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Is Bigger Always Better at Ski Resorts?

November 14, 2011

Amanda St. Amand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2011

Skiers and snowboarders look for many things when planning their next mountain excursion: good snow, good terrain and prices that won't break the bank.

But are they looking for the biggest mountain or resort, or the best mountain or resort?

I've skied at some really big resorts -- Vail and Breckenridge come to mind -- and at least one really small resort -- Jay Peak, Vt. And several of the more in-between size: Stratton Mountain, Vt.; Copper Mountain, Colo.; and Arapahoe Basin, Colo. With Colorado listing six of the top 10 resorts, as rated by readers of Ski Magazine, let's focus on the closest Western state to St. Louis.

Depending on what you're looking for in a skiing or riding vacation, bigger isn't always better -- but at times, it can be.


We'll start with a big resort. The season started Friday at Breckenridge, where skiers and riders explore 2,358 acres of terrain off Peaks 7, 8, 9 and 10. But it's possible that Peak 6 will be offering even more riding and skiing in the next few years, said Kristen Pettit Stewart, a Breckenridge spokeswoman.

If the Peak 6 expansion is approved -- the U.S. Forest Service has the complete environmental impact statement -- Breckenridge will add 550 more acres of skiable terrain. It would still be about half the size of Vail, Stewart pointed out.

"In the past decade we've fluctuated between the most- and the second-most-visited resort," Stewart said. "It's one of the busiest mountains in North America."

With all those skier visits, of course, come more crowded trails and longer lift lines.

"We felt like this is the best way to mitigate those issues," she said.

In some ways, Breckenridge is unique because of the mountain town that was there before the resort, but the resort has blossomed along with the town. (The resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season.) The restaurants, artisan shops, clothing stores and souvenir stands are set at the base of the mountains, making for spectacular views and shopping for all visitors.

"We still have that character and charm of a small town," Stewart said. "The symbiotic nature of the town and the resort gives an experience that no other destination offers."

And if a skier or rider doesn't want to repeat the same trail, that's simple enough at Breck -- where there are 155 trails and nearly 800 acres of bowls. But there are also two base areas, several midmountain dining spots and a distinct possibility that larger groups can get separated and spend at least a part of their day trying to rendezvous with the rest of their group.


So we turn to a smaller resort with different offerings. A fraction of the size of Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin offers a totally different experience. Don't spend a lot of time looking for a half-dozen different spots to have lunch or buy a T-shirt; you won't find that. What you will find is a mountain with 108 trails, wide open bowls and an utter lack of pretension.

At Arapahoe Basin, there are 900 skiable acres. That may sound small compared to someplace like Vail, but A-Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer said anyone who has ever skied her resort knows better. "It's a smaller area that skis big," she said. "Even on 900 acres, you will find plenty of variety in skiing what we have."

A-Basin's promotional materials and advertising use the tagline "The Legend" -- and for good reason. The resort has been in business for 65 years, and generations of families claim it as their own. Hierholzer said about 60 percent of their visitors are Colorado residents, a significant number given all the ski spots they have to choose from. Sure, the resort has updated the lifts and added terrain over the years. "But the feel of the place hasn't changed probably from the very beginning," Hierholzer said.

Visitors to A-Basin come for two things -- skiing and snowboarding. There are no spas, no lodging, no night life, no real estate deals. No ice skating rinks or tubing chutes or outdoor roller coaster, either.

"It's a pure skiing and riding experience, and that's what we focus on," she said. It's working; A-Basin recorded more than 450,000 skier visits last season, up more than 100,000 from the previous year.

And it's fast-forward in 2011, literally. With the 473 inches of snow at A-Basin last season, it stayed open through July 4 -- then opened for this season on Oct. 13. That meant an offseason of just 100 days. After replacing one lift last year with a high-speed quad, A-Basin focused on adding parking this year. So there's free parking, a good shuttle system and what some skiers feel certain is the advantage of having just one base area.

"You can't lose anyone," Hierholzer said. "If you know anyone is going to ski down, there's the one base area to go to."


Keystone, another Summit County resort, features 135 trails on 3,148 acres of terrain and 20 lifts. So while acreage-wise it's larger than Breckenridge, it doesn't draw the visitors seeking the mountain town experience of Breckenridge or the purist experience of A-Basin. The youngest among the three resorts, Keystone draws a mixed audience: some Colorado residents and plenty of out-of-state and international skiers -- most of them drawn to the varied terrain and the (usually) less-crowded trails and lifts than at Breckenridge.

Keystone is bigger than Breckenridge in acreage and brags about that on its website. And while it offers dining and off-mountain activities, it doesn't get the crowds that fill the streets and shops of Breckenridge.

Regardless of whether you choose a mega-resort or a smaller one, one thing should be true for all of them -- at least in the western United States: snow, and plenty of it. Last year was a record-setter at many resorts, with Breckenridge measuring 519 inches and Keystone clocking in with 342 inches. Forecasters for the 2011-12 ski season are predicting another, slightly weaker La Nina year, which means plentiful snow again.

"Last year, it was like Christmas every day with so much snow. And this year it's supposed to be a little weaker but still a lot of snow," Stewart said.

A lot of snow. That's all a skier can ask for.

Top 10 western ski resorts*

1. Deer Valley, Utah

2. Vail, Colo.

3. Whistler BlackComb, B.C.

4. Snowmass, Colo.

5. Sun Valley, Idaho

6. Park City, Utah

7. Beaver Creek, Colo.

8. Steamboat Springs, Colo.

9. Breckenridge, Colo.

10. Telluride, Colo.

*Rated by readers of Ski magazine

Sample of lift ticket prices

Arapahoe Basin $59 (adult)

Breckenridge: $69-$94 (adult)

Keystone: $63-$94 (adult)

Vail: $70-$99 (adult)

Prices vary; multiday discount tickets available.

What do you think of this $type?

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