Here are resorts and lodges west of the Mississippi that are good bets for families this winter:
ALTA SKI AREA in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon is adjacent to Snowbird (you can purchase a combined ticket) and is one of the most beautiful mountains to ski. You will be transported back to the days before ski areas were all about glitz. Stay in an old-fashioned lodge that will entertain your kids after ski school and feed them early so you can enjoy a gourmet meal. Look for lift tickets to be less than at other major ski resorts, and Alta Ski Area offers the “Ski After Three” deal that allows you to access certain runs for just a $10 lift ticket: The three base-area tows (Grizzly tow, Transfer tow and Alta Lodge tow) will still be free all day, every day.
ASPEN, Colorado: I love Aspen for its history (this was a bona fide mining town after all), its quaint downtown, restaurants, nightlife and the fact that, although this is a celebrity playground, you and your family can enjoy yourselves amid the glitz and glamour without a Hollywood star’s budget. You have your choice of four mountains--Aspen, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass, which is family-central. Aspen Mountain, with its famous black-diamond terrain, promises a variety of glades, bumps and steeps. With 360-degree views of the Maroon Bells and plenty of expert terrain as well as groomed cruisers, Aspen Highlands has been the locals’ favorite for more than 50 years. Hike the 12,392 feet to the summit of Highland Bowl for the ultimate inbounds backcountry rush. Buttermilk built its 50-year legacy on wide-open and gently rolling trails that cater to beginners and families. Today it’s famous for hosting the ESPN Winter X Games and being voted #1 by Transworld Snowboarding Magazine Reader’s Poll for best park. The 22-foot superpipe in the legendary terrain park does not disappoint.
BEAVER CREEK Colorado is a great resort for mixing luxury and winter activities. Well-heeled families love this Vail resort because it is smaller than Vail and more laid back while offering first-class service and a terrific ski school, not to mention free fresh-baked cookies at 3 p.m. every day at the bottom of lift #6 (a great way to end the ski day!) Ultimate 4 offers kids a lesson with only four kids per instructor while the resort promises plenty of complimentary activities after the lifts close from rail jams and disco skating to family snowshoe tours and fireworks. Don’t forget the lift-served tubing hill that opened three years ago. Enjoy special family programming during “Beaver Creek Loves Kids” weeks, making the Mountains come to life during peak times of the season. This includes Winterfest from Dec. 21-31, Prezfest from Feb. 15-17 and Springfest from March 16-April 6.
BIG SKY RESORT in Montana -- the Big Sky Resort-Moonlight Basin interconnect provides access to more skiing than any other resort in the United States. With the Biggest Skiing in America lift ticket, you can access 5,532 skiable acres and endless ways to navigate 4,350 feet of vertical drop. At 11,166 feet, it's easy to see Lone Peak's appeal to every age and level of skier and boarder. Runs up to six miles long and glades and bowls covered in 400-plus inches of annual snowfall make a day on the slopes something different for everyone. Basecamp, located front and center in the Mountain Village, offers information on all the exciting attractions like Zipline, High Ropes Course, Laser Tag, Bungee Trampoline and Tube Park. Another plus: You are only an hour from Yellowstone National Park.
BRECKENRIDGE SKI RESORT, is in the middle of a historic Colorado town and has been a family-adored destination for more than 50 years. With more than 200 restaurants and shops, Breckenridge is a perfect mountain town. Check out new One Ski Hill Place, a newer Rock Resort complete with its own bowling alley. If anyone in your family has any special challenges, head to the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center with a variety of special winter and summer programs. If you visit between Dec 2-9, you will be able to catch The Annual Hartford Ski Spectacular, an event of Disabled Sports USA. With the “Breck for a Buck” deal you score a free lift ticket and a free night of lodging if you stay and ski three days.
CRESTED BUTTE MOUNTAIN RESORT in Colorado combines a friendly, picturesque small town, plenty of steeps and deeps and a new base area Adventure Park for a guaranteed-to-please experience. This mountain has long been one of my family’s favorites. We think the fact that CB is harder to reach than some other resorts adds to the appeal. There’s an eco-friendly synthetic “ice” skating rink (recycled from the American Museum of Natural History in New York where it was part of a display on climate change), bungee trampolines, a climbing wall, and a zip-line that you can ski to, as well as a multi-lane, lift-served tubing hill. Families love the Children’s Center and beginner learning area. Look for deals that include a free flight for every two you purchase, a fourth night of lodging and day of skiing free with every three night stay and free stay & ski for kids 12 and under when you book your lodging through Crested Butte Vacations. When you book your lodging with Crested Butte vacations you can also receive free skiing with any stay from Nov. 21- Dec. 19.
