The Traveller's Guide To: Skiing and snowboarding in North America

Cross the pond for more than 500 resorts and nine months of snow, says Tam Leach


WHY GO ALL THAT WAY?

In order to spend a week or two in a renovated Victorian mining town such as Breckenridge, Aspen, Telluride, Park City and Jackson Hole, or to tour smaller resorts with limited facilities but acres of potential. Relax in purpose-built villages such as Keystone, Deer Valley and Kicking Horse, or stay out late every night in busy Whistler and South Lake Tahoe. Experience the emptiness of northern Canada, the champagne powder of the southern Rockies, the mist-shrouded mountains of the Pacific North-west or the sunny skies of California.

NORTH AMERICAN MOUNTAINS ARE LOWER THAN THE ALPS, RIGHT?

Wrong. The vertical drop is less because North American mountain villages sit at much higher altitudes than their Alpine counterparts, particularly along the broad backbone of the continent, the Rockies. Compare the town of Breckenridge to Zermatt, in the shadow of the lofty Matterhorn. Though, at 3,899m, Europe's highest lift comes close to the 3,963m drop-off at Breckenridge, Zermatt sits at just 1,620m, while folk sip coffee in the North Amercian village at 2,926m. Even Squaw Valley, just four hours' drive from the Pacific, lies at 1,890m. Warmer temperatures and other vagaries of geography also mean that the tree line is much higher in North America. And the consequences? Sheltered slopes, mellower terrain, great tree skiing - and a nasty dose of altitude sickness for some. Stay off the alcohol for the first couple of nights, and expect restless nights until your body becomes acclimatised.

YOU HAVEN'T MENTIONED THE EAST

For three good reasons: the mountains are more like big hills, the snow is inconsistent and the temperatures chilly - and that's putting it kindly. Catering to huge metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York and Montreal, resorts charge high prices and are especially crowded at weekends. However, New England is relatively close and undeniably pretty, with picturesque villages, white clapboard churches, and the bonus of the alluring urban trio as gateway cities. For the quintessential American Christmas it's hard to beat.

Snowboarding has deep roots here, and the parks are usually excellent, if icy. The village of Stowe is lovely (00 1 80 22 53 30 00; www.stowe.com), with more than 50 restaurants, challenging skiing and a local scene.

I'VE BEEN BEFORE AND WANT TO TRY SOMEWHERE NEW

More than 500 resorts dot North America. True explorers can fly into Denver, Salt Lake City or Vancouver, rent a car and set off to investigate the small, inexpensive, no-frills gems of the Rockies and Pacific North-west. More easily accessible are those larger resorts popular with North Americans, but rarely on the books of British tour operators.

Located between Breckenridge and Vail - and ever popular with daytripping Denverites - is Copper (00 1 86 68 41 24 81; www.coppercolorado.com). It is an attractive, purpose-built village, close to the small town of Frisco. The mountain itself is a great all-rounder, with wide beginner slopes, miles of cruisers, excellent childcare, well-designed parks and powder-filled back bowls. To the south-west is Crested Butte (00 1 97 03 49 22 22; www.skicb.com), a remote resort known for its challenging off-piste and beautifully restored western mining town. It has a wonderful sense of community, and an impressive choice of restaurants and pubs.

In the canyons above Salt Lake is a cluster of resorts with limited facilities but extensive, snow-kissed terrain: Brighton (00 1 80 153 247 31; www.brightonresort.com), Alta (skiers only; 00 1 80 13 59 10 78; www.alta.com), and Snowbird (00 1 80 19 33 22 22; www.snowbird.com). All are served by city buses.

North of the border, the powdery chutes and glades of Fernie (00 1 25 04 23 46 55; www.skifernie.com) are no longer a secret, but despite its rising popularity, the old logging town somehow maintains its woodsy, laid-back vibe.

