There’s no such thing as the “average” family and that’s especially true when it comes to skiing and snowboarding vacations. So picking the spot that suits your family’s needs is extra important, and whether you and your kids all rip like Olympians, are just getting started in the sport, or want to combine leisurely half days with long lunches and time in the hot tub, there’s a perfect choice for every style. Here are top spots for four common family winter vacation scenarios.
If it’s your first ski vacation as a family of total beginners, congratulations, you are about to embrace a wonderful sport that you can keep doing as a group for your entire lifetime! That’s one of the big appeals of skiing or snowboarding. So where to go? The one big rule for first timers is to invest in lessons, the more the better, and ideally, private tuition for your family. Many would-be skiers or boarders skimp on this all-important step and then try to fix it later, but it’s much more effective to spend your time learning how to do things right than to trying to fix bad first habits.
These days, just about every major destination resort in the US has a very good ski school, but some have better facilities and terrain for learning, and among the very best is Sun Valley. America’s first destination ski resort, Sun Valley was the birthplace of the chairlift, specifically designed to make the ski experience easier and more enjoyable, and that has been the ethos here ever since. The resort is comprised of two different ski mountains, and smaller Dollar Mountain is used almost entirely for learning, which means no aggressive speedsters ripping through your lessons, no tight catwalks to get to the slopes, no hassles of any kind.
A self-contained beginner’s oasis, Dollar is widely considered one of the best places in the world to learn and the slopes are virtually tree-free, an openness that inspires confidence as there is no drop off the trails and few obstacles to hit. There is a magic carpet area before riding the lifts, and a wide variety of slopes of varied steepness, perfect for rapid progression, plus purpose-built features for the latest, greatest and most effective thing in instruction, terrain-based learning. Dollar Face is the steepest and most challenging run on the mountain, a blue intermediate trail, and once this is mastered, likely by day 2 or 3, your family can move up to the main mountain, bigger Bald Mountain, “Baldy” – with the same instructor if you want. Baldy is famed for its consistent and nearly perfect constant pitch from top to bottom, unlike the varied steeps and flats of most mountains. This makes it an excellent place for instructors to teach, for intermediates to progress, and for everyone to master skills.
While Baldy has skiing for every ability, it rare among resorts in that the signature run, Warm Springs, is intermediate blue rather than expert black, dropping from the very top all the way to the base. Additionally, first-timers, beginners, and intermediates love groomed trails, and Sun Valley is always rated in the nation’s top three for grooming. Off the slopes, the resort is also decidedly family friendly—it’s just the vibe here.
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Skiers With Younger Kids
Got little ones and love doing everything as a family? Then head to Beaver Creek, which has plenty of terrain for every ability, one of the world’s most renowned ski schools, and is famously family oriented. They built a special kids gondola at the ski learning center just so young first timers wouldn’t have to ride chairlifts on day one, which can often seem scarier than the skiing. They have daily family special activities and entertainment, like a beloved weekly fireworks display at sunset every Thursday, an on-slope “Candy Cabin,” and most famously, they hand out free warm chocolate chip cookies at the base of the lifts each afternoon to kids of all ages—half a million of them each season.
Your kids will benefit from lessons on their own, and Beaver Creek excels at this, while just about everything else here can be done as a family, especially the nightly sleigh ride dinners to wonderful on mountain log cabin restaurants, Zach’s and Allie’s. SaddleRidge is one of the resort’s best restaurants, but it’s also a museum with one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of Wild West memorabilia, including frontier artifacts like Buffalo Bill’s desk and General Custer’s hat. Kids love it, and so do their parents.
If the folks want to test themselves while the kids take lessons, Beaver Creek has some of the best black and double black mogul skiing in North America, plus an in-bounds extreme sidecountry area called Stone Creek Chutes. As host to the nation’s only annual World Cup Downhill, and the 2015 Alpine World Championships, it even has both Men’s and Women’s downhill race courses that you can ski.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Beaver Creek has arguably the nation’s finest grooming, incredible high-tech snowmaking, plenty of the real stuff, and is beloved by less skilled skiers. The family-friendly main village is pedestrianized, self-contained, anchored by a hugely popular outdoor ice skating rink and has heated sidewalks so it’s always snow-free, and escalators everywhere, so you don’t have to navigate stairs in ski boots. Underneath the ice rink is a full-blown performing arts center that often has family-friendly programming. They’ve thought of everything and it keeps getting better; for the 2017-18 season, the resort added a new 200-acre state of the art learning and family skiing area, Red Buffalo Park.
