Many downhill resorts swarm with skiers while some of the best ski slopes sit empty. Here's where you can escape the crowds.
Compared to other Western ski resorts, Bear Valley certainly measures up. The scenery is sublime and the terrain ample. The help is friendly, the chili respectable. And you don't need to take out a second mortgage to bring the family for the weekend. Tucked into a quiet corner of the Sierra Nevada, the place has an all-around good vibe.
The only thing missing is skiers. The reason probably has something to do with the Big Gulp. Americans like things big. This seems especially true of skiers and snowboarders, who tend to flock to the same supersize resorts. Meanwhile, some fine ski hills around the West sit empty. The following are six alternatives—some may say antidotes—to the monster resorts. While each has its own distinct personality and flavor, all six offer plenty of elbowroom at a fair price.
There is, of course, a catch: Most of these resorts are isolated. But out-of-the-way is a distinction hard to find, even in the expansive West. Consider the extra effort in getting there an investment, not an inconvenience.
The path to Bear Valley is Highway 4, from the California gold country into this undervisited Sierra high country between Yosemite and Tahoe. The resort clings to the side of the Mokelumne River's deep canyon, surrounded by big peaks, thick forests, and protected wilderness. Tip: Bring plenty of film.
Although located squarely in the middle of nowhere, Bear Valley is no rinky-dink operation. The resort covers 1,300 acres and has 11 lifts, with the terrain geared mostly for intermediate and advanced skiers and 'boarders. Runs tend to be on the short side, but there's no shortage of ground to cover.
Unlike the intensively developed Tahoe Basin, which attracts the majority of Northern California skiers, Bear Valley pulls in crowds only on weekends. One reason is that the village of Bear Valley is tiny, consisting of two lodges, a few condos, and a smattering of second homes. On quiet weekdays, employees sometimes seem to outnumber skiers.
The views from Bear Valley rival those of any ski resort in California, and judging by the clientele, families love the place—it's affordable and wonderfully mellow. Those who visit should also check out the nearby Bear Valley Cross Country area (209-753-2834, www.bearvalleyxc.com). Although not affiliated with the downhill resort, it provides the visitor many miles of groomed trails and equally impressive views.
Bear Valley (209-753-2301,www.bearvalley.com) is about 26 miles east of Arnold on Highway 4, a 3½-hour drive from the Bay Area. The Bear Valley Lodge (209-753-2327, www.bearvalleylodge.com) has rustic but comfortable rooms, some elegant suites, and a stone fireplace in its lovely lobby.
You probably didn't hear much about Alta during last winter's Olympic Games. The resort sits atop Little Cottonwood Canyon, one of Salt Lake City's primary watersheds, and environmental concerns kept the Games at bay. No one at Alta was too upset about it.
Alta is a throwback, and many skiers across the nation deeply revere the place. Superb terrain and some of the best powder in the world have something to do with it. Nor does it hurt that a lift ticket at Alta is currently $40, compared with the $67 that people voluntarily cough up at Deer Valley in Park City.
Is the skiing here good? Please. Alta spans two major mountains and then some. It regularly gets some of the biggest dumps in the country. The terrain runs the gamut, with most runs for intermediate and advanced skiers. But contrary to its image as a haven for the extreme crowd, Alta also boasts several long, gentle runs for beginners above the Albion Lodge and has an excellent ski school for all skill levels. Novices won't be able to ski the majority of trails, but they're likely to have a great experience on the stuff they can handle.
In addition to the ski resort, Alta has a few lodges, condos, a church, community center, and firehouse. The one thing noticeably missing is snowboarding. This is a source of profound happiness for skiers, but shredders who must shred head to neighboring Snowbird, a mile down the road.
Alta (801-359-1078, www.altaskiarea.com) is less than an hour's drive from downtown Salt Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The Utah Transit Authority (801-287-4636) offers ski bus service to Alta. Accommodations include six lodges, three condo complexes, and several rental homes. Alta Visitor Information (888-782-9258) can help you choose the best option.
Of some dozen ski resorts in the Tahoe area, none is closer to the lake than Homewood. At times, it looks like an out-of-control skier could hurtle downhill, slide across Highway 89, and splash down in the drink.
It's just an illusion, albeit a good one. Funny thing is that Homewood, situated on Tahoe's quiet west shore, is pretty much ignored by the masses who descend on the region each winter. It's a pity, as the resort has wonderful terrain and is usually far less crowded on weekends, when nearby Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are packed.
Homewood has always had an inferiority complex because only a sliver of it can be seen from the road. In fact, the resort covers 1,260 acres with more than 1,600 feet of vertical. The lifts run at two speeds—slow and excruciatingly slow—but you can use the time to count the money still in your pocket. Depending on the day, Homewood's lift tickets can be as much as $20 cheaper than those at Squaw or Alpine.
Homewood is not for beginners. But the resort's long and lonely trails make it a great destination for intermediate and advanced skiers. On weekdays, when few are on the slopes, it's possible to stop in the middle of many runs and gaze at the deep blue lake for an awfully long time before another soul slides past.
Homewood (530-525-2992, www.skihomewood.com) is five miles south of Tahoe City on Highway 89, a 3²-hour drive from the Bay Area. The best bet for lodging on this side of the lake is a rental home, with many available for $100 to $200 per night. Rental agencies include West Lake Properties (800-870-8201, www.westlakeproperties.com) and Hauserman Rental Group (800-208-2463,www.enjoytahoe.com).
Many novices dismiss skiing because they have had an unpleasant experience—a "friend" took them on a run that was too steep or they had a miserable time navigating crowded slopes. It's unlikely beginners will encounter either of those problems at Brian Head.
