8 Underrated Ski Destinations on the West Coast

As the cold weather approaches, so do winter getaways. For many of us, that means a trip out west, where 18 of the 21 most-visited ski resorts await. But while Vail, Aspen and Jackson Hole get most of the attention, there are plenty of under-the-radar spots with all the powder you can shred. So for enthusiasts hoping to dodge the crowds and save some cash, these underrated ski spots are just the (lift) ticket. 

1. Kirkwood, California

Ryan Grimm/Flickr

Ryan Grimm/Flickr

Visiting California skiers tend to stick to Squaw Valley or Mammoth Lakes, but the Central Sierra Mountains have some well-kept secrets worth exploring. Locals tend to favor Kirkwood, located in a dramatic valley along the California-Nevada border. The 2,300 acres of remote, diverse terrain offer the chance for real adventure. Thanks to a unique combination of steep elevation and geography, Kirkwood is blessed with lighter, drier, and more plentiful (between 300 and 600 inches annually) snow than anywhere else in the Tahoe area. They call it the "K Factor." Usually something to celebrate, it can be dangerous. Kirkwood got so much snow last winter that resorts had to close for a few days to dig out. 

Unsurprisingly for a town of less than 200, Kirkwood emits a laid-back vibe. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but vast bowls, double diamond steeps and miles of dramatic cliffs will reward you once you find it. And beginners need not be intimidated: Two base facilities offer a variety of groomed terrain as well as a ski and snowboarding school. Just don’t expect the roaring nightlife or arts scene that can be found in other area ski towns. This is for serious skiers looking for a beautiful, secluded getaway. If you want to explore beyond Kirkwood’s namesake resort, consider an Epic Pass that grants access to Heavenly and Northstar runs as well. 

2. Bend, Oregon

Forest Service/Flickr

Forest Service/Flickr

There are 12 unique ski areas in Oregon, which receives roughly 400 inches of snowfall every year. Mt. Hood near Portland may get more hype, but Mt. Bachelor right outside Bend is actually the state’s largest -- and the country’s fifth largest -- ski area. Located on top of a 9,000-foot stratovolcano, Bachelor is also the highest skiable elevation in all of Oregon and Washington. We’re talking 4,300 skiable acres and 3,000 vertical feet of varied terrain offering epic summit views of the surrounding Three Sisters Wilderness and Cascade Lakes. Mt. Bachelor’s 10 lifts service more than 80 named runs, ranging from beginner bunny hills to steep and deep experienced trails. Plus, Bachelor boasts natural terrain park-esque features perfect for carving S turns, jibs, and loop-de-loops. 

Best of all, Bend gets over 300 days of sunshine a year and significant snowfall year round. Visitors can ski the Cascade Range from mid-November through May. And Bend isn’t just an outdoorsman’s paradise, but a beer lover’s too. The bustling town of nearly 90,000 is home to the Bend Ale Trail, comprised of 22 craft and microbreweries. The most famous is Deschutes, but every Bend resident has a different favorite so you can’t go wrong. If you need a break from skiing and sampling, there are plenty of shops, galleries and restaurants in the historic Old Mill District to keep you busy.  

A Luxury Hotel Pick: 

3. Sandpoint, Idaho

Scott/Flickr

Scott/Flickr

Along the gorgeous Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho's panhandle, Sandpoint is like the quieter, slower-paced version of Coeur d’Alene. What was once a somber, backwoods logging town has turned into a haven for non-extreme skier and boarders. Nearby Schweitzer Mountain is the largest ski resort in Idaho. That’s right: With 2,900 skiable acres, it’s bigger than Idaho’s more popular Sun Valley. And at just 60 miles south of Canada’s border, the famously thick Selkirks offer some of America’s best tree skiing. On a clear day, the 6,400-foot summit offers incredible panoramic views across Idaho, Montana and Washington to British Columbia. Since it’s on private land (and not leased from the U.S. Forest Service like most ski areas), Schweitzer can thin trees to expand or improve terrain. 

Sandpoint is home to fewer than 7,500 residents and remains wildly under visited, so you’ll have the slopes (and the eclectic town) almost to yourself. Don’t expect to wait longer than five minutes in lift lines or at any of Sandpoint’s trendy sushi spots. Pend d’Oreille Winery is a Sandpoint must-visit -- live music plays every Friday night. While remote, Spokane International Airport is less than an hour and a half away, and Amtrak trains make regular stops.

4. Wenatchee, Washington

butter_fry/Flickr

butter_fry/Flickr

Wenatchee, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, emerged during development of The Great Northern Railway as a gateway between western Washington and the agricultural plateaus to the east. Perhaps best known for its incredible apples, the town is full of farms and orchards. When the weather turns too cold for picking, Wenatchee’s winter sports take center stage. The town provides easy access to Mission Ridge, Leavenworth, Echo Valley and Badger Mountain ski areas. With so many run options, you’re sure to find the right run for everyone in your chalet. 

