By Christopher Steiner, Forbes.com -- As we arrive here at the precipice of a new winter, we’re pleased once again to offer you the Forbes Top 10 U.S. Ski Resorts. The mountains haven’t moved and what constitutes snow hasn’t changed, but this year’s list was put together with an intensity of purpose and breadth of inputs that bests our previous efforts. We analyze more data and more of what matters for ski trips.
If you’ve read our rankings in the past, then you know that we use a proprietary algorithm that renders for each resort what’s known in PhD circles as the Pure Awesomeness Factor, or PAF. The PAF score for each resort is the most scientific and proven way to determine how many drips of fun can be wrung from one ski trip. It’s one of the more important metrics developed during our time. You’ve heard of Joules, Ohms, Amperes and the Richter Scale, of course? The PAF measurement will follow these names into history.
Yes, Stockholm, we’re waiting by the phone. Just call already.
This year’s rankings: We spent a good deal of the summer greatly widening the data set we use to inform the PAF calculations. Our improved database includes more than 30 categories of data for 182 U.S. resorts. It was a long summer of toil, but we’re now prepared to release this emission of awesomeness to the world. Even better, in addition to the top 10 listed here, the entire rankings set—182 resorts worth of data, and rankings for regions, snow, expert mountains, family mountains and travel ease—now resides at ZRankings.com, the most comprehensive ski rankings site on the web.
We’re more confident than ever that the Forbes Top 10 U.S. Ski Resort List is the best one in the industry. Things we’re also confident in:
Top 5 Winter Gear for 2014- it’s a great winter to be in the market for some swag.
The Top 5 U.S. Ski Resorts for Families – the rankings crew is getting older; this matters to us.
A Q & A with the man of the moment in the skiing industry, Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, the $2.5 billion company that owns marquee resorts in Colorado, California and, now, Utah
Before we get to the overall top 10 list, a few words on our methods:
To calculate PAF scores and determine which resorts are the best in the United States, our algorithm dances across more than two dozen categories of data on each resort, including: terrain makeup; lift quantity and quality; accessibility (a big, nearby airport is a plus); total vertical; vertical continuity (can it be skied all at once with a minimal of flat run-out or cat-tracks?); skiable acreage; ski town ambience; and, finally, and more important than any other single category—snow.
We’ve always paid close attention to snowfall in these rankings. It’s the one thing that can send a ski trip from “that was a nice, fun, wholesome time” to an entirely different kind of trip: “I’m pushing my return flight back a week, pawning my wedding ring and putting up a down payment on a mountainside condo.” Or, more prudently, you could just buy new skis. The trips that shuffle to the top of your memory after decades of life’s general flotsam are the ones that came with 30 inches of snow. That’s just science.
So yes, snow is important. Snow regularly visits Stockholm.
Knowing that, we’ve greatly increased the depth of our snow data by hooking up with Tony Crocker, a fanatical skier who holds a statistics degree from Princeton and who has been tracking snowfall for more than 20 years with an actuary’s meticulousness. He is an actuary, in fact—the kind of math whiz who figures out how much a $100,000 annuity should cost for a 55-year-old who regularly treks to La Grave to appease an addiction to skiing icy 60-degree pitches.
Crocker actually should get a call from Stockholm, if the Swedes knew anything about skiing to go along with their inherent kinship with the cold. Crocker has compiled snowfall data on 100 resorts stretching back more than 40 years in some cases; it gives us an excellent idea of the averages and standard deviations of a ski area’s annual snow bounty. It allows us to reward a resort’s ranking for not only large annual averages, but also penalize rankings for inconsistent snowfall—i.e.: a annual snowfall of 500 inches is amazing, but less so if it often comes 6 feet at a time with large gaps—30 days or more—with little to no snow.
The best kind of snowfall comes dependably and with abundance. There are only a few places where these conditions dominate, and most of them boast high PAF scores. Alta being the ultimate case, of course, with more than a fifth of its winter days seeing more than six inches of snow, more than half of its months getting more than 90 inches of snow, and an extremely low penchant for drought—only 2% of its winter months get less than 30 inches of snow.
In addition to incorporating snowfall frequency and the chance of prolonged periods of drought, the PAF algorithm ingests data on snow quality when rendering its scores. As anybody who’s spent more than a few days skiing knows: not every flake is created equal. Some are feather light, some are sopping with moisture and some of them fit wondrously in the middle, giving skiers enough mass per unit of volume to float their ski, but not so much as to make skiing hard or dangerous. The snow that’s best for skiing contains between 8% and 9% moisture. The super light stuff—less than 7% moisture—can be fun if you get two feet or more of it, but any less and your ski easily falls through to the old, hard surface, creating the dreaded dust-on-crust effect.
