The good news for skiers and snowboarders is that unlike most things in life, the cost of skiing has gone down in recent years, mainly thanks to the introduction and broad adoption of national and global multi-resort ski passes, the most popular of which are the EPIC and IKON passes. These have allowed skiers to experience what have traditionally been the world’s most expensive ski resorts for a pittance of what daily lift tickets would cost. The bad news is that they have also driven more people to certain high-profile resorts, aggravating locals, overflowing parking lots and causing lift lines so long that they become the subject of viral videos on social media.
According to the skier visit rankings at statistic driven winter sports website Snowbrains.com, the nation’s 10 Most Popular U.S. Ski Resorts are all on one of these two passes (Vail, CO: Breckenridge, CO; Mammoth, CA; Keystone, CO; Steamboat, CO; Beaver Creek, CO; Heavenly CA/NV; Northstar, CA: Snowmass, CO; Okemo, VT)
Like most outdoor activities in fresh air, skiing and snowboarding have proven very popular during the pandemic, but at the same time, some of the most desirable travel characteristics in this time have been privacy and space. Fortunately, there are still big time, destination-worthy mountains where you won’t typically experience crowds, and you don’t have to eschew your pass investment to visit them. You just have to decide to ski the trails less traveled. Here are five standout domestic options:
Big Sky, MT: It would not be surprising if Big Sky sets an all-time skier visit record this season, as it has radically improved infrastructure and new hotels, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Nonetheless, one thing you can be pretty sure of is that it still won’t be crowded. Big Sky is America’s second largest ski resort at a staggering 5,850-acres, a towering 4,350 feet of vertical and an average of less than one skier per acre. Not only is it big and empty, it also has one of the very best lift systems in the nation, with several recent upgrades included a heated 8-seat bubble chair and a brand new 6-passenger lift that is the fastest in North America. The numbers speak to the uncrowded experience – 300 trails, six terrain parks, and a way above average annual snowfall in excess of 400 inches. But the big news is that once sleepy Big Sky is halfway through a decade long master plan, and in addition to the greatly improved dining and drinking options in the base village, there is a brand-new Montage resort, the highest profile luxury ski hotel opening in the world this year. On top of this, the existing ski-in/ski-out main base village hotels, the condo-style Summit and the more hotel-like Huntley Lodge have both been so extensively renovated they might as well be new. You can use your IKON pass here as well.
Schweitzer, ID: If you thought Sun Valley was the biggest ski resort in Idaho, you were wrong, but you were hardly alone. Ski Magazine voted Schweitzer the best kept secret in North America, and one reason this big-time mountain has remained off the radar was a lack of high-quality on-site lodging. Like Big Sky, Schweitzer is in the midst of a long-term round of improvements that include new luxury condos and homes, lift improvements, and most notably, the new ski-in/ski-out high design boutique hotel at its base, the Humbird, opening next month (January 14, 2022). There are also two older slope side hotels, the Selkirk Lodge and White Pine Lodge. Schweitzer is also one of just a tiny handful of resorts with both sno-cat skiing and heli-skiing on site as options, and the lift served terrain spans nearly 3,000-acres, including some exceptional glades. Airline access is through Spokane, WA. Schweitzer joined the IKON pass for the first time for this season.
Telluride, CO: Personally, I think Telluride is the best ski resort in Colorado, and I’ve been pretty much everywhere. But two factors keep it empty. One is a relative lack of lodging for a mountain this size, which is a fact. The other is the myth that Telluride is hard to get to. Every time I recommend it to someone into skiing, they say “isn’t it hard to get to?” Just a couple of weeks ago the NY Times perpetuated this by describing it as “remote.” Maybe in terms of being set among nature and away from population centers, but not in terms of access. Its gateway airport, Montrose, is closer than Vail or Beaver Creek or Aspen are to Denver, and no one complains about those being hard to get to. If you fly Denver Air Connection (a United partner) right into the Telluride airport (several flights daily) you are nearly in town when you step off the plane. But whatever, let people keep thinking that it’s off the grid and the lift lines will stay short. The terrain is simply astounding with the best variety of any major resort for every single ability level from first timer to extreme, a wonderful town, and many great restaurants. It also has one of the nation’s best on-site day heli-skiing operations, Telluride Heli-Trax. You can read more about why I love Telluride so much in this feature from a couple of years ago. I’m not the only one – high-profile skiing website Powderhounds.com rated it the Best Overall Ski Resort in the US and gave it a 4.5 out of 5 for “Uncrowded.” Telluride is independently owned but is part of Vail Resorts’ industry leading EPIC Pass.
Snowbasin, UT: Of all the great ski areas around Salt Lake City, Snowbasin stands out for its odd historic lack of lodging and as such is the largest “day skiing” area in the country. Otherwise, everything here is first rate, from the best-in-class lodges to the modern lift system – with a new high speed 6-pack added for this winter. The terrain is equally impressive – Snowbasin hosted the Downhill and Super G “speed events” at the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games. It has just under 3,000-acres, over 100 named runs, 3000 vertical feet and has always been known as a mountain loved by experts – more than half the runs are black or double black, but there is still plenty for everyone else. Snowbasin is just starting to finally see some development and in coming years will debut the first ski-in/out lodging here, but even if it someday gets crowded, it won’t be this year. Solitude is another uncrowded Utah choice, especially among the four premier Cottonwood Canyon options. Like Telluride, independent Snowbasin is an EPIC Pass partner.
Sugarloaf, ME: Enthusiasts claim Sugarloaf is the best ski mountain in the Northeast but regardless, it is easily the least crowded of the top tier. That’s because it is relatively hard to get to, but when you do arrive you are at Maines’s second highest peak, with unheard of in the East lift-served above treeline skiing and more than 160 trails. Ski Magazine ranks it Number Two in Terrain and Top 10 in just about every other category, including snow. While the majority (57%) of runs are beginner and intermediate, the remaining black and double black portion is sizable and includes steeps, bumps and glades. In 2010 the resort unveiled a new decade long master plan that has added 600-acres of new terrain and the East’s first full-blown sno-cat operation. RFID ticketing was just added for this winter to expedite the already short lines and upcoming improvements include a new spa, more terrain and more snowmaking. IKON Pass.