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Top 18 Early-Season Resorts

Top 18 Early-Season Resorts

Travel
By Tony Crocker
posted: 02/15/2000

If you are planning an early season trip (before mid-January), the following areas -- evaluated by the aforementioned top-five factors -- are your safest bets. We distinguish both those areas that tend to build a consistent base gradually by Christmas and those which often get big powder dumps in late November and early December. Crowd considerations may also affect the peak week of December 26-January 1.



Click here to read about the effects of El Niño and La Niña

1. GRAND TARGHEE, Wyoming
It's the consistency of snowfall (and moderately pitched terrain) that makes Targhee's full operation by early December a virtual certainty. In the past 26 years, the lowest pre-January 1 snowfall was 76 inches, and there was only one other year under 110 inches. Targhee is the only resort with a perfect Christmas reliability record.
Traffic: Local skiers come from Idaho Falls. Most destination skiers stay in Jackson, an hour's drive away. The earlier your trip, the more likely you should consider staying on the Targhee (west) side of the Tetons.

2. MT. BAKER, Washington
Mt. Baker is the only lift-serviced ski area in North America to average over 600 inches snowfall per season. While Halloween openings are less common than 30 years ago, deep powder skiing on a six- to 10-foot base by early December is still the norm. Mt. Baker had dry Christmases in 1976 and 1989, resulting in 90 percent reliability for the holidays.
Traffic: Baker is entirely a locals' area. Vancouver is about two hours away.

3. WHISTLER/BLACKCOMB, British Columbia
One can easily underestimate Whistler's early-season reliability by focusing upon the rain-vulnerable lower mountain. A poor start to Whistler just means that the lower 1,000-2,000 feet aren't covered so you must download at the end of the day. The Whistler and Blackcomb Alpine regions got about 100 inches of snow in November/December of both 1997 and 2000 (the average is more like 150), and 5,000-plus acres of terrain were open at Christmas. There have been only two early seasons in the past 20 years (77 inches in 1989-90 and 91 inches in 1992-93) with less snow. Whistler's early December World Cup downhills were cancelled three years in a row due to too much snow. In last year's Canadian drought, Whistler had the only quality skiing in a 500-mile radius from mid December to late January.
Traffic: Whistler/Blackcomb is the best big-mountain choice in North America before Christmas, but beware of expensive pricing during the peak holiday season.

4. ALTA, Utah
5. BRIGHTON, Utah
6. POWDER MOUNTAIN, Utah

Alta ranks below Whistler because its dry snow builds a base more slowly and some of its steeper terrain requires deep coverage. As more intermediate areas with comparable elevation to Alta, Brighton and Powder Mountain will have similar coverage in the early season with about 80 percent of Alta's snowfall. These areas have good powder potential in early December. In most low-snow years they will be 50 to 70 percent open over Christmas with some expert terrain needing more cover.
Traffic: Alta has low lift capacity, so it can have big lift lines at Christmas. Brighton has three high-speed lifts and Powder Mountain is rarely busy.

7. MT. BACHELOR, Oregon
This is another promising large mountain (3,100 vertical, over 3,000 acres) during the early season. As a predominantly intermediate area, about 90 percent of the mountain is well covered by a four-foot base. In the last 27 years, the January 1 base depth has been less than four feet only three times and the December 1 base depth has been less than 40 inches only seven times. The biggest risk here is weather closure of the Summit lift (about 30 percent of the time).
Traffic: With seven high-speed lifts and Portland (at three and a half hours away) the closest large city,ift lines are minimal. Crowd and cost considerations make Bachelor a better bet than Whistler or Alta during the peak Christmas holidays.

8. WOLF CREEK, Colorado
Despite its more variable snowfall, Wolf Creek's snow depth averages are comparable to the above three Utah areas because it's 2,500 feet higher in elevation. However, because of the snow variability, drought months are about twice as likely as in Utah. Along with Mt. Baker, Wolf Creek is probably the most likely area to have natural snow skiing on Halloween. However, about one Christmas per decade, Wolf Creek has snow too inadequate to open at all.
Traffic: This is a very remote area. Crowds are rare, but lodging within an hour of the area is limited.

