Author: Family Travel Forum Staff
Tags : Christmas Holiday, Kids, Multigen, Snowsports, Spring Break, Teens, Winter Getaway
Winter is a great time to introduce kids to the great outdoors, whether you're at one of North America's top snowsports resorts, visiting Yellowstone, or snowmobiling at a dude ranch. Not only is it healthier to get kids away from the screens that consume them an average of 7 hours per day, but it's also the season to find snow activities to do together, regardless of age or ability level, and enjoy a mug of hot chocolate.
The mountain resort industry has seen several big changes this season. Several resorts have consolidated or changed management, increasing the value of their season passes for many families. In 2015, for example, Vail Resorts took over both The Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort and put in $50 million in renovations, making the new Park City (see below), at 7,300 skiable acres, the largest resort in the country.
Season passes have evolved, becoming sophisticated smart cards and electronic wallets with RFID tags that can be read without opening your jacket. The new M.A.X. Pass has given families who seek variety a cost-efficient way to ski 22 different resorts.
Terrain Based Learning remains a popular ski instruction program. It requires contouring the bunny slope and beginner terrain into the proper curves, turns and bumps to gently force novices to experience ski moves at a controlled speed. Designed for ages 6+, many resorts have invested in snow forts, sculpted trails with banked turns, mini-pipes and rollers that introduce the excitement of advanced skiing and riding without the fear of falling.
Review this guide to the top family destinations, lay out your school calendars next to some resort calendars, and you'll see how easy it is to book a value winter mountain vacation.
Plan the Right Mountain Vacation for Lodging & Activity Savings
Some families want to mix snowsports with urban sightseeing, shopping or even campus visits when they travel. It's easy to spend a few days in San Francisco, then drive to Lake Tahoe; visit New York skyscrapers and take The Northway to Lake Placid; tour Seattle before skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb; head to Maine and New Hampshire via Boston. These are only some of the 12 fun cities where all ages can save up to 50% on sightseeing (and no waiting in line) at the top attractions with a CityPASS discount ticket book. After 20 years of delighting families by saving time and money, the company also covers Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Southern California. Pick up CityPASS ticket booklets in advance; they are great holiday gift items.
Some families like to save at local ski hostels, the ideal budget lodging if you don't crave a Jacuzzi for apres-ski. Another wallet saver is a cheaper base camp, and several fun cities are so close to the slopes you can sleep there (and save), and ski or ride every day.
We asked Trivago.com, a hotel metasearch engine that makes price comparison easy, to help families decide which major ski hubs were the best basecamp values. Here's what they found.
Denver, Colorado (Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, Steamboat Springs or Keystone), nightly rates varied from a low of $158 in December to a peak of $177 in March. In Salt Lake City, Utah (Snowbird, Alta, Park City Mountain Resort), rates varied from a low of $113 in December to a peak of $134 in February. Burlington, Vermont (Stowe, Smugglers Notch) showed rates from a low of $83 in December to a peak of $93 in March. At Reno, Nevada (Mt. Rose, Kirkwood), rates varied from a low of $79 in January to a peak of $85 in February. You can see that examining last year's booking patterns corroborates a ski reality -- early season rates are lowest because snow conditions are unpredictable.
Traveling with a mix of snowsports abilities? Avid skiers who want to pack in extra runs will prefer ski in/ski out accommodations on the mountain slopes, but this more expensive lodging won't work well if you're traveling with little novices who can't conquer those slopes.
To save money and guarantee your toddlers the comforts of home -- such as a kitchen, dining area, laundry, separate bedrooms, ski storage and, usually, a fireplace -- rent a condo or private vacation home. For suggested brokers, check out our vacation rentals guide with tips on finding the best lodging and short stay condos for your needs, at any time of year.
Full service resorts are the ultimate in pampering. Families like the many amenities at Omni Hotels, where the Stocking Stuffer deal guarantees 15% off a two-night stay, a $10 Omni gift card, holiday turndown service and contributions to a local charity, valid till December 30.
The beautiful Omni Mt. Washington in New Hampshire actually has its own ski resort, offering a Stay Here, Ski Free package that includes two ski lift tickets each day to Bretton Woods, plus meal options.
Ski & Ride Discounts, Tour Packages & Special Services
If you're avid skiers, you've probably got a season pass to your local mountain. But nomads and powder hounds can find even better deals like Vail's Epic Pass that allows you to ski at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Eldora in Colorado; the expanded Park City Mountain Resort in Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe; Afton Alps in Minnesota; Mt. Brighton in Michigan; several top European resorts and at Niseko, Japan.
