Where to Ski This El Niño Winter

Skier carves a aggressive turn in Telluride, Colorado.
Skier carves an aggressive turn in Telluride, Colorado; Photograph by Tony Denim / Aurora Photos

After months of speculation, El Niño has arrived—and it’s poised to be one of the strongest on record. Resorts throughout the U.S. West have been hammered by powerful storms that have produced the best early-season conditions they’ve seen in years.

The question is, Where to ski? Look no further. We’ve put together the definitive guide to this winter’s best El Niño resorts.

But first, what is El Niño?

Occurring about every three to seven years, El Niño happens when waters in the Pacific Ocean, close to the equator, are warmer than normal, which produces wetter winters in the bottom third of the U.S.

“It’s essentially these very large storms, one after the other, a parade of them lining up in the Pacific and tapping into all of this very rich moisture and dumping these huge amounts of snow on the mountains and rain in the valleys,” says mountain meteorologist Chris Tomer, founder of Tomer Weather Solutions.

The warm El Niño waters also shift the jet stream south, causing it to carry these storms directly into California and across the West. In a typical El Niño year, southern California and the Southwest are the biggest winners, but this El Niño is proving to be a bit of an anomaly, and the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are also benefitting.

“December was the kickoff party for El Niño,” says Tomer. “All these storms hit the West Coast. Tahoe and Utah got a ton of snow … However, it’s positioning itself a little farther north, [and] as we move through January, February, and March, it will continue.”

These strongest months for El Niño remain ahead and, what’s more, the waters of the Pacific are the warmest they’ve ever been, which means this year’s El Niño could produce record-breaking storms.

“… [W]e just surpassed the 1997 temperature set out there in the Pacific, so this is technically the strongest El Niño that we have seen,” says Tomer.

So pack your powder skis and book a ticket to one of these ten ski resorts.

Telluride, Colorado

Bottom line: Telluride is primed to go off this winter. And by the looks of things, El Niño has already arrived. Christmas week, a massive storm dropped four feet of snow on Telluride’s slopes, allowing the resort to open all of its lifts and much of its terrain earlier than in years past.

Tomer predicts that Telluride, perched amid the craggy peaks of southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, will continue to benefit from El Niño over the next three months.

“Anything in southern Colorado is going to get more snow than normal,” says Tomer. “Telluride will get a 15 percent bump.”

That bodes well for skiers headed there: When Telluride is covered in powder, there are few better mountains.

Though the 2,000-acre resort has greatly expanded its beginner and intermediate offerings over the years, the breadth of its in-bounds expert terrain is staggering. Standing at 13, 320 feet, Palmyra Peak requires an hour and a half hike and serves up 2,000-vertical-foot lines, big-mountain terrain, and soaring views of the majestic San Juans. Gold Hill’s pitch-perfect couloirs are reminiscent of the Alps, while Prospect Bowl serves up steep alpine faces.

Beyond the resort’s boundary gates is some of the nation’s best backcountry terrain, though southwest Colorado’s snowpack is notoriously fickle, and out-of-bounds adventures are best spent with a guide. Book one through San Juan Mountain Guides or, better yet, take a trip with Telluride Helitrax, one of the premier heli-skiing ops in the lower 48. You’ll ski in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks, slice first tracks through the region’s infamous light and dry powder, and rack up about 12,000 vertical feet of skiing.

Come day’s end, kick back at the Madeline Hotel in Mountain Village. Overlooking the slopes, the hotel features plush digs, a world-class spa, and an oxygen bar. Reboot with a Spirit of the Mountains massage—a soothing herbal rub down topped with guided meditation—then take in the views while soaking in the hotel’s new hot tub.

Wolf Creek, Colorado

If ever there was a year to ski Wolf Creek, this is it. Located five hours southwest of Denver, Wolf Creek typically receives over 430 inches of snow annually, the most in Colorado. This year, the 1,600-acre resort is poised to get walloped by El Niño and may see as much as 50 feet of powder by season’s end, among the highest snow totals in the country.

“If you’re talking about who is going to get the most snow in Colorado, it’s Wolf Creek,” says Tomer. “You can expect Wolf Creek to see a 15 to 40 percent bump above average, so you’re looking easily at an additional 100, 150 inches. That’s huge.”

