No matter whether Vail's ranking is a straight number or curved, there's little doubt that it sets the agenda for North American skiing. There's a harmonic convergence of snow, terrain, service, lodging and nightlife at Vail, all of which has fused into the Great American Ski Vacation. Other resorts are reduced to catching up. The key to it all is the mountain. Vail's bones are stunning: 33 lifts, 193 trails, 350 inches of snow, 5,289 acres. It's not only that the mountain is immense ("If Vail gets any bigger, it will be a state."), it's the "something-for-everybody" nature of the hill. "The slopes are so diverse that you always have choices," a reader says. With apologies to the mega-resort outside of Vancouver, Vail remains the industry innovator. First it was the untamed Back Bowls, then kid-friendly Adventure Ridge, and most recently, retro Blue Sky Basin. What separates Vail from others is that when the ski day is done, it isn't. Après at the Los Amigos deck, then dine at Terra Bistro, or just stroll Bridge Street and enjoy a world-class, if also planned, raging ski town. A beef persists about "the high cost of everything." And whether it's a complaint about "becoming Disney World" or the "crowds, crowds, crowds," Vail's biggest problem is how to manage success. In reality, it can be miserably congested on the lower mountain when you start and end your ski day. But in between those two moments: "heaven on Earth." And once the Utah Olympic buzz dies down next season, take a guess who's likely to be back at No. 1.
WHAT'S NEW Expanded grooming and snowmaking; rock and stump removal at Blue Sky Basin so it can be opened with less coverage; a heated and screened outdoor deck at Two Elk.
A GOOD DEAL For every night of lodging and each lift ticket purchased, you can get the same free, Nov. 21-Dec. 20; 800-427-8308.
MEDALS GOLD Snow, Grooming, Terrain, Challenge, Lifts, Service, Weather, On-Mountain Food, Lodging, Dining, Après-Ski, Off-Hill Activities, Family Programs, Scenery; SILVER Access.
HIGH/LOW RANK Family Programs (3), Off-Hill Activities (3), Lifts (5), Après-Ski (5); Snow (14), Scenery (22), Value (70).
DON'T MISS The Colorado Ski Museum. For $1, learn about your tribe.
READER REMARKS (+) "Sick amount of terrain. Lifts as far as the eye can see." "My kids don't think there is any other place to ski."
(-) "Too trendy, too crowded, too expensive." "A shopping mall for snobs with a ski area attached."