Like Bend, Wenatchee receives about 300 days of sunshine per year. Like Kirkwood, powder falls light and dry. And thanks to multiple access points, you can reach pristine backcountry even if you arrive just after a storm. With a trip to Wenatchee, you’ll find the perfect marriage of big mountain terrain and small mountain vibes. If you can plan your trip around the start of the month, “First Friday” means free arts and cultural events at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, Performing Arts Center, and a variety of galleries, cafes and shops downtown. No matter the day of the week, be sure to stop at Pybus Market. In addition to the Wenatchee Valley Farmers Market, it hosts 20 culinary and artisanal tenants. 

A Romantic Hotel Pick: 

5. Bozeman, Montana

Zach Dischner/Flickr

Zach Dischner/Flickr

Bozeman isn’t quite a glitzy resort town, but it isn’t a locals-only haunt either. A little bit of both, this underrated ski destination (which is home to Montana State University) caters to every type of visitor. Two world-class mountains, Bridger Bowl and Big Sky, are less than an hour away, offering a combined 7,000 vertical feet and almost 8,000 acres. That’s more acres per skier than anywhere else in the U.S. From novices to Olympians, visitors are spoiled for choice between groomers, glades, chutes and transceiver-required ridgelines. Patrol limits skiers that enter the iconic “Big” couloir each day, so get your name on the list early and bring your own avalanche gear.

It can no longer be considered “undiscovered,” but this picturesque, adventure-loving college town nestled between four mountain ranges still feels secret. For a taste of downtown culture, head to one of the many farmers markets, museums, galleries, theaters and main street festivals. The T-Rex exhibits at Siebel Dinosaur Complex and tasting room at Bozeman Spirits Distillery are especially worth your time. If you’re itching for more of the great outdoors, Yellowstone National Park and its incredible wildlife is less than a 90-minute drive away.  

6. Taos, New Mexico

YoTuT/Flickr

YoTuT/Flickr

New Mexico may not be the first state you think of when it comes to winter sports. But that’s part of its charm – and what’s helped keep it out of the limelight. Though not as renowned as nearby Colorado or Utah, New Mexico has eight alpine ski areas that climb more than 13,000 feet. The resorts surrounding Taos, which sits atop a mesa at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, may just be the best place to start. Known as the “Enchanted Circle,” they each offer a unique reason to visit.

Taos Ski Valley is known for its steep, untamed, challenging terrain -- Red River is one of America’s only resorts located right in the middle of an active town; Angel Fire is the only New Mexico resort to offer night skiing; and Sipapu prides itself on being the most family-friendly option in the Rockies. Taos itself has a unique bohemian feel that sets it apart from other ski destinations. Full of Spanish Colonial and Native American history, there are thousand-year-old pueblos to visit, a vibrant art infused history and all the chilies you could want. Local dishes are prepared with your choice of red or green, but just ask for “Christmas” if you want to try both. 

A Luxury Hotel Pick: 

7. Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Ed Ogle/Flickr

Ed Ogle/Flickr

There’s no shortage of outdoor wonder in Colorado, but Pagosa Springs in the San Juan Mountains goes surprisingly unheralded. Three million acres of national forest and wilderness areas surround the town of less than 2,000 residents, meaning nature can truly shine. Combine the small crowds and jaw-dropping scenery with heavy snowfalls and mineral hot springs and you have the perfect ski retreat. Wolf Creek Resort just outside town gets an average of more than 465 inches of fresh, natural powder each season. Some even consider Pagosa Springs to house the best snow in the state. And since precipitation starts weeks earlier here at most other mountains, opening days in October aren’t unheard of. 

The ski area may be small, but it never feels congested. There's plenty of ungroomed, open terrain to go around. When your legs inevitably turn to Jell-O from all of the crazy turns, take a dip in the town’s 25 to 30 namesake hot spring pools to relax and rejuvenate. Rumor has it, they’re the world’s deepest. The town’s top-notch microbreweries and charming shops make perfect post-soak spots. The nearest major airport is in Albuquerque, but the conditions and spirited surroundings are well worth the four-hour drive. 

8. Cedar City, Utah

Prayitno/Flickr

Prayitno/Flickr

If you want to experience first-rate skiing and a national park in one trip, Cedar City is a great choice. Located within the Dixie National Forest, some call it the “Gateway to the National Parks.” It’s 30 minutes from Cedar Breaks National Monument, one hour from the red rocks of Zion, 90 minutes from Bryce Canyon and three hours from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even closer are two of Southern Utah’s highest ski areas: Brian Head and Eagle Point.  

With a base elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, Brian Head yields eight lifts, 71 runs, 650 skiable acres and three terrain parks. The resort has a very old school, intimate feel, but the newly revamped all-level terrain park is truly modern. Eagle Point, on the other hand, has five lifts, 40 runs, and more than 400 acres. The resort labels entry points to the adjacent Fishlake National Forest backcountry. Since both areas receive over 350 inches of famous Utah powder, Cedar City is a great base for nearly nonstop gnar. Less than two and a half hours from Las Vegas on Interstate 15, this big little town also features five art galleries and the Southern Utah Museum of Art

A Value Hotel Pick: 

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