The Insider Guide to North America’s Best Ski Towns

We asked. They told. In-the-know locals divulge their secret powder lines, après breweries, and hidden hot springs.

Megan Michelson

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From how to score the best cup of joe to fuel your first chair dreams to where to find powder well after a storm, each ski resort is unique, and it can take years to learn all of its secrets. And unless you’re lucky enough to live near your favorite mountain, who has that kind of time? Good thing you don’t have to be local to shred like one. All it takes is a townie or two willing to show you the way. Here are 16 of them to fill you in on which chairs open first after a storm, the best on-mountain eats, and where to stay at some of our most beloved resorts.      

Deer Valley, Utah

The Local: Sue Anderson, Deer Valley’s avalanche-mitigation supervisor

On Mountain: “People sometimes call Deer Valley ‘Bambi basin,’ but when they get here, they’re surprised by how much expert terrain the mountain has. And the resort has a limit on ticket sales, so even the busy spots never get too crowded. After skiing, Edgar’s Beer and Spirits in Snow Park Lodge features live music on the deck and turkey chili on its nachos. If you keep an eye out, you can snag discounts at the five-star midmountain Stein Eriksen Lodge (from $330).”

Off the Hill: “Check out Twisted Fern, a new chef-owned restaurant in nearby Park City.”

Pro Tip: “If you want to know when a lift is opening or how to get to a certain place, message the Deer Valley Text Program (435-538-5900).”

Mammoth Mountain, California

The Local: Ben Wisner, director of Mammoth’s freeski and snowboard team

On Mountain: “There are reasons elite athletes train here: the snow falls in feet and not inches, the length of the season can’t be beat, our terrain parks are the best in the world, and our steeps rival anywhere in the Alps. My favorite spot is Lincoln Peak, off Chair 22. On a powder day, sneak through the trees to find untracked snow. The Mill restaurant, by chairs 10 and 2, has the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. And the Mammoth Mountain Inn is the best ski-in, ski-out lodge (from $139).”

Off the Hill: “Don’t miss dinner at the Mammoth Tavern in Mammoth Lakes. There are natural hot springs out of town, too. Just drive south on U.S. 395 to the green church, hang a left, and explore the dirt roads. If you see steam rising, you’re on the right track.”

Pro Tip: “Parking at the resort is a pain. If you’re staying in town, treat yourself to a coffee at Black Velvet, then hop on the shuttle to the mountain instead.”

Hunter Mountain, New York

Hunter Mountain
Hunter Mountain (Daniel Kenney)

The Local: Sarah Slutzky, director of resort services and granddaughter of the resort’s founder

On Mountain: “Since it’s only two and a half hours from Manhattan, the resort has always been known as the best skiing close to the city. But it’s not the party scene it was in the seventies and eighties. More families come here now. It still has aggressive terrain, but with five new runs added this winter, over 60 percent of the mountain is now considered beginner and intermediate. If you’re looking for slopeside accommodations, try the Kaatskill Mountain Club (from $130).”

Off the Hill: “On Saturday night, head to Last Chance Tavern in Tannersville for live music and cheese plates in the middle of an antiques shop.”

Pro Tip: “On the drive to the mountain, stop at Kaaterskill Falls, one of the tallest cascades in New York.”

The Jet Set

Mountain Collective pass holders should book their two free days at Niseko, Japan, in January or February to best experience the resort’s legendary powder. Refuel with crab ramen at Hangzone 308 Restaurant and Café between waist-deep runs and trips to local hot springs.

Sugarbush, Vermont

The Local: Jon Jamieson, owner of Jamieson Insurance and a Sugarbush lifer

On Mountain: “Sugarbush is the kind of place where families return year after year. There are really three peaks: Lincoln Peak, Mount Ellen, and Castlerock. With an old fixed-grip double chair and steep, twisting trails like Rumble, Castlerock is classic eastern skiing at its finest. Glen House on Mount Ellen is a great place for a midmountain grilled cheese, and Castlerock Pub, in the base lodge at Lincoln Peak, is the go-to spot after skiing.”