COPPER MOUNTAIN, in Colorado. Copper’s terrain is naturally divided for all abilities and includes fantastic bowl skiing. Off slope, three base villages have redefined the Copper experience with accommodations, restaurants, bars, shops, and a kids-only lodge. Copper is also home to the only year-round ski and snowboard program in the state. Offering winter day camps and week-long summer camps, Woodward at Copper has the Barn, the first indoor ski and snowboard training facility with trampolines, foam pits, and Snowflex jumps dedicated to terrain park and pipe progression. Campers develop their tricks in the Woodward at Copper Barn and progress in Copper Mountain’s winter and summer terrain parks and pipe. This year Woodward at Copper is offering fully coached group sessions in the various on mountain terrain parks every day from Dec. 14-April 13, 2013. There are also free snow cat rides to Tucker Mountain, FreeRide electric car service for 5 people and their equipment, free snow-shoe tours daily, and kids ski free. Check out the Woodward Student Promotions for kids with good grades: Good Student Discount 3.5 GPA and above - 20% off Winter Camp Days, the Intro Session, Drop In, Air Bag, and Skate/BMX sessions. Must show valid student report card.
HEAVENLY RESORT in California overlooks Lake Tahoe. You can ski in California or Nevada! The kids will love the 60-foot jumps in Jackpot Terrain Park and the largest tubing hill in the west at Adventure Peak. Kids enjoy the adventure zone called Black Bear Hollow at the top of the Gondola. Right next to the Hollow is an entry-level terrain park with small rails, gentle jumps and boxes meant for youngsters to explore. There are 34 miles of wide-open, groomed cruisers, and the option for tree skiing off of every lift, as well as sightseeing, ski bikes and snowshoeing. If your teens are angling to go in the back country, you can hire a guide from Heavenly’s Adventure Sessions program, find out what the locals know about it. Pay for five nights lodging at Heavenly and receive the sixth and seventh night for free. Also, if you pay for a four-day ski lift ticket you will get the fifth day free. From Dec. 20-Jan. 1, experience“Heavenly Holidays,” a holiday winter wonderland in Heavenly Village with lights, decorations, carolers, magicians, jugglers, live ice sculpture making, a Ripperoo Parade, and more family-friendly events.
JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming, not only offers the chance to ski and ride but to explore an authentic cowboy town and Yellowstone National Park in winter when the crowds are gone. If it is your first time to the mountain, you can take a complimentary Mountain Host tour to get to know the mountain on groomed terrain. There is a special Beginner Center where pros guarantee that after your first beginner class, you can ski. If you can’t, you can repeat the First Day Learn to Turn class as often as you like. Try out the Rockies’ first Stash Park. Created by Burton Snowboards and unique to only five other resorts in the world, the Stash uses natural elements to build terrain park-like features, giving riders a completely different kind of riding experience. The Stash has four different runs and more than 50 total features. If you stay at the Village Center Inn three or more days, you can ski for free. This deal starts at $89/person. And you can take a guided snowshoe tour at the base of the Tetons with Jackson’s Mountain Sports School.
KEYSTONE RESORT. Less than an hour from Denver, with three mountains where families can not only snag an inexpensive condo but get access to an array of discounted or free activities including skating and ice hockey, snowshoeing, snow biking, snow tubing, even Science Snow Tours offered by the Keystone Science School. Keystone is a Vail Resort, which means that its ski and snowboard school is first rate. Your kids will love the huge ice fort, the Kidtopia Festivals throughout the season, Disco tubing and more. Look for a variety of free night deals, even during peak times as well as discounts on a second person’s lessons. This year, Stay two nights and kids 12 and under ski free.
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN, California. Some people come to Mammoth for the 150 trails. Others for its 3,100 feet of vertical. At the highest ski resort in California with a peak elevation of 11,053 feet, there’s plenty of snow, sun (300 days a year) three learning centers for kids, special clinics and the chance to sled and tube, snowmobile, go for a dog sled ride or snow shoe. There’s even a snow play area at Wooly’s Adventure Summit Tube Park where families with young kids can build a snowman and enjoy the snow play area.
MT BACHELOR in Bend, Oregon, is the largest ski resort in the Cascade Range, offering 3,683 acres and 360 degrees of lift-accessible terrain. The mountain also boasts two tubing lifts and two beginner carpets, five terrain parks, groomed and tracked cross country trails, snowshoeing, tubing, sled dog rides and more. Kids 18 and under can ski free if an adult in their family purchases a multi-day ticket. If you are new to skiing or riding, check out the ‘Ski or Ride in 5? program: For $199 you or your kids get five lessons, five rental packages, and five lift tickets and a reserved parking spot close to the lodge. Upon ‘graduation’ from the program, students 18 and under get a FREE season pass; adults get a FREE 12-day pass and 50% discount on next year's 2013-2014 Full Winter Season Pass.
