These are the rankings for 2013. The NEW 2014 Top 10 Ski Resort Rankings can be found here.
Rankings have become so ubiquitous in our world – top colleges, top cities, top jobs, top sandwiches – that they’ve begun to lose
value. Everybody has a ranking about everything. Making matters more confusing, most rankings get so granular that nearly every person, place and thing is ranked No. 1 forsomething.
In the ski world, there’s been a bit of this specialization ranking creeping in as well. To be sure, some of it is fair. Winter Park, for instance, can’t compare its terrain to that of Snowbird, but the Colorado resort does offer some of the greatest access to disabled and adaptive skiers in the world – and it deserves credit for that. Other outlets rank snow, grooming, family friendliness, food, lodging, customer service and even the quality of the booze on mountain.
All of those things matter to somebody. But here we only rank one thing: Awesomeness. It’s the most important thing we can measure. If you can know a place’s awesomeness, do you need to know anything else?
The 2014 Rankings for 182 U.S. resorts, including Overall PAF Score, the best family resorts, best resorts for snow, best for luxury and those that offer the easiest access can be found atZRankings.com.
We measure awesomeness with strict adherence to quantitative and scientific methods. The rankings you see here are the product of the most honed algorithms ever unleashed on the ski world. Being on this list means something. It means awesomeness.
To reiterate, there are NEW 2014 Forbes rankings for the Top 10 here. Rankings for 182 Resorts are here. This article lists the 2013 rankings.
Wear a helmet: The home to Corbet’s Couloir retained it’s No. 1 ranking for 2013.
There’s nothing east of the Rockies on the list because no resort east of the Rockies has the snow or terrain to crack our awesomeness rankings–something that matters for both beginners and experts (soft western snow >> eastern ice). Not that there isn’t fun to be had in the East or even the Midwest. Ski wherever you can. We plan to do a separate, eastern list next year.
Again, we rank awesomeness and awesomeness only. If you want to find out what ski resort has the best hot chocolate and marshmallow bar, you’ll find that list elsewhere. If you want the hard facts on what ski mountain gives you the best possibility of a soul-moving experience on and off the snow, then you need rankings based on our patented Pure Awesomeness Factor. In the ski business, this is known as PAF. It’s not something that resorts make public, but every mountain knows where it stands. Most big resorts employ at least three data scientists who spend their days looking for methods to raise the resort’s PAF score.
Awesomeness is the only proxy for awesomeness. It’s the critical path to a vacation that becomes legendary. So for the second time ever, here are the top ten resorts in the United States according to PAF:
Everything is big–and awesome–at Jackson Hole.
1. Jackson Hole, Wyoming(PAF = 98.5):
The lift lines at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are like those at a highway rest area bathroom at 2:00 a.m.: Almost nonexistent, except when they exist. And just like that line at the bathroom, if a queue has grown large at Jackson Hole, then there is probably a great reason to get in it immediately.
One of the few spots where lines used to bubble up at Jackson was at the Thunder chairlift, which gets skiers to the hairier southern side of the resort. On a powder day, Thunder was to be avoided; you planned your morning around it. JHMR is a place run by skiers and they were more than aware of the choke point Thunder created.
So before last season, the people in charge installed a new chairlift, Marmot, whose base sits adjacent to that of Thunder’s. It functions as a pressure-release valve for Thunder and provides the dual purpose of getting skiers back to the top of the Bridger Gondola for a snack or lunch without forcing them to ski to the bottom of this very tall mountain. One medium-sized lift, one huge improvement.
All of the other things that made Jackson No. 1 in last year’s rankings remain true. It’s still the best skiing mountain in North America. It still has the best continuous fall line, the best terrain and the best backcountry of any mountain not in the Himalayas. And there’s that $30-million ascending jam fest of music, sweat and rollicking cheers, also known as The Tram, which offers the best return on 10 minutes of standing that you’ll ever be offered (all 4,139 feet of vertical, at once).
Jackson gets extra points for coming through with decent snow last winter (the winter that wasn’t) when most of the country’s ski resorts were still putting up with random patches of brown grass on January 15. And it never hurts to have the most famous ski run in the world – Corbet’s Couloir – inside the boundaries.
On top of skiing, Jackson has come into its own as a culinary destination, a nifty feat for a place so small and thinly populated. The area is awash in new and creative eateries: Roadhouse Brewing Co., the Handle Bar at the Four Season (a Michael Mina concept), a great contemporary spot in town in The Kitchen, and the reincarnation of a longtime local favorite, Billy’s Burgers. On the mountain, don’t miss waffles stuffed with Nutella and bananas at Corbet’s Cabin.
