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Skiing the Rocky Mountains: Insider’s Guide

by Meg Austin | September 30, 2014

The insider travel advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Caribbean Resorts, Colorado Skiing, and Dive Vacations: Meg Austin

Trusted Travel Expert
Meg Austin

Meg has been skiing in Colorado since she was five, including a stint as an instructor. She lives in Vail and also knows Aspen, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Keystone, and Telluride like the palm of her hand. She will gauge your group’s experience level and use her local connections to put you not just on the right mountain, but in a hotel room, condo, or house with prime access to the ideal runs. She’s also strategic about squeezing the most value out of expensive lift tickets. Flustered by your family’s complicated mix of ability levels and interests? Her private guides can help you avoid the lines and ski a variety of terrain—and if not everyone is a hardcore skier or snowboarder, Meg also knows where to find the best snowmobiling, cooking classes, and spa treatments.

Trips have a five-night minimum and start at $1,500 per day for two travelers, which includes lift tickets, five-star accommodations, and private transportation.

Where to Stay and Eat

Chalet worth the splurge
In Vail: Game Creek Chalet, a four-bedroom, five-bathroom chalet that sits 10,500 feet above sea level—and high above Vail Village—in the Game Creek Bowl. Just getting there is an adventure on the gondola and snowcat (it’s near Game Creek Club; see “Meal worth the splurge”). Once there, you and nine friends can have the whole place plus a butler at your disposal for $1,250 a night. At the peak of peak season that rate can rise to $5,000, but the per-couple price is still comparable to Vail Village accommodations—and the chalet’s isolated mountaintop setting is in its own league: You’ll never forget waking up and carving tracks in fresh snow before catching the morning’s first gondola up to the summit. If you want a deal, don’t travel around the holidays.

Meal worth the splurge
In Vail: Food always tastes better after a day on the mountain, and it tastes even better at the remote Game Creek Club’s restaurant. Get there by taking the Lionshead gondola to the top of Vail Mountain, then jumping into a blanket-filled snow cat for a ride across the slopes to the restaurant (try to plan your dinner for a full moon). The food is great: My favorites are the scallops, which melt in your mouth, and the delectable elk.

Must-have dish
Rocky Mountain oysters, of course! I won’t go into what they’re made of, but when they’re prepared well they taste like a combination of sweetbreads and calamari.

Best spot for a drink
J Bar in Aspen’s Hotel Jerome. Built in 1899, it’s a Colorado institution—and the best place in town for celebrity sightings.

What to See and Do

Skiing in Vail. Photo courtesy of Meg Austin

Skiing in Vail. Photo courtesy Meg Austin.

Don’t miss
Night skiing. It’s you and the mountain after dark at Keystone, Sundance, Snowbird, and Steamboat. I adore the shadows, from the lighting on the slopes to the moon (if you’re lucky, it’ll be full). Access varies per resort; Keystone offers the best deal of the bunch since anyone with a day pass can ride the lifts until 8 p.m.

Best place for advanced skiers
For a good challenge, Jackson Hole is hard to beat. But Aspen Mountain, with its crooked fall lines, comes close:  Normal fall lines go straight down the mountain, allowing you to plan your turns accordingly, but on Aspen’s crooked lines make for sharp changes in pitch and direction that require even expert skiers to concentrate (and wear helmets). If you can, stay at The Little Nell, the only true ski in/ski out hotel in Aspen.

Best place for children
Beaver Creek’s ski school is known as one of the best in the country, and a favorite for my kids when they were learning. But more than that, the resort’s setup helps keep the little ones comfortable. For starters, you don’t have to take three lifts before you can actually ski—just one easy, warm ride on Buckaroo Gondola at the mountain’s base. Lots of long, wide green runs are perfect for beginners, as are hot cocoa and chocolate-chip cookies at the end of the ski day. Bring plenty of hand and toe warmers.

Best for skiers of different levels
I like Vail for its varied terrain, suitable for every level of skier. My favorite Vail runs: Apres Vous in the back bowls, try the trees where the powder is deeper and because of the trees, lasts longer (disclaimer: the powder is always deeper when you are not quite five feel tall). Riva Ridge nonstop-four miles from top to bottom. Highline for bumps, perfect fall lines make it easier than it looks, try it nonstop for a great workout! A bonus: Vail’s Gondola One has heated seats and Wi-Fi.

