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Skiing And Snowboarding 101
Skiing And Snowboarding 101
Our picks may not be the most famous of ski resorts, but here are 10 top learn-to-ski and ride programs that know how to teach -- kids or adults. They're not in any particular order; four are in the West and six in the Northeast, but perhaps that's because the smaller northeast mountains have to concentrate on beginners since they have much less advanced terrain. So, is your toddler or teen ready to catch air with Shaun White or Lindsay Vonn? Is your husband or wife ready to give up the golf clubs for an ultralight snowboard? Are you ready to hit up a snowboard equipment sale and gear up for the powder?
That's great news, but don't try learning to ski in your own backyard. Plan a family winter vacation and take your novices away for great teaching in a place their friends won't be watching. Most beginners dream of the rugged Rockies, but the New England resorts have plenty of captivating scenery too. Wherever you go, plan to devote two or three days to the learning effort, with time between lessons for relaxation and off-slope fun. And keep in mind that most resorts these days have adaptive ski programs with expert support for beginners with physical or mental limitations -- there's great equipment and instruction that make skiing accessible to every family member.
Just think of the excitement when everyone comes home a potential Olympian!
Skiing is More Beginner Friendly
Snowsports professionals are the first to say that the sport has become more user-friendly, with many more facilities and support staff for the "never-ever" or beginner guest. Several factors have contributed to making the beginner experience a better one: innovative equipment such as shaped skis and double rocker snowboards have reduced the learning curve; better grooming has made slopes easier to navigate with fewer skills; teachers are constantly being trained in new equipment and techniques such as video feedback during lessons.
At many resorts, the Learn to Ski and Ride programs have become more flexible and accommodating to guests' various needs and interests, while off slope facilities, such as spas, pools and sledding hills provide a variety of activities. Many have also opened Adaptive Ski programs to help children and adults with special needs -- psychological or physical -- enjoy the slopes.
Any family shopping for a winter holiday will note many other examples of outreach to beginners, such as informative websites that explain more clearly what to expect; on-mountain, complimentary 'ambassadors' offering daily trail advice and easy-to-decipher trail maps; high-tech innovations like lighted signage on runs indicating wait times at various lift lines or at cafeterias, and RFID readers that allow guests to be tracked throughout the day.
The best news is that the industry has been reducing the fees for learners’ packages - with lift ticket, equipment, and lessons all included in programs like the popular "First Tracks" -- in order to bring newcomers into the sport and develop life-long fans.
Out West Beginner-Friendly Mountain Resorts
Most beginners love the West for the fresh powder and deep snowy base that cushion those early tumbles. The region’s long history of snowsports, combined with many towns’ acceptance of the ski bum lifestyle, mean you’ll often come across excellent resident instructors who have been teaching for years. These resorts also have a longer season, with bargain rates from November to mid-December, and early April to May or June.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
One of the Wild West's most popular spots, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (888/DEEP-SNO, or 307/733-2292) in Jackson Hole has extreme terrain, gorgeous beginner's areas and a fun and funky town to roam when you're done with the slopes. It boasts 2,500 acres of terrain and a vertical drop (top to bottom height of runs) of more than 4,000 feet! The resort has long been known for its expert terrain, but novice skiers can roll in the legendary powder from age 3+ (snowboarders at age 5+) with their Rough Riders camps. (Parents will also love the newly renovated Kids Ranch clubhouse which accepts babies from age 6 months in the nursery.) Adult novice, full-day Learn to Turn packages are also available. Each season Jackson Hole pushes the envelope on its extreme sports training and new for 2012 is the TGR Fall Line Camp. Middle and high-schoolers can perfect their freestyle with specialized training, then work with the Teton Gravity Research crew to shoot and edit videos from the camp. The Roundup Camps are for younger intermediate skiers and riders, 7-14-years, and focus on developing skills in multi-day sessions with the same coach.
Grand Targhee, Wyoming
At the Idaho/Wyoming border, the compact, friendly Grand Targhee Resort ( 800/TARGHEE) in Alta boasts 500" of snow per year blanketing 2,000 acres of scenic beginner, intermediate and expert terrain (including famed, Sno-cat only steeps). Their terrific nursery watches out for infants and toddlers and offers snowplay; learning programs begin at a later age and pair beginners 6+ (to ski) or 7+ (to ride) with pros in a safe and reassuring environment. If you're arriving with little experts though, Targhee has an unusual Mini Moose program geared just to ages 4 and 5 who already have their snowsports skills down pat; kids 5 and under go free too! And the kids will appreciate that their Terrain Park is reopening this season with a beginner track parallel to the big guys. Skiers 6-16 will love their kids-only clubhouses in the Powder Scouts and Teen Adventures programs with time off spent in the Arcade. Targhee's adult Beginner Package includes one group lesson, a Shoshone lift ticket and full-day rental package for a reasonable price. Lodging rates are reasonable too, for many types of ski in/ski out accommodations at the resort's base.
