The Ultimate Guide to Whistler Blackcomb-1

The Ultimate Guide to Whistler Blackcomb

Ski or snowboard, here's what you need to know before you take on North America's biggest ski resort

Awash in accolades, Whistler Blackcomb is the largest ski resort in North America, with over 8,000 acres spread across two mountains. It is a case where bigger is indeed better, because the quality of the skiing and snowboarding is also first-rate, and most major ski magazines regularly rate it the single best resort in the hemisphere. There are an unrivaled sixteen above-tree-line bowls, three glaciers offering skiing even in summertime, a stunning mile of vertical drop, and 37 lifts serving over 200 marked trails with tons of choices for every ability, from extreme big mountain free riding to groomed cruisers, glades, and bumps. Here’s our ultimate guide to Whistler Blackcomb.

skiing-in-whistler-bcAs one of the very first resorts to openly welcome snowboarders, Whistler Blackcomb has remained atop the list of dream destinations for riders. It is one of the few resorts that has onsite heli-skiing, as well as extensive guided backcountry and sno-cat skiing options, greatly expanding the already immense amount of terrain. If all that is not enough, it also has an Olympic pedigree as home to nearly all snowboard and skiing events at the 2010 Vancouver Games. The Games brought millions of dollars in improvements, including a brand new cross-country ski center, and last season two more high-speed lifts were added to alleviate lines. The purpose-built, pedestrian-friendly village connecting the bases of the adjacent peaks is arguably the best of its kind in skiing, full of shops, restaurants, hotels and spas.

If the resort has one weakness, it is that it is too big, and can be overwhelming to first time visitors; luckily we’re here to help you make the most of your visit. While the base areas of both mountains share a single gondola plaza, and they are connected by the longest single span gondola on earth, there is no real reason to try and ski both mountains in the same day, especially given the commuting time between them and the fact that they both have so much terrain. Also, the big vertical here means riding multiple lifts to get up to the good stuff, so the connection at the bottom is not as close as it seems. Split your days and pick one or the other. The mountains are very balanced – while Blackcomb is slightly taller, Whistler is slightly bigger – and both have about the same number of runs. Because they are so big and both have gondolas at the base, many tired skiers download at the end of the day, but you can ski to the bottoms.

skiing-in-whistler-bcWhistler: There is more green beginner terrain on this side, including an entire area reserved for learning at Olympic Station, off the Fitzsimmons Express lift from the village. This is a good way to avoid crowds, as most other skiers start their day on the main Whistler Village gondola. There is more good green terrain further up, in both directions off the top of the gondola. Intermediate skiers have a ton to choose from at mid mountain, with lots of blue runs off the Big Red Express, Franz’s Chair, and the two T-bars in lower Glacier Bowl. You could spend a whole day here. There are also several very long blue cruisers on the other side of the mountain, off the new Harmony Express and Symphony Express chairs.

For advanced skiers and riders, the new Harmony Express chair also serves excellent and very accessible single black bowl runs well above tree-line. For experts, the Peak chair, the highest lift here, accesses two daunting double black chutes, the Couloir and the Chute, as well as single black Whistler Bowl and a vast array of steep double black runs and chutes further down the ridgeline in the West Bowl area, most of which can be skied without hiking. Whistler Bowl offers a ton of nonstop black vertical, dropping into Doom & Gloom and then a couple of more expert options before dumping out onto blue terrain – this is essentially a top to bottom run, and once committed there is no way to avoid the long descent, but it’s a classic. When it’s time to refuel, Dusty’s Bar & BBQ is well-known as a popular après spot at the base of the Creekside Gondola, but also serves hearty lunches, and Whistler is also home to one of the few all-vegetarian on-mountain restaurants in skiing, Raven’s Nest.

skiing-in-whistler-bc-3Blackcomb: Blackcomb has more expert terrain, but is unusual in that both intermediates and beginners can enjoy high altitude, above-tree-line skiing, with all the grandeur and vistas of a big mountain. Wide-open blues off the two T-bars at Horstman Glacier will make even less advanced skiers feel like rock stars. Beginners can ski Green Line, one of the longest green runs on earth – seven miles worth – from the 7th Heaven chair. There’s plenty of lower mountain blue and green terrain served by the Wizard Express right from the village base, an easily navigated day for less advanced skiers that avoids riding multiple lifts. The 7th Heaven chair is at the very top and serves lots of excellent blue terrain, especially high-speed carved turn cruisers. This chair also serves some black cruiser trails and is great for just skiing fast big turns, accommodating a wide variety of intermediate to advanced skiers.

Experts have a vast choice, and some of the best below tree-line black and double black runs are off the Jersey Cream, Crystal Ridge and Glacier Express Chairs, all about two thirds of the way up. Mogul fans should make an effort to seek out Staircase, which is right in the middle of the mountain but can be tricky to find because of its tight chute entrance, which quickly opens into a powder-filled bump paradise. On a powder day, locals line up at Spanky’s and wait for ski patrol to drop the rope, but for most visitors, even experts, the best way to enjoy fresh tracks is to hit the Crystal Chair and drop into whatever adjacent tree runs look least skied on the ride up. The glades off the Excelerator lift are lower down and quickly reached from the base, but are often skipped by hardcore locals higher, so you can catch great fresh tracks here without much effort. Food-wise, Crystal Hut is the local favorite among the nine on-mountain eateries, famous for its waffles and steak sandwiches – very different but both satisfying on an energetic winter day.

skiing-in-whistler-bc-6Village: Despite being a man-made modern ski village, the culinary offerings in the villafe rival those of a full-blown ski town, and there is something for everyone, from fine dining to Indian, sushi to Irish pubs. For the big night out of your trip, it is hard to beat the venerable Bearfoot Bistro, which for years has been putting on a fine dining show extraordinaire with multi-course tasting menus, dishes presented under domes, and arguably the best gourmet meal in all of North American skiing. The other top fine dining veteran is Araxi, a sibling to several acclaimed Vancouver eateries (Blue Water and West) with a seafood-centric focus. Sushi Village is immensely popular, and for après, the wings at Crystal Lounge (inside the Crystal Lodge) are insider legends – there’s usually a wait. Another après hotspot is the Dubh Lin Gate Irish Pub, with live music and free flowing beer.

An unusual but beloved specialty restaurant is Peaked Pies, with an array of British/Australian-style meat and veggie pies. It may be the Canadian West, but you can get a taste of two Quebecois standards here, poutine (French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds) and Beaver Tails (fried dough slabs covered in optional toppings like cinnamon, sugar and chocolate spread) at popular takeout window Zog’s Dogs. After a long day of skiing, there are several good day spas here, but the most unique is the Spa Scandinave (with branches in Montreal and Mt. Tremblant), which offers 20,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor bliss, including hot hydrotherapy baths with waterfalls, wood burning Finnish Sauna, eucalyptus steam room and menu of massages.

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Photographs: SurangaSL; Pierre Laclerc/shutterstock.com; Logan Swayza/whistlerblackomb.com