Best for skiers (not snowboarders)
I hate to say this, but since Deer Valley and Alta don’t allow snowboarders, skiers can breathe a bit easier on those mountains: There’s less fear of being in a snowboarder’s blind spot.

Best for purists
Big Sky is underrated and understated: no frills, just skiing. Another Wyoming resort, Jackson Hole, has steep-and-deep runs and a wild-west feel—and a few fabulous five-star hotels: I like the secluded Amangani, a (complimentary) 20-minute drive from the Jackson lifts. A word of advice for these more remote destinations: If you see a baby moose on the slopes, steer clear or his mom will chase you—that’s how I learned to ski fast!

Cheap thrill
Vail Resorts Epic Pass. It doesn’t sound cheap, but $829 or so gets you unlimited skiing all season at any Vail Resort Mountain—which includes 12 resorts ranging from Vail, of course, to Park City, Beaver Creek, Whistler Blackcomb, and Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly—without restrictions or blackout dates. Given that day passes in peak season cost around $195, this is a great deal for families who need to ski during peak times (school breaks).


Best nonresort dive masters
Turnover can be so fast in this business that it’s tough to recommend the same dive operator year after year, but in general, you’ll find the best instructors and guides at the dive shops that have been in business for a long time (and with the same owner). Dive Provo in Turks and Caicos is a consistent favorite of mine. And Amos, who owns and operates Big Animal Expeditions, offers small-group, once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the Caribbean. His sperm whale dive in Dominica is over the top! UnderWater Expeditions organizes private or small-group guided dives in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, including the Cenotes.

Contact Meg

Not sure if this is the right person for you? Ask Wendy

Best Times to Go

January to early February is the hands-down best time to ski in the Rocky Mountains. After Christmas break and before Presidents Day, you’ll get excellent snow, great value, and smaller crowds. Yes, it’s the coldest time of year, but that means the snow is dry enough for locals to call it “Champagne powder.”

December. The festive season is very festive! I can have your rental house or condo stocked with a decorated tree and a fridge full of holiday provisions, and arrange a private instructor to take you skiing for the week.

Worst Times to Go

Thanksgiving and Easter. Conditions can be hit or miss, but on the plus side, you can get great deals.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Not drinking enough water. Hydration lessens the effects of altitude sickness.

Failing to secure dinner reservations in advance. This is especially important at peak times.

Renting a car. The cost of renting and parking could cover stocking your unit with food and hiring a private chef for a night. If you’re staying in a ski resort town, you can usually take a bus or walk to the slopes.

Packing your ancient skis. Ski rentals have come a long way in recent years, so leave the old equipment at home and demo the newest technology in skis or snowboards.

Perfect Souvenir

Visit a second-hand clothing store in any ski town—I like Holy Toledo in Minturn, a cute little town between Vail and Beaver Creek—to find a pair of barely or never-used Bogner ski pants for a fraction of the usual $700 price tag. Bogner’s stuff is top-quality, toasty-warm, and looks good on.

Don’t Forget To Pack

Hand warmers, toe warmers, sunscreen, and lip balm with SPF of at least 50.

Bragging Rights

If you’re like me, you’ve dreamed of schussing down Aspen’s silent, empty slopes before they’re open to anyone else—or sweeping the mountain with the ski patrol after it’s closed. If you’re staying at the Little Nell, I can arrange for you to do just that: carve first or last tracks on Aspen Mountain.

I’ve got other tricks up my sleeve, too. Want to hold a private ski race for you and your family? Have a ski-in, ski-out mountaintop wedding? Go on a private moonlight snowcat tour? Set out for a day with a snowcat driver who’ll drop you on remote slopes you can ski by yourself? Think of any over-the-top experience and there’s a 98 percent chance I can make it happen.

A Perfect Day

Skiing with one of the Rocky Mountains’ best private instructors. Anyone can arrange a private lesson, but we work with private instructors who have at least ten years’ experience on the mountain you’re skiing—they’re like concierges on skis! They’ll help you secure the best equipment (it makes a huge difference), bypass lift lines, find the best runs for your ability, and improve your technique and allover ability.


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