Even before baseball's World Series hits Denver in the last weekend of October, two nearby ski resorts are already open.
The first measurable snow fell in the mountains of Colorado and Utah last month -- that means it's high time to start planning ski and snowboarding vacations.
Better yet, plan a trip that doesn't involve fighting through packed parking lots, overflowing lift lines and slopes as busy as a rush-hour freeway.
This year, consider North American slopes a bit off the beaten path, where you'll avoid the biggest crowds and everything that goes with them.
If you have a net worth north of a few million, you can pay a $250,000 initiation fee and pony up annual dues of $16,000 for
The Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont. With just 300 members, this resort boasts 10 lifts, 2,100 skiable acres and powder stashes that last for days. The place sees fewer skiers and snowboarders in a week than
sees on a Wednesday morning.
Not quite in your budget? No worries. You can still enjoy uncrowded trails and short lift lines this winter. As ticket prices continue to soar ($87 a day at Aspen this year) and 30-minute lift waits grow commonplace, you can find the best bang for your skiing and boarding buck at some relatively undiscovered gems.
These mountains fall into two categories. First are the little sisters, near resorts with higher-profile names that draw most of the attention of ski magazines, travel agents and tourists. Then there are the out-of-the-way areas that require a little extra effort to reach. They might not offer as many luxury hotel rooms, nightclubs or high-speed chairlifts, but they do offer a dose of welcome solitude.
A classic out-of-the-way mountain,
Jay Peak, Vt. ($62), is four hours from Boston but boasts more annual snowfall than any other ski resort in New England. "It's steep, has plenty of powder and not a lot of people find their way there," says Arnie Wilson, the
ski correspondent who has visited more than 650 resorts worldwide.
In the little-sister category, try
Saddleback ($40), a family-owned mountain in western Maine just an hour from Sugarloaf.
There are plenty of choices here, but Wyoming's
Grand Targhee ($59) is both little sister (to Jackson Hole, 90 minutes away) and a hard-to-reach resort. It enjoys an average snowfall of more than 500 inches, mostly of the fluffy variety.
Just a few miles outside of Salt Lake City is the aptly named
Solitude ($55), one canyon over from two of America's best-known resorts. "Every time I go there people say, 'You gotta stop writing about Solitude,'" says Derek Taylor, editor of
magazine. "I say, 'Why? There's no one here. They all have passes to Alta and Snowbird.'"
Utah also boasts out-of-the-way
Powder Mountain ($53), while Colorado is home to
Monarch Mountain ($52),
Crested Butte ($79) and experts-only
Literally in the shadow of Squaw Valley USA,
Alpine Meadows ($58) is "a smaller version of Squaw," according to Wilson. Adds Taylor, "It doesn't have Squaw's mystique, but it has a mystique of its own."
Out-of-the-way picks include
Kirkwood in California ($69) and
Mount Hoodoo in Oregon ($39).
Taylor says Michigan's
Mount Bohemia ($44) is a "long way from everything and gets more snow than anywhere else in the Midwest."
Purists will appreciate the yurts that serve as Bohemia's lodge and its quaint trailside cabins; advanced and expert skiers will appreciate the mountain's decidedly not-for-beginners terrain.
Given the exchange rate, you might want to restrict this year's ski trip to the U.S., but Canadian resorts are still appealing if your top priority is escaping crowds.
Marmot Basin (C$62) and
Red Resort (C$58) are two of the best choices. "Almost anywhere in interior British Columbia won't be crowded," says Taylor. "There are a lot of good options near Vancouver, on the way to Whistler." Try
Fernie Alpine Resort (C$72) or
Kicking Horse (C$61).
None of these slopes may have the cachet of The Yellowstone Club. But when you're schussing down the mountain without a soul in sight, will you care?
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Mike Woelflein is a business and personal finance freelance writer. A former senior industry specialist with Standard & Poor's and managing editor of ColoradoBiz magazine, he has also written for The Denver Post and American Express.