Perhaps you want to sample some of the world-class resorts represented by the Mountain Collective. This option has become affordable thanks to the classy collaboration between some of the top independent resorts: Alta / Snowbird, Aspen /Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Mammoth, Ski Banff/Lake Louise/Sunshine, Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows, Stowe, Sun Valley, Taos, Thredbo and Whistler / Blackcomb, where passholders get 2 free days per season. For the season fee of $409 ($99 for kids 12 and under), passholders also get 50% off on lift tickets after they've used their2free days, special lodging deals, as well as other savings noted on their website. Available while supplies last, typically up to late December.
If you know what type of experience you want but aren't sure where to find it among so many options, use the new Mountain Vacation Specialist-Powered Resort Finder from Ski.com, an online agency with a large inventory of mountain accommodations and lodging and lift ticket deals. Choose "Family Vacation” or other attribute, then select the country, region or state you would like to visit and the Resort Finder will make recommendations. Ski.com staff have the know-how to match each family with the most desirable resort and lodging accommodations based on things like ski school meeting locations, off mountain activities, family-friendly dining and more. Book at Ski.com or call a Mountain Vacation Specialist at 800/672-3241.
Ski Gear, Where Technology and Comfort Meet
As critical as ski and snowboard gear is, most of it can be rented. If you prefer to travel with your own (expert families usually carry boots and rent the latest model performance gear), consider Southwest Airlines, which accepts up to two checked bags free of charge. You can also pre-order rental equipment online so it's delivered right to your accommodation and adjusted to fit on the spot.
While it's super convenient and often comes with an overnight gear locker on-mountain, renting equipment at a mountain's base village will cost the most. In contrast, many in-town locations offer a kids-rent-free package throughout the season for kids 12 and under. Do the math: to rent in town, you'll also have to a rent a car, so the price may work out the same.
The Whole Family Can Learn to Ski or Snowboard Free
January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month (LSSM), a nationwide program that encourages snowsports with reduced price and even free lessons, lift tickets, and rental gear bundled into discount packages for novices. This risk-free program has trained more than 600,000 children since its inception in 2009 and, if you follow #firstdayfaces on social media, you can see its success (and maybe win a prize for your own photo).
One year, we sampled beginner programs at three Utah resorts, had a great time, and even learned something as you can see in our video. The LSSM website offers a quick overview of all of the resorts that participate, and you can also follow their deals on Twitter and Facebook.
Don't forget the Bring a Friend Challenge, open to all current skiers and snowboarders (including members of the industry). The Challenge offers incentives for snowsports lovers who introduce newcomers to lessons from professional instructors this winter; you can win prizes and even a free trip. Beginners who post photos on social media of their first day on snow, tagging them #firstdayfaces, can win prizes too. Hold the photo op date of January 8, 2016 to participate in the "World's Largest Ski and Snowboard Lesson" at a resort near you.
Several states have programs that introduce snowsports to grade school children free of charge to support that next generation of resident snowsports fans; checkout our directory of freebies.
Don't let a family member with special needs miss out on an unforgettable winter vacation. There are many adaptive programs around the country for those with physical and mental challenges including the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center in Colorado; the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports and White Mountain Adaptive Ski School at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire.
There are lots of opportunities for moms and grandmas to learn with friends or just hone their skills at women's ski clinics around the country, and Vail Resorts are among the many now offering special gal-pal learning programs.
The Top Family Ski and Snow Resorts - From Alta to Aspen
Our thanks to Eileen Ogintz and TakingtheKids.com for their input on the top ski areas in North America. In alphabetical order, we recommend:
ALTA SKI AREA is adjacent to the contemporary, upscale Snowbird but its Wild West feel, retro style, and ban on snowboarding belong to Throwback Thursday. You can purchase a combined ticket to ski the best expert terrain in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon and stay in an old-fashioned Alta Lodge that will entertain your kids after ski school and feed them early. Room and board is included; the great restaurant and cozy bar scene draw many repeat visitors. Lift ticket prices are less than at other major ski resorts, too, and the three base area tow ropes (Grizzly tow, Transfer tow and Alta Lodge tow) are free all day so beginners can save, too.
APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB in the White Mountains of New Hampshire provides groomed trails for cross-country skiing and wilderness for snowshoeing, plus guided custom adventures at both AMC's Joe Dodge Lodge and Highland Lodge. The AMC's 100-square-mile wilderness in Maine can be toured via groomed, backcountry ski trails on day trips. Many families enjoy trying to ski between rustic lodges and private cabins, where home-cooked meals are served to overnight guests.
