearby Solitude for its low-key European vibe.
They might not have shopping malls and luxury hotels, but these lesser-known gems offer good skiing, friendly atmospheres, and their own unique charm — along with lower ticket prices and shorter lift lines. We’ve included the full-price adult ticket cost, but many resorts offer specials and discounts.
White Pass Ski Area
Adult day pass: $62
Photo: White Pass Ski Area/Facebook
On a clear day, White Pass grants skiers views of majestic, 14,000-foot Mount Rainier. But let’s talk about the waffle bar — it’s the kind of homey touch to expect at this out-of-the-way resort that first gained fame as the training ground for 1980s Olympic skiers Phil and Steve Mahre (their dad managed the ski area). More than a three-hour drive from Seattle, the resort perches along the White Pass Scenic Byway, which skirts the edge of glacier-carved slopes from Mount Rainier National Park to the burgeoning Yakima Valley wine region.
Kids love riding the magic carpet lift, but White Pass offers access to serious backcountry, too. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails abound at the resort and in the surrounding forests. “They opened up a whole other mountain a few years ago — almost all blue runs and totally different wind and sun exposure — so the lines are just getting more spread out,” local skier Katy Raymond says. The new area includes its own lodge, “so you can beer up without skiing all the way down.”
Adult day pass: $52
Family-friendly (and nonprofit) Bridger Bowl has short lift lines, reasonable prices, a laid-back feel, and terrain for all skill levels. Its lack of crowds might make you feel you have its 2,600 feet of vertical drop and 2,000 acres of skiable terrain to yourself. Bozeman, only 20 minutes away, is a bustling, old-fashioned Western city dotted with art galleries and restaurants better than you’ll find in most towns of its size. Whenever Bridger Bowl gets more than 2 inches of snow in one day, a blue strobe light atop the historic Baxter Hotel shines like a beacon to locals who know it’s time to play hooky from work.
Photo: Big Sky Resort/Facebook
While you’re in Bozeman, make a pilgrimage to Big Sky Resort, an hour south of town. It lives up to the “big” in the name with 5,800 skiable acres, 4,350 feet of vertical drop, and runs up to 6 miles long. Those looking for a technical challenge hop aboard the Lone Peak Tram to some of the country’s trickiest terrain. “Big Sky is awesome,” Ulmer says. “I love how steep it is. The steeps there and the adventures you can go on are pretty hairy.” (Adult lift ticket: $103.)
Adult day pass: $49
Photo: Bogus Basin/Facebook
Bogus Basin boasts great terrain, including snowshoe trails, tubing hills, and the Mtn Dew Terrain Park for freestyle skiers and boarders. And it’s only 16 miles from Boise, a surprisingly cosmopolitan little city with a generous supply of good cocktail bars and locavore restaurants. Many hotels offer “stay and play” packages with sweet deals on lift tickets.
Adult day pass: $69
Photo: Powder Mountain
Many visitors to Utah stick to the excellent resorts in the Salt Lake or Park City areas. But Ogden-area resorts like Powder Mountain, an hour to the north, are blessed with the same fluffy snow. Most of those plying Powder Mountain’s whopping 7,000 acres are locals (a recent tongue-in-cheek slogan: “Come alone and make sure you weren’t followed”). Ownership changed hands in 2013, but the new owners say they’re “focused on preserving the history and character.”
“It’s my favorite resort because it has a wide variety of types of runs, meaning everybody can ski something that sounds exciting to them and we can all meet at the bottom of the resort,” says Jim Patrick, a sportswriter and editor. “It also has some of the most amazing backcountry-style skiing I’ve ever seen at a resort, including one area where you ski over the back of the resort and they pick you up in a bus.”
For a cushier atmosphere with a plethora of amenities and seemingly endless runs, head to nearby Snowbasin Resort, home to downhill events in the 2002 Olympics.
Diamond Peak Ski Resort
Incline Village, Nev.
Adult day pass: $64
Photo: Diamond Peak Ski Resort/Facebook
So you want to experience Lake Tahoe-area skiing but have kids to buy passes for? Consider Diamond Peak. Southern California resident Sarah Stevenson recently vacationed there with her family and praised the resort as “very down-to-earth, with nice instructors, and not terribly expensive, especially in relation to some of the other local ski areas.” It sits at the quieter northeast corner of Lake Tahoe, which makes it perfect for families seeking a cozy getaway. If you need a break from the quiet life, posh resorts and Stateline’s glitzy casinos are only a short drive away.
Adult day pass: $62
Photo: Arizona Snowbowl/Facebook
If you think Arizona is only about desert heat, you’ve never been to the northern part of the state. Since 1938, aficionados from Flagstaff (14 miles away) have been sneaking to the Arizona Snowbowl to plow past the trees covering the San Francisco Peaks. The resort is not huge, and there’s not much lodging — all the more reason to stay in Flagstaff, one of the West’s most charming towns, with a welcoming main drag full of restaurants and shops. Take a break from the snow and make the one-hour drive downhill to Sedona for a spa day trip in the desert.
