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Small Ski Areas: The Sweet Spot for Families

Sundance Mountain Resort (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2016)

By Kim D. McHugh

In high school, I skied the Midwestern trails of Boyne, Whitecap and Alpine Valley, trading those slopes for Alta, Solitude and Brighton as a student at the University of Utah. Lift tickets were cheap, lift lines rare and the areas had the “Cheers” vibe where the lifties, ski patrollers and campus pals knew my name. Much has changed since those days. Skis are shorter, a cheeseburger, bowl of chili, fries and a Coke can cost $30, and a single day lift ticket is north of $120 at many large resorts. For value (lift tickets, meals, lodging), family- or beginner-friendly trails and typically no lift lines, smaller areas are welcome alternatives to the big guys.

Ski Santa Fe

Ski Santa Fe, NM — Just 16 miles from the enchanting town of the same name, it has 79 designated trails on 660 skiable acres. Blanketed by an average of 225 inches of annual snowfall the resort isn’t on the radar quite like Taos further north, so you may feel as if you have the place to yourself.

If the in-bounds terrain isn’t enough, head into Big Tesuque (pronounced TAH-sookie) Bowl. The legal out-of-bounds area is well-traveled by those in search of powder. A full-day ticket ranges from $52 to $78, but you can save on multi-day passes and special packages. Chipmunk Corner offers lesson programs and has snow play areas for kids.

La Casa Lodge’s Food Court serves breakfast and lunch with offerings like pizza, pasta, burgers, chili, soups and deli sandwiches. Totemoff’s Bar & Grill, the mid-mountain eatery, sports hearty burgers, barbecue, salads and soups. https://skisantafe.com/

Sundance Mountain Resort. Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2016

Sundance, UT — Tucked beneath Mount Timpanogos, the 12,000-foot “Sleeping Princess,” Sundance rolls out the welcome mat with 450 acres of terrain. With a 2,150-foot vertical drop, this mountain isn’t the biggest, but 45 diverse runs are plenty.

A pair of high speed triples and two quads deliver skiers to Cascade Peak and a jaw dropping panorama. Movie buffs should visit in mid-January when the Sundance International Film Festival is in full swing. When legs begin to wobble, skiers and boarders in the know park themselves at Bear Claw Cabin where lunch offerings include nachos, tacos and giant burritos.

An elegant spot for Buffalo Loin, Smoked Duck, Striped Bass and other regional faves, the Tree Room (entrees range from $32 to $48) is also a gallery for Robert Redford’s collection of Native American art. A full-day adult ticket is $80; a child’s ticket is $53. www.sundanceresort.com


Ski Cooper, Colorado

Ski Cooper, CO — Not far from Copper Mountain, the resort near historic Leadville is perfect for beginning and intermediate skiers/snowboarders. Four lifts serve 39 runs blanketed by an average annual snowfall of 260 inches. Advanced intermediates and experts can romp in 2,600 acres of powder on Chicago Ridge via snowcat.

The family-friendly resort’s EZ-Street beginner’s area and Panda Patrol, an instructor-led experience for skiers ages 5 – 13 and snowboarders ages 8 – 13, place a wonderful focus on kids. Ski Cooper’s cafeteria offers guests breakfast options to start their mornings off right, and lunch items include hearty sandwiches, juicy burgers, pizza, salads and soups. Katie O’Rourke’s Irish Pub is an après ski gathering place offering appetizers as well as Irish Cheddar Cheese fondue, “The Riley” pulled pork sandwich, Guinness Pot Pie, and Fish and Chips. A full-day adult ticket is $54; a child’s ticket is $34; kids 5 and under are free. www.skicooper.com.

Pat’s Peak

Pats Peak, NH — With 28 “easy-as-Sunday-morning” trails this is a great place for families. Most of its 115 skiable acres aren’t steep, the well-groomed runs are fairly long, and they all funnel to the base village.

Pats Peak has three separate beginner areas, a trio of terrain parks, and a snow tubing park. The Cub’s Club and Bear’s Club seasonal programs are tailored to skiers and boarders ages 3 – 5 and ages 6 – 14 respectively. With the largest night skiing facility in New Hampshire, it is a wonderful spot for night owls to ski and snowboard.

Breakfast is available at the Tradewinds Café, while made-from-scratch-daily beef stew, chili and Famous M&M Cookie are perennial lunch favorites at the cafeteria. Grilled Cheese, Plz! and The Sled Pub are also terrific choices for lunch. A full-day adult ticket is $70; a child’s ticket is $60; A full-day adult ticket in the Valley Area is $48; a child’s ticket is $42. www.patspeak.com

Mad River Glen. Photo TJ Greenwood

Mad River Glen, VT — The only ski area in America on the National Register of Historic Places first started moving skiers to its summit in 1948 on the now regionally famous Single Chair. Though its 120-skiable acreage is modest versus, say, Canada’s Whistler/Blackcomb (8,171 acres), its 45 trails prove that big things come in small packages. Skiers (sorry, no snowboarding is allowed) enjoy a vertical drop of just over 2,000 feet.

A single base area appeals to families as do three programs for children: Rockin’ Robins, Chipmunks and Panthers. Guests frequent the Basebox Lodge, where cafeteria fare is both good and fairly priced, and General Stark’s Pub (https://youtu.be/AIiZxOkYfvI), an iconic eatery known for its chili, chicken wings, salads and burgers topped with—naturally—Vermont cheese! The pub has an impressive selection of local micro-brews, including Single Chair Ale. A full-day adult ticket is $89; a junior’s ticket is $72. Skiers joining MRG’s co-op save 15% on full day tix. www.madriverglen.com



Think Small

Here is a sampling of smaller ski areas worth adding to your short list.

Colorado: Eldora (680 acres, 64 trails), Granby Ranch (406 acres, 39 trails)

Montana: Montana Snowbowl (950 acres, 42 trails), Maverick Mountain (450 acres, 24 trails)

New Hampshire: Cranmore Mountain (170 acres, 56 trails), Black Mountain (143 acres, 45 trails)

New Mexico: Red River (290 acres, 63 trails), Sipapu (200 acres, 41 trails)

Utah: Cherry Peak (200 acres, 20 trails), Brian Head (650 acres, 71 trails)

Vermont: Suicide Six (100 acres, 24 trails), Magic Mountain (190 acres, 43 trails)

Wyoming: White Pine (370 acres, 25 trails), Snow King (400 acres, 16 trails)


Kim D. McHugh has written about travel, snow sports, hotels, local restaurants and chefs, architecture and interesting people since 1986. A former associate editor at Rocky Mountain Golf magazine, the Lowell Thomas award-winning freelance writer is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. Based in Colorado, he enjoys sharing those “I-didn’t-know-that” revelations with readers in articles that have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, the Denver Post, SKI, Hemispheres, 5280, Luxury Golf & Travel, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Vail/Beaver Creek and Colorado AvidGolfer.

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