ASPEN has a long, rich history as a mining town, even before it struck gold with Hollywood celebrities and international athletes drawn to its pristine terrain, gourmet restaurants and shops, world-class hotels and annual X-Games glamor. This four-mountain resort offers plenty of terrain options for skiers and riders of all abilities. Aspen Mountain, with its famous black-diamond terrain for experts, promises a variety of glades, bumps and steeps; Aspen Highlands has plenty of backcountry and is the locals' favorite. Buttermilk has the Hideout childrens center, as well as a 22-foot superpipe. To entice your family, there's an Aspen Snowmass family deal that provides a free kids lift ticket (ages 7-12) for every day they rent gear from Four Mountain Sports; minimum two-day rental required. You also get 30% off Child group lessons if you book 7 days or more. Book by February 22 for arrivals from March 1 to April 17, 2016; also available at the most family-focused of resorts, Snowmass, listed separately, below.
The Top Family Mountain Resorts - Beaver Creek to Deer Valley
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado is a favorite of well-heeled families because it's smaller than Vail while offering that resort's first-class service and terrific ski school. Families appreciate extra little touches (fresh-baked cookies served on Lift #6 daily) and pedestrian base village's ice skating, casual dining options, and fireworks at day's end. Moms will find terrific spas at the Beaver Creek hotels (the Hyatt and the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch, as well as "me" time on the Women's Social Ski Tour, a complimentary two-hour mountain tour followed by a sociable group hot cocoa break. There's extra family programming during ìBeaver Creek Loves Kidsî weeks: Winterfest December 19-January 31, 2016; PrezFest February 13-15, 2016 and SpringFest March 12-April 9, 2016.
BIG SKY RESORT merged with nearby Moonlight Basin Montana to offer one of the biggest ski and ride terrains in the US and, by grooming more glades, they now offer 5,804 skiable acres and endless ways to navigate 4,350 feet of vertical drop with rarely another skier in sight. Runs up to 6 miles long, glades and bowls, seven terrain parks ranging from novice to big air, all covered in 400+ inches of annual snowfall make a day on the slopes something different for everyone. Off slope adventures suited to teens include a Giant Swing, Bungee Trampoline, climbing wall and nearby, some night tubing, guided snowshoes tours, a challenging High Ropes Course and Zipline tours. Nearby, families can snowmobile or snowcoach through Yellowstone National Park, try Nordic skiing or horse-drawn sleigh rides through Lone Mountain Ranch, and test their skills at winter fly fishing, rock and ice climbing throughout the Gallatin Valley.
BOLTON VALLEY RESORT, the only Vermont resort to offer night skiing and riding, is teen central Wednesday through Saturday nights. Its wind turbine near the top of Vista quad produces an eighth of the resort's energy needs. You'll run into a lot of locals from Burlington here because everything is within walking distance -- lodging, lifts, pool -- making it easy to navigate with kids. Powder Passes on sale till December 13 ($199/ adults and $149/ youth-college-seniors) provide five lift tickets usable on any day. Here's what TakingtheKids.com wrote about Bolton Valley and how snow sports can change kids' lives.
BOYNE RESORTS, Boyne Highlands and Boyne Mountain, are Michigan's largest ski areas with a combined 850 skiable acres and 115 trails. To cater to their drive-to market, they have improved the chair lifts, widened lanes on the tubing hill and added lighting to their NASTAR course. There's Night skiing and great family deals: kids 8 and under ski and ride free if they're a lodging guest or ski school student; kids 5 and under and grands 80+ ski/ride free every day. At Boyne Mountain's Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark kids are sure to love the Extreme Body Slide, and at Boyne Highlands there's a winter zipline. Resort lodging guests receive discounted waterpark admission but anyone can buy a ski and splash ticket providing all-day access to slope gliding and waterpark sliding.
BRECKENRIDGE SKI RESORT is celebrating more than 50 years of skiing (and was the country's first resort to accept snowboarders.) Skiers and riders appreciate the Peak 6 expansion that includes 400 acres of lift-served terrain and 143 acres of hike-to terrain, giving Breck high-alpine, intermediate level bowl skiing. It's set in the middle of a historic Colorado town of the same name, where heated sidewalks make it easy to stroll for hours past more than 200 restaurants, shops and apres ski hangouts. There's plenty of off-slope activity, such as dogsledding, zip lining, larger-than-life snow sculptures and ice play on the Riverwalk Center lawn (International Snow Sculpture Championships take place January 26-30, 2016.)
BROMLEY MOUNTAIN RESORT is the only ski area in Vermont that faces totally south which means it could be warmer at your visit. Families love this top value, small mountain because it has variety: four terrain parks (one just for kids) and plenty of off-the-slopes action including outlet shopping, ice skating, sleigh riding, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing! Combine a $73 midweek/non-holiday ticket with Bromley's fantastic Family Friday deal, where each paying adult pays just $20 per kid for up to three kids, except for holidays, and a family of four skis for just $186. Top online deal: 2-fer Tuesdays (non holiday) so you and a guest ski for less than $37.