9. STEAMBOAT, Colorado
Steamboat is one of three major Colorado destination resorts to average 340 to 360 inches of annual snowfall. Its snow measurements are from the middle of the area while Vail's and Winter Park's are from the top. The lean early seasons of 1998-99 and 1999-2000 brought isolated storms to Steamboat right at Christmas, so it was 70 percent open for the holidays when most Colorado areas were less than half open. Also, Steamboat's skier density is less than the other two areas because it is farther from Denver.
Traffic: A good choice for Christmas as lift capacity is high relative to the bed base.

10. FERNIE ALPINE RESORT and ISLAND LAKE SNOWCAT, British Columbia
Snowfall is high, but low elevation can mean occasional rain. As there is no large city nearby (Calgary is three and a half hours away), the areas are conservative about opening until they can ensure close to full operation, which usually doesn't occur until mid December in below-average years. Fernie suffered an extreme drought in 2000-01, but long-term Canadian weather records show last season as a one-in-50-year event.
Traffic: Although its lifts are not modern, its remote location holds down the crowds.

11. VAIL/BEAVER CREEK, Colorado
Vail and Winter Park are the most reliable early-season Colorado destination resorts after Steamboat. Despite southern exposure, Vail's back bowls are open by Christmas about 75 percent of the time. Some of them were open for the holidays in the below-average 1997-98 and 1999-2000 seasons, though not in the more extreme case of 1998-99. Beaver Creek gets less snow than Vail but has much lower skier density.
Traffic: Vail is busy and extremely expensive at Christmas, but worth considering in mid December and very attractive in January.

12. WINTER PARK, Colorado
Extensive data indicates Winter Park to be a very consistent and reliable area. In its worst early season, 1976-77, it still received 50 inches of snow before January 1. However, with nearly identical snowfall in December and January of 1997-98 and 1999-2000, a lower proportion of terrain was open than at Vail. Vasquez Cirque is particularly unreliable, as it did not open at all in 1999-2000 despite 340 inches of snow.
Traffic: A favorite of Denver day-skiers, which can make for long lift lines.

13. LOVELAND, Colorado
Loveland has similar snowfall to nearby Winter Park, but its runs are more wind exposed. With very high altitude and a close proximity to Denver, it opens a couple of runs on snowmaking in late October. The natural high Alpine terrain is often not open before January.
Traffic: Loveland often gets bypassed by skiers on the way to larger Summit County areas.

14. SNOWBIRD, Utah
15. SOLITUDE, Utah

Snowbird ranks below some areas with lower snowfall in the early season because of its predominantly advanced terrain. A six-foot base is necessary to ensure good overall coverage, and it's difficult to avoid lower mountain rocks with a base less than four feet. Solitude bears the same relationship to Brighton as Snowbird does to Alta.
Traffic: Snowbird can have moderate lines at peak times. Solitude's lines are much shorter.

16. JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming
Jackson receives about 80 percent of Targhee's snowfall, but its expert terrain requires much more coverage. If you're lucky, you might get December 1996's 200-inch snowfall. If not, Targhee is only an hour away. Jackson's recent Christmas track record is a bit better than Snowbird's, but we still rate Snowbird/Solitude higher for their past history of several big-powder early Decembers.
Traffic: Jackson's busy lift lines are more a function of its old lift system, now being upgraded, than excessive crowds.

17. SIERRA NEVADA RESORTS, California and Nevada
Sierra snow tends to arrive in massive dumps, with sustained stretches of sunny and mild weather in between. The volatility of California snowfall means that the major Sierra areas will be close to full operation at Thanksgiving on a six-foot or higher base in the top 25 percent of seasons, but will be marginal to poor well past Christmas in the bottom 25 percent of seasons.
Traffic: The major areas have very high lift capacity, and there are several smaller areas, which are less busy. However, careful planning is necessary to avoid traffic and parking problems during peak holidays.

18. SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado
Snowmaking (850 acres in the case of Keystone) is absolutely guaranteed with base elevations over 9,000 feet. But with modest natural snowfall only about one-third of acreage was open for the holidays during two of the past four years. Average percent of terrain open Christmas week since 1988? Breckenridge: 56 percent; Copper: 41 percent; Keystone: 65 percent. Summit County is within day-commute distance of the higher snowfall areas of Winter Park, Loveland, and Vail.
Traffic: These resorts are popular with both destination and Denver day skiers, but there are several high-capacity areas from which to choose, so the crowds can spread out.