I LIVE FOR THE STEEP STUFF

This year, Wyoming's Jackson Hole (00 1 30 77 33 22 92; www.jacksonhole.com) celebrates 40 years of successfully challenging the Europhile assertion that the Rockies are flat, with vertiginous peaks, tricksy chutes and heaps of powder. Further south, in Colorado's precipitous San Juan range, even the tree areas at Telluride (00 1 970 728 6900; www.tellurideskiresort.com) are mogulled, thanks to the diehard locals. Neighbouring Silverton (00 1 97 03 87 57 06; www.silvertonmountain.com) opened in 2002 to great acclaim: no groomed trails, no restaurants, no lodging, just a bar in a tent and a single lift serving the craggy, forested backcountry, with a ski patrol on hand to make the notoriously slide-prone terrain as safe as possible.

Speed racers will find more than 1,000m of groomed vertical drop at Panorama in the Canadian Rockies (00 1 25 03 42 69 41; www.panoramaresort.com). Recent expansion provides lift-accessed backcountry in an area that was formally heli-skiing territory, while helicopters leave the resort daily to explore the vast expanses of the Bugaboos.

I JUST WANT TO HIT THE PARK

You're in luck. Ahead of the game in providing jumps and jibs for snowboarders, and * * keen to capture future markets, the big North American resorts invest heavily in their terrain parks. Don't be surprised to see almost as many young skiers on the kickers and rails. Notable stand-outs include Breckenridge, Copper, Aspen, Park City and Whistler. Mammoth is a home-from-home for international freestylers in the early and late season.

Just two hours from Los Angeles and off the British tour operator's radar, little Bear Mountain (00 1 90 98 66 57 66; www.bearmountain.com) is one of two all-park mountains in the US, with more than 150 jumps and 80 rails. The other is North America's newest resort, Echo Mountain (00 1 72 02 26 06 36; www.echomtnpark.com), which opened this spring. More accurately a hill, it is lit at night and located 45 minutes outside Denver.

AREN'T TICKETS RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE?

Compared to Europe, yes, particularly if bought directly from the ticket windows, where day prices at the major destination resorts are now breaching $80 (£43). British tour operators offer significant discounts, but independent travellers can avoid exorbitant prices with a little advance planning. Do as the locals do and buy online, the earlier the better. With heavy competition between neighbouring resorts, season passes tend to be the best value. At Colorado's Winter Park (00 1 30 33 16 15 64; www.skiwinterpark.com), the season pass pre-season purchase price of $279 (£150) pays for itself in less than four days on the mountain. Other typical online deals include pre-paid packs of discount tickets and membership cards that give lift, restaurant and rental discounts on every visit.

Within North America, discounted tickets are usually available from local hotels and from supermarkets, petrol stations and sports shops in the nearest cities to the resorts. Favourable exchange rates keep Canadian prices marginally lower.

WHAT ABOUT SNOWFALL?

That depends on the region. Snow in the Rockies is typically light and dry, particularly in Utah; the state's fabled champagne powder blows in over the Nevada deserts. In periods of no snow, the downside can be rockhard pistes and icy patches, though fortunately this rarely lasts long. By contrast, the Pacific-borne storms along the west coast dump snow that is soft and forgiving throughout the season, but which can get boggy if the temperature rises. In Whistler and Tahoe, rain at the lower elevations is not uncommon.

Excluding the East Coast, where icy conditions and artificial cannons are the norm, snow falls more deeply and consistently in North America than in Europe. Whereas seasonal totals in the Alps hover around the 5-6m mark in a good year, resorts in the Rockies regularly top 9m, while more than 10m is the norm on the west coast. Alaska's Alyeska ( www.alyeskaresort.com) and Washington's Mount Baker ( www.mtbaker.us) vie for the title of continent's snowiest resort: both receive more than 16m of the white stuff on average. While receding glaciers and short seasons have become increasingly prevalent in Europe, the past few years have seen bumper snowfalls across North America.

HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY LIKELY TO BE?

The Sustainable Slopes charter of the National Ski Areas Association has been in place since 2000 ( www.keepwintercool.org), with the aim of investigating the impact of climate change on resorts, reducing resort emissions and raising public awareness. Resort initiatives include "Ske-cology" educational trail markers and ski tours, Sustainable Slopes tips printed on the back of trail maps, and carbon-offset schemes for guests.