CAMELBACK in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania is a four-season resort without steeps or moguls, that offers beginner runs serving a Terrain Based Learning program and lots of off-slope fun. Weekenders love the mountain coaster ride, Camelbeach Waterpark, and the longest tandem Zip-Flyer in North America -- activities that make this a fun weekend whatever the weather.
Since Club Med Ski resorts are all-inclusive, you know everyone will have plenty to time to learn to ski or ride from the expert instructors.
CLUB MED SKI is a collection of 20 upscale, all-inclusive resorts at the top French, Swiss and Italian mountains in the Alps. Enjoy a seamless and top value experience that includes fine international cuisine and beverages, lift tickets and expert ski and snowboard instruction for ages 4+, as well as children's clubs at many of its resorts. Your kids may even pick up a foreign language! For children who are not ready to take on the slopes, there's babysitting, kids clubs and snowplay with snowshoeing, tobogganing and dog sledding. Couples and families have a broad variety of resorts to choose from: in France, the newest Club Med Val Thorens is very sophisticated, with an a la carte menu designed by two-Michelin starred chef Edouard Loubet. Club Med Valmorel is well set up for big families, with two bedroom family suites, luxe multi-bedroom chalets and a heated indoor pool, with easy access to winter sports and 85 ski trails. Club Med Peisey-Vallandry at Paradski has 264 miles of trails, while Club Med Chamonix boasts Mont-Blanc's 80 slopes, which feature dazzling panoramic views. The elegant Club Med Meribel l'Antares has its own Club Med Spa by CARITA. Expert athletes like the Club Med Val d'Isere, site of the 2009 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. In Italy, the Club Med Pragelato Vialattea is on the slopes of this huge snowsports mecca with five connecting mountains, where a Club Med Spa PAYOT awaits after skiing's done. Checkout their website, call 1-800-ClubMed or contact your preferred travel professional to help finalize your decision.
COPPER MOUNTAIN terrain is naturally divided for all abilities and families can take advantage of fantastic bowl skiing, free Snowcat rides to Tucker Mountain, FreeRide electric car service and free snowshoe tours daily. 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 jumps dedicated to terrain park and pipe progression. (It also accommodates skateboards, BMX and slopestyle mountain bikes.) Check out the Youth Four Pack from Copper Mountain's Ski and Ride School and Woodward Freestyle at Copper.
CRESTED BUTTE MOUNTAIN RESORT is in the heart of Gunnison-Crested Butte Valley, Colorado, and both towns, founded in 1880, are known for their Victorian-era charm and friendly Western hospitality. Crested Butte combines plenty of steeps and deeps with 40 new acres of extreme terrain in Teocalli 2 that opened in 2014. Plus, lots of extreme adventures. In addition to the kids tubing hill, Camp CB for kids, and intermediate glades, there are bungee trampolines, a climbing wall, and a zip-line that you can ski to, as well as a 20-foot jump with a cushioned air bag landing. Check the Gunnison Getaways site for lodging and lift tickets packages.
DEER VALLEY in Park City, Utah (more about Park City below) does it again, winning top awards from Ski Magazine, World Ski Awards, OntheSnow.com, you name it, for their excellent service and on-mountain experience. Skiers love it: snowboards are not allowed and they limit the number of high-priced lift tickets sold each day so there aren't any lift lines. You'll find plenty of great terrain, ski valets, lots of service and gourmet meals. Check out their new sibling, Solitude, where the new high-speed quad Summit Express chairlift provides access to the Honeycomb Canyon backcountry. Don't miss a visit to Park City's Historic Main Street with its great shops and restaurants, a fun place to let teens roam around apres ski.
The Top Family Ski and Snow Resorts - Heavenly to Lake Placid
HEAVENLY RESORT is so big that when you're at the peak overlooking Lake Tahoe, you can ski or ride down into California or Nevada, so be sure the kids have their cells turned on. As at other Vail owned resorts, there are kids-only learning zones like the Enchanted Forest at the California base and the Bear Cave at the top of the gondola, so little learners won't be overwhelmed. Adventure Peak, the 500-foot-long tubing hill at an altitude of 9,100 feet, makes snow fun easy for the non-skiers in your group. Athletes love the 34 miles of wide-open, groomed cruisers; dedicated backcountry guides; inbound tree skiing off every lift, as well as sightseeing and ski bikes. The 2015 Heavenly Holidays festival features professional ice sculptors, carolers, local artists and a 16-foot interactive snow globe -ñ a huge Santa photo op -ñ followed by a New Year's blowout. Keep up with their website for the many special winter events celebrating their 60th season.