Ten feet of snow in the Sierras, whose warmer storms often leave behind snow that’s 12% moisture or more, isn’t as valuable as 10 feet of snow in Utah, whose snow often hovers in that lovely zone between 8% and 9%. Colorado’s central mountain ranges receive some of the lightest snow, often below 7% moisture, which in giant abundance can be great, but put eight inches of that on a skied-up mogul field and you’re going to wish you stayed on the groomer. All of this said, snow varies storm to storm. Utah can get paper-dry snow and Oregon-style wet snow; the same goes for everywhere.
In addition to all of this wonderful data, we’re lucky this year to have a unique contribution from a stalwart in the ski industry to this year’s rankings. Greg Wright, a ridiculous skier and the publisher of Freeskier magazine, has equated each of our Top 10 Resorts with the celebrity that best fits the mountain’s persona. Alta, for instance, is Sid Vicious and Alyeska is Jack Kerouac.
This is fun. What’s also fun: winning a Ski Bum Scholarship from Columbia. It’s just as it sounds: awesome.
We try not to make readers slog through 800 words when we do one of these resort profiles that accompany our rankings, and that can be hard task considering how much work we put into our metrics and how many different elements we measure. The readability police have been emphatic in saying that a Top-10 Ski Resorts List that includes 8,000 words of narrative, no matter how sweet and righteous each and every single one of those words might be, in no way comprises the form we want.
We’ve assented to this request, but just know there’s a lot we didn’t say here. Luckily, we have the PAF—and the numbers it produces say a lot already.
You’ll find the hallowed Forbes Top 10 Ski Resorts List below. Enjoy the winter.
At some point during the last 20 years, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort went from being a sleepy, snowy outpost in the state with the fewest people to what is now a true destination resort. Jackson has always had the ultimate asset: an unrelenting vertical continuity with true skiing fall lines in every direction and a snowfall pattern that has proved stubbornly copious even when the rest of the West has suffered. That’s always been there.
What hasn’t always been there: An efficient gondola that ferrets people up 2,784 feet of vertical, installed in 1997. A Four Seasons, opened in 2003. A new $30 million tram in 2008, the greatest ski lift, technically and aesthetically, in North America. And perhaps the most important factor of all for any ambitious destination resort, and especially Jackson: air service that rivals any ski destination in the west that’s not Denver or Salt Lake City—and this mountain is just 35 minutes from the newly renovated Jackson Hole Airport that’s so gorgeous it’s almost bizarre. If a Russian oligarch had a tasteful streak of mountain fever, this is what he would build.
This gleaming airport now welcomes non-stops from American, Delta and United that hail from 12 different cities, among them: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and even Atlanta. So a place that was once hard to get to, but worth it, is now far easier to get to, and still worth it. Anybody who ever boards planes with the purpose of skiing should go here.
That Jackson is strictly the province of experts, huckers and powder fiends is a myth whose day is fading, but still perseveres in some corners. The bottom of the mountain is mild and inviting for beginners; and last year was the first season for Jackson’s new Casper high-speed lift that services expanded intermediate terrain, giving skiers a bastion of blue runs higher up on the mountain.
All of this destination resort talk shouldn’t give readers the idea they’re in for lift lines at Jackson. Representatives of the PAF algorithm, minions, if you will, have spent many a day mining Jackson’s slopes and in this time they have only reported significant lift lines at one lift, and only on powder days. The lift specified, of course: the tram. Even so, that 30-minute wait results in 4,139 vertical feet of skiing, which is an entire half-day for many people. And if that large spate of vertical includes Corbet’s Couloir, it could be the most indelible gravity-fueled journey a visiting skier ever takes.
As we mentioned in 2013’s rankings, the culinary scene in Jackson has kept up with the ski lifts and the lodging. For a perfect morning, we think Pearl Street Bagels is perhaps the best place for boiled dough that’s not in a zip code starting with one-zero. That’s serious praise from serious bagel eaters.
For snow geeks: Jackson’s snow isn’t quite as dependable as that of the west-facing side of Utah’s Wasatch, but it still posts high scores for its percentage of winter days with more than six inches of snowfall—16.4%—while its relation to the prevailing jet stream ensures that Jackson sees very few winter months with drought-like conditions—only 11% of months get less than 30 inches of snowfall. Jackson has a lot of terrain that faces east, which tends to lose snow more quickly, but that’s largely mitigated by the fact that Jackson, as just mentioned, is in Wyoming, which tends to be cold.