As skiers become more climate-change savvy, the green movement is rapidly gathering pace. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Vail Resorts' ambitious new project (00 1 87 72 04 78 81, www.vail.com): offsetting 100 per cent of energy used by their ski areas with wind power. Since Vail's Two Elk lodge and lifts were torched by radical environmentalists in 1998, the corporate group has been blazing a green trail to prove that ski resorts can have a positive impact. Don't expect to see windmills on the slopes: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly still suck power from the grid, but pay for it through a renewable resource energy provider - and offer free lift tickets to American homeowners who follow suit.

WHEN DO THE SLOPES GET CROWDED?

Week-long ski trips are far less common in the US, where time off work averages a measly two weeks a year. As driving up to five hours every Friday night is considered normal, however, slopes fill up at the weekend. Even busier are the three- or four-day national holiday weekends. Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November; Martin Luther King Day, the third Monday in January; and Presidents' Day, the third Monday in February. As elsewhere, Christmas and New Year are peak periods, but Easter barely registers.

HOW EARLY CAN I SKI?

With the help of snow cannons, November openings are the goal across the continent. It seems that each year a different region gets hammered with early-season snow; by late November Lake Tahoe resorts may already be blanketed, while Utah scrapes by on man-made. By mid-December coverage is more consistent, particularly along the west coast, where a single stormy day can dump a metre of fresh.

AND HOW LATE?

Until the Fourth of July, should you so wish. March typically sees heavy snowfall across the continent, with many resorts closing in mid-April only due to US Forest Service land restrictions, or because the weekend crowds are turning from skiing to summer sports. The Californian behemoth Mammoth (001 76 09 34 07 45; www.mammothmountain.com) and Colorado's quirky, no-frills Arapahoe Basin (00 s1 97 04 68 07 18; www.arapahoebasin.com) are two that annually push for a 4 July barbecue. It's been three years since the Basin made the finish line, but last summer Mammoth was still rocking a park and pipe on Independence Day.

With the only glacier of any resort in North America, Whistler (0800 731 5983; www.whistlerblackcomb.com) has limited skiing and snowboarding on Blackcomb through June and July. Sign up for one of the local summer camps to access the best on-mountain facilities; the respected Camp of Champions has been running since 1989 (01883 776 130; www.campofchampions.com) and boasts the largest summer terrain park in North America.

Ski and snowboard summer camp sessions for children and adults are also held at the Timberline Lodge snowfield in Mount Hood, Oregon (00 1 50 36 22 79 79; www.timberlinelodge.com).

FAMILY OPTIONS

Aside from the almost prohibitive price of lessons, it's hard to fault North America as a skiing destination for kids. Almost all the major resorts boast well-equipped child-care centres and children's ski and snowboard schools. They offer a raft of different programmes and enthusiastic, English-speaking teachers, along with dedicated learning areas and extensive on-mountain playgrounds.

Bonuses include the latest rental gear for young skiers and snowboarders, evening activity clubs, baby monitors for anxious parents, and separate lessons for older teens. Book through a British tour operator for discounts, and look for resorts where younger children ski free.

Three of the best

At Steamboat (00 1 97 08 79 07 40; www.steamboat.com), under-13s ski and rent free with a paying adult. On-mountain amenities include five child-only lifts, a children's terrain park, forts and tepees. Daycare starts at six months, teens get their own ski school classes, and there's an evening activity club. The Desperado five-day ski school programme starts at $490 (£264).

Set up to meet the needs of families, the accommodation at Big White (00 1 25 07 65 31 01; www.bigwhite.com) is ski-in, ski-out. Children get their own slopes, plus tubing, ice-skating and mini-skidoos; teens don't go to boring ski school, but the awesomely-titled Flight School and Heavy Metal Shop. Five-day ski school programmes start at C$299 (£142); daycare is available from 18 months.

Tucked into the woods, the sheltered slopes and village at Northstar create a family retreat (00 1 53 05 62 10 10, www.northstarattahoe.com). Child-sized adventure parks, a tubing centre, moonlight snowshoeing treks, and movies create a camp-like atmosphere; single interchangeable lift tickets for parents, and trails that funnel down to obvious meeting points help to keep the holiday hassle-free. Four days of ski school starts at $349 (£188); daycare is available for two-year-olds up.

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