JACKSON HOLE Wyoming not only offers stunningly scenic skiing and snowboarding, but having the authentically ìcowboyî town of Jackson, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks nearby can extend your family winter vacation to a week. Intermediate level first-timers will appreciate the free daily Mountain Tour, which leads guests through JHMR's 2,500 acres (there's 5,000 acres of backcountry) to find groomers among the deep, fresh powder. The famous red aerial tram -- a signature of the 50-year-old resort -- provides a stunning overview during the 10-minute uphill ride. Take advantage of their Kids Ski Free deal, available to each child 14 and under per adult, when families book 4 nights or more in a JHRL condo or home rental; there are very few restrictions. Consistent investment (a new Teton Lift rises 1,600 feet so off-piste hikers can ride) and continuous awards have brought the crowds, and it's now easier to get to, with non-stop flights from 13 cities.
Dercum Peak, above one of Keystone's three base villages, provides great views of the resort, night skiing, and tons of free Kidtopia activities.
KEYSTONE, just two hours' drive from downtown Denver, is Vail Resorts' dedicated family mountain with the largest night skiing operation in the U.S. Each of Keystone's three mountain peaks has a base village where families can find condos, shops and restaurants. They take kids seriously here. Kids will love Keystone's ice fort, the Adventure Point recreation area with its snowtubing, air boarding and snowbiking toys, and the free, daily Kidtopia Festival throughout the season. Keystone's Kids Ski Free program has given out nearly 100,000 free kids tickets, in the four years the popular Colorado resort has allowed kids 12 and younger (staying at least two nights in mountain housing) to ski free with no blackout dates. Camp Keystone gets beginners of all ages out on the snow with a fun, 24-foot slide that leads outdoors, lots of game-aided learning, and three designated terrain based learning zones. Instead of a group class, you can sign everyone up for a Family private lesson in skiing or snowboarding, too.
LAKE PLACID, home to the Winter Olympics in both 1932 and 1980, has a long history as a snowsports mecca. Today, the steeps of Whiteface Mountain, standing 5,000-feet tall in the heart of the Adirondacks, attract skiers, riders and outdoors-lovers from the region. There's great hiking, cross-country ski centers, dogsledding, snowmobiling on mountain bike trails, and ice skating on area lakes or at the indoor arena. You can join the ice fishermen and even compete in popular fishing derbies throughout the winter. This scenic region features snowshoeing at High Falls Gorge and Ausable Chasm for active families, and a bird's-eye view of Olympic-caliber ski jumps, bobsleds, and toboggan chutes for the spectators in your group. Roam Main Street's outdoor gear and fashion boutiques, farm-to-table foodie options, and the fun bar scene when you're ready to come in out of the cold. Check out Lake Placid value packages online for the many inns, B&Bs, condos and hotel specials available in winter.
The Top Family Mountain Resorts: Mammoth to Pennsylvania
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN is California's highest resort, topping out at just over 11,000 feet, with 150 trails and 3,100 feet of vertical. Sharing the scenic beauty of nearby Yosemite National Park (hard to reach during the winter snows), Mammoth has three learning centers for kids, special clinics and myriad off-slope activities including sledding, tubing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and snowshoeing. At Woolly's Tube Park and Snow Play, families with young kids can build a snowman and enjoy the snow play area. Mammoth's recent acquisition of Big Bear and Snow Summit mountains gives local families even more season pass bargains and upgrades.
MT. BACHELOR outside the very hip town of Bend, Oregon is the largest ski resort in the Cascade Range, boasting 3,683 acres and more than 370" of dry, light powder each season. Tucked into the verdant Deschutes National Forest are two tubing lifts and two beginner carpets, five terrain parks, 56kms of groomed and tracked crosscountry trails, snowshoeing, tubing, sled dog rides and more. Kids, 12 and under, can ski free if an adult with them purchases a minimum three-day ticket. Their value "Ski or Ride in 5" program ($199 per person; available most days January to March) guarantees five lessons, five rental packages, five lift tickets and reserved parking close to the lodge. Upon completing the program, ages 6-12 earn a free season pass (all other ages get a free 12-day pass), 50% off the following season's full time Winter Season Pass, and a 25% discount the second year after graduation.
MOUNT SNOW RESORT in southern Vermont has lined up high output fan guns and miles of new snowmaking pipe, guaranteeing ski and ride thrills every day of the season. This family-friendly mountain has a trail system that keeps the entire family together whether they're racing down its largely intermediate terrain or exploring Carinthia, the only all-terrain-park face in the East equipped with 125 freestyle features in eight parks complete with obstacles like rock jibs and truck tires. Young riders and skiers will appreciate the beginner park and tubing park for afternoon fun. Mount Snow is also home to North America's only six-passenger bubble lift. Check their site for specials such as the annual Youth Pay Their Age Day (January 10, 2016) for everyone age 6 to 18, and Kids Ski & Learn Free Weeks.