Off the Hill: “The mountain is flanked by two picturesque villages. For coffee, stop by the Sweet Spot, seven miles away in Waitsfield. The Mad Taco is a popular hangout nearby, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids is opening a new brewery and taproom in town. For unique old-school accommodations, head a few minutes north to the Hyde Away Inn (from $99).”

Pro Tip: “People don’t realize it, but at the Mount Ellen base area, lifts open at 8 A.M., an hour before the others. Get there early and you can snag a bunch of runs before everyone else shows up.”

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Jackson Hole
Jackson Hole (Courtesy Jackson Hole Mountain Resort)

The Local: Zahan Billimoria, lead guide for Exum Mountain Guides and owner of Samsara Mountain Experience

On Mountain: Jackson Hole is a very authentic mountain known for expert terrain, but the northern side of the resort is great for intermediates. I prefer the Thunder and Sublette lifts on the upper mountain, because even on the busiest days it’s easy to find your own zone. Afterward, I’ll go to Teton Thai, a five-minute walk from the lifts, for red curry. Ask for a 3.5 spice level.”

Off the Hill: “There are lots of fancy coffee shops in Jackson, but I’m a Pearl Street Bagels guy. It’s affordable, the brew is always good, and I’m likely to run into friends. We tell our clients to stay at the Alpine House (from $175). The homemade breakfast is legendary, and you’ll be within walking distance from the restaurants.”

Pro Tip: “March is a unique window in the Tetons—you have a more stable snowpack but you’re still skiing powder. This is the time to have big adventures at the resort or in Grand Teton National Park.”

Aspen Snowmass, Colorado

Aspen Snowmass
Aspen Snowmass (Dan Bayer)

The Local: Andrew Helsley, executive chef for Aspen Skiing Company’s on-slope restaurants

On Mountain:Aspen’s four mountains—Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Aspen Highlands—all offer something different, but I could be happy with just Snowmass. It has some of the most difficult runs, if you know where to look. Everyone heads to Hanging Valley and the Cirque because they’re both high-alpine runs, but there’s incredible low-mountain terrain on Powderhorn or Campground. For a quick snack, the cookies and hot chocolate at Up 4 Pizza, the highest of all of our restaurants, at over 11,000 feet, will get you warm. Or sit on the deck at Lynn Britt Cabin with a glass of wine and a plate of maple-pickled deviled eggs with pork belly.”

Off the Hill: The Limelight Hotel Snowmass opens this winter at the base of the gondola, with perks like a great breakfast spread, live music, and wood-fired pizzas (from $447).”

Pro Tip: “Uphilling is permitted on each mountain, and there’s a Friday-morning breakfast club that skins up Buttermilk for French toast at the Cliffhouse. All are welcome.”

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, California

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows (Kate Abraham)

The Local: Robin McElroy, 12-year veteran of the Squaw Valley ski patrol

On Mountain: “The stereotype is that Squaw is this extreme mountain. Yes, you can get rad, and our average snowfall is a massive 450 inches, but there’s something for everyone. My favorite lift is KT-22, for its steep, sustained pitches.”

Off the Hill: “Truckee and Tahoe City are close, but the base village at Squaw is always bustling. Le Chamois is a local favorite for après, but ski patrollers go to the Auld Dubliner for our own private room. Stay at the Resort at Squaw Creek, a short drive from the village. It has its own chairlift that connects to the rest of the ski area (from $199).”

Pro Tip: “On a powder day, wait in line at the Red Dog or Far East lifts. Those usually open first and are most likely to run in strong winds.”

Sunday River, Maine

The Local: Greg Luetje, former boot fitter and hard-goods manager at Sunday River Sports

On Mountain: This is a great place to bring kids. My five-year-old twins learned to ski here, and the ski-school program is amazing. While they’re in lessons, I’m in the woods skiing Poppy Fields, Shock Wave, or the steep bumps on Downdraft. My kids love the cinnamon buns at North Peak, the midmountain lodge, and they’re big enough to split. If you want to stay on the mountain, the Jordan and the Grand Summit hotels are ski-in, ski-out (from $179 and $159).”

Off the Hill: “Bethel, a 15-minute drive from the base, is a real community-oriented place. Our movie theater, the Gem, is a good option for when the weather isn’t great. Sunday River Brewing Company has space for the kids to run around.”

