Normally, this is the time of year when we cross the great divide of winter: Halfway between the traditional browns of November and the greens of of April. But around here it can still be a rodeo ride. For instance, take last weekend (Please!): Warm rain, followed quickly by sub-zero cold.
What is a skier to think?
Each fall I start to contemplate a winter adventure, and I especially look forward to my Resort Guide issue of Ski Magazine. It is an annual ranking of what editors and a survey of readers say are the top 30 resorts in the West and the top 20 in the East.
Over the years I have developed my own list. I find the areas included by the magazine are all worthy, although I sometimes disagree with the rankings. And I find the list always falls short when it comes to including Canadian areas, especially when great destinations like Banff and Lake Louise are often left out entirely.
The general rankings could almost be pulled from a hat in a blind draw. If there has been ample snow and the weather is good, you will get everything you want from the biggest of the bigs like Vail, Aspen, Deer Valley, Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Steamboat Springs, Jackson Hole, and Whistler/Blackcomb. It is a matter of personal taste. And good deals. But the list of places where you can have a great winter break includes a lot more areas to enjoy.
Here are five areas you might not find high on published lists, but I consider hidden gems. These places may not earn you admiring glances around the water cooler, but each has plenty to make that trip a memorable excursion.
Located in southwest Colorado, and framed by the San Juan Mountains, this area has exceptional natural beauty and a trail layout that captures that appeal. You can take the same trail 10 times and never repeat the experience. It is a cruiser's paradise. Staying at the village resort keeps you close to the lifts while the worth-the-trip city of Durango is less than a half hour away. The gateway airport is Montrose, Colorado.
This northern Montana resort near Glacier National Park is celebrating its 70th anniversary this winter, much of that under the name Big Mountain. The legendary "snow ghosts" trees that remain frozen all winter indicate lots of trail cover and, while the nearby town of Whitefish is small, it offers plenty for the ski week visitor. For a change of pace, you can hop over the close-by Canadian border to ski Fernie, a terrific area in eastern British Columbia. The gateway airport is Kalispell, Montana.
It is likely even your most traveled ski friends haven't tried this area in McCall, Idaho, about a two-hour drive north of Boise.Think of this place as a bigger version of Gore, with lots of regular powder dumps and a grooming plan that offers both fresh and manicured trail alternatives. Ski there on a weekday and you can own the mountain. McCall is a very pretty and popular summer lake-side resort. The gateway is Boise.
This southern Colorado area is a great combination of ski area and ski town. Once known mainly for its extreme terrain, the area now has lots of blue and groomed black trails for the mature ski crowd, and the base village is just a half mile from the appealing town of Crested Butte. There is no reason to have a car here. The free shuttle between the two offers the best service of any area I've visited. Gateway is Gunnison, Colorado.
If you want a different and appealing experience that you can reach by car, this area about an hour east of Quebec City is a treat. It overlooks the St Lawrence River, which brings plenty of winter snow and the trail system is a great mixture of boulevards, steeps, bumps and glades. Le Massif patrons, mainly from French Canada, are the most happy and enthusiastic skiers I've ever met. The nearby town of Baie St Paul is the place to stay.
This has been a dry winter for much of the West so far but recent snow has brightened the outlook considerably. You don't need to get on a plane to find great skiing this winter. But if you choose to do so, this is the time of the year to start looking on-line for bargains as many areas look to fill up vacancies created by the slow start to winter in the western US.
The five areas I mentioned are generally under the radar of skiers from our area so chances are you won't discover a neighbor on the lift one day. What you will discover is a lot of fun that will burnish your reputation as a Road Trip pioneer.
A gondola can be a great relief on cold days at the hill, such as last Saturday and Sunday. But at Gore, the gondola was AWOL for much of the holiday weekend, a victim of ice caused by 50 degree temperatures with rain on Friday, followed by a sudden drop to below zero overnight. The problem was fixed and the gondola was back in service Monday morning.
For area skiers planning a trip the the Rockies, there is now a direct flight from Albany to Denver daily on Southwest. The non-stop flight is a good addition. Unfortunately it is a late afternoon Albany departure, meaning a late evening arrival, and often an overnight stay near the Denver airport becomes part of the trip. When this flight was added, Southwest dropped a direct flight to Las Vegas, which cut back on many one-transfer options to West Coast resorts.
EARLY MOTHER'S DAY
Bring a photograph of your child to Bromley Saturday and the price of a lift ticket for all moms is just $25. This is the area's 15th annual fundraiser for the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, and the ticket proceeds are donated to the Center that is located in Bennington.
The cost of a night's stay at the Schenectady Wintersports clubhouse in Waterbury, Vermont, near Stowe has gone up. Members will now pay $29 a night (including breakfast), an increase of $1 over last year.
Phil Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.