Welcome to Back to Ski Week, a preview of the upcoming downhill ski season for families. All week long we’ll be thinking snow and I’ll be sharing not only my own tips for planning a family ski vacation but also stories and ideas from other family travel bloggers. If you’re looking for more downhill skiing tips, reviews of ski areas from around the world, or just some stories from families who ski, be sure to follow me on Twitter and Facebook and check out the Back to Ski Pinterest board where you’ll find posts from other skiing family travel bloggers.
Although I skied throughout my childhood and adolescence, I stopped when I finished college and didn’t return to the sport until I introduced my family to downhill skiing three years ago. I’ve learned that skiing with kids (not to mention a husband who is learning) is different than my younger days, when I just threw on my equipment and headed wherever the snow was good. As with all other forms of family travel, skiing with kids involves a bit more of a plan and consideration of what will be fun, safe, and rewarding for the junior members of the family squad. It also doesn’t hurt to ski at a resort that actively tries to make downhill skiing fun for the whole family.
So if you’ve decided to take up downhill skiing with your family – or have been doing it for a while but are seeking out some new skiing destinations – just what should you look for? Here are what I consider to be what top ski resorts for families should offer:
Ski lessons that teach your kids not only how to downhill ski, but how to love downhill skiing
If this is your first time your child is learning to ski, taking them to the highest ski slope to start off with may not be the best step to take. You have to build their confidence, especially when it is something new. Why not perhaps take some private skiing lessons with your child and then see how they cope in this environment? Then you and the instructor can work out whether they are ready to hit the slopes! These are teachers who not only give kids the skills they need to enjoy skiing and successfully improve, but also know how to build kids’ confidence and who show them just how fun skiing can be.
The most spectacular example of this that I’ve personally experienced was at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont. Five-year-old Teddy had been resisting learning to ski. He didn’t like the cold. He didn’t want to learn to turn. He was a disruptive presence in the group lessons and spent long periods of time sitting on the sidelines sucking snow off his mittens (When he was “invited” to try private lessons, I jokingly said he had been sent to Ski School juvie). I was secretly worried that were going to be a family of four with only three members who skied and one not-like-the-others who sat in the lodge drinking hot chocolate.
But after we spent three days skiing at Smuggs, not only was Teddy enthusiastic about the sport, he wanted to show us all his mad skills, which included zipping down the hill ahead of my husband Matt and getting on the lift all by himself. Not only did he learn how to ski with a beautiful pizza wedge, he could navigate through the various kid-friendly tunnels that Smuggs has set up along some of its beginning trails. That this happened during a January cold snap makes it all the more impressive.
I attribute Teddy’s phenomenal turnaround to teachers who paid attention and who offered the right mix of encouragement and enthusiasm with a little tough love. If your child is going inside very two minutes, he isn’t going to get very far on the mountain and Teddy definitely needed some encouragement to stay outside and focused. The fact that Smuggs offered small-group instruction and the chance for Teddy to work with the same teachers each day we skied there were also key elements to his success.
Tip for finding the top ski resort for your family: Look carefully at the lesson program. Don’t be afraid to ask to speak to the head of the ski school or to one of the instructors about their techniques. There is a range of ways to ski. I’ve heard from a friend that ski morzine schools have a different approach to other schools. So make sure you get what suits your level and way of learning.
Varied terrain to make everyone happy
Some kids (and grownups too) are naturally cautious and prefer to ski or board on wide, groomed trails. Yet there’s nothing more frustrating to an advanced skier who likes bumps than to ski at a resort where every trail has been groomed within an inch of its life. Top ski resorts for families offer a mix of different kinds of terrain so that everyone can have a good time.
Mad River Glen in Vermont has some of the best natural terrain you’ll ski on anywhere – and also offers the fun of an entire area for beginners with its own name – Birdland – and short lift that makes for less time waiting, more time skiing. If your kids are anything like mine (or like I was as a kid) they’ll love exploring this corner of the mountain that seems made just for them.
Smuggs has three peaks, and one of them, Morse Mountain, is dedicated pretty much exclusively to beginning skiers. With wide, well-groomed trails and a moderate pitch, it’s a great place for kids who are learning to perfect their skills. When we visited my then then eight-year-old son also loved challenging himself on Morse’s beginning terrain park. And while he and his brother enjoyed their lessons I was skiing in the trees on Sterling and Madonna, the two peaks with more difficult terrain.
