Here are three resorts that have recently caught my eye. They're not necessarily big names, but they offer big fun, even if you're really little.
For more than 75 years, Utah families have learned to ski at Brighton. Known as the locals' mountain for Salt Lake City, Brighton has a relaxed, mellow vibe, notable in a state known for its chill skiing culture.
This doesn't mean the skiing is easy. Situated at the end of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton sits in an alpine bowl and serves up plenty of challenging runs. Intermediate terrain is accessible from all areas of the mountain, with several beginner runs heading down from the top as well. As if that's not enough, Brighton has gated access to side and backcountry terrain, as well as the only terrain park, halfpipe and night skiing in the Cottonwood Canyons.
"I've stuck with Brighton because it has a little bit of everything," explains Jared Winkler, who learned to ski on the mountain. "There is big mountain stuff and fun family stuff. You can come here and turn your kids loose."
Parking is free and close in. Brown bag lunches are encouraged, as is tailgating. Even the Brighton Lodge is relaxed. An historic building from the 1950s, there are no TVs in the rooms. In the evening guests gather in the foyer to play games and hang out by the fire.
More than a family resort, Brighton is a family retreat. Not quite a step back in time (what with high-speed quads and modern on-mountain features), Brighton is more a step out of time, where you can turn off your phone, focus on your family and simply ski.
Mad River Glen, Vermont:
Mention Mad River Glen and the immediate response is "Ski It If You Can." Known for difficult terrain, Mad River has plenty of green and blue runs, as well as a dedicated area for beginners called Birdland. Still, the excitement at Mad River lies in the challenge, and Mad River Glen has a challenge for your kids.
Modeled after the resort's popular adult Triple Crown, the Junior Triple Crown kicks off on January 12 with an unconventional terrain competition. Judges evaluate competitors based on line choice, aggressiveness, degree of difficulty and skill. The mogul challenge takes place on February 16. March 1 is the date for the vertical contest. Competitors will spend the day skiing Chute and Lift Line as many times as they can.
While all this sounds pretty hardcore, resort rep Eric Friedman stresses that the event is all about having fun and is open to all kids 15 and under.
"Last year we had kids as young as three competing," he tells me. "Mad River Glen is a family ski area. The only difference between us and some other resorts is that many of the parents who come here rip and they want their kids to rip, too."
Little rippers don't just come on skis, nor do their parents. If you ride, check out the Burton Star Wars Experience at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Designed for children ages 3-6, this interactive learning center combines topnotch snowboard instruction with fantasy fun.
Young riders start indoors at the Padawan Center, practicing balance training. Once they've got that down, they blast outside to Yoda's Riglet Park where they ride their boards using Burton's Riglet Reel. The reel allows coaches to tow the board and helps develop balance and control quickly. When they've got these skills down, its time to move on to one of the five magic carpets on the mountain.
Whether you're on a snowboard or on skis, Sierra-at-Tahoe is "the place to learn," according to Communications Manager Steve Hemphill. "We're all about progression, whether you're a first-timer or someone who skis all the time."
Other amenities available at Sierra include sculpted terrain that helps novice skiers and riders (of all ages) ease in and out of turns and get the feel of edging. There is a full progression of terrain parks, a superpipe and a boardercross course. And, of course, the resort offers plenty of green, blue and black runs, as well as tree skiing and gated backcountry terrain.