Winter is always coming—at least, that’s the mindset I grew up with. And having skied forty-six mountains and averaged 40 ski days a year since age five, that means there is hardly a time of year when I’m not planning (or at least conceiving of) my next ski trip. A good thing, since the sport has only gained traction in the past few years, with record-breaking crowds driving many mountains to cap daily ticket sales. One thing that will never change though is the unpredictability of the snow forecast, which makes controlling what you can that much more important.
Whether you’re thinking about your first ski trip, an annual holiday getaway or one of many slope-side escapes for the coming season, planning ahead is the best way to ensure that everything from the tickets and guides to the hotels goes your way. With so many moving pieces to consider, I’ve laid out the planning process from start to finish, including when and where to go, what passes to buy and tips for finding the best snow conditions, when to hire a guide and navigating holiday crowds.
Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to start planning your winter ski trip now. Our team can help match you with the accommodations, reservations and guides that are right for you.
Choosing When to Go
For families, most ski trips are dictated by school breaks, and for most professionals, the holidays are an easy time to get away. For the die-hard skier, of course, the best time to go is spontaneously, when the snow falls.
School breaks change from state to state, and some holidays are less crowded than others. Plus snow patterns are difficult to predict. So, here’s what to know when choosing the perfect time for a North American ski trip.
General Considerations for Best Snow Conditions
- Mountains at higher elevation typically receive more snowfall and maintain their snowpack better throughout the season. This means mountains in the west typically have better snow conditions than those on the east coast.
- On any mountain, north-facing terrain will maintain the best snow quality and snowpack.
- On warmer days and sunny days, south-facing terrain is best avoided in the morning. but skied in the afternoon—this gives the snow time to soften. Note: On extremely cold days, south-facing terrain is best avoided regardless of the sun, while on very warm days, the sweet spot is likely to be closer to midday and last only an hour or so.
- The surest way to finding the best snow is to hire a ski guide—if there is good snow to be found on the mountain, they will know the best way to find it.
Times to Avoid
Christmas to New Year’s Week, Martin Luther King Weekend and President’s Day Weekend are, hands down, the most crowded days of the season. This means lift lines, slopes, lodges and restaurants are all likely to be flooded with skiers (and après skiers). That’s not to say it’s not worth it if these are the only times your schedule allows for—but ski trips over these holidays should be planned well in advance, with tickets, restaurant reservations and spa appointments booked months ahead.
Tips to make the most of the holidays:
- Book everything early.
- There really is no “less popular” mountain on holiday weekends, so instead, set your sights on mountains with the most sprawling terrain and/or the best lift infrastructure. (see the mountain guide below).
- Be strategic about which days you ski. For example, the least crowded days during festive season are Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The long weekends are trickier, as many people will extend for the whole week but, typically, the Monday will be the least crowded of the weekend.
- Get up early and get in line.
- Hire a guide or book a lesson that allows you to skip lines. (Verify ahead of time if guides have this privilege at your chosen mountain.)
If your ski trip isn’t governed by breaks and holidays, then it is best to avoid those crowded times altogether and pick your moment based on approximate snow patterns. Here is the month-by-month breakdown of what you can expect (and not expect) from the slopes.
November/December: Most years, in most regions, these are the months where mountains will see the least amount of snow and the least open terrain, because they haven’t had time yet to build a base. Of course, a white Christmas is always possible (and in the 2021/2022 season that was the most snowfall skiers saw in some western states all year), it shouldn’t be counted on and is not worth planning a trip around—especially considering the crowds.
January: Although especially in recent years, the whole season is up in the air in terms of snowfall, January especially is the gamble that can go either way. It can be much like December, with a limited base restricting terrain or it might be the snowiest month of the year. But because January tends towards the beginning of the season, travelers can generally expect that less off-piste terrain will be open and that there may be more hazards (rocks, brush, etc.) hiding beneath thin covers.
February/Early March: Historically, February and March have been the most reliable snowfall months, but regardless of whether storms hit, they are most likely to have the best snow cover of the season. This doesn’t necessarily mean the snow quality will be the best, but these are the times when you will be least likely to encounter hazards due to limited snow coverage and when the most terrain will be open.
Late March/April: Often waved off for being too late in the season, late March and early April can actually be the hidden gems of the ski season. In recent years, in western states like Utah and Colorado especially, I have found early April to have the most reliably good skiing—it has either been delightful spring skiing (the most likely) or full-blown powder days, sometimes one after the other. This is destination specific, and while most western ski destinations are all but guaranteed to still have open terrain in the first weeks of April, this is not the case for the east coast. As is true at any time year, the best guarantees of snowpack and open terrain will be found at higher elevations, but what is great about late March and April especially is that travelers can begin to gauge how the snow-season is shaping up at the beginning of the year before planning.
Note: Many ski hotels in the west even have an Easter Brunch.
May: This is the month for the spontaneous skier. When seasons like the 2023 season come along, with record breaking snowfall in Utah, Colorado and Nevada, some ski resorts will keep their lifts running through May, and travelers can book that last minute spring skiing trip.
What does spring skiing look like? Patterns reverse in the spring. Instead, the early morning is likely to have the worst snow conditions, as the sun-softened snow froze overnight. Late morning through early afternoon, the snow will be at its best, soft and easy to ski—this is the time of day you might even shed your coat and ski in a t-shirt. Later afternoon, the snow quality decreases as it gets wetter and heavier, which just means it’s time for some après or maybe sunbathing on a hotel balcony or rooftop.
Where to Go & What Pass to Buy
With multi-mountain passes like Ikon and Epic only gaining popularity, the order of these two steps has become interchangeable and, in some cases simultaneous. If you have your heart set on a mountain, you want to buy whatever pass allows you to ski there for however many days. If your ideas are more fluid, you could pick a multi-mountain pass and tailor your ski trip(s) to it.
- For many mountains on the Ikon or Epic pass, it only takes three to five days skiing to make at least one of the multi-mountain pass options worth it financially. For example, in the 2023/2024 season, five day-passes skiing at peak season at Deer Valley will cost $1,395 ($279 per day). The Ikon Pass, which includes seven days at Deer Valley and grants access to all Ikon mountains, costs only $1,259.
- If you are planning a trip to a mountain on the Epic or Ikon pass, survey the other mountains on that pass and weigh the likelihood that you will visit one or more of them—this may help determine whether a multi-mountain pass is right for you and prevent you from dealing with inflated day ticket sales last minute.
- Multi-day passes and daily lift tickets experience price increases as the season approaches—the Ikon pass sells out often early December. Buying early is the best way to secure a deal.
- Note to Holiday Travelers: Some passes and mountains have blackout dates on certain holidays.
You can find the complete lists of the mountains served by each pass (and each version of each pass) on their websites, in addition to how many days the pass allows at each. Below, I have compiled a brief cheat sheet.
Ikon Pass ($1,259)
Notable mountains not included: None! All Ikon mountains are included.
Notable mountains with unlimited days: Stratton, Steamboat, Palisades Tahoe, Mammoth, Sugarbush, Tremblant
Maximum number of days for all other notable resorts: 7 days (select resorts have fewer)
Blackout dates: None
Ikon Base Pass ($929)
Notable mountains not included: Jackson Hole, Aspen Snowmass, Deer Valley, Alta, Sun Valley, Snowbasin, Taos
Notable mountains with unlimited days: Stratton, Palisades Tahoe, Mammoth, Sugarbush, Tremblant (includes blackout dates at all but Tremblant)
Maximum number of days for all other notable resorts: 5 days (select resorts have fewer).
Blackout dates: Major holidays and the surrounding days.
Ikon also has a four-, three- and two-day passes.