A minor gripe on the foot front (very minor): one of this column’s favorite restaurants in Jackson, Trio, made the mistake last winter of messing with one of the best burgers in America when it switched its meat patty from local bison to ho-hum angus beef. It remains a fine burger, but it no longer stands out from stalwarts in New York and Chicago.
No time to eat? You can still have it all: Stuff your pockets with Tram Bars, the most delicious energy bar in the world, sold all over at Jackson Hole and made just over the ridge in Victor, Idaho.
Snowbird: Best snow, epic terrain, epic lift.
2. Alta and Snowbird, Utah (PAF = 97):
For most people, these two resorts that occupy a splendid apron of Little Cottonwood Canyon just 35 minutes from downtown Salt Lake should be the default ski vacation. Direct flights to Salt Lake can be had from most cities and the trip from the airport to the snow here is a leisurely stroll compared with the white-knuckle pilgrimage between Denver and Colorado’s resorts.
We rank Snowbird and Alta together because they aretogether. They share a boundary line and even, for those who choose to purchase it, a joint lift ticket. If you go to one, you should go to the other. Unless you’re a snowboarder, in which case Alta won’t allow you to plow through its chutes and trees—and what glorious chutes and trees they are.
The terrain at Alta and Snowbird is the terrain against which all others are measured. Snowbird’s tram, which, like Jackson’s, also traverses from the base of the resort to the top, is the only lift that compares with the tram at Jackson Hole. The lift line for the Snowbird tram on a prime powder day can get ugly—one of the drawbacks of being on top of a greater metropolitan area of 2 million people.
The good news is that not all of those people ski and, even better, this place has a lot of powder days—it gets 600 inches a year—more than anywhere outside of Alaska. The snow is dependable and comes in a density that’s user friendly, like a stiff dollop of whipped milk on a cappuccino. If you’re going on a trip for three days or less, it’s hard to go anywhere but Utah. We can’t stress enough how awesome the skiing is here. If you haven’t been, just go.
Not to be missed: 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.
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The marriage between town and mountain in Telluride is unique.
3. Telluride, Colorado (PAF = 90):
There isn’t a more charming notch in the Rocky Mountains than the perfect box canyon that Telluride inhabits. The nearby peaks’ proximity makes the town feel more like the Alps than another Colorado ski town. The closeness of the mountains also makes for some chilly mornings, as it can be past brunch hour by the time sunlight hits Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s main street. But that’s a small nit when it comes to one of the America’s best ski towns.
The gondola is a centerpiece of living in or visiting Telluride. It’s free for everybody and runs from 7 a.m. to midnight, giving both town and Mountain Village dwellers easy access to restaurants, bars and shops on either end of town or the resort.
The skiing at Telluride is good and continues to get better. The fall lines are extended and true and the peaks in the near distance are 14,000-footers. Newer terrain on the backside in Revelation Bowl gives the resort a true Western snowfield experience and there are abundant chutes and hike-to steeps, some of which are accessed by the coolest steps not on the Vallée Blanche: the Gold Hill Chutes Staircase.
For this coming winter, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Telluride gladed some pine stands along the Palmyra Express lift as well as next to the Plunge lift. The thinning removed down and dead trees, giving skiers better paths in the woods as well as getting more light and water to healthy trees, leading to a more robust forest overall. Telluride also has further expanded its boundaries above the treeline to include more of the north side of Bald Mountain. The resulting new run is temporarily called Bald 6. Ski it, own it… maybe they’ll name it after you.
Telluride’s dining options are commensurate with the kind of wealth that has concentrated on its streets and slopes during the last 20 years. La Marmotte, in old town inside a 100-year old building near the base of the gondola, is a classic. Get the tasting menu with the short ribs. Two new foodie standouts on the mountain for this season: Bon Vivant and Tomboy Tavern.
Welcome to Flavor-Town (the better-than Guy Fieri version): Try the breakfast burrito at The Butcher & Baker Cafe, a gem of a spot on Colorado Ave. Includes: sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beans and eggs, and sausage if you want it.
Double Bonus time: Telluride has the nicest restrooms in the ski world – the resort actually uses the word “dominate” when comparing their bathrooms to those at other mountains. So go ahead and dominate a pile of jalapenos on your chili bowl — with a heart empty of fear.
Vail offers the best skiing on Colorado’s I-70 corridor.
4. Vail, Colorado (PAF = 87):
Vail moved up this year from No. 5 thanks to lift and technology improvements on the mountain.
There’s nothing in the U.S. so big as Vail’s 5,289 acres. Vail is a megaresort; there’s no getting around this fact. Not only is it big, but it’s popular. You will see crowds here that are impossible anywhere else.
But as it turns out, James Surowiecki’s hypothesis regarding crowds is quite accurate when it comes to Vail: there’s a good reason all these people show up. The terrain at Vail is the best and broadest of any of the central Colorado resorts. It also benefits from being on the west side of Vail pass, which results in more snow compared with resorts on the east side of the pass (Copper, Keystone, Breckenridge).
