By Tony Crocker
Average snowfall 520/467 inches (respectively)
Average water content: 8.5 percent (Snowbird)
Bring your snorkel. Alta and Snowbird combine good orographics (the mountains are perpendicular to the prevailing weather flow), good geography (the storm-trapping box canyon), and lake effect (storms pick up moisture as they cross the Great Salt Lake). The result: Snow tends to fall in intense dumps. At Alta the powder tends to last longer because this anachronistic resort has slower lifts (and longer lines) and because many of the stashes require traversing and hiking. Snowbird has more long and sustained fall lines and high-speed lifts, but also more intense competition for first tracks. But with one ticket for 4,700 combined acres between the two, you don’t have to choose. At Alta you can find secluded caches in Westward Ho, Eagle’s Nest, and Catherine’s. At the Bird, it’s Tigertail/Thunder Bowl.
Average snowfall 462 inches
Average Water content: 9 percent*
A perennial powerhouse, Targhee boasts the most consistent snowfall in North America. Even in the drought years of 1977 and 1981, this little resort in Wyoming raked in a more-than-respectable 370-plus inches. The terrain is wide-open and, though not elevator-shaft steep, it’s still adequately pitched for powder. Targhee’s remote locale keeps the riff-raff out. Which means more fluff for you.
Average snowfall: 644 inches
Average Water content: 13 percent*
Baker is the undisputed king of accumulation, with 100-plus more inches than any lift-served resort in the world. In December and January, this inactive volcano averages over 4.5 inches per day. The 1998-99 season is legendary: Baker was pummeled by a world record 1,141 inches (that’s 95 feet!). The area’s modest 1,500-foot vertical and humble infrastructure keep crowds at bay, but short, steep shots and a liberal boundary policy for OB make it a legit skier’s stop.
Average snowfall: 466 inches
Average Water content: 11 percent*
Stretching from 7,800 to 9,600 feet in elevation, Kirkwood makes the most of big Sierra storms—which bring dumps that are measured in feet not inches. The resort’s sprawling layout and steep bowls are reminiscent of Alta, but on a smaller scale. Because the area is 30 miles from lodging hub of Lake Tahoe—and requires a sometimes hairy drive over Carson Pass—it doesn’t see the crowds of Squaw and Heavenly.
Average snowfall: 379 inches
Average Water content: 10 percent*
Until recently, dead-quiet Fernie barely emitted a blip on the mainstream’s radar screen. But since its 1998 expansion to 2,800 vertical and over 2,500 acres, it’s fast earning legendary status. And it’s a magnet for frozen precip. At the confluence of three valleys, storms—from the Pacific Northwest and farther north in Canada—get lodged in here, unloading snow for days on end. The big attraction for powderhounds is the abundance of long, steep fall-line tree skiing off Fernie’s ridgelines.
Average snowfall 369 inches
Average water content: 9.3 percent
Jackson doesn’t get Baker-esque snowfall, but its low skier density and long, sweet, exhausting fall lines—make it worthy. And the potential for untracked increased exponentially with the boundary opening in 2000. Jackson’s peak month for snow is January, with an average of 86 inches. Earlier can be dicey for coverage; later in the season settled snow turns to cement in the areas primarily southeastern exposures.
Average snowfall: 369 inches
Average water content: 6 percent*
Southwest storms funnel into 10,600-foot Wolf Creek Pass and ram into the San Juans, unloading prodigious amounts of the white stuff. And a couple times a decade, a late Mexican tropical storm will stray north through New Mexico and drop a four- or five-foot Halloween treat onto Wolf Creek. The pitches are short here, about 1,000 verts each, but the hill is two miles wide. Think like a yo-yo. A lonely yo-yo: Wolf Creek is four hours from any major population centers, so crowds are nonexistent.
Average snowfall 275 inches
Average Water content: 9 percent*
You’ve probably never heard of Castle, but that’s part of why it’s on this list. Low density—it gets only 80,000 skier visits yearly—means a high volume of fresh tracks. Located in the neighborhood of Fernie, (1 1/2 hours east, on the leeward side of Crowsnest Pass) but 1,000 feet higher, Castle gets less but lighter snow than Fernie. If it’s raining at Fernie, it could well be dumping at Castle. This undiscovered resort has 1,440 acres and (unlike other low-density stashes like Whitewater and Powder Mountain) has continuous 2,800-foot steeps.
Average snowfall 348 inches (mid-mountain)
Average Water content: 7 percent*
Like Fernie, Steamboat is renowned for its powder tree skiing but it is blessed with Colorado’s dry snow. Particularly in the early season, Steamboat tends to gets the most snow of the state’s big resorts. In each of the past 5 years, for example, Steamboat has been at least 70 percent open at Christmas, while others struggle to open half their terrain.
Average snowfall 358 inches (mountaintop)
Average water content: 6.9%
In general, Vail fits the Colorado stereotype of small but consistent snowfalls. But due to favorable topography it often gets 30 to 40 percent more than other areas out of the typical storm. Last November, Vail got double Summit County’s snow.
Vail is so big, the powder variation can be great. The farther east you go, the more snow. China Bowl and Blue Sky Basin get somewhat more than the original bowls and significantly more than Lionshead.
*Estimated water content.
The Powder Equation:
Snowfall is clearly the number-one factor in determining the best ski area for powder, but we also consider low water content (less is more), terrain (steep is better); and low skier density (more for you).