Snowbird (800/232-9542) in Utah thinks of snowsports instruction as part of daily life, a skill and a joy, both a mind and body experience to be mastered. Beginner group classes are geared to ages 3, 4-6, and 7-15 years, with evening programs, two nights a week (in the Cottonwood Children's Center for your preschoolers, and around the lodge for older kids). Starting with the tender 3s, Snowbird gives them one-on-one attention, with a one-hour private lesson for each half-day of daycare in which the child is enrolled. Skiers and riders above age 4 are enrolled in day-long group sessions or with private coaches and flourish in the pristine powder. Wings for Teens allows intermediate and better skiers and riders to stick together all day, making it easier for them if there's a sibling beginner in the family. The beginner Get Your Wings special enables adults to package one, two, or three sessions. The resort's noted Snowbird Mountain School runs annual clinics specializing in improving technique at all levels, as well as themed programs for women, riders only, and more.
Keystone Resort, Colorado
In recent years we recommended Breckenridge and still love it, but we're switching to Keystone Resort (800-255-3715) , another Vail Resort closer to Denver, Colorado where Vail is investing heavily in learning program upgrades. With a new focus on making Keystone the family resort in their impressive portfolio, they are upgrading the Mountain House base village with children's play areas (including a bouncing ball room), easy access parking for lesson drop-offs, and a central Ski School. There's great mid-mountain beginner terrain and fun night skiing for your super eager beginners. Packages such as Mom, Dad and Me, a one-hour family class ($105) with a private instructor that shows every family member what the other has learned and how to practice new skills, ensure that the day's lessons stick. There are group classes for ages 3 and up with flat rate $25/day gear packages including helmets, and a daycare to look after your 2-month and up non-skiers. Not the cheapest place for adult beginners, but a wonderful intro to the sport for learners of any age. Keystone has three base villages (RiverRun is the most popular with families and has its own skating rink) and offers many web specials at nearby condos and hotels with lift tickets bundled in the rates.
Northeast Ski & Ride Mountain Resorts for Novices
Many families will find a foray into snowsports daunting and expensive enough without traveling far from home to try it. Check out the mountain resorts nearest you and inquire about their beginner programs. Throughout the Northeast, you’ll be surprised at the innovation you find at even the smallest local facilities.
Mountains with lower altitude have to concentrate on good grooming and trail maintenance since they cannot compete with the West’s natural snowfall. And shorter runs with a more gentle pitch make for better beginner terrain.
Smuggler's Notch, Vermont
Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Resort (800/419-4615), rated "No. 1 Family Resort in North America" by Ski magazine for 13 years running, is New England's finest children's learning center for two reasons: its scenic beginner terrain is safely segregated on Morse Mountain (one of the resort’s three peaks), and these guys know how to make it Fun. Smuggler's Snowsport University offers a complete range of snowsports including alpine skiing for ages 3-15, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, airboarding and ice skating. Smugglers' Camps teach children to ski at age 2.5, or snowboard at age 3, using recently developed, kid-specific equipment. New for 2012 is the Riglet Snow Park developed by Burton to provide more instruction for some little ones, and simply age-appropriate terrain for others. Adults-only beginner ski and ride clinics use special balance poles and ego-maintenance techniques. You can all check out their Night School for Boarding, a 2.5 hour, $49, all-in lesson that introduces gear and techniques to never-evers. Several learning programs are included in the Club Smugglers' Advantage package that bundles lodging, lift ticket, lessons, and evening programs into one fee, and it’s available all season long.
Bromley Mountain (802/824-5522) is in Manchester – not far from the noted steeps at Killington – but it has claimed Ski magazine's title as "#1 Resort in North America for Family Programs." They've been around for 75 years, and were the first in the state to introduce valet parking. It's the little conveniences and consideration of young children's needs that make a Bromley Kids Rule Mountain Camp experience so easy. The program focuses on ages 4-14 and has a $20 gear package with free helmet for all ages joining a day-long program. This new kids lesson program was designed in collaboration with the directors of the ski and snowboard schools at sister resorts Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts (see below) and Cranmore Mountain in New Hampshire. Young beginners have their own isolated learning area, and instructors hand out Progress Reports at day's end so the whole family can celebrate a child's advancement. Best value yet for repeat guests; after 6 lessons, kids can get their own Season Pass to practice till spring. First time adults benefit from a one- or two-day ski or ride program, with the $139 for two days: gear, lessons, lift tickets the best value for over-13s. Clinics and private lessons are run by a Pro Staff which, according to the resort's website, "includes members of the elite PSIA examiners and educational staff...the people who actually 'teach the teachers.'" Bromley also boasts the latest in teaching technology and continues to invest in what's new and proven.
Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts
Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts (413/738-5500) is a favorite among smaller resorts (9 lifts and 44 trails), mostly catering to New England families who start their kids here then head up to Vermont's higher peaks. It boasts the latest teaching style being used at sister mountains, Kids Rule, with age-appropriate instruction here for ages 4-14. These full-day programs include lessons, lift tickets and lunch. There's a by-the-hour drop-in nursery for ages 6 months and up and a similar learning program for 3-year-olds who are able to learn a new sport in the morning but prefer to retire to a more restful daycare setting after lunch. Lesson discounts apply for multi-day passes, so you may want to make this your regular weekend getaway. One of the mountain's best features is their Burbank Children's Center, where ski school programs, a playroom for toddlers, rental shop and all the paperwork can be done without leaving the building. Adults get the same treatment: the Doc Maynard GET (Guaranteed Easy Turn) Center offers everything novices need for learning to ski or ride in one convenient place, and if you don't have fun on your first lesson, they guarantee a second one free of charge. The day-long, $74 package includes rental, instruction and lift ticket; lunch and lockers are available the new JJ's Lodge nearby. Weekend days and nights, and on holidays, a lit tubing hill is open for all ages. Jiminy Peak's Country Inn offers midweek lodging packages throughout the season.
Okemo (800/78-OKEMO) is one of Vermont's most popular family resorts, because its simple layout and one main basecamp (a 2nd basecamp at Jackson Gore Mountain is mainly used by Jackson Gore Lodge guests) prevent 'losing' kids who ski or ride independently of their parents. Staff are careful to monitor lift lines and groomers are meticulous with the gentle slopes. The friendly atmosphere also makes parents feel comfortable entrusting their little ones to this mountain's terrific teaching staff. Children can start learning to ski with private lessons at age 2. At First Tracks, novices will learn the basics of skiing or riding in a one-day package complete with two beginner group lessons, rental equipment and unlimited use of Okemo's beginner lifts. The Double Tracks is a two-day beginner program that includes three lessons and an upgrade to a full-day, full-mountain lift ticket at no extra cost. New for early season of 2011 (until Dec. 23, 2011) is the "Learn to Ski or Snowboard" program for just $39. Additionally, there are parent-tot lessons with a private instructor, so intermediate or above level parents can get guidance on teaching their own kids to ski or ride. Group lessons for young skiers start at age 4, for riders at age 5; children ages 3-4 have an option of adding an extra lesson to their day in the mountain's noted daycare center, the Penguin Playground. Aware of customers' sensitivity to price, Okemo has introduced many innovations in pricing, such as the Flex Card, good for discounts all season and free skiing on the season's last two days. Midweek packages bring lodging rates at the mountain's ski in/ski out facilities down to a more affordable rate.
Mountain Creek, New Jersey
Here’s a very decent local ski resort just over an hour from New York City, with $20 million in improvements -- including a new trail, the Red Tail Lodge, zip line and snow tubing -- added last year. Mountain Creek (973/827-2000), a former Intrawest property (now owned by Crystal Springs Resort) in the western New Jersey hills near Vernon, offers remarkably good facilities (a fun base village), trails (46), and innovative teaching programs to the vast urban market down the hill. The new dedicated Learning Center and Learn-To-Ride Terrain originates with Burton Snowboards and Snow Park Technologies, so they benefit from all the testing that Burton's LTR program has undergone at other resorts. Mountain Creek starts snowboarding instruction at 5-years-old (closer to the age 4 ski minimum) thanks to Burton's diminutive equipment. That’s a good thing, because their terrain parks are extensive, impressive (they hosted a past US Snowboard Grand Prix halfpipe competition) and kids turn out in big numbers to ride. Novice ski or ride lessons with lift tickets and gear are only $79. Adults are not neglected in the lesson offerings, with some unique formats such as the Ladies Club, a two-hour clinic taught for eight weeks -- by women for women -- at all ages and levels of ski and snowboard capabilities. Too busy to learn while the sun shines? The entire trail system is lit so you can study until 10pm every day of the season.
Mt. Sunapee, New Hampshire
Last but not least is the small mountain that was awarded 1st place as the "Best National Program for New Skiers and Riders" by the industry-wide National Ski Areas Association nearly a decade ago. At the Mt. Sunapee (603/763-3500) ski area, it was local demand that spawned a Families First program designed for parents and kids above 8 years. Set up as a three-day learn to ski or ride program, Families First grants each family group an instructor, plus a 1-day package with lift tickets, two-hour lesson and equipment. To encourage return visits, the second and third day packages are bundled together, and after completing all three days ($195 total fee per person), family members are given special discount coupons for the remainder of the season. It remains very popular, and will hopefully spread elsewhere. Additionally, there are group classes for ages 4-12, and a nursery for ages 12 months up. One mom told us that all their instruction was good; “We took our 4-year-old and 8-year-old both there to start out because it’s a small and friendly mountain, and the instruction was fantastic for both of them.” Mt. Sunapee also offers an award-winning "Get Into Skiing or Snowboarding" program that costs only $85 ($65 on weekdays) for the never-evers 13+: a 2-hour group ski or snowboard lesson; specially designed rental equipment that makes learning easier; unlimited use of the South Peak Learning Area. When you advance you can take 2 more days for just $110 more. (Note that $29 Beginner Programs are available early season till December 23, 2011.) Midweek Ski and Stay double-occupancy packages include breakfast, lift ticket and room.
This report was compiled from site inspections made by Ron Bozman, Fran Falkin, Seth Gladstone and Kyle McCarthy.