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The Top 5 Ski Resorts in the United States

Published: 12/13/2011
By Christopher Steiner, Forbes Magazine -- When I became serious about skiing, I wanted to know where, exactly, I should be spending my time and my money. I approached the problem as an engineer might. I used quantitative methods: which resort gets the most snow, which has the largest vertical drop, where are the fastest lifts, the most runs, etc. But stats don't tell the entire story when it comes to grading a ski resort. I've found that pairing raw data with the input of raw experience gives the most reliable results. To know a mountain's virtues, faults and secrets, you must ski it. Not once, not twice, but days upon days, preferably with a local who will minimize the time you schlep and maximize the time your're skiing something interesting.

08 Shootout Winner Mountain Lifestyle

So, in the name of interesting skiing, I've constructed a Top 5 resorts list according to proprietary, exacting and regularly calibrated metrics. I've boiled all of these data points down, consulted superheros, accounted for human error and put the data into a master algorithm that produces an output of a resort's Pure Awesomeness Factor. In the biz, that's called a PAF score. A perfect PAF score, which has yet to be produced by man, is 100 . In the name of getting you to the best ski destination possible, here are the top 5 PAF scores in the United States:

1. Jackson Hole, Wyoming (PAF = 99): There's long been a Four Seasons hotel installed at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Such an institution implies all that one would expect: fancy snacks, celebrity sightings, rich cowboys and s'mores bars - all the normal trappings of your first-tier destination resort. But the thing that separates Jackson Hole from the rest of North America's grade-A mountains is that it has, rather impossibly, managed to retain all of its soul. This is still a place where the best skiers in the world, before skiing off of 50-foot cliffs, gulp down waffles and Budweisers inside a mountaintop shanty called Corbet's Cabin. Jackson is still the place with the best backcountry skiing in the world. It still gets more snow than anywhere not called Alta. It still has The Tram, the greatest ski lift on earth. For those building their game to rock star level, Jackson's Steep and Deep camp, which begat imitations across the resort world, provides four days where all skiers can count on improvement. The program, run several times a year, attracts all different kinds of people with different appetites for risk-the one common theme: everybody is good and trying to get better. Nobody's too good for Steep and Deep; cheeky campers can have their ego shaved by a trip down the tram fall line with olympic downhill gold medalist Tommy Moe. The big skill gainers at camp shimmy their ski tips up to the edge of Corbet's Couloir. But actually pushing in is another matter.

Its hardcore credentials intact, Jackson has become a place that works well for families. Its Kids Ranch keeps tots well-fed and weaving through cones on their skis. It's the perfect weaning ground for the next Eric Schlopy. The Bridger Gondola moves people quickly from the base to a point two-thirds up Jackson's ridiculous 4,139 vertical drop, where the black diamond folk can find thrills and the groomer folk can find long, wide highways all the way down. About that way down: this is Jackson's greatest asset. There's no hopscotching from fall line to fall line on this mountain. The entire resort is one contiguous, unrelenting and glorious slope that points where it's supposed to point: down. Those searching for wandering, time-wasting cat tracks might want to consider Colorado. For inquiries on something scenic like a movie (the Tetons), prolific like the Himalayas (450″ of snow) and a fun that's a little bit different from anywhere else, try Wyoming.

2. Alta and Snowbird, Utah (PAF = 98): For those looking for a weekend of skiing, there is no better option than these side-by-side resorts that occupy a splendid apron of Little Cottonwood Canyon just 30 minutes from downtown Salt Lake. That nearly 2 million Utahans live so close to skiing that truly defines world-class is a fact that remains a secret to most of the country. If you've flown to Denver and schlepped west for the last 10 years-or just two-please stop. Go to Utah. Just go. You won't see the insides of Denver International for a long time after that, I can assure you. You'll think you just discovered the Lost Dutchman's mine and the gold-all of it-is yours and yours alone. And my, is there some gold! Alta and Snowbird average 600″ of snow a year-100% more than your typical Colorado mountain-and, to be fair, more than just about anywhere not in Alaska.

The Alta-Snowbird party scene lacks, well, it lacks. But there's no shortage of plush accommodations, beginning with 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. The Cliff Lodge sits snug at the base of Snowbird, with expansive mountain views for every room in the house. Those sleeping in Little Cottonwood may, on rare occasions, be served with a legendary treat: getting "interlodged." This happens when the road into Little Cottonwood gets closed due to heavy snowfall and avalanche danger. It can take hours sometimes for crews to place the right amount of explosives to clear avalanche paths and pop the road open. During that window of time, Alta and Snowbird often get some of their slopes skiable well before the road is cleared. That means heliskiing-style powder available only to the small band of people who slept the previous night in the Canyon. There's nice lodging at Alta and Snowbird, but there isn't a lot of it, which is why getting "interlodged" remains one of the most hallowed privileges in North American skiing. 