Wolf Creek gets so much snow so consistently because the San Juans are the first big obstacle that subtropical storms hit as they cross the Southwest.

“As these storm systems, loaded with moist air, roll into the San Juans, that air is thrust upwards, cools, and falls as heavy snow on the San Juan ski areas,” says Tomer. “No place benefits more than Wolf Creek.”

But don’t come looking for ski valets, chairlifts with heated seats, or a ritzy base village. You won’t find any of that. Instead, come for a laid-back vibe, a thousand acres of sublime glade skiing, and deep, deep powder.

Be ready to earn some of your turns—some of Wolf Creek’s best terrain is accessed by foot. From the top of the Alberta Lift, hike 15 minutes to reach the Knife Ridge chutes, a series of short, supersteep chutes, some of which feature cliffs.

Or venture a half hour past the Knife Ridge chutes to Horseshoe Bowl, a wide-open amphitheater that serves up prime powder skiing after a dump. Look for the Horseshoe Bowl Snowcat, which fires up after storms and picks skiers up from the top of Dog Chutes to transport them to the bowl.

At day’s end, head 25 miles southwest on U.S. 116 to Pagosa Springs, home to the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring. The waters here boast an extremely high mineral content, therapeutic for weary ski muscles.

A skier from Santa Fe, New Mexico, hikes through snow-covered trees to the undeveloped ridge above Taos Ski Valley, Taos, New Mexico. Taos, one of the nations last family-owned ski resorts, is small and intimate, and features much expert terrain.
A skier from Santa Fe, New Mexico, hikes through snow-covered trees to the undeveloped ridge above Taos Ski Valley, Taos, New Mexico; Photograph by Kevin Moloney/ Aurora Photos


Taos, New Mexico

This season, Taos’s fabled Martini Tree Bar added a new cocktail to its line up: the El Niño martini. Skiers will have good reason to quaff quite a few of those in the months to come. Tomer suggests that from January to March, snow totals in Taos could run 40 percent above average.

Taos’s ample snow, known for being feather light, is due to the unique path storms take during an El Niño year.

“The storm track is further south this year with El Niño, and that favors southern Colorado and northern New Mexico,” says Tomer. “Those storm systems deliver rich Pacific moisture.”

Taos also benefits from its position in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

“Taos sits at a relatively high elevation below New Mexico’s highest peak, Wheeler Peak, a thirteener,” says Tomer. “It’s clustered around a couple other high peaks too. Winds sweep across New Mexico’s western-northwestern valley floors and get lifted abruptly up to Taos and Wheeler Peak, depositing snow.”

Stashed at 9,200 feet in a box canyon, 1,294-acre Taos is a mecca for alpine purists. Black-diamond pitches cover over 51 percent of the mountain. The hike-to zones on the West Basin and Highline ridges offer some of the best steep skiing in North America and hold powder for days.

When it comes to charm, Taos oozes it. Alps-inspired chalets dot the base village, 18 miles from the funky artists’ colony of Taos proper. At day’s end, ski to the Bavarian Lodge, one of the world’s great ski hotels and après scenes, where dirndl-clad waitresses serve sausages and steins of Hefeweizen on a sun-drenched deck. With well-appointed suites, a ski-in, ski-out location, and cozy atmosphere, the Bavarian is the perfect place to lay your head.

Change is in the air, however. In 2013, billionaire Louis Bacon purchased the resort from the Blake family, whose patriarch, Ernie Blake, founded it in 1955. Bacon has begun to implement a series of developments designed to make the resort more user-friendly.

One of the first changes was the controversial opening of a lift on 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, a former hike-to zone prized by locals. Next year will see the debut of a new 80-person hotel in the base village, and Bacon plans to roll out further upgrades in the years to come, which may include improved offerings for intermediate skiers.

But in the meantime, El Niño is headed for Taos, and there’s never been a better time to go.

Alyeska, Alaska

There’s no two ways about it: El Niño is hammering Alyeska. Located in the old mining outpost of Girdwood, the 1,610-acre ski area in southern Alaska’s Chugach Mountains has already received 301 inches of snow this season, more than any other resort in the country.

“These storms that have been coming out of Russia, a number of them have been rolling out of the Bering Sea, and they’ve had some really … low-pressure storm systems up there,” says Tomer. “It’s been very stormy, especially in southern Alaska, and the resorts have done extremely well.”