NIAGARA FALLS is a wonder in summer, but when its famous mist freezes -- and glittering droplets gather on the grass and trees of the New York state park on its banks -- it's a magical sculptural wonderland. Take a winery tour, tour the Niagara Power Project to see its holiday lights and learn about hydroelectricity, then bundle up and return after dark for the fireworks, Fridays at 9pm from November 27 through January 29. Those who missed the Polar Vortex of last winter should keep their eyes on the weather, since there may be a chance to catch the Falls frozen into 178-foot-tall icicles once again.
NORTHSTAR CALIFORNIA RESORT, located between Truckee and Lake Tahoe, is a short drive from the Reno/Tahoe International Airport. The most family oriented among the many Lake Tahoe area resorts, Northstar has 3,170 acres of skiing and riding featuring seven award-winning progressive terrain parks and the Riperoo Riglet Park for snowboarders 4 to 6-years old. With an 18-foot superpipe and a Burton Snowboard Academy using terrain-based learning, this is the place for little shredders. The Ice Arena surrounded by cabanas and fire pits for relaxing, roasting s'mores and telling stories about mountain adventures is in the heart of the car-free Village at Northstar. Their ski and snowboard teams have adopted Vail Resort's EpicMix photography and video capture for kids to track their progress at this resort, or any of the Vail family of mountains.
OKEMO, located in southern Vermont with easy access from Boston, New York and other East Coast points, is an upscale family-focused choice with the country's first six-passenger high-speed lift with a retractable dome and heated seats. A second one is coming, along with RFID enabled smart cards that hold lift passes and spending money. Take advantage of free beginner's magic carpet lifts all season long, and select kids-ski-free deals when parents buy a regular priced lift ticket in advance -- up to age 18. They always offer $89 Beginner packages and allow children 6 and under to ski or ride free if you ask at the ticket window with your child present. Expanded snowmaking means Okemo can cover 98% of its trails when weather permits, but there are plenty of other fun options, such as tubing, swimming, an alpine coaster and snowmobiles, in addition to posh base camp lodging and rec facilities.
PARK CITY, Utah -- the former Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons now connected by the new Quiksilver Gondola -- is now the largest US ski area, one whose snowy peaks dominate the fun mountain town of the same name. Just a short shuttle ride from Salt Lake City airport, it and Deer Valley (see above) are popular with repeat visitors who love the variety of terrain, the endless powder, the town's great nightlife, dining, and activities related to the 2002 Olympics -- like a Bobsled ride. The town is also homebase to the National Ability Center, a non-profit prgram designed to help those with any kind of special physical or mental challenge enjoy all types of seasonal adaptive recreation.
PENNSYLVANIA encourages snowsports by using the Pennsylvania Ski Association to promote all 20 member resorts (Camelback is one, see above) by highlighting their bargain rates -- especially in the January Learn to Ski and Snowboard month. The state welcomes 4th and 5th graders from any region to ski free all season with a paying adult, and novices of any age are open season, so to speak. Guests from toddlers to grandparents can learn to ski in Pennsylvania with the PSAA's First-Time Ski or Snowboard Program, which gets you up to five vouchers for a beginner lesson, beginner lift ticket and all the rentals you need, at most resorts, for just $49. Age restrictions apply, but that's what we call a bargain.
The Top Family Ski and Snow Resorts - Smugglers Notch to Winter Park
SMUGGLERS' NOTCH in Northern Vermont, not far from Burlington and Montreal, is known for its top-notch children's facilities (including infant care) and off-the-slope activities including a zip line canopy tour. Club Smugglers packages include lift tickets, lodging, use of the indoor pool and hot tubs, unlimited use of cross country and snowshoe trails as well as the FunZone Family Entertainment Center, tubing and more. Snow Sport University provides expert instruction for children and adults in skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on 1,000 acres across three mountains. For young snowboarders ages 3-6, Smugglers' Notch has the Burton Riglet Park, an on-snow play area in the center of the village with fun learning features. One of the most exciting parts of the park is the "treehouse," an elevated platform with ramps that children can ride down, with a balance area inside and a lift chair that swings to help kids practice getting on and off the lift.
