Skiing and snowboarding have always attracted freethinkers, and their passion produces ski areas like no other. Think chairlifts in the Sonoran Desert, skiing in the Oregon summer, and an entire ski area in British Columbia without a single lift. Here’s a look at 13 quirky ski areas that aren’t afraid to do things differently.
Photograph by Whit Richardson
It began with a radical idea. Aaron Brill dreamed of a new kind of ski area, where the terrain was steep and ungroomed, where skiers carried avalanche equipment and knew how to use it, where the mountains were wild and the skiing was wilder. In 2002 his dream became reality when he and his wife and business partner, Jen, opened Silverton Mountain six miles outside its namesake town, a mining burg in the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.
Naysayers said it would never last. It was too rugged, they said. People want groomed runs, base lodges, and condos, they said. The naysayers were wrong.
Silverton, North America’s first expert-only, backcountry-style ski area, quickly gained cultlike devotees and generated an avalanche of praise from the skiing press. With no cut runs on its big-mountain terrain, an average of over 400 inches of snow a year, and a base “lodge” that looks suspiciously like a yurt (and converts to a de facto bar at the end of every ski day), Silverton is for die-hard skiers and snowboarders only.
The easiest run here would be the hardest at many resorts. Its antiquated chairlift tops out at 12,300 feet, but most skiers add on a bit of hiking for more vertical, more untracked terrain, and, if they’re bold, the 13,487-foot summit of Storm Peak, the highest in-bounds elevation of any North American ski area. It should come as no surprise that your first order of business upon arrival is signing liability waivers.
Besides the chairlift and unending swaths of untracked powder, the most important amenity Silverton offers is avalanche control. Colorado has an infamously touchy continental snowpack, and much of the best skiing here follows avalanche paths that formed for a reason. (This is one reason, besides the committing terrain, that skiers are required to ski with a guide most of the winter.) Knowing Silverton’s ski patrol has bombed the slopes affords skiers and boarders the liberty to soar down its 22,000 acres of chutes, cirques, and open faces with, if not abandon, at least a healthy dose of glee.
No one doubts it anymore, but one thing hasn’t changed—there’s still no place like Silverton.
Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area, British Columbia
Photograph by Aaron Teasdale
To reach the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area, you must drive through the woods on a narrow road that is plowed by a local rancher, who is paid for his services with funds collected from the ski community of nearby Smithers, British Columbia, population 5,404. At a small parking area you are greeted by an avalanche education sign and a skier’s gate that electronically confirms you have a working avalanche beacon. From there you climb, passing a half dozen signed ski runs until 1,800 vertical feet later you find a wooden warming hut at tree line, which sits at only 5,000 feet this far north. Above the hut rises an alpine playground of high peaks, steep chutes, and open powder fields.
It’s like many of the excellent small ski areas that drape the snow-laden mountains of British Columbia, with one critical difference: There are no lifts.
The vision of Smithers local Brian Hall, this is the world’s first ski area designed specifically for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Like backcountry enthusiasts the world over, Hall dreamed of a way to easily pass the dense forests that apron the high-elevation, open mountainsides where the best skiing lies. In a surprise twist, it was the economic crash of 2008 that provided his opportunity. Utilizing a government program to employ idle forestry workers, and securing access to provincially managed land in the Hudson Bay range, Hall had narrow, ecologically friendly runs cut by hand. Partnering with local Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society and several ski-friendly businesses, he raised the funds and got volunteer labor to build the warming hut, create trail maps, and install the beacon gates.
The concept has proven popular enough that it’s even given Smithers’ economy a boost. Several people, including a doctor and recent college graduates, have told Hall they relocated to Smithers because of Hankin-Evelyn. Access costs nothing, leading to the unconventional ski area’s slogan: "Free Powder!"
Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Arizona
Photograph courtesy Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley
Sitting at the same latitude as Tijuana, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley is the most southerly ski area in North America. While the saguaro cacti and rattlesnakes of the surrounding Sonoran Desert bake in the Arizona sun, 9,159-foot-high Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains pulls in an average of 180 inches of snow a year.