If history is any indication, Alyeska is on track to get walloped all season long. During the El Niño winter of 1997-98, the resort saw over 75 feet of snow, 22 feet more than normal.

But regardless of how El Niño pans out for Alyeska, which is 40 miles from Anchorage, the resort receives 650 inches of snow a year on average, making it a sure bet most winters for powder-hungry skiers.

Although Alyeska is small, it packs a mighty punch. Some of its best lines are found off the tram. Expert skiers should head to the North Face for double black-diamond slopes—such as Christmas Chute, a steep, rock-lined pitch that opens up into a massive powder apron—while intermediates should lap the blues off the Glacier Express Lift.

Adventurous types should explore Turnagain Pass, a popular and easily accessed backcountry zone filled with everything from mellow road runs to 55-degree spines. This is serious terrain, so it’s best to hire a guide.

At day’s end, grab a cold one at the Sitzmark, the infamous après joint at the bottom of Alyeska, which features live music on weekends, a plum outdoor deck, and $3 PBRs (cheap for Alaska). From there, it’s a quick stumble to bed at the Hotel Alyeska, which offers luxe rooms, complimentary lift tickets for midweek stays, and a saltwater pool.

SILVERTON, CO: Sven Brunso at Silverton Mountain Ski area, Colorado
Skier Sven Brunso at Silverton Mountain Ski area, Colorado; Photograph by Whit Richardson / Aurora Photos

Silverton, Colorado

In Silverton, locals have a name for this year’s El Niño: El Gordo, or “the big one.” If that’s not enough to convince you of Silverton’s bounty, consider this: In late December, a week-long storm system dumped over six feet of snow onto it. And that’s just the start.

“Looking at historical values from 1997 to 2007—those big El Niño years—you always see a bump in snow for those southern resorts,” says Tomer. “At Silverton, you get about a 15 percent bump above average.”

Tomer’s assessment jives perfectly with what’s already happened in Silverton this season. By December 18, it had received over 160 inches of snow, 15 percent more than what’s typical for that time of year. That means that Silverton is on track to receive about 38 feet of snow by season’s end.

Stashed amid the jagged peaks of the San Juans, Silverton features only one chairlift, which accesses over 1,800 acres of steep alpine bowls, chutes, and hike-to terrain. It’s a hybrid of backcountry and lift-served skiing, which means there are no marked or groomed trails, no beginner or intermediate runs, and no cush mid-mountain lodges or high-speed quads.

Instead, Silverton is the kind of place where skiers must sport avalanche gear and ski with a guide from mid-January through March. It’s not uncommon to hike to a line or score a ride back to the base on an old-school bus marked “Silverton Mountain Correctional Facility.”

In a typical day at Silverton, you might ski four to six runs, find only 80 skiers on the mountain, and hike 45 minutes to a 13,000-foot peak to ski a 3,000-vertical-foot run.

Once the lift stops spinning at 3 p.m., skiers kick back over microbrews at a funky yurt that serves as the resort’s base of operations, après bar, and headquarters all in one.

Alta, Utah

Big dumps are nothing new for Alta, but El Niño is poised to ramp up the resort’s bounteous snow. And it’s already started: In December, a three-day storm blanketed the mountain in close to four feet of powder, pushing Alta’s December snow total to about a foot above average.

El Niño tends to favor resorts in southern Utah, but this winter Alta, situated in the northern part of the state, will benefit due to its unique orographic perch. It sits in Little Cottonwood Canyon, which acts like a snow mitt for storms passing through the Wasatch, catching them and wringing them out over the 2,200-acre resort. The result is 514 inches of white stuff a year, making Alta one of the most snow-sure ski areas on the planet.

“You go from the valley floor to 11,000 feet, so you’re getting dramatic lift, and that is a significant orographic contribution,” says Tomer. “That’s why they get so much snow at places like Alta, because of that rapid vertical lift of air coming through Salt Lake hitting the Wasatch front.”

Tomer suggests that Alta could experience a 10 percent increase in snow over the next few months, which would mean that by season’s end, it could see over 49 feet of snow, among the most of any resort in the country.