Jackson’s typical snow makes for excellent powder skiing as its density is closer to that of Utah’s (8%-9% water content) than it is to much of Colorado’s snow, which trends closer to 7% water, which still makes for wonderful stuff, but the Colorado snow, being so light, doesn’t float a ski as well, which can lead to more situations that coined the term “dust on crust,” as it takes more snow to gain sufficient coverage.
Greg Wright’s Celebrity Match: John Wayne.
Where to Stay: The options keep expanding at Jackson, but the best bet is to get into a condo in Teton Village. They’re well priced compared with other ski-in, ski-out options at top-tier resorts and your time from bed to tram can be cut to 5 minutes, assuming you sleep in your gear like we do.
2. Snowbird, Utah – PAF: 92.8
What if, say, you could board a plane in Chicago at 8 a.m., land someplace at 10:30 a.m., and before noon be standing atop a ski lift that just climbed 3,200 feet of a mountain that gets 500 inches of snow, and where nearly every fifth day is a powder day deeper than six inches? You would board the plane, clearly. And you’d be flying to Snowbird, a place where access, snow and terrain combine so beautifully that most travelers can ski four days while only staying three nights. And during your short getaway, you’ll likely get dumped on.
That lift doing all of the climbing is the Snowbird Tram, an ascending capsule that gives skiers more in one ride up than any other lift outside of Jackson Hole’s people mover. A lot of the things that make Jackson great are traits of Snowbird, as well: unrelenting vertical, magazine-worthy terrain everywhere, elite ski lifts, and a consistency of experience that traces back to snow, snow and snow.
The Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons west of Salt Lake City – Little holds Snowbird and Alta; Big houses Brighton and Solitude, hit the geographical lottery with the best snowfall—quality, quantity and consistency—of anywhere in our 182-resort analysis. If you’re looking for a great ski trip and you have four days or less, this is the only place.
The Cliff Lodge at Snowbird remains a model of what a ski hotel can become in the right designer’s hands: burly but refined, handsome, with not even a whiff of the trite log columns that adorn most mountain-side establishments. The self-serve ski lockers with built-in locks on the ground floor feature air tubes that dry your boots, helmet and gloves each night—a dandy feature reminiscent of some of the nicer ski hotels of Europe, like the Hotel Zürserhof in Zurs, Austria, a place that, after Chamonix, France, should rank high on your Continental hit list.
Bottom line: Snowbird is the second best ski resort in the United States—and it’s one of the easiest to get to. The airport code for Salt Lake City, by the way, is SLC.
Greg Wright’s Celebrity Match: Metallica.
3. Alta, Utah – PAF: 88.6
If you haven’t spotted a random Alta sticker on the back of a car or on a bike helmet at some point in your life, no matter where you live, then you’re just not paying attention. If we compiled an index that tracked the number of stickers distributed and used per skier day per resort, Alta would surely top the list with ease. There’s something visceral about this place, something that compels people to peel a glossy, epoxy-backed piece of paper and affix it to what is usually their most or second-most valuable asset, their car, be it an old Toyota truck or a brand new Lexus.
Why do people do this? Why does Alta pluck a chord that Snowbird, its next-door neighbor, doesn’t? Because if you had to pick—and we do—the overall skiing experience is better at Snowbird, whose more contiguous vertical more than makes up for Alta’s small advantage in snow. Perhaps it’s Alta’s lack of snowboarders that makes people leave the place in a cultish frenzy. Or perhaps it’s the lift ticket prices that, at $79 for the highest-traffic days, are well below that of many other resorts—Vail’s price is $119. Or perhaps it’s just the snow.
Alta receives the top snow score at ZRankings, which assigns points for snow quantity, quality, consistency and deducts for the relative probability of prolonged drought, defined as less than 30 inches of snow in a month. Your odds of hitting such a month at Alta: 2% — the lowest risk of drought of any of the 102 mountains for which Tony Crocker has compiled data. Skiers also stand a 22% chance of hitting a powder day and a 51% chance of skiing during a month where more than 90 inches of snow falls. With an incredibly consistent annual snowfall of 530 inches—much of which is within that perfect zone of 8% to 9% moisture—Alta is peerless when it comes to skiing precipitation.
So if it’s snow first and snow second that you’re after, this is your place. You can even get a sticker.
Greg Wright’s Celebrity Match: Sid Vicious.