Like much of the travel industry, skiing and snowboarding suffered mightily from the pandemic with an early end to the 2019-2020 season, and last winter severe travel and capacity restrictions hampered resorts in this country, while most of Europe’s lifts never opened at all. Even summer skiers were stymied, as the premier Southern hemisphere destinations, Chile, New Zealand and Australia, remained shut down to travelers all season long.
So, if you love skiing or snowboarding, you probably have a severe case of pent-up demand, and this winter finally promises to be something more like normal, so I for one will be hitting the slopes with a vengeance. If you are planning a trip this winter, you can do the same old same old and visit your favorite big Western resort, but if you want to spice things up, here are some hidden gems and unique twists on the ski trip genre that can open your eyes to new destinations and new experiences.
World Cup Style: I recently wrote here at Forbes about why Italy’s Dolomites is the best ski destination in the world for this winter for just about anyone, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is – I bought plane tickets two days ago. But it’s even better if you are a fan of ski racing. When I interviewed Bode Miller, I asked him where his favorite place in the world to ski was and he picked the Dolomites. He’d know because the best pro skiers in the world go here every single year for the reliable early season snow (and Europe’s best snowmaking) and great venues, especially the famous Saslong racecourse in Val Gardena, one of world’s most classic and important. First created for the 1970 Alpine World Ski Championships, the Saslong has since hosted every famous man in skiing, including Miller, who won the Super G and finished second in the Downhill, along with legends Franz Klammer. Ingemar Stenmark, A.J. Kitt and Hermann Maier. Two miles long with a stunning average grade of 24% – and as high as 57% – it drops more than 2,500 vertical feet and finishes in the center of town in Santa Cristina, one of three ultra-charming villages comprising the valley of Val Gardena, one of the world’s top ski vacation destinations. The slalom and giant slalom are held on the even steeper Gran Risa trail, hitting 69%.
There are few if any better places to see a ski race, and a full complement of four World Cup races are held here every year in the week before Christmas (December 16-19, 2021). This is an awesome time to visit with everything 100% opened up for peak season but before crowds arrive. You can watch the races, enjoy Italy’s stunning cuisine, ski the biggest interconnected lift and trail network in the world, and even ski the famous racecourses themselves on the non-event days. But even if you cannot make the December races, you should still seriously consider the Dolomites, since there is no bigger ski “resort” anywhere on earth than Dolomiti Superski, multiple interconnected resorts sharing a single pass – and free if you have the popular Ikon pass. In total there is nearly 6000’ of vertical and close to 900 marked trails served by hundreds of lifts, many of them modern heated chairs, bubbles, gondolas or trams. The interconnected mountains sprawl across multiple valleys and about 50 villages, many totally ski in/out. This includes the world’s most epic single day of skiing, the Sellaronda, a loop entirely on groomed trails around one of the stunning massifs that makes the Dolomites a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the best villages for jumping on the Sellaronda are spread across the province of South Tyrol, including Val Gardena and Alta Badia. These include everything from budget to family friendly to world class luxury resorts. For more info visit South Tyrol Tourism or to book a turnkey guided ski vacation (alpine or ski touring) with an excellent local specialist, check out Dolomite Mountains.
The Other Idaho: Sun Valley is Idaho’s most famous ski resort, but surprisingly Schweitzer Mountain is the state’s biggest – and snowiest, by more than 60 inches (Sun Valley is great and I wrote about it previously here). In fact, depending how you count (some other resorts add in sno-cat only terrain and such, but Schweitzer doesn’t) it’s around the 15th biggest in the country, with more skiable acreage (2,900) than famous names like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Telluride and Snowbird. It is also one of very few resorts anywhere offering both daily heli-skiing and sno-cat skiing on site in addition to the lifts. Until this year Schweitzer has remained a hidden gem that regularly made all the lists of underrated mountains, mainly because of a lack of great lodging. But that just changed with the addition of the brand new Humbird, an architecturally impressive ski-in/ski-out boutique hotel at the base that suddenly puts Schweitzer on the ski vacation radar in a big way. This is part of an extensive infrastructure expansion that also includes more luxurious new condos and rental homes. My colleague Everett Potter wrote about the Humbird in detail here at Forbes.
When CNN rated Schweitzer one of the Top 7 Underrated Ski Resorts, they wrote “it’s unlikely you’ll wait more than five minutes in the lift line. Then there’s the 2,900 skiable acres… While the mountain is known for its off-trail skiing among the trees, the terrain varies from the bunny hill to steep, double-black pitches. The 6,400-foot summit affords skiers panoramic views of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Canada.” If you like a lot of varied terrain, glades and snow and have been around the ski world, maybe it’s time to check out the new improved Schweitzer – I’m going to, this winter. Schweitzer is 80 miles from Spokane and just joined the Ikon pass program.
