Best Family Ski Resorts
Way back in 2007, we put out our first in a series of lists of the Best Family Ski Resorts in the US and Canada. It was a labor of love, as we were able to fondly recall great times at so many of the listed resorts, discuss the merits of various ski and snowboard areas with other avid skiers and ski bloggers, and do some first-hand testing to enjoy the physical as well as mental benefits of skiing. Much has changed, with ski resorts being merged, acquired, opened, and with major improvements happening at nearly all of them. We wanted to update the list with a fresh publishing, as of 2017. With no further wait, here are the best of the best – the top ski family resorts in all of North America.
Cream of the Crop – 5 Stars
Deer Valley, Utah. Situated in the Park City area of Utah, Deer Valley is a bit like the master-planned development of the ski world. The result is that everything is laid out in a way that just makes sense. There are many great Utah ski resorts, but this is the one that usually ranks as our favorite. You have to pay a little more for Deer Valley because it is all pretty much self-contained, but it is really a great experience for families. The terrain is 27% beginner and 41% intermediate, giving it plenty of terrain for all skill levels. Perhaps the best part of Deer Valley is their grooming practices — they groom the runs as well as anyone we have seen in the country, runs of all skill levels. The layout also eliminates almost any catwalks or traverses, so you are mainly skiing almost all the time. At just over 2,000 acres of terrain, it is not the largest resort in the West, but makes up for it by capping the number of lift tickets sold each day. You will never have terribly long lines at Deer Valley, and the ski school, child care, and restaurant scene is first-rate. Deer Valley is not part of any major ski passes like the Epic Pass or MaxPass, which further limits its traffic. Overall, this is the top of our list if you feel you have the budget to perhaps splurge a bit on your ski vacation. Getting There: Deer Valley Resort is location about 35 miles from the Salt Lake City Airport. Lodging is in within the resort, or you can stay in Park City and do a 5-10 minute drive to the free parking lots at the base.
Steamboat, Colorado. If Deer Valley feels like it is master planned, Steamboat is the opposite with the authenticity of an old Western town. We have always loved the wild west feel of Steamboat, and being situated in the Routt National Forest of the Western Colorado Rockies. We like Steamboat best of the Colorado resorts because it doesn’t have the traffic of places closer to Denver. It feels a bit more removed and quiet, and that gives it a better family vibe in our opinion. The 3,000 acres of skiable terrain is more than enough to handle the typical crowds, and to give nearly any skier enough territory to explore. Just 14% of the terrain is green, but about 44% is blue, much of that being relatively easy intermediate-type runs. What sets Steamboat even further apart from the others is its great Ski School. The Ski School has been operating for years and is consistently regarded as one of the best in the West. Getting There: The nearest airport is Hayden, CO, which puts you very close to Steamboat Springs. Flights are often seasonal and expensive, however. A backup plan is to fly into Denver and then do the 3-4 hour drive. Lodging is done through several private condos and homes near the base of the resort, or you can use the free city bus to stay in the town of Steamboat Springs and do the 5-10 minute ride to the ski area.
Big Sky, Montana. We love the terrain at Big Sky, and the fact that you get access to more than 5,800 acres (yes, that is right, nearly 6,000) of great skiing with one single lift ticket. Big sky is more of a true ski destination than an actual town, although the Meadows Village, just a few miles from the ski area, provides several more options for dining and lodging beyond the mountain area. The vibe at Big Sky is fun, family-friendly, and pure. Big Sky is not about glitz and glamour, but rather about very good, safe, and big skiing. The ski school has access to many great instructors and can let you home base at either the Big Sky Mountain Village, or at the nearby Madison area. Both are connected via chairlifts and runs, but are a short drive away from each other (there is much more action at the Mountain Village, but Madison is generally a bit newer. For those who don’t want to downhill ski, the nearby Lone Mountain Ranch – which is not affiliated with Big Sky Resort – provides some of the best Nordic ski trails anywhere for bargain prices. Getting There: Fly into Bozeman, an airport with ample flights from major cities. From there, you will drive up the scenic Hwy 191 for about one hour to get to the resort. Lodging options are usually concentrated on the Mountain Village, the Moonlight Basin area (Madison), or a few miles away at the Meadows Village. Parking at Big Sky is still free if you are driving a car.
