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The Top 10 Ski Resorts in the United States for 2013

Published: 12/03/2012

Forbes, by Christopher Steiner

Rankings have become so ubiquitous in our world – top colleges, top cities, top jobs, top sandwiches – that they’ve begun to lose value.  Everybody has a ranking about everything.  Making matters more confusing, most rankings get so granular that nearly every person, place and thing is ranked No. 1 for something.

Wear a helmet: The home to Corbet's Couloir retained it's No. 1 ranking for 2013.

In the ski world, there’s been a bit of this specialization ranking creeping in as well.  To be sure, some of it is fair.  Winter Park, for instance, can’t compare its terrain to that of Snowbird, but the Colorado resort does offer some of the greatest access to disabled and adaptive skiers in the world – and it deserves credit for that.  Other outlets rank snow, grooming, family friendliness, food, lodging, customer service and even the quality of the booze on mountain.

All of those things matter to somebody.  But here we only rank one thing: Awesomeness.  It’s the most important thing we can measure.  If you can know a place’s awesomeness, do you need to know anything else?

Answer: No.

We measure awesomeness with strict adherence to quantitative and scientific methods.  The rankings you see here are the product of the most honed algorithms ever unleashed on the ski world.  Being on this list means something.  It means awesomeness.  We don’t rank 50 resorts, we rank only ten — and we’ve included extended and 100% new material on the top six.

There’s nothing east of the Rockies on the list because no resort east of the Rockies has the snow or terrain to crack our awesomeness rankings–something that matters for both beginners and experts (soft western snow >> eastern ice).  Not that there isn’t fun to be had in the East or even the Midwest.  Ski wherever you can.  We plan to do a separate, eastern list next year.

Again, we rank awesomeness and awesomeness only.  If you want to find out what ski resort has the best hot chocolate and marshmallow bar, you’ll find that list elsewhere.  If you want the hard facts on what ski mountain gives you the best possibility of a soul-moving experience on and off the snow, then you need rankings based on our patented Pure Awesomeness Factor.  In the ski business, this is known as PAF.  It’s not something that resorts make public, but every mountain knows where it stands.  Most big resorts employ at least three data scientists who spend their days looking for methods to raise the resort’s PAF score.  Boost that score, and you get closer to excellence.

Awesomeness is the only proxy for awesomeness.  It’s the critical path to a vacation that becomes legendary.  So for the second time ever, here are the top ten resorts in the United States according to PAF...:

Snowbird: Best snow, epic terrain, epic lift.

2.   Alta and Snowbird, Utah (PAF = 97):

For most people, these two resorts that occupy a splendid apron of Little Cottonwood Canyon just 35 minutes from downtown Salt Lake should be the default ski vacation. Direct flights to Salt Lake can be had from most cities and the trip from the airport to the snow here is a leisurely stroll compared with the white-knuckle pilgrimage between Denver and Colorado’s resorts.

We rank Snowbird and Alta together because they are together.  They share a boundary line and even, for those who choose to purchase it, a joint lift ticket.  If you go to one, you should go to the other.  Unless you’re a snowboarder, in which case Alta won’t allow you to plow through its chutes and trees—and what glorious chutes and trees they are.

The terrain at Alta and Snowbird is the terrain against which all others are measured.  Snowbird’s tram, which, like Jackson’s, also traverses from the base of the resort to the top, is the only lift that compares with the tram at Jackson Hole. The lift line for the Snowbird tram on a prime powder day can get ugly—one of the drawbacks of being on top of a greater metropolitan area of 2 million people.

The good news is that not all of those people ski and, even better, this place has a lot of powder days—it gets 600 inches a year—more than anywhere outside of Alaska.  The snow is dependable and comes in a density that’s user friendly, like a stiff dollop of whipped milk on a cappuccino.  If you’re going on a trip for three days or less, it’s hard to go anywhere but Utah. We can’t stress enough how awesome the skiing is here.  If you haven’t been, just go.

Not to be missed: Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge, a wonderful modern building whose raw, reinforced concrete edifice evokes the work of architect Paul Rudolph, a brilliant shaper of glass and poured stone.