Skiing began here shortly after famed journalist Lowell Thomas flew over Mount Lemmon in 1944 and noticed an inviting snowfield on its north face. Thomas was visiting his son, who was ill in a local hospital. He figured skiing might be just the thing to invigorate his son’s health. Asking around, he realized no one had skied the mountain, so he rallied a crew of locals to form the Sahuaro Ski Club. They hiked up, found an unlikely desert powder stash, and began skiing it as often as they could. Perhaps not coincidentally, Thomas’s son’s health improved. Soon they’d rigged a rope tow powered by an old Ford Model A, and an improbable ski area was born.
Today Mount Lemmon Ski Valley has one chairlift and 950 vertical feet of skiing on a smattering of runs. The trails are kept narrow so the forest can shade them from the hot Sonoran sun. There’s no snowmaking because there’s no water. Because of this, there is also no indoor plumbing—restrooms are slopeside portable toilets. Temperatures can reach 50 degrees in January, meaning some ski seasons are longer than others, but the best years see skiing from December to April. Locals come from Tucson, an hour’s drive and 6,000 feet of elevation up a serpentine mountain road away, but many stop simply to watch skiers actually skiing.
Mad River Glen, Vermont
Photograph by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, AP Images
Mad River Glen is not for everyone. It’s definitely not for snowboarders, who aren’t allowed. But it’s also not for anyone seeking high-speed chairs, groomed runs, wide runs, slopeside accommodations, or many of the amenities associated with modern ski resorts. Maybe that’s because it’s not a resort, as its proper name, Mad River Glen Cooperative, makes clear. This is a place for skiing as it once was: simple, rugged, and adventurous.
The first cooperatively owned ski area in America, Mad River Glen is a living monument to skiing’s heritage. Its legendary single-person chairlift, built in the 1940s by American Steel & Wire Company, is the oldest operating chairlift in North America. Its narrow, serpentine trails were hand-cut and are preserved in all their ungroomed, plunging glory. There’s a reason Mad River Glen is the only ski area on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here in the Mad River Valley in the Green Mountains of Vermont, 34 miles from the capital of Burlington, you’ll find some of the steepest skiing in the East. Mad River Glen’s 2,037 feet of vertical drop takes in expert runs that are sometimes icy, often moguled, and always a challenge. That’s the way it was conceived in 1947 and that’s just how the skiers here like it. Most visitors stay in the classic New England ski town of Waitsfield, 11 miles away.
Snow King, Wyoming
Photograph by Angus M. Thuermer, AP Images
The “town hill” is a beloved tradition in American skiing culture. Typically they’re small ski areas with diminutive vertical drops on the edge of town where schoolkids gather in packs and parents bring their wobbly-kneed urchins for their first turns. Then there’s Jackson, Wyoming’s Snow King, the town hill to rule all town hills. Its slopes don’t just skirt town, they drop directly into its heart. After a fresh dump and before the shovels come out, you could theoretically ski down Snow King, across Cache Street, and right up to the door of the Lift Bar.
These are not beginner slopes, either (though they do have a few of those). Sixty percent of the mountain is rated expert, with most of that being double blacks. The area may have only three chairlifts serving its 400 acres, but mighty Snow King’s 1,571 feet of north-facing vertical drop has the steepest overall pitch of any ski area on the continent.
Rounding out the King’s royal resume are two terrain parks, night skiing six nights a week, and an ice-climbing park. A benevolent uphill policy makes it a favorite lunch-break playground for Jackson’s ski-addicted locals, with more people skinning up the mountain some days than taking chairlifts. This is how it should be in every mountain town, and it’s why Snow King is the monarch of North American town hills.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Photograph by Douglas Peebles, Alamy
To ski the tallest mountain in the world you must go to Hawaii. Here on the state’s eponymous island, commonly called the Big Island, the dormant volcano Mauna Kea soars over 33,000 feet from its base. Since that base lies about 20,000 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its summit is 13,803 feet above sea level, which lies a scant 15 land miles away. It’s not uncommon for Mauna Kea’s cold upper reaches, a treeless alpine zone that rises above junglelike forest, to receive a mantle of snow several times each winter, making it one of the world’s most remarkable places to ski.