Like Smuggs, Keystone Resort in Colorado also offers three mountains, and pretty much every kind of skiing and boarding you can imagine including a huge terrain park, a kid-friendly racecourse, and guided bowl skiing from a Snowcat. No one will get bored with so many long and varied runs. And I do mean long – the Schoolmarm trail is 3.5 miles of groomed sweetness that the entire family can enjoy.
Tip for finding the top ski resort for your family: Check out the terrain before you book your ski vacation – most resorts offer online maps. Look for a good mix of beginning and expert trails and also terrain parks and racing courses that are designed for kids.
Lots to do on- and off-mountain
We’re a family that takes the words “ski vacation” pretty literally – we like to ski all day, every day. But many families prefer to mix things up. Different resorts have different options – some have onsite Nordic centers where you can rent cross country skis or snow shoes and hit the trail. Others offer ice skating rinks or snow tubing. Keystone builds a huge snow fort every winter that is quite the winter playground for kids who don’t feel like skiing and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada has both a Magic Castle and a Tree Fort that are great for some tearing around.
And of course, even my kids need something to do when it gets dark – which it does pretty early in December and January. Top family-friendly resorts have you covered with options like the indoor FunZone at Smuggs, which has enormous inflatable slides and an obstacle course, plus ping-pong and miniature golf. At Keystone, you can take an evening sleigh ride out to a former dude ranch where dinner is served to the accompaniment of live cowboy songs.
Finally, the very most family-friendly ski resorts have great daycare options for children who are too young to hit the slopes or who may not be ready to spend an entire day skiing. A top example of this is the phenomenal childcare center at Smuggs, which in addition to offering a beautiful facility and professional caregivers has its very own little rope tow for the youngest of skiers.
Tips for finding the top ski resort for your family: Use the ski resort’s website to see if they offer activities beyond downhill skiing and what the additional cost of those activities might be.
A kid-friendly après-ski atmosphere
You may not be in college anymore, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want some social time – and maybe a beer or two; I certainly won’t judge – at the end of a long day of skiing. The days of college drinking are long gone, and so are the scannable fakes that someone may have used to buy you alcohol. Now, you are old enough and responsible enough to buy yourself a nice cold glass of beer after a tough day on the slopes. The most family-friendly ski resorts have a G-rated party atmosphere that makes the end of the skiing day fun for everyone.
Whether that means the strategic placement of fire pits and the distribution of s’mores at the end of the day like Northstar Resort in California offers, having a friendly pirate named Ron sing around a bonfire like they do at Smuggs, or giving kids a chance to parade with their ski instructors before enjoying some popcorn and the Macarena like they do at Keystone, the most family-friendly resorts make kids feel welcome once the skiing day is done.
Finding the top ski resort for your family: Clues that a resort will offer family-friendly après ski are if they have a village area run by the resort where families are encouraged to stay and also, quite simply, if they have a link on their website that says “Family.”
Bargains for families skiing with kids
There’s no denying that downhill skiing is an expensive sport. But the most family-friendly ski resorts understand that getting entire families on the mountain means offering deals on everything from lift tickets to lessons to accommodations. With a little advance planning, and a willingness to make some of your skiing purchases before the season begins, you can save significantly on family ski vacations. For example:
Through October 15, Mad River Glen offers free seasons passes for kids under 12 with the purchase of either a Family Mad Card (which also comes with three one-day lift tickets for adults) or an adult season pass.
If you think you’ll ski for more than a week at any of Vail Resorts ski areas in California and Colorado, including both Northstar and Keystone, it pays to consider looking at Epic Season Passes. These are good not only at all of Vail Resorts U.S. properties, but will also get you three days of skiing in Verbier, Switzerland. They are available for a discount now but prices go up on October 14.
Book by November 15 at Whistler Blackcomb and you can get free accommodation, equipment rentals, and lift tickets for kids under 12. There are restrictions including blackout dates, three-day minimums, and adult purchases to accompany each free kid, but for a family of four on weeklong ski vacation this could work out to some significant savings.
Tips for finding the top ski resort for your family: These are just a few of the downhill skiing bargains out there – I recommend shopping around for the one that best suits your family.
Now I’d love to hear from you – what do you think makes a ski resort kid friendly? What are your top ski resorts for families and why? Please fell free to share your responses in the comments.