Family Ski Vacations Ė When to Go?

Most veteran skiers understand that optimal ski conditions generally occur between mid-January and mid-March. However, skiers with children are often constrained to school holidays for destination trips of a week or more. This accounts for the week between Christmas and New Yearís being the busiest of the year at most resorts. We recommend that families consider spring break as an attractive alternative to Christmas week for the following reasons.

  1. Crowds. Lines for lifts, lessons and restaurants are at their longest at Christmas. Reservations for lodging and transportation must often be made far in advance to ensure availability. If the resort you choose in September has a slow start, youíre probably stuck with a rocky Christmas. Spring breaks are dispersed across several weeks in March and April so the crowds are not concentrated on a particular week. Reservations can be made in January or February when skiers know which resorts have had a good start to the season.
  2. Cost. Both airlines and resort accommodations will charge top dollar for the Christmas-to-New Yearís week. March prices will be "regular season" at worst, and many resorts start discounting lift tickets and lodging as early as the last week of March.
  3. Snow Conditions. East of the Mississippi snowmaking and thus temperature are the key drivers of snow conditions. In most western resorts the natural snowpack accumulates through the season and reaches maximum in late March. For advanced skiers in particular, more natural snow dependent terrain is likely to be available at spring break than at Christmas. In the tables below we rate most destination resorts at Christmas and spring break based upon individual snowfall, terrain and snow preservation characteristics.

Not all families are stuck with the choice of Christmas week or late March to April. Several northeastern states have a short Christmas break but get a week off in February. Skiers from these states should nearly always take their western trip in February, when they have an excellent chance of experiencing optimum conditions. They should stay closer to home in December, when snowmaking permits many New England mountains to have as high a proportion of terrain open as their western counterparts.

For those who have 2 weeks in December, the week before Christmas can be a good way to mitigate the crowd and cost problems. Itís even more important then to choose a resort with a good early season track record. For those who go between Christmas and New Yearís, it can make sense to choose a more obscure and remote resort. Holiday price gouging is worst at the marquee areas, and a remote location will have fewer day skiers to compete with the resort visitors.

Resorts are graded as follows for Christmas snow conditions:

5. These are the most reliable mountains for consistent early season snow. Itís still not a guarantee, but the odds of full operation of terrain at Christmas are at least 75%.

4. These areas are in full operation at Christmas more than half of the time. Even in below average years, most intermediate runs will be open.

3. Itís roughly even odds on most advanced terrain being open for Christmas. If your family is primarily intermediate, these areas can still be good, especially if there is a lot of snowmaking for backup.

2. The expert terrain will not be open at Christmas most seasons. Only intermediate or lower skiers should consider these resorts before mid-January.

1. Snowfall is erratic and unreliable, and the proportion of terrain with snowmaking does not justify a trip before midseason.

Resorts are graded as follows for spring break snow conditions:

5. These are high altitude north-facing mountains, well sheltered from direct sun. The transition from winter to spring conditions on most terrain generally occurs sometime in April. All terrain is well covered and skiable until the end of April or when the area closes if sooner.

4. The transition from winter to spring conditions generally occurs in the latter part of March. Late March visitors will still have packed powder on some of the mountain, while April skiers will see mostly spring conditions. All terrain is well covered and skiable until the end of April or when the area closes if sooner.

3. The transition from winter to spring conditions generally occurs in early March. Even early spring break skiers can expect predominantly spring conditions. However, all terrain is covered, and conditions are enjoyable where groomed or at the right time of day in natural terrain.

2. Most terrain is covered, but with more south than north exposure some ungroomed terrain is very difficult to ski if there hasnít been fresh snow recently. These resorts are best visited before March for more reliable surface conditions.

1. These areas are at substantial risk of losing their snow cover by the end of March.

How to Use the Ratings:

  1. A resort is preferred at Christmas to spring break if its Christmas rating is higher, and vice-versa. However, a mid-April spring break calls for at least a 4 spring rating.
  2. If the ratings are equal, advanced skiers will tend to prefer spring for more terrain available while beginners will prefer Christmas for the packed powder surface.
  3. If neither rating is higher than 3, conditions are much better mid-January to mid-March than either early or late.
  4. The spring break guidelines are much more reliable year in and year out. A poor spring rating means the surface can be ruined by a few warm days, no matter how deep the snow base. If a resort has a poor Christmas rating but you know it got dumped on this November, it will still have great Christmas skiing this year.