Pro Tip:White Cap Lodge is a separate base area that doesn’t get as crowded. It’s great terrain for children who are chairlift-ready and has plenty of steep runs, too.”

Park City, Utah

The Local: Shaun Raskin, guide and owner of Inspired Summit Adventures

On Mountain: “Skiers come to Park City for its famed intermediate terrain and perfect grooming. If you want to get more extreme, boot-pack up Jupiter Peak or McConkey’s for steeper bowls, or ride the newer Quicksilver Gondola over to the Canyons side for advanced runs off the Ninety-Nine 90, Peak 5, and Dreamscape lifts. For a beer at the base, you can’t beat the Corner Store or Pig Pen Saloon.”

Off the Hill: “Locals take a lot of pride in our Olympic and silver-mining history. In Park City proper, I love Handle for upscale, locally sourced American fare and a menu that changes constantly. If you rent a house through Park City Lodging, it’ll arrange your lift tickets, dinner reservations, and ski rentals.”

Pro Tip: “Looking for powder? Go to Scott’s Bowl. You’ll find snow there well after a storm.”

The Jet Set

The new Ikon Pass comes with seven days at Thredbo, Australia, which has some of the steepest, longest runs in the Southern Hemisphere. With monthly full-moon parties and outdoor concerts, it can get as rowdy as you’d expect. The village’s Thredbo Alpine Hotel has a good pub and is centrally located (from $195).

Crystal Mountain, Washington

The Local: Bob Grubb, owner of Wapiti Woolies, sellers of outdoor apparel

On Mountain: “Backcountry skiers love Crystal Mountain. You can hike from the lifts and be in real wilderness in minutes. In bounds, the front side of the Rainier Express Lift—Rex, as the locals call it—is a crowd favorite, since it’s steep and quick, but Chair 6 is my go-to. It’s a fast 1,000 feet of vertical, and on a powder day you can get six or seven runs before hitting anyone’s tracks.”

Off the Hill: “Locals live in Greenwater, but there’s not much there. Instead, book a room at the Alpine Inn, at the resort’s base (from $100). Next door, the Snorting Elk Cellar pours Elk Frost, a heavy winter beer made just for the resort by Elysian Brewing in Seattle.”

Pro Tip: “The King and Southback sidecountry zones have wild terrain. You’ll need avalanche-safety gear, but it’s worth it.”

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Steamboat Springs, CO
Steamboat Springs, CO (jqpubliq/Creative Commons)

The Local: Marla “Cookie” Bailey, strategic planner for Smartwool

On Mountain: Steamboat is an escape from that ‘Look at me, I’m so badass’ vibe. As the saying here goes, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an Olympian, but you’d never know it if you were sitting next to one on the lift. The head chef of Café Diva, at the base, even turned down an appearance on Top Chef because it would have gotten in the way of her mountain-biking season. Another uniquely Steamboat experience is skiing through a proper aspen grove, so the Shadows, Closets, and Twilight runs are all a must.”

Off the Hill: “Your stay won’t be complete without a visit to our three local breweries—Storm Peak, Butcherknife, and Mountain Tap—and the Barley, a 30-tap tasting room that serves Colorado microbrews and spirits.”

Pro Tip: “Come during our 106th Winter Carnival, held February 6 to 10, 2019. The Saturday Night Extravaganza—with fireworks and ski patrollers jumping through flaming hoops—is reason enough to make the trip.”

Heavenly, California

The Local: Debra Scolnick, bartender at South Lake Tahoe’s Kalani’s Restaurant

On Mountain: “We’re known for groomers with lots of vertical, but the thing I love most about Heavenly is the tree skiing. If Mott and Killebrew canyons are open, that’s your expert terrain. The views are epic, and on some runs you’ll feel like you’re skiing right into Lake Tahoe. Tamarack Lodge is a new, beautiful midmountain lunch spot, but East Peak Lodge is where locals go for a beer.”

Off the Hill: “South Lake Tahoe, the town at the base of the mountain, used to be a giant party, but it’s becoming more family friendly. Still, we have 24-hour casinos and plenty of bars. A new place called Lake Tahoe Aleworx does pour-your-own beer and wood-fired pizzas. The Basecamp Hotel has a beer garden and isn’t far from the gondola (from $99).”