A road was first built to Mauna Kea’s summit in 1964 for access by astronomers, and today it’s home to some of the world’s most powerful astronomical observatories. Seeing the obvious potential, skiers soon followed and installed two rope tows by the end of the decade. Plans for a chairlift eventually fizzled and the rope tows were removed—conditions are inconsistent and the snow invariably ends in brutally sharp lava rock—but skiers kept coming back, using cars as shuttles. It’s no wonder why: The slopes off the summit’s many cinder cones offer otherworldly skiing and top-of-the-planet views across the Pacific.
The snow might not last as long as it used to in the 1960s, when the mountain often stayed skiable for months at a time, but 1,500-vertical-foot runs are standard after storms, and some lucky souls have reported notching 5,000-foot descents of pristine Polynesian powder. If you’re lucky enough to be in Hawaii when a winter storm hits, find a Jeep for the rough summit road and head straight for the Mauna Kea Ski Corporation in the town of Waimea to rent skis or snowboards. Then you can see for yourself why Mauna Kea means “white mountain” in Hawaiian.
Timberline Lodge, Oregon
Photograph by Robert C. Paulson, Alamy
There are plenty of high-mountain ski areas that stay open well into spring. Places like Arapahoe Basin, Crystal Mountain, and Whistler Blackcomb even stay open into June and July. But no other resort in North America can compete with the Timberline Lodge Ski Area on the flanks of Oregon’s Mount Hood, a perennially snow-covered 11,245-foot dormant volcano. Every spring the resort fires up its Palmer chairlift, which runs up the foot of the Palmer Glacier and provides skiing through summer and, in some years, through fall—until the next season’s snow starts falling and a new ski season begins. It’s the only year-round skiing in North America.
During the winter months, Timberline is one of six ski areas on Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain. It’s known for its historic Timberline Lodge, built in 1938 with logs and stone from the surrounding environment, and its low-angle, family-friendly runs. The Palmer chairlift doesn’t run during winter, when winds of up to a hundred miles an hour coat it in heavy rime (though they offer snowcat rides when weather permits). But starting June 1, it runs every day until Labor Day and sometimes through the fall, hosting the U.S. Ski Team and the general public on its treeless, alpine slopes. If you’re one of those skiers or snowboarders who just can’t let it go, and you can’t afford a trip to South America, head for Timberline.
Mount Bohemia, Michigan
Photograph by Joey Wallis
At Keweenaw Peninsula, at the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, rises Mount Bohemia, the most backwoods, powder-choked ski area in the Midwest. After hearing about a planned megaresort that was never built, Lonie Glieberman, a Detroit native and former Canadian Football League executive looking for a new project, took the mountain and decided to try something different—a no-frills ski area for experts. Rather than cut wide runs, he kept them narrow or simply thinned the forest. Instead of a base lodge, he put in a few yurts. And at the base, signs were installed: “No beginners allowed.”
Much like with Silverton, Bohemia’s spiritual sibling, other resorts in the region predicted the new area’s quick demise. Initially it looked like they might be right. Few skiers came the first couple of seasons, and one day the lifts were shut down early because there were no skiers to ride them. But Glieberman stuck with his vision and gradually word got out. More and more skiers and snowboarders began making the six-hour-plus drive from Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Bohemia now sells over 5,000 season passes each year to its fanatical followers—and those resorts that mocked Glieberman are now scrambling to imitate him.
Many factors combine to make Bohemia the premier destination for expert skiing in the U.S. Midwest. It averages 273 inches of snow each year, and the region’s arctic temperatures preserve the light, lake-effect powder like the precious substance it is. Bohemia’s 94 marked runs never see a groomer and feature trees, cliffs, microchutes, and slopes up to 50 degrees in pitch. Multiple secret stashes hold powder for days after a storm. Sure, there are only 900 feet of vertical, but that’s the most of any ski area in this corner of the world and plenty to keep Midwestern powderhounds happy.