Some of the biggest problems at Vail—long lines and bottlenecks—have been mitigated during the last two years. If you ever remember waiting for two hours at the bottom of Chair No. 5 to get a ride off of the backside of the mountain, you needn’t fear such a fate again. Vail pulled that slow double chair out and installed a high-speed quad, which means things might get skied off faster back there, but at least, if you’re hustling, you stand a chance at three or four runs of face shots rather than just one—and that’s all you can ask for.
The crush at the bottom of the resort on busy days—when more than 20,000 people can be on the mountain—has been relieved by a new gondola that goes through Vail Village to Vail Mountain. The new lift takes 10-passengers per cabin and treats riders with Wifi and heat. No word yet if they’ll let you ride around and around without getting off.
Technology further enhances the on-mountain experience at Vail through its industry-leading EpicMix app for iPhones and Android devices. Once installed, the app tracks riders’ vertical feet skied. Volleys of bragging are easily disseminated to jealous friends and family through the app’s Facebook integration. More than 40,000 people downloaded the app last year, which lead to 275,000 Facebook postings.
We’d be remiss to not mention Vail’s sister resort, Beaver Creek, in this spot as well. The mountains don’t touch each other like Alta-Snowbird or Park City-Deer Valley, but they share parent companies, lift tickets and the same snowfall profile—and they’re only 20 minutes apart from each other. Beaver Creek, still one of the youngest ski resorts in the U.S. at 32 years old, was created to spar with the fanciest of the fancy: Utah’s Deer Valley, Idaho’s Sun Valley and Aspen Mountain—and it’s succeeded at that.
Beaver Creek’s lift network is comfy and thorough—and lines are well controlled, especially away from the mountain’s base. There’s a quantity of sneaky-good terrain at the Beav as well; don’t miss the chance to test your edges on Birds of Prey, one of the more fearsome downhill courses on the World Cup. The top of the course is often studded with moguls, but some skiers can catch it groomed, slick and nasty—just like the World Cuppers like it. As you throw turns every 10 feet to control your speed at the top of the course, imagine straight-lining the whole stretch. Then keep turning—all the way to a warm, free chocolate-chip cookie at the bottom, a Beaver Creek specialty.
Park City’s town lift.
5. Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons – Utah (PAF = 86):
This list is about ranking the best places to go skiing. Park City is most certainly one of those places — and it happens to be a place with three mountains. These are separate resorts, but they’re all within 10 minutes of each other (Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley actually share a boundary line) and taking a trip to one usually means taking a trip to the other. Together these mountains surround the old mining town of Park City, Utah, which every January is also home to the Sundance Film Festival.
First, let’s tackle the town, then we’ll talk about the skiing.
Park City the town has more to offer than perhaps any other mountain town going. It’s bigger than Telluride, more accessible than Aspen, only 35 minutes from a major airport and the place is picture perfect in every sense. Plus there is a ski run that runs right down to Main Street, serviced by the Town Lift, which carries you back up to the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort. A good evening routine: hit up the No Name Saloon (locals still call it “the ‘Mo,” short for the bar’s old Alamo moniker) for a 24 oz. mug of Uinta Brewing’s Cutthroat Pale Ale and then wander down to Park Avenue to Davanza’s and grab a chicken-and-jalapeno pizza 0r a chicken parm sandwich. If you’re feeling flusher, stay on Main Street and hit Zoom, Robert Redford’s restaurant that does a great job with local fare.
As for skiing, the best lift in town is The Canyon’s 9990. At the very top of the resort, 9990 offers some hearty steep fall lines and a big north-facing slope that stays cold and dry even in the late spring. A little hard work here usually yields some powder that tourists couldn’t find. The Canyons also employs the best lift operators anywhere – this is a fact. The Canyons spans 4,000 skiable acres, making it the biggest resort in Utah. The resort is quite spread out, however, and a lot of time can be wasted trying to get from one end to the other. Skiers should pick a side and mine it.
Deer Valley, the place where Mitt Romney skis, is as fancy as you might think. But it also packs in some great shots of terrain, including the Daly chutes, which are accessed from the Empire Canyon lift. At the bottom of that lift, at Empire Canyon Lodge, skiers will find not only the greatest ski lodge in the world, but also the greatest single dish served mountainside anywhere: Deer Valley’s Turkey Chili. At less than $10, this mix of cumin, coriander, corn, black beans and big turkey pieces is an edible bargain at a place known for its bling. All of the food at Deer Valley, in fact, is excellent — and no more expensive than food across the rest of the ski world.