Killington, Vermont. When it comes to skiing the East, there is a high concentration of great family ski areas in Vermont. There are many, time-tested that are great for skiing and apres-ski. Picking a favorite from the Vermont market was difficult, but we gave our nod to Killington for a few reasons. Our readers consistently report having a great skiing experience at Killington, and we like both the breadth of the lift system as well as the healthy amount of beginner and intermediate terrain – 28% green and 33% blue runs. Killington’s six mountains and active base area can give it a busy feel, but it doesn’t take long to get away from it all especially if you are with an instructor who knows what they are doing. The runs are classic New England, with long, winding routes through trees, and plenty of options that aren’t too steep for beginners. The ski school is well-established, having been in business for over 50 years, and private lessons are available for children as young as 2 years old! For Non-Skiers, Killington has boomed with many dining options as well as other entertainment, and nearby Gifford Woods State Park is a great way to get outside without having your feet strapped to skis or a snowboard. Getting There: While the nearby Rutland airport is the closest to Killington, it is not serviced by many flights. You might be better off driving a couple hours from either Manchester, NH or Albany, NY. Lodging at Killington is ample, with plenty of condo, hotel, and cabin rentals available at the base. For those already in the Northeast, Killington is completely drivable….. less than 3 hours from Boston, and just a little over 4 hours from most parts of the New York City area.
Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows, California. Squaw Valley hit the worldwide scene with the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, but they did not spend the next half-century resting on their laurels. Today, Squaw Valley offers the broadest variety of skiing in the Lake Tahoe area. Ample accommodations and dining at the base area, combined with excellent and growing kids programming, make Squaw a great destination for families. It has more of a true Alpine feel than its neighboring resorts in the South Lake Tahoe area. What we like most is the layout – all kinds of excellent terrain – about 6,000 acres worth — can be accessed from the same base area, so it conveniently suits a family of all skill levels. A quick gondola or tram ride up the mountain will get the beginners to many green runs, with more reliable snow than resorts whose greens are all at the bottom of the mountain. Getting There: Squaw is on the North side of Lake Tahoe, a short drive (45-55 minutes) from the Reno airport but also accessible from Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area. Note that this area is known for having snow tire or tire chain requirements after a big snow, so watch the weather and perhaps rent something with AWD and snow tires. Lodging is plentiful at the base area, or in the nearby towns that dot Lake Tahoe such as Tahoe City. The larger, interstate-side town of Truckee is also an option, about 20 minutes away.
Whistler, British Columbia. This Canadian ski area has it all: Two great mountains to ski (Whistler and Blackcomb), incredible scenery, plenty of lodging options, good ski lesson and school choices, and a great village and downtown that is very pedestrian-friendly and full of places to eat and drink. With over 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, this is the largest ski area in North America, surpassing ample mountains like Vail and Big Sky. What’s more, nearly 70% of its terrain is intermediate or beginner, making it a fun mountain for all skill ranges. The Whistler downtown area offers great dining, entertainment, and and ice rink, and the location near the Pacific Ocean makes it prime for big dumps, average over 450 inches of snow per year. It can be a little pricey and hard to get to, but watch the exchange rate if you are an American and you might be able to create some savings. Getting There: The Vancouver airport, well-serviced by all major airlines, is just a two-hour drive from Whistler. If you prefer to fly into Seattle, it is a 4-hour drive. Either way, remember your passport if you are coming from the U.S. Lodging is ample at the base area, known as the Village, as well as nearby ski-in neighborhoods like Creekside, Upper Village, and Village North. All are serviced by Whistler’s extensive lift system.
Best of the Rest
These ski resorts are also top-notch, and we consider them some of the best family ski resorts in North America. We would not hesitate about making a ski vacation at any of them.
Vail, Colorado. Vail is a wonderful ski destination if you are looking for size, apres-ski options, and a bustling base village complete with non-skiing activities. It can feel a bit too busy for some and is expensive, but there is no denying that it offers some of the biggest, broadest array of skiing for all skill levels. At Vail, you will definitely get a great one-stop shop with activities and terrain for the entire family. Plus, lodging options are abundant and ample, both in convenient Vail Village, or nearby East or West Vail if you want to save a few bucks.
Taos, New Mexico. Taos is the southernmost resort on our list, and any seasoned skier should make it one of the places they ski at least once (preferably more) in their lifetime. It is known for great powder due to its drier climate, and boasts one of the premier and highest-regarded ski schools in America. A full 50% of its runs are either black our double-black diamond, so if you go be sure you stay on lifts that match your skill level. Fly into Albuquerque.
Park City, Utah. Park City in Utah, and its connected resort, The Canyons, are part of the Vail Resorts chain and offer over 7,000 acres of combined skiing. The terrain has great range, and it has multiple, quality base areas since it is the combination of what began as two ski areas. We like the Park City area as a base, given its broad range in lodging options and great restaurant selection. We also love that this area is just 40 minutes from such a great airport as SLC International.