NORTHSTAR at TAHOE. Located on the California-Nevada border near Reno and is easy access from San Francisco or Sacramento. Northstar expanded its resort boundaries in two areas of the mountain, adding 170 acres of new side-country terrain that can be explored on guided backcountry and snow-cat tours. Purchase your lift tickets online before arriving to get the lowest price possible. Parents can split the cost of one lift ticket—switching off to take care of the baby. They can also haul the gear—and the kids—in complimentary wagons around the new base area, where you can skate free and make delicious, gourmet s’mores around the many fire pits surrounding the skating rink. If you have snowboard aficionados in the group, check out the Burton Snowboard Academy with a 1:4 student:coach ratio and hands-on involvement by the coach from fitting boots and a board to linking the first turns. If your child does not love it or feel improved, they will let you do it again with the Burton Academic Satisfaction Guarantee. There’s Minors’ Camp licensed childcare and outdoor play for non-skiing children ages 2-6.
PARK CITY. Located in Utah, Park City is a short shuttle ride from Salt Lake City airport, which is home to three major kid-friendly resorts. The Canyons; Deer Valley, where the luxe Montage aims to cater to well-heeled families (no snowboarders at Deer Valley!) and Park City Mountain Resort, which promises there will be no more than five kids or adults in your group lessons. I’ve helped them develop a website for snow loving parents – please visit Snowmamas.com. You’ll find plenty of bargains (especially at the Canyons), service and gourmet meals (especially at Deer Valley) and all of the terrain features your riders and skiers could want (Park City Mountain Resort) which also offers night skiing and riding. You’ll also have fun exploring the historic mountain town chock full of shops and restaurants. The National Abilities Center is designed to help all those in your family with special challenges. You can also have the chance to test your mettle on an Olympic bobsled run at the Olympic Park. Park City Mountain Resort even has a Ladies’ Club dedicated to getting moms back on the slopes.
SNOWMASS. One of the four fabulous mountains in Aspen, Colorado, Snowmass is where kids have their choice of peppermint s’mores, ice cream sundaes or every variety of Gummi après ski at the new Base Village. Snowmass, by far the largest mountain in Aspen, is family snow sports central with its $17 million Treehouse Adventure Center complete with its own climbing “wall” for pre-schoolers. From April 1-14, kids ages 7-12 ski & stay free with purchase of lodging and lifts by an adult for three or more days. Purchase an adult ski lesson as part of the deal and kids have a free lesson too. A new Westin opens this winter. Also, book any 2 nights at a participating property and get the 3rd night free with rates starting at just $99. Check the website for other deals and also don’t miss the resident Golden Eagle at the free Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Take a snowshoe tour with them n the mountain. Visit the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center that showcases the terrific find of prehistoric mastodons.
SQUAW VALLEY USA in California has a newly renovated Children’s Center and plans to transform the Belmont Park into a kids’ terrain park complete with a snow fort, kid-friendly jumps, bumps and more. Squaw also provides a kids map designed to lead them on a grand adventure around the mountain. Kids can follow the map through Squaw Valley’s kid-friendly terrain to find fun facts about the mountain’s animals, history and natural habitat—free with any lift ticket. At Squaw you can hit the slopes until 8pm on weekends. The nearly 500 inches of snowfall each season make it possible for the resort to remain open through the spring. April 7th is U.S. Ski Team Day, where guests can join Julia Mancuso, Jonny Moseley, Tamara McKinney, Travis Ganong along with other favorite skiers and snowboarders.
Steamboat, Colorado, is recognized as a top family ski resort in North America thanks to its new Kids’ Vacation Center (adding 3,000 square feet to the new slope side entrance as well as eight new registration kiosks) with its western-themed play area and well-trained children’s staff. The resort has long been an innovator for families with Kids Ski Free, Kids Fly Free and Kids Rent Free programs. Plus, with the ambiance of an authentic Western town known for breeding Olympians and its Old Town Hot Springs pool and slides, there’s just as much to do off the mountain as on. There are five kids-only lifts and two special beginner-teaching areas with special Magic Carpet lifts. More advanced kids access the entire mountain, including kids-only terrain at Rough Rider Basin, complete with dedicated lift plus teepees, a frontier-style fort and the Beehive - a kids’ terrain park. Check out the special Billy Kidd Race Camps–Dec. 17-19 and 24-26, Jan. 21-23, Feb. 18-20 and March 18-20, 2013. The STARS Kids’ Adaptive Camp in March 2013is a ski camp for youth (age 6-20) with physical disabilities.