But it’s Alta’s vibe that truly sets it apart. Here, you won’t find a sanitized resort village, five-star hotel chain, or snowboarders. Instead there’s a cluster of cozy lodges at the base of the mountain that inspire tribal devotion among guests, who return year after year, creating a familial atmosphere.

Alta’s nightlife is centered more on board games and epic ping-pong matches than on a rowdy pub scene—but if you’re looking for that, try the Peruvian bar, one of the best après bars on the planet. A visit to one of Alta’s only stand-alone restaurants, the Shallow Shaft, is a must.

With few distractions in Alta, skiing is paired down to the very basics: good food, good friends, good skiing, and deep, deep powder.

A man skiing powder snow at Squaw Valley in California.
A man skiing powder snow at Squaw Valley in California; Photograph by Bill Stevenson / Aurora Photos

Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows, California

In California’s Sierra Nevada, locals have been told to prepare for a Godzilla El Niño this winter. And, thus far, El Niño is delivering on that promise. In December, a monster storm hammered Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows with over three feet of snow in less than 24 hours. That’s huge.

And that’s just the start. Due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the 6,000-acre Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows resort stands to benefit greatly this season.

“With this southern jet stream a bigger player this year, and even the northern jet stream contributing, you take the moisture straight off the Pacific and you slam it into the terrain in California, and you wring it out like a wet rag over the mountains,” says Tomer.

He suggests that Squaw-Alpine may see 30 percent more snow this year than average, which means that about 50 feet may blanket the resort by season’s end—almost ten feet more than usual.

It’s not only Squaw-Alpine’s prolific snow that’s made the resort home to some of the world’s best pro skiers—including Julia Mancuso, Elyse Saugstad, and Cody Townsend—but also its world-class terrain.

Filled with over 2,000 vertical feet of cliffs, chutes, glades, and bowls, Squaw’s KT-22 is an icon of the sport and a must for expert skiers. On a powder day, get there early—locals start lining up at the KT-22 lift around dawn.

Beginners and intermediates should head to Squaw’s Big Blue zone for acres of gently rolling slopes and views of Lake Tahoe.

After a day on the hill, head to Le Chamois, the local favorite for après. Grab budget-friendly pitchers of craft beer and soak in the sun on the patio before heading to the Village at Squaw Valley for slope-side lodging in the heart of the action and hot tubs with great mountain views.

Breckenridge, Colorado

Though El Niño tends to favor resorts in southern Colorado, some mountains in the state’s north will also benefit this season. Case in point: By late December, Breckenridge had received more than eight and a half feet of snow, 113 percent of average.

According to Tomer, the resort might edge out a 10 percent bump above normal over the next three months.

An hour and a half drive from Denver, Breckenridge will benefit not only from El Niño but also from the resort’s high elevation: Its base sits at 9,600 hundred feet, nearly 1,500 feet higher than Vail’s.

“That’s one of the biggest advantages they have going for them this winter,” says Tomer.

As elevation increases, temperatures decrease, making snow more likely. “You get closer to the clouds, where the snow is being generated, whether via orographics or some other process,” says Tomer. “And it’s normally colder the higher up you go, so you catch the snow before it starts to melt.”

Then there’s the phenomenon of orographic lift, which also benefits Breckenridge. When air hits a mountain, it’s forced to rise. In turn, it cools, condenses, and, if it possesses enough moisture, rain or snow forms.

For Breckenridge—a 2,900-acre playground of high-alpine bowls, chutes, groomers, and parks strung across five interconnected peaks—that means an abundance of light, dry powder.

Take a complimentary ski orientation tour if you’re unfamiliar with the mountains. If you’re looking for an adventure, explore Imperial Bowl and the hike-to terrain off the Imperial Chair, a series of chutes that funnel into a lake. Beginners and intermediates should lap the groomers on peak nine.

Founded in 1859 as a gold-mining town, Breckenridge comes alive off the mountain. The charming Victorian downtown boasts a thriving arts district, with historic buildings serving as exhibition spaces, workshops, theaters, and artists’ studios.

Head to Après Handcrafted Libations to sample 30 craft brews and dozens of small batch whiskeys. When night falls, refuel at the Breckenridge Brewery and Pub, which serves up comfort food staples, then stumble home to the Bivvi Hostel, which features a private apartment, five bunk rooms, six private rooms, and a shared kitchen.