Powder lasts a little longer at Deer Valley than other places. Some of the best bets for long, lonely runs of untracked are some of the older, sleepier trails on the east-facing slope of Bald Mountain that are served by the Mayflower lift. Hit it early and hit it hard. Unless you’re a snowboarder. Then, like with Alta, you won’t be hitting it at all.
Park City Mountain Resort is interesting because it backs right up to Main Street. The Town Lift is almost worth a lift ticket by itself. But we rank it third among the three Park City resorts for its abundance of time-wasting run-outs, lack of continuous fall lines and, for Utah, something of a crowd problem. The best spots on the mountain are those accessed by Jupiter chairlift. There are some hikes that get skiers bigger shots and some of the terrain to the far skiers’ right is legitimately excellent. There’s enough here to keep good skiers interested, but we don’t recommend straying far from Jupiter.
Get it while it’s fresh: On a snowing powder day, make for Deer Valley’s trees while the rich folk play bridge and the locals pound The Canyons and PCMR.
For a change: If you’re at PCMR, ski down to Main Street for an uncrowded lunch and drink a coffee to-go while you ride the Town Lift back to the snow.
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Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley offer unique vistas.
6. Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows (PAF = 84):
Squaw and Alpine dropped two spots in our rankings because of the combined ranking of the Park City resorts, our first time doing that, and the improved score of Vail.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows didn’t do anything wrong last season, but they were punished by the snow spirits as the place was bereft of a real snow base through January. At that point, half of the high season was over.
We can’t reasonably hold such a thing against the resorts, although it might be wise on their part to file a complaint with the Department of Global Warming Problems. The snow patterns are already mercurial around Lake Tahoe—evinced by the record 700 inches that fell during the winter of 2010-2011 and the utter dud of last winter—the place doesn’t need something else adding more unpredictability.
That said, these two resorts, now linked by a joint ownership agreement and a speedy 10-minute shuttle system called the Squaw-Alpine Express, share lift tickets, season passes and the best terrain in the Sierras. The joining is an excellent deal for California skiers—something that was done to compete with Vail Resort’s Epic Pass, the best deal in skiing. (Vail owns three Tahoe-area resorts — Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood — that are included on the Epic Pass.)
The SquawAlpine megaplex has been aggressively updating its base areas, with plans to spend $50 million over 5 years adding restaurants, bars and all the fixins that go with big boy resorts. For people who find that their ski-charging caffeine is better served in coffee than in a can of Red Bull, Squaw has a treat for you this winter: the first ever ski-in, ski-out Starbucks. It will be located at mid mountain.
On to the important stuff, skiing: As always, if you hit Squaw/Alpine with the right conditions, 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 sports one of the few true mountain trams in the United States (Jackson Hole, 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. For this year, Squaw has installed a new high-speed six-pack lift (they’ll fill all of those seats on Saturdays) that will get people to Shirley Lake and Granite Chief’s chutes and trees all the quicker.
Because we find it bizarre and fun every time we mention it: Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Spots No. 7 – No. 10
Silverton Mountain (PAF: NA) – Silverton’s PAF score is, in fact, off of the charts. We covered it in the magazine here. It’s a mountain only fit for expert skiers and people who are comfortable with the spartan amenities of an outhouse and a yurt with a keg on wheels. We’re good with that. Very good. Silverton isn’t a destination resort, which is why its PAF score doesn’t calculate, but it’s most certainly a destination.
Silverton: holy ground
Brighton/Solitude (PAF: 83) – These side-by-side Utah mountains are the light versions of Alta-Snowbird. They’re one ridge north, in Big Cottonwood Canyon rather than Little Cottonwood Canyon, but they get the same copious snow that annually buries Alta and Snowbird. Solitude and Brighton aren’t as vertical, but there are lots of spots, especially at Solitude, worth an expert’s time. And the best part about these two mountains: they’re remarkably uncrowded.
Solitude has world-class trees and snow.
Big Sky (PAF: 81) – Montana skiing doesn’t get the love it deserves. We’re going to change that soon. Big Sky has some great terrain, but it loses points on accessibility (you have to fly to Bozeman) and the fact that the place is always cold and has a weaker base village.
Big Sky delivers on its moniker.
Wolf Creek (PAF: 80) – This Southwest Colorado resort, if it had more vertical and steeps, would be one of the legendary ski destinations in the world. It’s still a great spot as it is and it receives the best snow in all of Colorado by a big margin. The powder can last because this place is hard to reach. At the base, don’t miss the green chili, made with local green chiles.
Wolf Creek: Snow to the roof… and green chiles.
A-Basin (PAF: 80) – A poor man’s Alta (except snowboarders are allowed here), parking lot barbecues serve up more collective protein here than do the restaurants on the mountain. A-Basin is the spot where gritty central Colorado skiers gather to ski legitimate steeps and epic lines on a powder day.
A-Basin: Steepest spot in central Colo