Skip the A-List Resorts
Score better deals — and probably have an equally epic time — by hitting the smaller mountains next door.
An hour's drive from the overstuffed tram at Jackson Hole, Grand Targhee is a beautiful time warp where you share the slopes with local ranchers and can still find untracked powder for days after a big storm. Even better, tickets are just $80, and kids under 12 ski free. The bulk of the resort's terrain is gloriously intermediate — fast groomers and wide-open slopes — but it gets clobbered with 500 inches of snow a year. And if you want to go big, you can always book a day with Targhee's legendary snowcat ski operation and shred Peaked Mountain's 602 acres of exclusive terrain ($399).
Driving up to the base of Monarch is like arriving at a second-tier resort in the Midwest: There's no lodging; the parking lot is mostly gravel; food options are limited to a cafeteria and a modest bar-and-grill; and the rental shop is housed in an inflated golf dome. Lift tickets are a mere $69, but Monarch's terrain is world-class: 1,162 vertical feet and over 800 acres that get hammered with more than 350 inches of snow a year (about the same as Vail, 115 miles north). In addition to at least a dozen fast groomers, Monarch also boasts some of the best glades in Colorado — wide openings among pine trees where you can almost always find fresh powder. Plus, Monarch is just a 20-minute drive to Salida, one of the state's few 19th-century mining towns that haven't been overrun by Front Rangers from Denver and Boulder.
With 2,601 feet of vertical accessed by 23 chairlifts, Copper can match any of Colorado's biggest resorts. Where Copper excels, though, is in affordability. Half-price tickets are often made available online, as is a book-two-nights, get-one-free lodging deal. Located directly on the bumper-to-bumper I-70 corridor 75 miles from Denver, Copper gets crowded, but there's an easy way around that: Spend an extra $30 on your lift ticket ($72 to $100, depending on the date) and you can catch a chairlift 15 minutes before other skiers. And if you want a taste of the backcountry, each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Copper offers free snowcat service to 273 acres on the resort's famed Tucker Mountain.
Here's the secret about Jay Peak: This remote mountain in the Northeast Kingdom gets hit with a stunning 355 inches of annual snowfall (even more than Vail) and has a vertical drop of 2,153 feet, about the same as most Lake Tahoe–area resorts. Jay Peak makes the most of its northern Vermont location with nine lifts that access 385 acres of glades, chutes, and fast groomers. Thanks to lift tickets as low as $67, lodging that runs an average of $200 per night, and a year-round indoor water park and ice rink — not to mention package deals offering 30 percent discounts — Jay Peak may be the best ski value on the East Coast.
Low-key and staunchly unpretentious, Sugar Bowl is a bastion of old-time California ski culture. The base village is pedestrian-only, and the resort's main access point is a gondola that takes you up to a snowbound village that feels like it's straight out of the 1960s. The resort boasts 1,650 acres of terrain and a relatively high base elevation of 6,883 feet, which means Sugar Bowl stays cold while bigger, lower resorts get rained on. In fact, its 500-plus inches of annual snowfall is the most in the Lake Tahoe area, while its lift lines are the shortest. Sugar Bowl's great backcountry program offers classes on everything from avalanche safety and alpine climbing to, naturally, backcountry skiing.