Ski Report: the Family Travel edition, Part II

Ski school warming house (courtesy Paul Johnson)Welcome to Part II of our two-part series on kids and skiiing.

In Part I, our guest poster Paul Johnson of Family Ski Resorts talked about getting kids started in skiing, and how to keep expenses on the slopes from crushing your budget.

Today he answers questions about things to do on the mountain other than skiing, recommendations for family-friendly resorts and the effects of climate change on snow conditions.

Take it away, Paul….

3) What if parents can’t ski; are there places to learn alongside your child?

Yes. A growing trend with more family-oriented resorts is to have a joint parent/child lesson. Not only does this create an opportunity for the parent and child to spend more time together during the vacation, but it provides the added benefit of seeing what your child was taught and being able to reinforce those lessons when out on the slope.

These lessons are typically costly, however. At Big Sky in Montana, for example, the two-hour combined lesson is $250, and at Smugglers Notch in Vermont, the cost is $70 for an hour. Cheaper rates may be found at the smaller resorts.

4) What are some standard ski resort options for those family members who can’t/don’t want to ski or snowboard?

In ranking the nation’s best family ski resorts, we place a high value on non-ski activities. The chances are slim that every member of the family will want to spend each full day skiing. A ski vacation is part skiing and part vacation, and non-skiing activities are an important consideration for selecting a destination.

Standard offerings for adult non-skiers at most major ski resorts include spa services, sledding (which in the mountains can be unlike anything else you’ve experienced), cross-country skiing and sightseeing. Some resorts, such as Aspen, Breckenridge, Stowe and Jackson Hole, have “real” downtowns which can offer non-skiers several days of sightseeing, art viewing, shopping and leisurely lunches.

If you do your research, almost every ski area has diversions nearby for the non-skier. There is a great, scenic ½ day drive from Taos, New Mexico called the Enchanted Circle that we would recommend for anyone. In New England, it is easy to find history in the towns near the ski areas. One of the reasons we like Big Sky so much is its proximity (20 miles) to Yellowstone National Park.

5) Can you recommend some family-friendly resorts in the West, Midwest and East? How about Canada? We’d like to hear about some quirky ones that people haven’t heard of….like Yawgoo Valley in Rhode Island.

Truth be told, there are probably several dozen ski resorts across North America that can all offer a good family experience if the vacation is well-researched and planned. Major western ski resorts that we particularly like are Steamboat Springs in Colorado, Deer Valley in Utah, Taos, Big Sky, and Northstar-at-Tahoe in California.

On the Canadian side, Apex Mountain in British Columbia has a great family reputation. In the Midwest, Minnesota’s Lutsen, while remote, offers a great combination of wildlife viewing, cross country skiing, and downhill skiing. Out East, Smugglers Notch in Vermont is our family favorite, and Sugarloaf in Maine offers an excellent variety of terrain similar to some Western resorts.

People should never forget about smaller resorts, especially considering that they may be much less expensive and easier to get to from certain parts of the country. One of the best family ski destinations that your readers might not have heard of is Grand Targhee, on the western face of the Tetons (with more popular Jackson Hole on the eastern face). The snow is almost always better at Targhee than it is at Jackson Hole, and the resort is decidedly geared toward families.

Montana has two great and oft-forgotten ski areas: Bridger Bowl near Bozeman and Big Mountain near Kalispell. Both offer bona-fide Rocky Mountain ski experiences without all of costs and amenities of the more popular resorts.

Several smaller, lesser-known ski areas dot the Eastern scene. Titus Mountain in New York is a smaller and family-friendly ski region which may be convenient for New Yorkers. Pats Peak in New Hampshire and Saddleback in Maine are two other smaller resorts which can provide a nice family experience.

For rankings of favorite ski areas, our Top 20 Family Ski Resorts is a list of major ski resorts that have particular merit as family destinations. Keep in mind that the resorts I’ve named here as well as those listed in the Top 20 list represent only a partial list of the North American ski resorts that make great family destinations. We are fortunate to have such good skiing all around us.

6) Are many US ski resorts having problems getting enough snow in recent years? Are there any places that can still “almost guarantee” snow (real, not artificial) despite climate issues?

As a general rule, two things help a ski resort have more reliable natural snow: geographic placement and altitude. The same precipitation that might be making ski conditions poor at 6,000 feet could be producing beautiful powder at 10,000 feet. Specifically, Grand Targhee in Wyoming, as mentioned before, has a reputation for receiving great, reliable snow.

The placement of the big Utah resorts — Snowbird, Alta, Deer Valley, Park City, The Canyons and Solitude — seems to increase the chances of them receiving good snow. In Colorado, several ski resorts such as Keystone, Winter Park and Breckenridge are situated at such high altitudes that quality natural snow can usually be found at just about any time during the season.

The snow in the East is known as being heavier and can more easily turn to slush, but most resorts have such sophisticated snow-making equipment that they can compensate for all but the most difficult snow years. Eastern resorts in both Canada and the U.S. don’t have the luxury of altitude. It isn’t uncommon for the peaks in the East to be under 5,000 feet – a full 2,500 feet lower than a typical base village at a Rockies ski resort.

One strategy in the East is to find a resort in the path of “lake effect” snow, such as Cockaigne in Western New York, which receives nearly as much snow as some resorts in the Rockies.

The Alps are a different story, as that part of the world is experiencing a climate warm-up that is about three times more pronounced than here in North America. Swiss and Austrian ski resorts have noticed fewer snow days in recent winters, and some resorts which used to guarantee natural snow no longer find they can do so. There are also documented cases of Swiss banks refusing to lend money to ski resorts which are not at 1,500 meters or higher, fearing that they may not have a viable business model if climate patterns continue.

Family Ski Resorts strives to provide information regarding successful family ski vacations, including resort reviews and ski vacation advice. The site’s editor, Paul Johnson, contributed the answers to this article and can be contacted at


Thanks very much, Paul, for contributing so much detailed, useful information to Family Travel.