While many ski resorts keep less advanced skiers at the base area, this sits at the resort’s 11,440 feet peak, with drop-dead Rocky Mountain vistas, its own high-speed quad chair, and 13 separated trails designated as a family area. Also new is the Ski With A Ranger program, led by experts from Walking Mountains Science Center and the US Forest Service, for a complimentary on ski tour of the area’s wildlife, plants, history and winter ecosystem, open to all ages who are ski ability Level 3 or higher.
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Skiers With Teenagers
At some point, the kids will likely want to do their own thing outside of family time, and for these groups, it’s tough to beat Vail. The mountain itself is huge, by many measurements the largest one-mountain resort in the country, with skiing for every ability, plus lots of great on-mountain dining options. This makes it a popular place for groups to split up in the mornings and then regroup for lunch and afternoon family skiing, or vice versa. The village is largely car-free and accessible on foot or by free buses, very easy for teens to safely explore on their own—and there is plenty to explore.
Vail has lots of features you just won’t find in other ski towns, like Bol Vail, an upscale bowling alley, with high-quality lanes and equipment plus a full menu, cocktail bar, even DJ’s. It also runs a popular open-air skating rink just outside – one of three such rinks in Vail Village. Similarly, CineBistro is about the nicest movie theater you’ll find anywhere, but certainly in a ski town, with super comfy seating designed for eating and drinking, and a full menu and bar you can enjoy during first-run films.
Up on the mountain, served by gondola is Adventure Ridge, an outdoor afternoon and nighttime entertainment zone that offers an elevated mountain coaster, lighted and lift-served snow tubing park, ski biking, and teen-friendly food and drink. Older teens can enjoy a daytime snowmobile tour on their own, while families or teens going solo will love trying a dog sledding trip. Vail has lots of restaurants good for teens to enjoy on their own, and for full family dining, it offers a lot of standout fun and unique choices, from authentic traditional Swiss fondue to Austrian schnitzel to elk and wild game at the mountaintop Game Creek Club—where you arrive by Sno-Cat. If your teens’ taste runs more to fitness or yoga, Vail has several world-class athletic clubs with a slate of classes and private options unrivaled in skiing, and while they are making their own fun, parents can enjoy a similar wealth of spa choices.
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A Family Of Skiers
If the kids are already accomplished on snow and the entire family loves skiing or snowboarding, it might be time to plan a trip to Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. ‘The Big One’, Jackson is famous for its challenging terrain, and when it comes to steeps, chutes, trees, and bumps it has it all in spades. The best skiers in the world still find tests here, but there is also plenty of intermediate and ‘normal’ advanced skiing here as well. Some of the extras that help set Jackson apart for avid skiers include the mountain’s industry-leading sidecountry program, a concept invented here. Partnering with the National Forest Service, the ski resort opens gates in its boundary when conditions permit, and skiers can use the lifts and tram to easily access ungroomed backcountry terrain that would otherwise require hiking to get to, allowing for multiple laps, and it feeds back to the base at Jackson, effectively more than doubling the skiable terrain at the already huge 2,500-acre resort.
Skiers and riders familiar with backcountry safety and in possession of their own transceivers and gear can simply do it on their own, but the resort also has a unique guided backcountry program that includes rental gear, an expert guide/instructor, and the ability to skip the lift—or more importantly the tramlines. If that is not enough, Jackson is also one just a handful of US ski resorts with onsite heli-skiing available for fresh turns and deep powder across a huge swath of the Snake River range, so skiers who want to do it all can mix resort skiing, heli-skiing, and backcountry without any hassles or driving, but if they do want to jump in the car, Wyoming’s nearby powder paradise of Grand Targhee offers Sno-Cat skiing as well.
Still not enough? Snow King, the local’s mountain in town, offers night skiing and even ice climbing, and Exum Mountaineering, the nation’s oldest and most respected alpine guiding company, is based here and regularly does private and small group guided backcountry trips into Grand Teton National Park and beyond. Expert skiers and riders can have a different big adventure every day for a week, and many of these activities, including heli-skiing and guided backcountry, can also be enjoyed by advanced intermediates and above. To top it all off, Jackson is one of the great towns in skiing, full of fun, colorful and delicious restaurants tailor-made for families to recoup some of the many calories they’ll burn in this adventure Mecca.
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