Weather experts are predicting an El Niño weather pattern to make this an epic year in the southern Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Added airlift and more options for multi-mountain-resort passes make the mountains more accessible than ever. If you’ve never skied, this is the year to try. Beginners are the VIPs this season as resorts try to lure newbies and families with exclusive learning areas and clinics. And new restaurants, expanded base villages and more entertainment options mean the day doesn’t end when you leave the slopes.
Here’s our guide to the latest happenings in ski towns across North America.
You no longer need to be a badass to go to the backcountry
Thanks to the addition of beginner’s backcountry clinics and side-country tours to the backside of the mountain, non-experts can safely get a taste of off-piste terrain. And new daily nonstop flights from Denver — the first direct flights east of the Rockies — make it easier than ever for non-Californians to head to the Sierras if Mother Nature skips the Rocky Mountains.
Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Never wait in a lift line again
The addition of two new chairlifts and a 10-person gondola that connects Blackcomb base with the Peak 2 Peak gondola guarantees no crowds, even in peak season. This $52 million off-season investment — the largest in the resort’s history — gives Whistler Blackcomb bragging rights as having the first three-gondola connection in the world.
Snowmass gets a hip new hotel
A 99-room slopeside outpost of Aspen’s eco-chic Limelight Hotel is primed to be the new social hub of Snowmass this year. Part of the resort’s $600 million base-village expansion, the hotel will have a casual pizza restaurant, live music and, like its sister hotel, a great après ski scene. You’ll want a down day to take advantage of the cool new amenities at Snowmass Village, including Colorado’s tallest indoor climbing wall, a mountain club and ice rinks.
The food has never been better on or off the slopes
Skiers who prefer a quick bite between runs can pop by the new Waffle Shop at the Maggie on Peak 9 or the Coop, an express window at the base of Peak 7 offering grab-and-go chicken dishes. In town, Breck now has an upscale urban winery, Carboy, that offers four-course, wine-paired dinners as well as wine flights and à la carte bites including balsamic glazed ribs. Tacos and craft tequila are on the menu at new Mexican spot Sancho. And Aurum Food & Wine, which opened in July, has fast become a foodie destination known for creative dishes such as Colorado lamb paired with couscous and za’atar BBQ charred carrots as well as fun guest surprises including impromptu whiskey tastings and behind-the-scenes kitchen tours.
Locals’ resort on the rise
Winter Park Resort used to be considered a locals’ mountain. But a $28 million investment this year is likely to persuade quite a few out-of-towners to skip the big boys (Vail, Telluride). A new $16 million, 10-person gondola in the base area will increase uphill capacity by over 1,000 guests per hour, reducing wait times by 15 minutes during peak season. And skiers can get there without renting a car, using the Amtrak Winter Park Express — which has a new lounge car and expanded operating schedule from downtown Denver’s Union Station.
Two new music venues provide entertainment off the slopes
Skiers will have to wait one more season for the highly anticipated debut of the Cold Springs Canyon high-speed lift; guided tours will preview the additional 380 lift-served acres of terrain this winter. Off the slopes, visitors can catch live performances at two new music venues. On Main Street in Ketchum, the 450-seat Argyros Performance Arts Center is a cultural hub for theater, dance, spoken word and concerts. In nearby Hailey, The Mint, a storied nightclub formerly owned by Bruce Willis, has reopened. A downstairs restaurant will serve burgers made from a special blend of three cuts of Idaho beef and other comfort foods. Upstairs, catch acts from indie rockers such as the Futurebirds.
Big Sky goes high tech
You no longer need to freeze your butt off on old-school chairlifts to access the “biggest skiing in America.” Big Sky now boasts the most technologically advanced chairlift network in North America. A new eight-seat, high-speed lift — the biggest and most high-tech of its kind — can get 3,200 skiers up the mountain per hour, and the high-speed quad cuts in half the travel time to super-steep Shedhorn peak. For the first time, the resort is offering beginner and intermediate skiers a First Tracks program, with the added perk of breakfast at Everett’s 8800.
Taos continues to improve
Change has been underway at the ski village since it was purchased by hedge-fund billionaire Louis Bacon in 2013. Improvements this season include the arrival of the resort’s first express lift, allowing skiers to get more turns. The high-speed quad replace Chairs 1 and 5, flying directly up Al’s Run and cutting ride times to less than five minutes.
Skiers finally have a ski-in/ski-out stay
Unabashedly skiers-only and independently owned in an era of big ski-resort conglomerate domination, Alta has always been a low-frills resort, beloved for its deep powder and steep fall lines. But the newly renovated Snowpine Lodge offers serious amenities, including a spa, yoga studio, movie room, ski shop and lockers, and both casual and swanky dining options. The biggest perk: A semi-private quad connects to the ski area, making Snowpine the mountain’s only ski-in/ski-out stay. With dorms starting at $99, even Alta’s ski-bum crowd can splurge on a stay.
A dedicated learning area opens at Canyons
High Meadow Park at Canyons Village gives guests who are clicking in for the first time their own exclusive terrain to work on their turns. Additional snowmaking throughout the area ensures ideal snow surface conditions for newbies, and a speedy new four-passenger lift shortens the ride to High Meadow by 70 percent. Once skiers have learned the basics, they can explore as they progress on three new adventure trails.
Still extreme, but skiers don’t have to be
“The Big One,” as Jackson Hole is known, hasn’t lost its extreme edge, but the resort’s investments in the beginner and intermediate ski experience make the resort more accessible to all abilities. This season, families and beginners get a new midmountain hangout with the debut of Solitude Station, a 12,000-square-foot lodge devoted to Mountain Sports School guests. Reachable from the base via Sweetwater Gondola, the lodge will offer lessons, plus equipment rentals and two cafeteria-style dining rooms exclusive to Mountain Sports School clients.
Jen Murphy is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. She contributes regularly to the Chronicle’s Luxe Life magazine, as well as writes the Wall Street Journal’s “What’s Your Workout?” column. She previously was travel editor at Food & Wine magazine.