Middlebury College Snow Bowl, Vermont
Photograph by Sean Grzyb
There are many ways to get an education. Some people go to university; others dedicate their youth to the art of skiing. Vermont’s Middlebury College offers the opportunity to do both simultaneously. Fourteen miles from campus, on the north slopes of Worth Mountain, the school’s Middlebury Snow Bowl ski area offers students and the general public a classic New England ski experience.
Founded in 1800, the private liberal arts college began cutting ski runs here in 1934 during the early years of American skiing, and the sport has been woven into the school’s fabric ever since. Thirty-four of its students have competed in the Winter Olympics since 1948.
The current college-operated ski area features three chairlifts, 17 runs, and some of Vermont’s best glade skiing on its thousand vertical feet. It’s open seven days a week with a free bus shuttle running back and forth all day from campus to the slopes, as well as to a nearby school-run Nordic center that features 55 kilometers of groomed trails. Lift tickets are some of the least expensive in the Northeast, with a free carpet lift for beginners. The ski patrol is staffed almost entirely by students, who typically receive their patrol certification and first-aid training in courses taught on campus.
Each January, Middlebury students are required only to take a single class, leaving plenty of time for skiing, and students can even take ski lessons for physical education credits. In a flourish that cements its status as one of the most ski-obsessed schools in North America, Middlebury holds a three-day winter carnival every February that culminates with its midyear graduates skiing down the slopes en masse in caps and gowns.
Turner Mountain Ski Area, Montana
Photograph courtesy Turner Mountain Ski Area
Deep in remotest Montana, in a land of loggers, grizzly bears, and not much else, sits Turner Mountain, a volunteer-run ski area in the Purcell Mountains on the edge of the wild Yaak Valley. Local skiers from the town of Libby banded together in 1960 to string a rope tow up 5,925-foot Turner Mountain, 22 miles away, and a local logging company subsidized the hill’s operation as it installed a mile-long T-bar and became a proper, though nonprofit, ski area.
The T-bar was replaced with a used double chairlift in 2001, and today Turner stays afloat by renting out the entire mountain during the week to groups of out-of-towners seeking their own private ski area. Fridays and weekends are for locals, who buy shockingly cheap lift tickets to enjoy the mountain’s 2,110-foot vertical drop of consistent fall-line skiing. Expert runs make up 60 percent of the mountain, and Friday powder days after a week of accumulating snow are legendary. The trek from the parking lot to the lift is about five steps, and there’s never a line. It takes about 75 volunteers to run the mountain, where everyone knows everyone and a simple base lodge features “a full-service snack bar.”
But you don’t come here for polish and glitz, which doesn’t exist for hundreds of miles in any direction. You come here for the powder, the people, and because it’s the kind of place that inspired one longtime local to say, “My kids had seven different babysitters with radios up here—they were called Ski Patrol.”
Mount Greylock Ski Club, Massachusetts
Photograph by Yakoniva, Alamy
Many of the early ski areas in North America were formed by local ski clubs, groups of avid skiers who banded together to create simple places to enjoy their shared passion. The Mount Greylock Ski Club, formed in 1937 in northwest Massachusetts, was one of these early clubs. The club purchased a farm site and cut narrow runs on a 350-vertical-foot slope on the flank of Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state. By the 1950s, they had 2,000 members and a waiting list.
But in the following decades, ski areas evolved into glittering resorts with snowmaking, night skiing, high-speed lifts, and heavily developed base areas. Costs rose accordingly, until skiing became a sport mostly for the wealthy. Most of America’s small club hills disappeared and became a charming footnote in the history of the sport.