SNOWMASS, by far the largest of the four mountains in Aspen, is family snow sports central with its Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center featuring a climbing gym, themed rooms, and teen activities. We love their Kids Mountain Guide that steers learners to special themed trails and the family zone on Fanny Hill. They're encouraging repeat visits this season with a great family deal: Rent kids (ages 7-12) equipment a minimum of two days from Four Mountain Sports, and they'll get a free lift ticket for each day rented. Additionally, kids receive 30% off group lessons at the Ski & Snowboard School when purchasing 7 or more days; book by February 22 for arrivals from March 1 to April 17, 2016. (Some blackout dates apply.) When you tire of the slopes, catch a free sighting of the resident Golden Eagle at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the prehistoric mastodons at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center.
SQUAW VALLEY ALPINE MEADOWS is one of the largest Lake Tahoe resorts, but it's great for beginners because they rule the mountaintop at their own Belmont Terrain Park complete with kid-friendly jumps, mini cross-course and more. Kids 4 and under ski free, and have mini snowmobiles and snow tubing to play at the resort's base area. Families have tons of other activities, including yoga, sky jumping and climbing walls if you don't want to remain on the slopes, open until 8pm weekends and holidays. The nearly 450î of annual snowfall makes it possible to guarantee great spring skiing, with warm temperatures, fresh powder and a mountaintop pool that opens in March. Spring 2016 will bring the return of the US Alpine Championships to Squaw Valley, where guests can watch their favorite skiers and snowboarders on the runs.
A Wyndham Vacation Rentals-managed rental property at the Stonewood Townhomes community in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
STEAMBOAT, Colorado is recognized as a top family ski resort thanks to its Wild West themed play area and well-trained children's staff at the Kids Vacation Center. There are five kids-only lifts and two 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 terrain park. The STARS adaptive program serves youth and adults with autism, cognitive and physical disabilities, Wounded Warriors and their families, providing instruction to all ages, abilities and skill levels. Since Steamboat has the ambiance of an authentic Western town and the Old Town Hot Springs pool and slides, there's just as much to do off the mountain as on, making it a good choice for the family with mixed interests. Check out the vast selection of properties by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, the largest manager of vacation rental homes. Wyndham Vacation Rentals has over 800 units in Steamboat alone, each one different, with hotel services including a local concierge, plus the extra space, full kitchens, laundry facilities, and communal hangout room that we love at home.
STOWE is home to Vermont's highest Peak, Mt. Mansfield and one of New England's prettiest towns. Mt. Mansfield, infamous for its Famous Front Four trails (double-blacks), also has some of the longest intermediate cruisers in the East and a group of beginner trails in the Toll House area. As part of its multi-million dollar transformation into a contemporary, luxury ski destination, Stowe is adding a Stowe Mountain Club, an outdoor ice rink, climbing gym, state-of-the-art children's Adventure Center with ski / ride school, year-round daycare facilities, shops, restaurants, and food markets. Spruce Peak, an area for beginner and intermediate skiers and riders, is undergoing enhancements in services and family amenities. While you're there, make time to visit the Ski Museum, and take a tour of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory nearby. There are many fancy resorts, and current lodging deals at ski in/ski out condos, but many families like to snowshoe or cross-country ski at the Von Trapp Family Lodge of "Sound of Music" fame.
STRATTON in southern Vermont is a favorite for East Coast families for its calm, well-groomed, tree-lined slopes and pedestrian village base area. Parents love the 45-acre Learning Park, the Mountain Safety Officers who keep everyone in check, a Learning Zone with a 580-foot covered Magic Carpet, and EZ Street, a 3-mile green run from the summit that all ability levels can take together. There's childcare for ages 6 weeks+, a tubing hill and mini snowmobiles for kids, and fat tire bikes and a club for teens. When the family is not learning to ski or snowboard, try the indoor salt water pool, snowshoe tours, snowtubing, fireside yoga and more. Featured packages include Kids Ski and Stay Free (ages 12 and under) available during select periods -- it's perfect for the weeks before Christmas. As we go to press, full season passes (no blackout dates) for ages 7-29 are still available for $349.
SUGARBUSH There's nothing prettier than winter to show off the privately owned Sugarbush resort because of its scenic, small town base in the Mad River Valley of Vermont. You can expect lots of snow, naturally, and from the more than 400 new snowguns that guarantee great conditions over 70% of the terrain. Sugarbush is a big proponent of terrain-based learning, with programs at Schoolhouse starting at age 3 that draw repeat family guests each season. This resort also has nice family apartments, and a new "Pillow Four Pack" deal which offers a discounted rate of $379 for any four nights stayed -- whether or not they are consecutive; purchase by Dec. 17.