08 Shootout Grand Prize Winner






3. Telluride, Colorado (PAF = 89): If you've been to Telluride, you understand why it's on this list. Seeing this town's main street framed against one of the more magnificent box canyons in the world, the spire of its old courthouse saluting a battalion of serrated San Juan peaks, pays for the plane ticket. As for that plane ride, Telluride has a reputation for being hard to reach. It's a tag that gets Dave Riley, the CEO of the resort, bristling. "It's simply not true," he says. "It's easier to get in here than a lot of other Colorado resorts, and the drive is better."

Riley speaks the truth. Landing in Montrose leaves skiers with a 50-minute car ride to the promised land, a path that winds through the charming town of Ridgway while passing by some of the most ridiculous vistas outside of Switzerland. One of the choicest spots travelers pass is the Double RL Ranch, belonging, of course, to billionaire Ralph Lauren. Compare that with the white-knuckle drive, next to semis and thousands of other skiers, up I-70 from Denver to Colorado's Summit County. And once you're in Telluride, the need for a car falls away. There's no better Main Street than Telluride's in the Rockies outside of Aspen's and Park City's. Telluride's old town is connected to the upper town of Mountain Village (it's an actual town) by a gondola that runs from dawn to midnight and is free for all. There are many mountains you can visit that, technically, don't require you to have a car. But none of them give you the pedestrian nirvana that Telluride does.

Now, for the skiing. Telluride's venerable runs leading toward old town remain some of the most charming in North America: the fall lines are true, the peaks overhead are 14,000-footers and the town below is a gem. But it's the new terrain, opened during the last several years, that elevates Telluride to a true skier's mountain. The mountain opened its backside, Revelation Bowl, a classic and continuous Western fall line, in 2008. Better lift access was also provided to the shoulders of Palmyra peak, which offers a bevy of expert chutes, nooks and steeps.

4. Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows (PAF = 84): Being on the north side of Lake Tahoe guarantees that winter will always be interesting at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, mountains that share a unique vista of Lake Tahoe, terrain and, the most interesting part, snowfall. These resorts never seem to have that routine winter, where 300 inches fall and locals eventually confuse memories of it with other years. No, in north Lake Tahoe, the snow either goes completely bezerk, leaving resorts with shrinking parking lots, dangerous and persistent avalanche conditions and, yes, epic skiing; or the snow simply won't show for multiple weeks at a time, ruining many a ski bums' winter plans. And then there's the variability of Tahoe's snow. One day, it might be light, just-right powder, but just as often the area gets what people call Sierra Cement: warm snow packed with moisture thanks to the nearby Pacific Ocean. The same clouds later head across the deserts of Nevada and western Utah, where their moisture content gets dispersed, setting Utah up with what its license plates call The Best Snow on Earth.

But if you hit Squaw/Alpine on the right day, there are few places with comparable terrain. There's a reason that many of the world's best extreme skiers are bred on these lifts. Squaw's legendary chairs include KT-22 and Granite Chief, which lead to all kinds of couloirs, chutes and hucks. Squaw sports one of the few true mountain trams in the United States (Jackson, Snowbird, Big Sky, Jay Peak) and the only U.S. funitel, a high speed gondola that runs on two wires, which allows it to continue operations in rougher weather and when wind events kick up, as they often do in the Sierra. Squaw's Palisades are famous for their enduring steepness and an upper cliff band that's played a role in hundreds of ski movies. A likely unknown fact to many readers under 40: Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. There remain plenty of monuments to the games, but Squaw has overhauled its base village to compete with the sprawling villages of other Tahoe resorts, such as Heavenly on the south end of the lake.

5. Vail/Beaver Creek, Colorado (PAF = 82): These resorts are far more separate than the other mountain pairs on this list, but they're still relatively close together, run by the same company (Vail Resorts), and different enough that, when put together, they offer skiers the most formidable destination along Colorado's I-70 corridor, the highest-density collection of big resorts in the United States. Vail and the Beav benefit from being on the right side of Vail pass, which funnels them a bit more snow than their brethren on the East side of the pass (Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone). There's been some Colorado bashing going on in this piece (I kid!) but I'd be remiss to not offer some guidance to the one-gazillion tourists who ply central Colorado's mountains every winter.

The terrain at Vail is arguably the best of the central Colorado bunch and inarguably the largest in the U.S. at 5,289 acres. But its vastness makes it easy to waste time at Vail-find a spot you like and work it. The Beav gives skiers a more manageable trail map. Its most famous run, a World Cup downhill track dubbed Birds of Prey, is a steep but still moderate black diamond mogul run on most days. If you happen to catch Birds of Prey after it's been groomed slick and bare for a race, you'll understand why this course was one of the few that intimidated Austrian ski immortal Hermann Maier.

You do pay a price to go to Vail or Beaver Creek. The lift tickets at both resorts are among the most expensive in the country ($105) and many of the cheap locals' season passes include a handful of blackout days for Vail and the Beav. There's a good reason for the blackouts, however: people. I skied Vail on a New Year's Eve powder day a few years ago with 21,000 other people. There were lift lines more than two hours long. But I will admit that being one of the first people into Blue Sky Basin that day was a true treat. So enjoy Vail, but try it on a Wednesday.