Bigger isn’t always better for family ski trips

Smaller, low-frills mountains can provide outsize thrills for skiers wanting to chill.

Photograph by Lee Cohen
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In Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, travelers find excellent skiing and low-key, family-friendly resorts.

Photograph by Lee Cohen

Like it or not, megaresorts dominate the ski industry. And for families seeking a wide variety of terrain, extensive lift systems, and ample amenities, the big resorts make perfect sense. But families pining for a lower-key ski vacation have options too, among the smaller, easy-going mountains that are thriving despite the broader industry trend.

I’m thinking this as I skate off a chairlift at one such gem—Alta Ski Area, in the Wasatch range of Utah—with my 11-year-old son, Kai. “Dad, you didn’t tell me we were going this far,” Kai says as we shuffle along a thin traverse below a granite cliff and the 11,067-foot summit of Mount Baldy. With my eye on a steep open face of powder, I realize I have led him again into expert terrain. Although he’s proved up to the challenge so far, I feel like a reckless father—a feeling, in fact, that spawned this sojourn.

We had originally planned to spend this January long weekend backpacking in the Grand Canyon, just Kai and me. A noble idea, except that the canyon this time of year can be cold and icy—which, I finally had to admit to myself, was no place for a child who’s never camped in the backcountry. As the trip approached, I learned that 65 inches of snow had fallen at Alta in five days, with more on the way. Dilemma solved: We’d keep our original flight from Washington, D.C. to Las Vegas but drive instead the six hours to Alta Lodge, a 57-room property built into the mountain at the base of the resort.

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The Alta Ski Resort draws repeat visitors thanks to ample snowfall and a chill vibe.

I first skied Alta in 1990 and was smitten by its burly terrain—soaring ridges, steep glacial hollows, and alpine forest—and consistent snow. The mountain averages 500-plus inches of snow a year, far more than most other North American resorts. In most years, this means a snowpack ideal for winter and spring skiing alike. I also love the simplicity here: Alta serves up world-class skiing with just a handful of lifts and manageably sized, throwback day lodges—elements that have made other unpretentious resorts such as Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico; Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho; and Keystone Resort, Colorado, cult favorites (find more info on these and other small resorts below).

We arrive in time for the four-course dinner that’s included (along with breakfast) in an Alta Lodge stay, and then join the sock-footed skiers lounging by the gas fire in the lobby.

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Utah’s Alta Ski Area receives an average of over 500 inches of snow a year.

Dawn brings single-digit temperatures, whipping winds, and pounding snow. After breakfast, Kai and I suit up and ski down a short slope to the lifts. The blasts of avalanche-control explosives echo through the storm. This isn’t everyone’s idea of fun but we love it, finding sheltered runs in the trees and ducking into Alta’s three day lodges for warm-up breaks.

Back at the Alta Lodge, we stop for tea and cookies in the lobby, then follow a warren of wood-paneled corridors to the hot tubs, which would afford a nice view if there weren’t six feet of snow outside the sliding glass doors. The lodge was built in 1940—the first ski lodge in this canyon—and retains a quaint charm: classic ski photos adorn the walls, books and board games line the shelves (there are only two TVs on the property), and staff and guests banter like extended family—due in large part to the 70- to 80-percent repeat visitor rate.

That loyalty is borne of a relaxed, fun-for-all-ages vibe and in the free-flowing conversations in the Sitzmark bar, a cozy lair where the bartender is moonlighting from his ski patroller job and the guest in the crisp jeans and flannel shirt is the dressiest guy around.

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Taos Ski Valley offers heart-pumping turns and runs on Kachina Peak.

This familial atmosphere extends throughout Alta and dates to its early days, says Janet Carpenter, age 94, who skied the mountain every season from 1951 to 2016 and still joins her children and grandkids for their annual trip to the Alta Lodge.

“My husband was teaching at Yale and he wanted a place that would have reliable snow over Easter break,” Carpenter tells me by phone from her home in Montana. “We picked Alta, and were hooked.” She recalls the early 1950s when Alf Engen, who ran Alta’s ski school from 1949 to 1989, lived in the Alta Lodge. “In the evenings he’d roll up the rugs and get me to dance the polka with him. Eventually others would join in. A lot of famous people stayed there over the years but you wouldn’t know it; everyone was there to ski and we all treated each other like regular people.”

She last saw Engen in 1997, months before he died. “I skied up to him and told him I was out that day with my children and grandchildren. It was always his dream to have three generations skiing together at Alta. He smiled and started crying, and so did I.”

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Colorado’s Keystone Resort offers lessons (and bunny slopes) for young skiers.

For now, I’m content with two generations. Kai and I spend our days exploring this brawny, expansive mountain, his skiing—and our bond—strengthening with each run. One afternoon we follow a long traverse over a craggy ridgeline, then descend through a tight patch of trees to Alta’s marquee run, Alf’s High Rustler, iconic for its sustained pitch and 1,400 vertical-foot drop to the base.

I pause halfway down to take in our surroundings—snow-caked trees clinging to cascading pitches, a chairlift spinning silently, and, directly below us, the boxy façade of our lodge. That’s about all there is and, it turns out, all we need.

Other low-key, family-friendly ski resorts

Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico: Perched high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico—with a base elevation of 9,207 feet above sea level—Taos offers a homey feel, a superb ski school, and an easily navigable mountain and base area. The resort is known for its expert terrain but features a variety of runs for all abilities. Stay at the St. Bernard Hotel and Condominiums, a European-style lodge, restaurant, and bar founded in 1960 and renowned for gourmet, family-style meals and ski-week packages (for adults and kids), which include three daily meals and lessons.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Idaho: Schweitzer might be the biggest ski mountain you’ve never heard of—2,900 acres of skiable terrain, a 2,400-foot vertical drop, and 10 lifts, along with 20 miles of cross-country ski trails and a snow-tubing park. The Idaho resort, tucked in the mountains north of Sandpoint, rarely draws a crowd and is compact enough that parents can let kids free-range with little worry. The 82-room Selkirk Lodge, in the resort’s base village, features memory-foam beds with Pendleton wool blankets, an outdoor pool and hot tubs, a stone fireplace in the lobby, two restaurants, and a movie theater. Ask for one of the 12 family-size rooms.

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Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort is home to 92 ski trails.

Keystone Resort, Colorado: Keystone in Colorado is owned by the mega-corp Vail Resorts but has nonetheless managed to retain a relaxed, family-centric appeal. That’s due in part to the 51 percent of the trails rated beginner or intermediate, the fact that kids 12 and younger ski free with a minimum two-night stay, and the wide variety of children’s activities offered through the resort’s Kidtopia program—from crafts and snow science to parades, music classes, and fireworks. The historic Ski Tip Lodge, in a converted 1800s stage coach stop a half-mile from the lifts, has an award-winning restaurant and an interior of sturdy wood beams, dual stone fireplaces, and overstuffed furniture. It’s size—10 rooms—keeps the atmosphere cozy.

Val Saint-Côme, Québec: Mont-Tremblant is the big player in Québec skiing, but more intimate resorts are scattered throughout the snowy Canadian province in tiny towns, where you’ll hear mostly French spoken and the service is warm and casual. At Saint-Côme, about 75 miles north of Montréal in the Laurentian Mountains, most of the trails empty out in front of the ski chalet, making it easy for adults to keep an eye on energetic kids from a table at Le Pitch restaurant/bar. The Auberge Val St-Côme offers an indoor pool and family rooms that sleep up to 8.

John Briley writes frequently about the outdoors. Follow him on Instagram.