SUNDAY RIVER in Maine boasts eight interconnected peaks, 12 hours of skiing and riding on Fridays, Saturdays and select holidays, a White Cap Fun Center with a tubing park, and a Sugaring House so you get an up close and personal look of exactly how maple syrup is made. Many families come to Sunday River (celebrating its 56th year) because of the Perfect Turn Ski and Ride School manned by friendly local staff. Children's Festival Week (January 11-15 in 2016) fills the calendar with PJ parties, scavenger hunts, live entertainment, movies and teen events, and themed Perfect Turn kid's lessons.
TELLURIDE is a tiny, safe southwestern Colorado mountain town with century-old downtown architecture and mountain views in every direction. It's also an easy ski resort to navigate, since the ski school is right next to the town gondola in the middle of the Mountain Village, and each lift has at least one intermediate run down to the base if you get off track. Repeat guests appreciate that the vast majority of instructors are veterans who remember their kids from previous visits, as you can read in Eileen Ogintz's account of her visit to Telluride. Backcountry fans love Black Iron Bowl, a hike-to playground which encompasses eight runs, European-style faces, open glades and steep chutes.
TAOS SKI VALLEY is near the artsy, northern New Mexico pueblo of the same name, and not far from Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Long an alpine favorite and adored by expert skiers, Taos now accepts snowboarders on its pristine terrain. The resort is at the start of a projected $350 million makeover which promises to upgrade its poorly designed base village. Families will find a well-run children's center, tubing, and other apres ski fun. Culture vultures will love the opportunity to explore Native American dwellings nearby at the Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community designated both as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark.
VAIL thinks big; the flagship mountain resort of this snowsports empire has more than 5,200 skiable acres including 7 miles of Back Bowls. Add high-touch service to a terrific ski school, intermediate and expert moguls, tree skiing, and great grooming and you'll understand why their prices are high. Vail has a zip line and multi-lane tubing hill at Adventure Ridge above the base village of Lionshead, as well as kids snowmobiling and ski biking. On mountain, kids love Coyote's Escape, 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; scheduled nature walks and programs are led by naturalists.
Go for a ride along trails blanketed in snow, then warm up over S'mores and cocoa at the Vista Verde campfire.
VISTA VERDE DUDE RANCH is just 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs in Colorado -- the airport where ranch wranglers greet flights to herd families out to 600 acres of tranquil winter wonderland. Relax with an all-inclusive snowsports vacation, and take advantage of the surrounding Routt National Forest for endless guided outdoor adventures, such as backcountry skiing, horseback riding, snowshoeing, tubing (with a snowmobile ride back up the hill), and sleigh rides. Kids can join Vista Verde's kids program while parents enjoy a massage or snow play, or families can participate in activities together. Multigenerational groups will appreciate the variety of non-skill and skill levels required, whether snowshoeing, yoga, Pilates, indoor horsemanship clinics, cooking classes or wine tastings are of interest. Meals are the time to linger and catch up, as everything is included as well as beer and wine for the adults. The ranch is open until March 24, 2016 for those looking for a snowy Spring Break getaway, too.
WATERVILLE VALLEY RESORT in New Hampshire offers 220 acres to ski or ride, a big Nordic Center that is groomed daily and a Town Square just a short walk from most of the resort accommodations. There's even an indoor ice rink to guarantee fun no matter what the weather. Look for seasonal programs like the Junior Instruction Programs given 13 weekends this season, plus the Christmas holiday week, designed for ages 4-12 and 13-16 who enjoy skiing or snowboarding. The resort also offers special programs on the fundamentals of competitive racing and freestyle skiing. Guests 5 and under or 80+ get in free every day, and childcare is available for ages 6 months to 4 years. Look for weekly Town Square events that include music and fireworks.
WHISTLER BLACKCOMB, a few hours north of Vancouver, towers over British Columbia with two side-by-side mountains traversed by the long, scenic Peak2Peak Gondola. Known as the official alpine skiing venue for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games, this resort has 200 marked runs, 8,171 acres of terrain, 16 alpine bowls, and three glaciers that enable late spring visitors to ski in the morning and golf in the afternoon. Spring is a great time to find vacation packages, including discounted airfare from certain cities and lodging deals -- though the slopes can be foggy on top. Look for special events this season to mark Whistler's 50th anniversary. Families will find plenty to see and do beyond the slopes at the tubing park, at the wide variety of clubs and restaurants, and in this beautiful region.
WINTER PARK RESORT is only an hour from Denver and has the state's longest continuously operated professional ski school. The Private Lesson Center allows your family to learn together, and prepare to tackle the 3,000 skiable areas. Real snowsports fans like this mountain's seven unique regions: steeps can be found on The Cirque, huge bumps over at Mary Jane, and groomers on Winter Park Mountain where the beginner terrain is centered. Freestylers will find a superpipe and six terrain parks, 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 all ages with disabilities.
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Special thanks to Emily Sheehy for her research assistance on this story.