But not the Mount Greylock Ski Club. It’s still there, keeping the soul of skiing alive, with its two rope tows, 17 runs, and small, red-shingled base lodge heated by wood stove. There are only 150 members now, but they all work together to clear the runs in the fall and operate the area all winter. Membership—essentially a season pass—costs $75 for an individual and $150 for a family. There’s no food available in the lodge, unless you count the hot cocoa sold on an honor system, but people frequently bring pots of soup and homemade cookies to share. There’s no ski rentals, lessons, or even electricity here, but no one seems to mind. They’re too busy having fun with their families and friends in their own little ski area in the hills.
Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, Montana
Photograph by Heath Korvola, Aurora Photos
High in the wild mountains overlooking Yellowstone National Park, the Beartooth Plateau vaults skyward into the largest sustained alpine zone in the lower 48. In 1932, during the golden years of high-wire road building in the American West, daredevil construction crews carved a switchbacking roadway up the walls of glacially carved canyons and across the plateau and surrounding Beartooth Mountains. Today the Beartooth Highway is famed as one of America’s most spectacular roads. Less well known is the tiny-but-mighty summer ski area the road has begotten.
Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area opens each spring on the day the road’s adventurous snowplowing efforts are complete and the highway first opens to the public. For weeks prior, the basin’s owners—all local skiers and mountain guides—take snowmobiles up from the town of Red Lodge and dig out lift towers, blast cornices off the headwall, and get the area ready for skiers and snowboarders. It may have only two Poma lifts and a thousand feet of vertical, but the slopes plummeting off its 10,900-foot summit reach up to 50 degrees, rivaling the steepest in-bounds terrain in North America. (Don’t panic: Lower slopes offer mellower grades.)
Founded in 1962 by a group of Austrians as a camp for summer ski race training, Beartooth Basin opened to the general public in 2003 when it was purchased by a group of locals. It’s still used by visiting race teams, but you’ll find just as many nonracers hurling themselves off cornices, testing their steep-skiing technique, or lapping the terrain park. The nearby backcountry offers a smorgasbord of ski-mountaineering objectives, and 3,000-foot descents are often possible into June. Just don’t come here looking for lodges, groomers, or anything resembling a modern ski resort. But for spirited skiing long after most areas have closed for the season, you can’t do better.
Photograph by Adam Clark, Aurora Photos
Alta is famed for its prolific powder, sustained steeps, and rich heritage, but often overlooked is that it may also be the world’s premier mom-and-pop ski area. Founded in 1938 high in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, it’s still owned by the children and grandchildren of its original owners. Its five guest lodges, all charmingly traditional, are all also family-owned. A good number of the mountain’s ski patrollers and key employees are offspring of earlier staff members. Alta gets in your blood.
It all starts with the area’s miraculous microclimate that delivers an average of 551 inches of snow a year. A handful of other areas may get this much, but they’re in the Pacific Northwest where the snow’s high moisture content gives rise to analogies like mashed potatoes and cement. Alta’s powder, on the other hand, is best described as feathery. It feels like plunging through a down comforter. Combined with the steeply, perfectly pitched slopes of the Wasatch Mountains, renowned as one of the planet’s premier skiing ranges, it's a kind of paradise for skiers (but not for snowboarders, who aren’t allowed, much to their despair). It’s no wonder that Alta, thanks largely to legendary powder pioneer Alf Engen and his seminal ski school, is considered by many the birthplace of powder skiing in America.
With vaulting, avalanche-prone slopes in every direction—the original mining town of Alta was largely destroyed by a massive avalanche in 1885—Alta is also where the study and practice of modern snow science began. Everything done here is in the service of skiing, with a passion and purity that’s palpable. It’s virtually unheard of for a 2,200-acre ski area of this caliber to have such a modest base-area development. By design, its 2,020 vertical feet of primarily north-facing terrain is served by a mere seven chairlifts to keep skier density low. Touring in the spectacular mountains hemming the area has been encouraged since Alta’s founding. Other mom-and-pop areas across the country help keep the spirit of skiing alive, but none with the scale and gusto of Alta. Added together it creates something unquantifiable that is best summed up by the word “soul.” Alta has it, and it infuses every skier who comes here.