Wolf Creek Ski Area
Pagosa Springs, Colo.
Adult day pass: $63
Photo: Wolf Creek Ski Lodge
A blizzard struck Wolf Creek last time I was there. Did I mention it was August? Did I also mention that the resort opened on Nov. 8 this year? With a base elevation of 10,300 feet, this ski area often accumulates more snow per season (averaging 430 inches) than any other in Colorado. Which means it should be packed — except that it’s in the middle of nowhere. The closest town of any size is worth a visit on its own. Surrounded by 3 million acres of wilderness and national forest, Pagosa Springs is home to civilized spa-themed miniresorts offering après-ski soaks in the hot springs that gave the town its name.
Taos Ski Valley
Taos Ski Valley, N.M.
Adult day pass: $82
Photo: Taos Ski Valley/Facebook
We already knew Taos was an artsy little vacation spot, but it’s the nearby mountains that draw snow fanatics in winter. Long a traditional sort of place (it didn’t allow snowboarders until 2008), the resort was recently sold, and new developments in the works include a revamped base area, new chairlifts, and a tubing hill. But locals are hoping the feel — warm, casual, and homey, with a European-chalet theme — will stay the same. The mountain offers steep, world-class runs on the kind of powder that results from the combination of high elevation — its base is at 9,200 feet — and dry air.
For an even more remote experience, drive an hour north to Red River Ski & Summer Area, where you can ski into and out of a tiny mountain town that doesn’t seem to have changed in decades (seriously: lifts pick up just a block from Main Street). You can even ski through a mining camp that celebrates the area’s gold rush history.
Bolton Valley, Vt.
Adult day pass: $59
Bolton Valley hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. And that’s how its fans like it. As one reviewer on TripAdvisor put it, “The staff is awesome, from the director of the snowboard school to the bartenders. There is a special charm about this place that I cannot put my finger on … a special ambience of yesteryear.” The resort isn’t huge, but the varied terrain is especially friendly to beginners and glade skiers.
Photo: Jay Peak Resort/Facebook
More adventurous skiers could leave the beginners in the family at Bolton Valley as they head off for bigger challenges at other resorts close by. Jay Peak Resort is still laid-back but with more upscale amenities and some of the best snow in the Northeast. It gets especially high praise from tree skiers. It’s also known for its Pump House indoor water park, a splashy alternative on a bad snow day. (Adult day pass: $72.)
Waterville Valley Resort
Waterville Valley, N.H.
Adult day pass: $55
Photo: Waterville Valley Resort/Facebook
New Hampshire is full of family-friendly resorts nestled among its granite hills. Waterville is famously welcoming, with lots of runs for intermediate skiers and a vertical drop of 2,020 feet. It’s also known as the “birthplace of freestyle skiing,” which originated there in the late 1960s. Another option, Wildcat Mountain, is a favorite of hardcore skiers who like the steep terrain and long runs, including the Polecat trail, New Hampshire’s longest at nearly 3 miles. A new snowmaking system should make for good conditions. (Adult day pass: $75.)
Kristen Ulmer’s favorite area in her home state is Bretton Woods, not so much for its skiing (which is known for being relaxed) as for the sprawling red-and-white Mount Washington Hotel, opened in 1902. “It felt like there was a rich history that you were part of,” she says.
Saddleback Ski Area
Adult day pass: $69
Photo: Saddleback Ski Area/Facebook
Not surprisingly, Maine contains some of the least crowded resorts in the Northeast. Saddleback is among the biggest, with 220 skiable acres and a 2,000-foot vertical drop. But it calls itself “a magnificent mountain with genuine values and a gentle soul. It’s the way Alpine skiing and riding used to be.” It keeps its focus on skiing rather than glitz and prides itself on being under- rather than overdeveloped. Thoughtfully laid-out runs range from steeps to glades to gentle hills. Though you’ll probably want to stay in one of the resort’s trailside condos, the nearby recreational town of Rangeley makes for a nice diversion on a non-ski day.
Adult day pass: $89
Photo: Philip Duncan/Snowshoe Mountain ski resort
West Virginia isn’t necessarily the first state that comes to mind when most of us think skiing, but Snowshoe Mountain, in historic Pocahontas County, would like to change that. It packs 1,500 vertical feet into its 251 acres of skiable terrain, and its 4,848-foot summit elevation is among the highest in the East. Its three distinct areas each offer something a little different, from beginner trails at Snowshoe Basin to the freestyle and tube parks at Silver Creek to steeps of 52 percent at Western Territory.
What’s your favorite under-the-radar resort? Tell us in the comments!