Your Own Private Utah: One big travel trend that came out of the pandemic was the desire for more space and privacy, with resorts featuring standalone cabins, cottages and such doing a brisk business. But in skiing it’s really hard to get privacy, because just about every resort has season ticket holders, and the mountains are contractually obligated to allow them to use the lifts every day they are open. That means the kind of buyouts you get for island resorts in the Caribbean don’t occur in skiing, with one very notable exception. Eagle Point is a hidden gem in Southwestern Utah that only operates Fridays to Mondays (except holiday weeks). That means that for most of the ski season you can book the entire resort for yourself – and up to 200 close friends – any Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It is also a pretty amazing bargain, just $15,000 a day, including lift tickets, rental gear and a fully staffed resort for up to 200 people. Eagle Point may not be as famous as Utah’s bigger resorts, but it gets more snow than most of them, averaging a very impressive 350 annual inches of famously dry world class Utah powder, and the resort offers 40 trails, five lifts and a terrain park, with enough on mountain condo and rental home lodging for everyone in your party, also at extremely reasonable prices. Eagle Point calls this the “As You Wish” package and because the resort is very accessible from Las Vegas, it has proven popular with corporate outings tied to trade shows and conventions, but also makes a fantastic choice for bachelor/bachelorette parties or multi-generational trips. They have set up concert stages and brought in caterers and can do pretty much anything you want, including accommodating even bigger groups. There is no better opportunity in the entire country to truly have your own ski resort, and I have skied Eagle Point and its deep powder and terrain are for real.
Skiing Without Lifts: When planning a ski vacation, it’s common to compare mountain stats like acreage, number of trails and number of lifts, but there is only one major resort in the country that has no lifts at all. That is Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry, a unique property that has taken the downhill ski resort model, complete with trails, ski patrol, base lodge, rentals and lessons, and applied it to the recently wildly popular sport of alpine touring, or AT. In AT you climb using traction skins on the bottom of your skis, with free heel bindings that hinge at the toe, then you remove the skins, lock the heels, and ski down just like conventional downhill skiing. AT has been the fastest growing sector in winter sports for the past several years, and this will likely continue, especially because ski mountaineering, racing uphill on this gear and then racing down, was just added as a new Winter Olympic sport for Cortina/Milan 2026 Games. AT offers a great workout and allows backcountry touring, but unless you have expertise in avalanche conditions, that can be extremely dangerous. Bluebird fills the gap by allowing everyone from novices to experts to enjoy 1,200 acres of great terrain for ski touring in a safer fashion, complete with a full complement of instructional options, including avalanche preparation. I wrote about the resort when it opened two years ago, but it has grown considerably since, and Bluebird Backcountry just added four new uphill skin tracks and 12 new downhill trails for the 2021–22 season. Oh, and it is dog friendly on weekdays which is pawsome!
Luxury Dude Ranch Skiing: The best American dude ranches are among the nation’s finest resorts of any type, including Forbes 4 and 5-Star winners and members of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group. But for every dude ranch, summer is peak season and winter off-season, so many close, but those that remain open typically offer a mix of exclusive downhill skiing and tons of cross-country trails. Three top examples of this include the Forbes 5-Star Ranch at Rock Creek near Missoula, MT, which partners with nearby Discovery Mountain, a mid-sized local favorite that enjoys prodigious powder and is never crowded. Since all the top dude ranches are fully all-inclusive, transfers, rental gear, gourmet lunches and everything needed for your ski day is a “free” resort activity and included in nightly rates. Montana’s acclaimed Relais & Chateaux Triple Creek Ranch does the same thing as an all-inclusive with nearby Lost Trail Powder Mountain. Wyoming’s Forbes 5-Star Brush Creek Ranch operates its own private ski resort, Green Mountain, using sno-cats instead of lifts. There is a surcharge for this luxury, limited to a dozen skiers and snowboarders daily. In all three cases, this dude ranch model allows you to combine some excellent skiing with a full-blown luxury winter vacation that includes a vast array of activities such as horseback riding, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, fishing, shooting, snowmobiling, fat tire biking and more, all with exceptional gourmet cuisine and free flowing adult beverages in sumptuous lodging. It is the perfect indulgent winter trip for skiers and non-skiers to enjoy together.
Pray for snow!