TELLURIDE, a historic southwestern Colorado mountain town, is so safe that local parents let 10-year-olds run around on their own. Kids routinely hop the free gondola from the mountain village for the 12-minute ride into town where they can go to a movie (there’s one movie theater), get some pizza or a burger and some Gummies at The Sweet Life. Visiting kids might learn a little Western history in the process. The entire town of Telluride — four blocks long and four blocks wide and nestled in a box canyon — is a federally designated historic district, and it couldn’t be prettier with buildings dating back a century and mountain views in every direction. Even during the busiest week of the year, the ski school has only got about 225 children, ages 3 through 14, enrolled — perhaps a quarter of the size of other family-friendly resorts. Parents like the intimacy and that the vast majority of instructors in the ski school are veterans here who remember their kids from previous visits. It’s also an easy ski school to navigate — right next to the town gondola in the middle of the Mountain Village. The kids get their rentals right in the building — the instructors take care of that too. Backcountry lovers will love the Black Iron Bowl—a hike-to playground is set against the dramatic backdrop of Palmyra Peak, adding eight runs adjacent to Prospect Bowl, including the wide-open Mountain Quail couloir, European-style faces, open glades and steep chutes. Here’s what I wrote about a visit to Telluride.
TAOS SKI VALLEY. Located in northern New Mexico with easy access from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, Taos is one of the last, most pristine, and still somewhat undiscovered ski areas in the country. It is still family owned and run. Not only is there great snow and an 18,000 square foot children’s center, but you have the opportunity to explore Native American culture nearby—right at the Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated both as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. There’s plenty for the non-snow sports lovers in the group to do. And Taos Valley now welcomes snowboarders too. Experience the newly expanded tubing hill, located on Strawberry Hill, open Wed-Sat from 2-6pm. Open to all ages, the tubing hill has multiple lanes and a moving carpet that carries you back to the top each time. Be among the first to ride the newest lift at TAOS, the new Pioneers Beginner Lift, is perfect for first-time skiers and riders to carve up new beginner terrain.
VAIL, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has more than 5,000 acres to ski, including the famous Back Bowls and another 645 acres in Blue Sky Basin, the huge expanse of wilderness-like terrain that faces Vail’s bowls. This resort offers intermediate as well as expert skiers moguls, tree skiing, and even some cliffs. No one in your gang will get bored here—even after the slopes close. There is a tubing hill at Adventure Ridge, as well as kids snowmobiling, a bungee trampoline and ski biking. For some fun on the mountain, check out Coyote’s Den, a 50-foot long wooden ski-through feature and the teepee in Sherwood Forest. Also, check out the Nature Discovery Center at Eagle’s Nest with frequent nature walks and programs led by naturalists. You can even take a moonlit snowshoe tour! When it comes to ski lessons, for an extra fee, you can opt for the Ultimate Four, which guarantees kids 3-15 will have only four children per instructor.
WHISTLER BLACKOMB in British Columbia is just 78 miles from Vancouver and was the official alpine skiing venue for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games. Whistler and Blackcomb are side-by-side mountains, connected by the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, which together offer more than 200 marked runs, 8,000 acres of terrain, 14 alpine bowls, and three glaciers. There’s plenty of snow—more than 430 inches a year—which means one of the longest ski seasons in North America. Check out the website for deals, including discounted airfare from certain cities and lodging deals. Coca-Cola Tube Parkis located in the Base 2 Zone on Blackcomb Mountain and has eight lanes varying in difficulty.
WINTER PARK RESORT is only 67 miles from Denver and offers the state’s longest continually operating professional ski school. The Private Lesson Center allows your family to learn together.There is an incredible variety of terrain spread across five mountains. Steeps can be found on Vasquez Cirque, bumps the size of small VW bugs can be found over at Mary Jane. Groomers are found on Winter Park Mountain with beginner terrain. Terrain Parks come by the handful as the resort has five, including the limited access park, Dark Territory. Look for packages that include free nights and free lift tickets. The Resort is also home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which offers a variety of programs for those with special mental and physical challenges. Buy 3 Nights get the 4th Night Free. Offer valid for stays Nov. 14-April 21, excluding Dec. 26-31, 2012, March 10-14, 2013, and March 27-31, 2013, when a 20% savings is offered.
Eileen Ogintz is a leading national family travel expert whose syndicated column Taking the Kids is the most widely distributed column in the country on family travel. She also is the author of seven family travel books. Special thanks to Becca Tasch for her invaluable research assistance on this story.
For more Fun in the Snow stories, check out these lists of the best ski resorts for families across the country:
Best Midwest and Northeast Ski Resorts for Families
Best of the West Ski Resorts for Families
Ski Resorts Close to Home for Beginners
Ski Packages and Deals
Or read the full package of stories on family travel sites, Taking the Kids and Family Travel Forum.