Big-name US ski resorts might give you bragging rights, but lesser-known mountains can give you less crowded slopes, shorter lift lines and better bang for your buck.
Some of these hidden gems are located near their famous rivals, so visitors can enjoy the same choice of lodging, restaurants and off-the-slope activities.
Suzanne Greenwood, 49, an experienced skier from Nashville, happened upon one of these satellite resorts recently.
Although she had skied the big resorts in Colorado and Utah with her husband for years, this trip was different. They were introducing their two children, ages 14 and 25, and their two friends to skiing.
Their plan for spring was to use the home they had rented in Breckenridge as a base for the week while visiting several mountains in the area: Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Arapahoe. They had even bought a pass good for multiple areas.
The first three days they skied Breckenridge, dropping $US1000 ($A1400) on private lessons. Then they headed 20 minutes down the road to Arapahoe Basin.
“The kids got there and loved it,” she said.
Her discovery was not unusual. Smaller resorts are often favoured by families and beginners who do not mind having less terrain to choose from.
Greenwood’s children felt more comfortable on slopes that were not crowded. They also found the people friendlier.
She said Breckenridge had better apres ski, but “the fact is that the kids felt they were getting skiing that was just as good” at Arapahoe.
The two resorts are about equal in the make up of beginner, intermediate and advanced slopes, but without a doubt there are differences.
Arapahoe has 109 trails on 388 skiable hectares, while Breckenridge has 187 trails on 1173 hectares. The lift capacity at Arapahoe is 10,700 people an hour on six chairlifts, while Breckenridge carries four times as many people on 19 chairlifts and a gondola.
In addition, Breckenridge has more vertical: 1036 metres compared with Arapahoe’s 692m.
Nonetheless, Greenwood and her family were so happy at Arapahoe that they did not bother skiing anywhere else, writing off the higher-priced lift pass they had bought.
Greg Ditrinco, editor of SKI Magazine, said the savings on lift tickets can vary from good to non-existent, depending on the resort and how savvy the purchaser is. Still, lessons at satellite resorts generally cost less and the food is not as pricey, though there are fewer options.
And, “No one gives a fig about what you wear, how you ski or what you’re skiing on. It’s an authentic experience,” he said. “There’s a real value to that.”
Colorado has a wealth of smaller resorts, sometimes marketed as the “Gems”, but so do other ski states.
In Vermont, Mad River Glen is 30 minutes from Stowe and 10 minutes from the Sugarbush Ski Complex.
In Utah, Solitude is about 45 minutes from Deer Valley, which recently announced plans to purchase the smaller resort. The locals’ resort of Brighton is also nearby.
The Mount Rose Ski Tahoe resort near Reno, Nevada, is within 45 minutes of both Squaw Valley and Northstar California Resort.
During the holidays, it attracts skiers from the Bay area, who bring their rice cookers, electric kettles and occasional Crock Pot to make noodles or soup in the lodge.
“We’re a lot more lax with folks doing that” than some of the big resorts, said Mount Rose spokesman Murray Blaney.
In the Canadian Rockies, Mount Norquay is 15 minutes from the town of Banff, Alberta, far closer than Sunshine or Lake Louise.
“Because the resort is small, it only really provides enough terrain to keep people interested for a day or two, unless they are beginners, are taking lessons or race training,” said Banff resident Diane Volkers, 58.
But even advanced recreational skiers enjoy it if they are mixing their time with other activities.
“You can ski an incredible amount of groomed vertical in an hour,” said Volkers. “It’s very handy to go for a partial day.”
Visitors can shop, cross-country ski or do some work in the afternoon.
Greenwood’s group enjoyed Arapahoe so much they plan to return. And next time, it is the only place they plan to ski.
“At the end of the day, for the kids, it’s the snow and the lifts,” she said. “They are less interested in the glitz.”