Mammoth, California

Each year, Mammoth hosts Ullr Fest, a celebration of the Norse god of winter and a plea to him to bestow the resort with heaps of snow. This year, Ullr heeded revelers’ wishes. By the end of December, the mountain had received 127 inches of snow, 50 more than the year prior, and the entire mountain was open far earlier than in previous winters.

Tomer predicts that, thanks to El Niño Mammoth could see a 25 percent increase above average in snow over the next three months. That means it could receive about 42 feet of snow by season’s end.

Six hours by car from Los Angeles in the eastern Sierras, 3,500-acre Mammoth is big and varied. Pro skier Chris Benchetler suggests lapping Chair 22, a smorgasbord of cliffs, technical chutes, and killer glade skiing. “There’s a ton of options, and it stays fresh for quite a while,” he says.

Elsewhere on the mountain, the Panorama Gondola and Chair 23 provide access to wide-open steeps that feel almost European. The lower mountain’s hemlock forests make for prime tree skiing. And for jibbers, Mammoth’s massive terrain park is one of the best in the world and home to a number of Olympians, including freeskier Kaya Turski.

Off the hill, Mammoth Lakes has undergone a renaissance over the last decade. Expanded flight service into its airport helped make it a destination resort and catalyzed growth in the restaurant scene, bringing in names like Beard-nominated chef Mark Estee, whose Campo restaurant in the village is the go-to Italian spot.

Despite Mammoth’s recent growth, it’s managed to retain its funky, laid-back vibe, best displayed at the Clocktower Cellar, one of its classic watering holes, where both crusty locals and fur-boot clad Angelinos choose from 160 different whiskeys, 26 draft beers, or 50 beers by the bottle.

For affordable, no-frills accommodation and a warm vibe, try the Holiday Haus Motel and Hostel. Located just off Main Street, it delivers modern rooms, a shared kitchen, and common areas.

Jed Sims, Mt. Baker, WA
Skier Jed Sims hiker up Mount Baker, Washington; Photograph by Gabe Rogel / Aurora Photos

Mount Baker, Washington

With an average of 676 inches of snow a year, Mount Baker is one of the snowiest ski resorts on the planet. And this season is proving to be no different: By late December, the resort had received 231 inches of snow and boasted a summit base of 140 inches, the deepest summit base in the country.

Benefitting from El Niño’s very active storm track this season, snowfall totals in the northern Cascades, home to Baker, are running 20 to 40 percent above normal. That means Mount Baker could see close to 80 feet of snow by season’s end.

In typical El Niño years, the Pacific Northwest experiences warmer and drier winters, but this year’s El Niño is proving to be different.

“The historical data says most PNW ski areas just break even,” says Tomer. “But December 2015 didn’t follow the rules.”

Tomer explains that El Niño may mean wetter storm systems for the Pacific Northwest this winter. “There was a two-week period in December when the jet stream set up perfectly, escorting a series of stronger than normal low-pressure systems directly into the PNW,” he says. “Unlike Colorado resorts, Baker benefits from being so close to the Pacific Ocean—all that moisture is dropped on the ski area rather than having to travel hundreds of miles.”

Baker is no stranger to big snow. Situated ten miles south of the Canadian border, the thousand-acre resort holds the world record for the most snow ever recorded in a single season—95 feet during the winter of 1998-99.

The deep, wet snowpack that blankets the mountain, known for its liberal out-of-bounds policy, makes incredible backcountry routes possible (beacons, shovels, probes, and a partner are required). Inbounds, the tree skiing among old-growth forest is a highlight.

There’s no base village at Baker, so most of the off-mountain action happens 20 miles away in the town of Glacier. Before heading to the hill, grab a latte and breakfast burrito at Wake ‘N Bakery, then head to Glacier Ski Shop to pick up some low-light goggles. Chances are, it’s going to be nuking at Baker.

Comments

  1. Nikil
    January 13, 12:38 pm

    Why is this list mostly of US ski resorts? There are a bunch between California and Alaska that are experiencing amazing snow you haven’t even touched on.

  2. Sofia Palomino
    cusco
    January 18, 11:23 am

    Excellent very informative article for my

  3. Anil Patel
    Melbourne, FL
    February 1, 8:19 pm

    Very Informative and helpful. Any thoughts on how late the ski season will last – last week of March.

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