Pro Tip: “Fire Break is an amazing 3,000-vertical-foot line under the gondola that’s only accessible through marked backcountry gates. You’re allowed to ski it, but you have to know where you’re going.”

Snowbird, Utah

The Local: Lexi Dowdall, program director for the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association

On Mountain: Snowbird is for powder skiers. Supercharged storms roll off the Great Salt Lake before crashing into the Wasatch Range, which means that Snowbird and Alta, just to the east, often report higher snow totals than neighboring resorts. The anticipation of waiting in the tram line on a powder day and knowing you’re going to ski Great Scott, Silver Fox, or Baldy is an energy like no other.”

Off the Hill: “Stay at the base village to avoid the 30-minute drive to and from Salt Lake City. At the Cliff Lodge, you can enjoy the heated rooftop pool and eucalyptus steam room, then ski out the door (from $230). The neighboring Tram Club has a drink special that few can pass up—the famous $5 shot and a beer.”

Pro Tip: “The breakfast burrito from General Gritts is the best way to prepare for first chair.”

Big Sky, Montana

The Local: Brenna Kelleher, a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America ski team

On Mountain: “Lone Peak towers over everything in Big Sky, and people always want to know how to ski Big Couloir, the main line off the top. Though it’s in-bounds, you have to drop it in pairs, check in with ski patrol, and carry a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. But there are a lot of other big lines people overlook, such as the steep, consistent couloirs you can hike to from the Headwaters Lift. This winter, Andesite Mountain, a separate peak at Big Sky, is getting the first eight-person lift in North America.”

Off the Hill: “Big Sky’s village is a quiet place. Everyone heads to Scissorbills for beer and burgers when the lifts close, but I like the Cara­biner Lounge, next door in the Summit Hotel, for live eighties rock or country music (from $215).”

Pro Tip: “Stop at the Six Shooter Chair for a chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie at Uncle Dan’s Cookies, a shed with a ski-up window.”

Sun Valley, Idaho

The Local: Paul Ken­ny, author of Sun Valley’s snow report

On Mountain: “The resort started out by catering to Hollywood celebrities, so it’s got a reputation for being very elite. But it doesn’t feel that way. It’s low-key and friendly. You’ll get tired, though, because lift lines are rare. Tin Can Alley, off Lookout Lift, always has soft snow, and for early-morning groomers, it’s a nonstop carver on Warm Springs. For lunch, Seattle Ridge Lodge has good wood-fired pizza and chili. Après is at Apple’s Bar and Grill in the village.”

Off the Hill: “Nearby Ketchum has plenty of events and restaurants. For dinner I like Rickshaw’s unique Southeast Asian street food. Hotel Ketchum is totally refurbished and has a good vibe (from $153).”

Pro Tip: “There are two sides of Baldy, so depending on where the sun is, you can ski one face of the mountain in the morning, then the other for softer snow.”

Arapahoe Basin, Colorado

The Local: Brian York, bartender at Marnie’s, in the base area’s A-frame lodge

On Mountain: A-Basin is serious about one thing: skiing. No golf course, no condos. During a big snow year, lifts can turn through the Fourth of July. The most famous lift is Pallavicini—1,200 vertical feet, straight up from the parking lot. The best time to ride it is mid-April through early May. When other ski areas are closing, A-Basin is still opening terrain in the high couloirs. The deck at 6th Alley Bar and Grill, and the Beach—the row of cars closest to the lifts—will be going off.”

Off the Hill: “Stay in Keystone, ten miles away, for the closest hotels. For live music, it’s the Snake River Saloon or the Goat, and Pizza 101 has the best pie around.”

Pro Tip: “There’s a new lift into the Beavers, a great backcountry area that’s now in-bounds with avalanche control.”

The Jet Set

Epic Pass holders get two free days at France’s TignesVal D’Isère, which offers 9,000 skiable acres of groomers and hike-to couloirs. On sunny afternoons, the outdoor deck at La Folie Douce might be the most epic après-ski in the universe.

From Outside Magazine, December 2018 Lead Photo: Jeff Engerbretson/Courtesy Big Sky Resort