Northstar, California/Nevada. Northstar at Lake Tahoe is on the Northern side of the iconic lake, opposite of Heavenly. It offers nearly three thousand acres of skiing, quality family programming and ski school operations, and ample intermediate and beginner slopes. Excellent shopping and dining is found at the base, and the resort does a great job of grooming its runs. While it doesn’t have the size of Heavenly, on a busy day Northstar might have fewer crowds on the slopes. Your group might have more fun here if they tend to be intermediate skiers, whereas Heavenly is great for beginners. Just 30-45 minutes from the Reno airport, Northstar can be a nice getaway in a scenic location.
Heavenly, California. After Squaw, we had a hard time deciding between Heavenly and Northstar for our Tahoe runner-up, so we included them both Situated on Lake Tahoe’s southern shore, Heavenly gets a healthy 350 inches of annual snowfall, and the dumps on the Tahoe area can provide for some truly spectacular deep skiing if you can time it right. With over 4,800 acres of terrain, the ski area is deceivingly large and amply-served by 28 lifts. Everyone in the family will be able to find what they need in terms of runs. 20% of those runs are beginner-level, with another 45% being intermediate blues. The Village base area offers plenty of food options, activities for the non skiers, and is your gateway to lodging as well. Heavenly is also part of Vail Resorts, meaning that deals on things like the Epic Pass can help keep your costs down if you plan well.
Smugglers Notch, Vermont. A smaller, quieter resort in Vermont that is decidedly targeted at young families. While terrain is not as expansive as nearby Killington and the lifts are a bit slower, Smugglers Notch gives you the quintessential New England skiing experience on tree-lined runs, and offers some of the more innovative family programming along with a great childcare program if you just want to leave the kids behind and ski.
Beaver Creek, Colorado. Beaver Creek is so close to Vail that it is almost an extension of it, but you can be sure it is its own area with its own feel. If Vail can feel crowded and bustling at time, Beaver Creek has more of an exclusive feel to it, and the peak time crowds tend to be less making it more wide-open for skiers. Family programming is ample. Lodging is more concentrated on the resort-owned properties and hotel within the resort area, but the town of Vail offers many options just a short drive away.
Best “Under the Radar”
Grand Targhee, Wyoming. Tucked on the Western slope of the Tetons, opposite Jackson Hole, is a quieter but legitimately great ski area. Grand Targhee has been known for years for its tendency to collect great powder days, skiable terrain, and more authentic, intimate base area. While many resorts have adopted the “bigger is better” approach, Targhee gives you access to Teton skiing without making it overwhelming or breaking the bank. The friendly attitude of the area also crosses over into the family offerings, making this one of our favorite places to take a skiing family. Families who are all skiing (or boarding, or Nordic) will enjoy Targhee the most. There aren’t quite as many amenities for the non-skiers here, and it is a little harder to get to. However, if those things don’t bother you, you will be rewarded with excellent snow and short lift lines. The Kids Club does a nice job with lessons and childcare, and the Kids Night Out is a nice touch – allowing parents to drop the kids with licensed child care providers while they go out for a dinner or drink. Getting There: Idaho Falls offers several connecting flights, and is about 90 minutes away from Grand Targhee. The Jackson Hole airport is about a 75 minute drive, but you will need to cross a mountain pass, which is not always passable right after a big snow storm. While there is some base lodging that is fine at Targhee, we prefer staying in or around nearby Driggs, where you will find more variety.
Best in the Midwest
Lutsen, Minnesota. The Midwest may not have treeline skiing and 4-mile runs, but its skiing is good enough to produce skiers like Lindsey Vonn. While states like South Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all home to respectable resorts that can make for a fun family weekend, our pick is Lutsen in Minnesota. Situated on the scenic North Shore of Lake Superior just under 2 hours from Duluth, Lutsen provides 90 runs and 900 feet of vertical, and some seriously spectacular views of the worlds largest freshwater lake. With nearly 60% of the terrain being intermediate, it is friendly to all enthusiasts of all skill levels. If you don’t want to be on the slopes for the whole trip, there is plenty of world-class nordic skiing in the area, especially if you head up the nearby Gunflint Trail. The nearby town of Grand Marais is a great way to unwind and enjoy some great food given its impressive restaurant scene.
If you enjoyed this, please let us know. We are always looking for our Readers Choice opinions on their favorite family ski resorts as well. While you are at it, don’t miss our pieces on topics like great snowboards for beginners, or the best bluetooth audio ski helmets. We are always watching the market to make it easy for you to get your ski and snowboard information in one place!