El Niño and La Niña

Some of the recent unusual weather can be attributed to the El Niño of 1997-98 and the La Niñas of 1998-99 and 1999-2000. The long-term records we have analyzed back to 1971 do not show the dramatic impacts one might infer from those three years. Neither El Niño nor La Niña was in effect during the even more unusual 2000-01 season.

La Niña increases snowfall by about 20 percent at most areas north of Utah and California, so we recommend early season bookings in Canada, the Northwest and northern Rockies during predicted La Niña seasons. Snowfall is reduced substantially in Southern California and Arizona, but only mildly (10 percent or so) at Mammoth, Brian Head, and in New Mexico.

El Niño predictions are less helpful to skiers. The positives are in the same locations that are negative for La Niña, but the extra snow tends to be late in the season with negligible impact upon early-season reliability. Only in interior Canada and Montana is El Niño snowfall reduced as much as 10 percent.

Long-term data shows no significant El Niño or La Niña trend in Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, Utah, Colorado, or the Northeast. Those who tout the huge 1983 and 1998 El Niño seasons in the Sierra often forget the poor 1988 and 1992 El Niños.



Click on the related links below (and above right) for more of the Early-Season Ski Vacation Planner.times. Solitude's lines are much shorter.

16. JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming
Jackson receives about 80 percent of Targhee's snowfall, but its expert terrain requires much more coverage. If you're lucky, you might get December 1996's 200-inch snowfall. If not, Targhee is only an hour away. Jackson's recent Christmas track record is a bit better than Snowbird's, but we still rate Snowbird/Solitude higher for their past history of several big-powder early Decembers.
Traffic: Jackson's busy lift lines are more a function of its old lift system, now being upgraded, than excessive crowds.

17. SIERRA NEVADA RESORTS, California and Nevada
Sierra snow tends to arrive in massive dumps, with sustained stretches of sunny and mild weather in between. The volatility of California snowfall means that the major Sierra areas will be close to full operation at Thanksgiving on a six-foot or higher base in the top 25 percent of seasons, but will be marginal to poor well past Christmas in the bottom 25 percent of seasons.
Traffic: The major areas have very high lift capacity, and there are several smaller areas, which are less busy. However, careful planning is necessary to avoid traffic and parking problems during peak holidays.

18. SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado
Snowmaking (850 acres in the case of Keystone) is absolutely guaranteed with base elevations over 9,000 feet. But with modest natural snowfall only about one-third of acreage was open for the holidays during two of the past four years. Average percent of terrain open Christmas week since 1988? Breckenridge: 56 percent; Copper: 41 percent; Keystone: 65 percent. Summit County is within day-commute distance of the higher snowfall areas of Winter Park, Loveland, and Vail.
Traffic: These resorts are popular with both destination and Denver day skiers, but there are several high-capacity areas from which to choose, so the crowds can spread out.



El Niño and La Niña

Some of the recent unusual weather can be attributed to the El Niño of 1997-98 and the La Niñas of 1998-99 and 1999-2000. The long-term records we have analyzed back to 1971 do not show the dramatic impacts one might infer from those three years. Neither El Niño nor La Niña was in effect during the even more unusual 2000-01 season.

La Niña increases snowfall by about 20 percent at most areas north of Utah and California, so we recommend early season bookings in Canada, the Northwest and northern Rockies during predicted La Niña seasons. Snowfall is reduced substantially in Southern California and Arizona, but only mildly (10 percent or so) at Mammoth, Brian Head, and in New Mexico.

El Niño predictions are less helpful to skiers. The positives are in the same locations that are negative for La Niña, but the extra snow tends to be late in the season with negligible impact upon early-season reliability. Only in interior Canada and Montana is El Niño snowfall reduced as much as 10 percent.

Long-term data shows no significant El Niño or La Niña trend in Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, Utah, Colorado, or the Northeast. Those who tout the huge 1983 and 1998 El Niño seasons in the Sierra often forget the poor 1988 and 1992 El Niños.



Click on the related links below (and above right) for more of the Early-Season Ski Vacation Planner.

reviews of Top 18 Early-Season Resorts
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