Outside+ members get exclusive access to SKI’s “Ask the Traveler” series. Join Outside+ to get expert advice on all things ski travel-related from our travel-tested Senior Content Producer, Samantha Berman, who’s skied all over the globe. Send your travel questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: After skipping last season due to the pandemic, I’m chomping at the bit to get back on the slopes next season. Which Western resorts are my best bets for a late November or early December ski trip? —Matt G., Chicago. Il.
I’ve been getting this question a lot lately from folks who decided not to take their chances on either buying a pass or traveling last season. I can understand why you’re more than ready to get your ski legs under you as soon as possible, so I’ll give you a few things to think about before you book.
There’s no crystal ball that’s going to accurately tell us where the early-season snow will fall, but we can apply common sense while also looking at which resorts have historically gotten enough snow to open in November, or even October.
For year-over-year trends, we like Ski-Resort-Stats. This beta site is building a really cool tool to view the seasonal snow totals dating back to the 2007-’08 season for many resorts via a drop-down menu. And they’re adding more regularly. OnTheSnow also does some good comprehensive reporting in year-over-year snow totals at resorts worldwide.
The rules of thumb are that higher-elevation resorts will get snow sooner than lower elevations, so consider altitude when choosing your destination. In addition, the heavier and wetter snow of the Sierra Nevadas and the Pacific Northwest tends to stick to the ground better and stick around longer. Finally, the more northerly the ski area, the earlier the snow will start to fall.
Light and airy blower powder is every skier’s dream, but in the early season, you actually want the denser and wetter stuff that coats the slopes and is more likely not to get blown away by wind gusts and squalls.
Where’s the Snow?
So, which resorts tick off some or most of those boxes? I chose the following resorts based on a mix of the criteria above and my personal experience getting out in late October through early December. Keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed, and early-season skiing is often a crap shoot. But if you hit it right, you’ll feel like you won the lottery.
Wolf Creek, Colo.
• Opening Date in 2020: Oct. 28
Consistently blessed with the highest snow totals in Colorado, Wolf Creek was the first to open in the state last season after an early storm dumped two feet on the 1,600-skiable-acre mountain. While there’s no on-site lodging, nearby Pagosa Springs is 23 miles from the slopes and is an authentic southern Colorado town with enough amenities to keep you housed, fed, and happy. If you’re in it for the skiing over the “frill” aspect of a vacation, this is a good option to consider.
Keystone Resort, Colo.
• Opening Date in 2020: Nov. 6
The resorts haven’t announced their opening dates yet, but Keystone typically opens in early November with gondola access on Dercum Mountain on the frontside of the resort. If the snow is decent, Keystone is great about getting a good amount of terrain open both with natural and man-made snow. Since it’s often one of the few ski areas to open early in Colorado’s Front Range, it’s likely to be crowded and skied-out by early afternoon. That said, there’s plenty of lodging at the base village, and rates will be low before the vacation crowd descends around Christmas.
Bonus: Nearby, Arapahoe Basin is often one of the very first ski areas to open, and a trip to Keystone allows for a side trip to the local favorite with a good base elevation and natural early-season snow.
Copper Mountain, Colo.
• Opening Date in 2020: Nov. 30
The U.S. Ski Team trains in the early season at Copper Mountain, so a trip here comes with the added opportunity to watch racers take hot laps. With enough natural snow combined with Copper’s snowmaking capabilities, the early-season terrain can be fairly extensive, and usually includes the runs off of the American Eagle and American Flyer chairs. As with Keystone, empty hotel rooms and condos at the start of the season spell good deals on lodging.
Mt. Bachelor, Ore.
• Opening Date in 2020: Dec. 7
Two things about Mt. Bachelor recommends it for an early-season trip: That heavier and wetter snow settles into nooks and crannies better, and is more likely to stay put. Also, the gentle slope of the extinct volcano makes for the ideal lower-angle terrain that can open early and stay open consistently. There’s lodging in Bend, 30 minutes from the slopes, as well as Sunriver, about five minutes closer, but no place to bed down at the resort.
Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
• Opening Date in 2020: Nov. 13
Nestled between the Sierra Nevadas and the Pacific Ocean, Mammoth’s maritime snowpack can come early and with fury, should Mother Nature deem it so. It snowed three feet at the end of September 2016, and the mountain opened in early October. Can you count on it? It’s not a given, but if you’re the betting type and are willing to hedge for early-season powder, Mammoth is as good a guess as anywhere. Good lodging at the base area and in the town of Mammoth Lakes make it a turn-key vacation, too.
If only my crystal ball wasn’t so cloudy these days, I’d be able to offer a clearer view of where the snow will fly the soonest this coming season. But until then, I hope this intel is useful for making the most informed decision possible to get you on the snow for some quality early-season turns.
More Travel Q&As from SKI’s Travel Expert
7 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Next Season Pass
You’re Flying to Park City—Do You Bring Your Skis or Demo?
Don’t Ruin Your Kid’s Skiing Future—Here’s How To Choose The Right Ski School For Your Toddler
How to Fly for a Weekend Ski Trip and Still Survive Monday