Colorado and Southwest

Christmas

Spring

Resorts

5

3

Steamboat

4

5

Wolf Creek

4

4

Vail, Winter Park

3

5

Copper, Loveland, Telluride

3

4

Aspen, Snowmass, Keystone, Breckenridge, Durango, Beaver Creek

2

5

A-Basin, Crested Butte, Taos

Colorado is the region most skewed to favor spring break with numerous high altitude resorts that accumulate snow gradually but preserve it exceptionally well. Steamboat is the conspicuous exception: it has an outstanding early season snow record but faces southwest. Vailís 4 spring rating can be viewed as a 5 for some of the front side and Blue Sky Basin and a 3 for the rest of the Back Bowls. Vail can be crowded and expensive between Christmas and New Yearís, but is usually a good choice for the week before Christmas.

Utah

Christmas

Spring

Resorts

5

4

Alta, Brighton

4

5

Snowbird

4

4

Solitude

4

3

Brian Head, Powder Mt.

3

3

Park City, Deer Valley, Canyons, Snow Basin

The Cottonwood Canyon resorts are good choices for either school holiday period, except that Christmas crowds can overwhelm Altaís low capacity lifts, particularly if other Utah areas are not faring as well. The Park City group of resorts is best skied mid-season due to more gradual snow accumulation and warm spring temperatures.

Northern Rockies

Christmas

Spring

Resorts

5

3

Grand Targhee, Fernie

4

3

Schweitzer, Big White, Big Mountain

4

2

Jackson Hole

3

5

Sunshine Village

3

3

Red Mt., Bridger Bowl, Big Sky, Sun Peaks, Silver Star

2

4

Lake Louise, Kicking Horse

2

3

Sun Valley

1

4

Panorama

These resorts are spread out over a vast area with many different climates. More of them favor Christmas due to high snowfall but low altitude and varied exposures. Crowds are also less of an issue as most of these places are "off the beaten track." Grand Targhee is the only ski area in North America with a perfect snow record at Christmas. The Banff resorts are more like Colorado: gradual accumulation of snow that is preserved well at high altitude. Of the U.S. resorts Big Sky and Grand Targhee have the highest altitude, but still have sunny exposure in spring.

Pacific Northwest

Christmas

Spring

Resorts

5

4

Whistler/Blackcomb

5

3

Mt. Baker

4

5

Mt. Bachelor

4

3

Mt. Hood, Stevens Pass

3

3

Crystal, Snoqualmie

Whistlerís early season snow reliability is the best of any major resort, so it is an outstanding choice before Christmas. Unfortunately, lodging rates are jacked up 60% over "high season" for the Christmas to New Yearís period. Experts may still prefer Whistler/Blackcomb in spring due to deeper coverage and better visibility in the extensive alpine and extreme terrain. W/Bís 4 spring rating represents a range from 5 in the north-facing alpine to 2-3 on the runs below 3,500 feet elevation. Mt. Bachelor is also excellent for early season coverage, but its Summit lift is often closed for wind or visibility in December. It is one of the premier spring mountains of North America. The local Northwest areas tend to favor early season due to abundant snow but low altitude.

California

Christmas

Spring

Resorts

4

5

Mammoth

4

4

Kirkwood

4

3

Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl

3

4

Mt. Rose

3

3

Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Homewood, Bear Valley

2

4

Heavenly, June Mt.

Sierra snowfall is abundant but volatile, so about a quarter of Christmas seasons are pretty awful, with minimal natural snow base and much less than half the terrain skiable. Conversely, the best holiday seasons feature midwinter conditions on deep snow bases of 100+ inches. Last-minute decisions can thus be well rewarded. Spring quality is primarily altitude related. Mammoth rivals Mt. Bachelor and Colorado as a top spring break destination.

Northeast

The highest snowfall areas of the East, plus those with massive snowmaking, are roughly equivalent to the western areas with a 3 Christmas rating.

Christmas "3's"

Resorts

Snowmaking

Sunday River, Okemo, Hunter, Mt. Tremblant

Combination

Killington, Sugarbush, Stowe

Mainly Natural

Jay Peak, Smuggler's Notch, Le Massif

Thaws and rain episodes are so frequent in the East in March that no area is comparable to a western 3 spring rating. The best bets are the northernmost and highest areas: Sugarloaf, Wildcat, and the Vermont areas from Killington to Jay Peak. There can be major snowfalls in spring with excellent conditions, to which eastern skiers should respond on short notice.