Situated at 9,600 feet in southwestern Utah's red rock country, the resort is the perfect place to overcome those first-time jitters as many of the runs are wide and gentle. That's one reason the place is so popular with families—the kiddies won't get in over their heads.
Brian Head consists of two mountains, Giant Steps and Navajo Peak, with a free shuttle bus running between them. Giant Steps has the longer intermediate runs—many of which would probably be rated as beginner at other resorts—and Navajo Peak has the super easy terrain. One reason some of the runs are so open and sunny is that bark beetles killed many of the region's pines in recent years.
Don't expect to find a real town, as the resort and the city of Brian Head are pretty much one and the same. And, though the skiing may not remind you of Aspen or St. Moritz, say, there are plenty of things to do in the area: Just two miles from the resort, cross-country ski and snowshoe trails can be found at Cedar Breaks National Monument, along with a formidable natural amphitheater that is 2,507 feet deep.
Parents should also note that Navajo Peak features a superb tubing park, where kids and adults can while away the hours skimming down the mountain on a big rubber tire.
In recent years, the national press has repeatedly anointed Ashland, Ore., one of those undiscovered perfect cities that offer high culture, beauty, and all-around livability. The sick thing about all the hype is that it's basically true. Perched on the doorstep of the Siskiyou Mountains, the town boasts Southern Oregon University, pleasing architecture, and, of course, rising real estate prices.
The ski area is 16 miles from town and is largely patronized by the locals. Although it's a small resort—several Mount Ashlands would fit within Oregon's huge Mount Bachelor—there's certainly enough terrain here to provide fun over the course of a day or a long weekend.
While many resorts attach scary names to their runs, Ashland offers trails called Romeo, Juliet, and Tempest. This is a nod to the town's Shakespeare Festival, which runs from February to November each year and is Ashland's biggest draw. As the names imply, the terrain is far from beastly and intermediates, especially, will find that nearly all the world's a stage at Mount Ashland.
The one place where skiers and 'boarders should pause is at the top of the "Bowl," a vast depression below Mount Ashland's summit. Steep but manageable for advanced skiers, the Bowl requires a small leap of faith to enter. Many folks ski to the Bowl, stare at the small jump, and then wisely exit stage left.
Mount Ashland (541-482-2897, www.mtashland.com) is a five-hour drive from Portland and six to seven hours from the Bay Area. There's a wide variety of motels and bed-and-breakfasts in town, but those wanting to stay near the slopes should try the Mount Ashland Inn (541-482-8707), a cozy B&B.
Owing to a quirk of geography—namely, that it's miles from anything resembling a city—northwest Wyoming's Grand Targhee is the best resort you've never heard of. Is it worth the hassle of getting there? Absolutely. The resort is aesthetically stunning and has challenging runs, a decent beginner area, and the ambience of a laid-back mountain hideaway, but with all the modern amenities.
Grand Targhee's five lifts serve a wide-open mountain face, with huge, heart-stopping overhangs, gentle bowls, and narrow chutes lined with trees. Nearly all the trails offer sweeping views of the area and, truth be told, even some intermediate runs are nail-biters.
The resort takes a casual approach to grooming slopes after big snows and has some of the best powder skiing in the nation. A SnoCat operation also takes skiers and 'boarders to vast snowfields the lifts don't reach.
One common gripe about the resort is the temperamental weather; Grand Targhee is sometimes called "Grand Foggy." Also, the resort sits all by its lonesome down a dead-end road, a few miles past the quiet ranching town of Driggs, Idaho. The well-known town of Jackson, which is on the other side of the Tetons, is a metropolis by comparison.
Although the nightlife is lacking, the views are utterly spectacular. The top of Fred's Mountain, easily accessible by lift, offers an in-your-face vista of the Tetons' magnificent western slope. It's an ample reward for those willing to make the long journey to get there.
Grand Targhee (800-827-4433, www.grandtarghee.com) is a 90-minute drive from Idaho Falls, Idaho, and an hour from Jackson, Wyo., both served by commercial airlines. The Targhee Lodge offers moderately priced motel-style rooms; Teewinot Lodge has hotel-style rooms; and Sioux Lodge offers condo-style lodging with bunk beds, fireplaces, and kitchenettes. All are cozy and a stone's throw both from the slopes and from restaurants, lounges, and shops.
So you're not at Aspen or St. Moritz. Still, you can find things to do, from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to shopping and gambling.
How to satisfy nonskiers One of the biggest challenges of ski trips—besides putting on tire chains—is what can spouses or friends who don't ski do? They can share in the wintry beauty in other ways.
Most resorts are near snowshoe trails that may be part of cross-country ski areas. Snowshoes can be rented there. Grand Targhee has its own cross-country network and Bear Valley is just down the road from a cross-county center. Most resorts in the West are within a national forest—easily found online. Visit their sites or call for tips on public trails and conditions.
Shopping may be limited at the more remote locations, but Grand Targhee is about an hour's drive from the town of Jackson and Mount Ashland is only 16 miles from the galleries, bookstores, and antique shops of Ashland. Those staying at Alta may want to head to the many boutiques and galleries along Park City's busy Main Street, an hour's drive from Alta, or to downtown Salt Lake, a 45-minute drive.
Nonskiers at Lake Tahoe who are feeling lucky can visit the casinos located in Nevada on the north or south shores of the lake. South Lake Tahoe has the larger hotels and resorts, including Caesars Lake Tahoe and the newly merged Harvey's and Harrah's.
In case of bad weather, there's always the old standby—a big, fat book and mug of hot cocoa.
Photography by Chaco Mohler/Mountain Stock
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.