7 ways your ski trip will be better this year

A mining tour at Park City Mountain in Utah

There’s something about the start of a new ski season that brings a distinct excitement to the cold mountain air in ski towns across North America. It’s the promise of new adventures, the anticipation of what’s to come.

This season’s biggest news is arguably the yet-to-be-named entity formed by Denver’s KSL Capital and Chicago’s Henry Crown & Co., which jointly bought Mammoth Mountain, Deer Valley Resort and all of Intrawest’s resorts this year. The new venture will also include Squaw Valley and has the makings of becoming the first true rival of behemoth Vail Resorts.

While we wait to see the impact of this new company on skier and rider experiences in seasons to come, there are plenty of other developments to get stoked about for the 2017-18 season. Get ready to point your skis down and go.

New flight options

Remote Sun Valley, Idaho, is about to get a lot more accessible for Chicagoans. On Dec. 23, United will debut a nonstop, Saturday-only, 3.5-hour flight from O’Hare to Friedman Memorial Airport. The airport is 13 miles from Sun Valley, a laid-back ski destination popular with celebrities and CEOs who prefer a more low-key spot than, say, Aspen. That means less time in the air and more on the slopes—the weekly flight is scheduled to land before noon so you can hightail it to Bald Mountain and get in a few runs before the slopes close at 4 p.m.

Service will take a brief break in January (the slowest weeks of ski season), then start up again in mid-February and run through March 31. Bunk up at the newish Limelight hotel (it opened last December) for a buzzy downtown Ketchum location and ski valet services.

Also new this season, a nonstop United flight to Reno-Tahoe International Airport will run Saturdays and some Sundays from Dec. 23 to April 1. North Lake Tahoe is about a 45-minute drive from the airport, and if you present your boarding pass at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, you can ski free for the remainder of the day.

Adrenaline-pumping tours

Resorts are embracing a desire for one-of-a-kind mountain experiences, the type that let visitors feel like a local (even if they can’t quite ski like one). A new tour at Park City Mountain in Utah will take skiers off-trail to explore historic relics and old mining buildings while regaling them with stories of how Park City evolved from a meager mining town to an Olympic host city.

If you’ve dreamed of epic skiing in the Canadian Rockies, consider the new three-day guided adventures by Ski Big 3, the three ski resorts in Banff National Park. Each day you’ll ski a new mountain with an expert guide who will show you hidden powder pockets only locals know about, lead you to awe-inspiring photo backdrops and generally help you navigate each mountain with expertise and speed, including skipping lift lines.

And at Squaw Valley, Alpenglow Expeditions is guiding skiers through the resort’s backcountry. The tantalizing untrodden terrain was famously off-limits until last year. This season Alpenglow has exclusive permission to give backcountry tours using the resort’s lifts, which means skiers and riders spend less time hoofing up the mountain from the base (which requires additional gear and a lot more energy) and more time gliding through fresh powder. The half-day option is ideal for backcountry newbies.

Stein Eriksen Residences

New and improved hotels

There’s no shortage of luxury digs at Park City’s exclusive Deer Valley Resort—known for over-the-top guest services and amenities like gourmet fare at the on-slope dining lodges—but skiers now have another option. Stein Eriksen Residences will aim to replicate the service and mystique of its sister property, Stein Eriksen Lodge. The difference between the two? The new property is made up entirely of vacation rentals—39 condos and 15 free-standing houses—decked out in luxe modern mountain decor and amenities (private decks with hot tubs, master bedrooms with stone fireplaces) and has all the perks that come with a traditional hotel (a spa, an upscale restaurant, indoor kids splash pad, twice-daily housekeeping, ski valet). Its mid-mountain location makes it a true ski-in, ski-out—guests can immediately be on the ski runs directly from a home or condo.

On the other side of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in Little Cottonwood Canyon is the legendary steep terrain of Snowbird, which has spruced up the Cliff Lodge over the last couple of years. New this season is an updated rooftop spa. Even if you don’t stay here, an apres ski spa session is in order. The renovated outdoor rooftop has a heated pool, hot tub, heated floor tiles, fire pits and stunning views of the canyon. Inside, spa-goers can find Utah skin care products difficult to find elsewhere.

Aspen’s grand dame, the Little Nell, completed a room refresh last spring that might entice skiers to skip the legendary apres ski scene here and cozy up by their in-room fireplaces instead. The neutral (and a little boring) color scheme has been replaced with blues, tans and grays, along with subtle glitzy touches like gilded wallpaper inside barn door-covered closets. Sustainability was a big factor in the refresh, and much of the furniture was reupholstered and refurbished rather than ditched for something new.

Stein Eriksen Residences

More multiresort pass options

Vail Resorts continues to dominate the ski industry by adding mountain after mountain to its impressive portfolio. Stowe Mountain was added in the spring; Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia was brought into the fold in 2016. This is the first ski season both will be included in the Epic Pass, an unrestricted season pass to 15 resorts including Vail, Breckenridge, Park City, Beaver Creek and three at Lake Tahoe. At $899, it isn’t cheap. But consider this: Some Vail-owned resorts’ lift tickets are going for more than $150 a day, which means you could pay for the pass after six days on the slopes. (Tip for next year: Epic Passes are no longer available for the 2017-18 ski season. Vail Resorts typically starts selling passes in March for the next season.)

In an effort to woo Midwesterners, Vail bought Wisconsin’s Wilmot Mountain last year, and the "mountain" is included in the Epic Pass. While a day at Wilmot isn’t as enticing as a day discovering fresh powder in Whistler, it does give families with children a chance to improve downhill skills before heading out west.

Epic’s biggest rival is the Mountain Collective pass, which has a lower price, $489. Pass holders get two days at each of the 16 resorts that have joined the program, including Mammoth Mountain, Aspen Snowmass, Alta Ski Area, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Sun Valley, plus 50 percent off lift tickets for additional days. New to the pass this year are Sugarbush Resort in Vermont and Snowbasin Resort in Utah.

Mountain improvements

Expect some faster gondolas, deeper snow (thanks to improvements in snowmaking) and additional runs at many major resorts. Three notable capital improvements this year are: Vail’s new six-passenger Northwoods Express lift, which aims to reduce wait times and increase capacity by 25 percent; Beaver Creek’s Red Buffalo Park, a 200-acre family learning area with 13 trails at the mountain’s highest elevation that is reached by a higher-speed quad lift; and Steamboat’s upgraded main gondola that makes for a faster, smoother ride.

Updated technology

Vail Resorts launched EpicMix Time Insights, a website that provides historic lift times at five of its resorts, which means you can plan your ski day or even your entire trip around the shortest lift wait times. Think New Year’s Day at Breckenridge will be too busy? Now you can know for sure before you book.

The Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows mobile app’s new leaderboard feature lets skiers compare their ski day performance with friends and the community at large. Plus, through the app skiers will get real-time estimated time of arrivals for the aerial tram and shuttle bus so you know if you have time to get in one more run.

A new way downhill

Traveling with a non-skier or need a day to nurse sore muscles? You’ll still have a chance to get your heart pumping off the slopes at one of four new alpine coasters in Colorado. Steamboat, Aspen Snowmass, Copper Mountain and Purgatory Resort all have new mountain coasters, gravity-driven roller coasters that sit about 40 feet off the ground and have vertical drops between 300 and 400 feet.

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