The majestic Rockies, Tetons, Olympic, and Adirondacks Mountains are already wearing their winter whites, signaling nature's cue for the start of another ski season. Only this year, ski destinations across the United States will be doing more than revving up the snow plows, as resorts implement new Covid-19 protocols to ensure a safe opening and season. Of course, skiing, by definition, is already a spaced-out, outdoor sport, one with built-in social distancing, as virus or no virus, it's generally a good idea to avoid people carving within six feet of you. Which may mean that aside from longer and more distanced lift lines (be patient, everybody), the adrenaline rush skiers and boarders can't wait to return to will look largely the same this year. Those who prefer to maximize the off-piste hours of a ski vacation will have to cool their jets, as the champagne-soaked après ski parties will — wisely! — be taking the year off.
Here's what to know, on and off the slopes this year.
Before You Go, Invest In a Pass
Because many ski resorts are requiring advanced online reservations this year, it's probably a good idea to invest in a multi-mountain pass like Ikon, Epic, and Mountain Collective, as passholders get priority booking opportunities for peak-season holidays and long weekends. The Epic pass, exclusive to all 34 Vail resorts including Vail, Park City, Breckenridge, Stowe, and Whistler Blackcomb, affords early access to online reservations; tickets are released on Wednesdays for the following week. As a general rule, passholders can reserve as many days as they want, depending on the pass they purchased. Ikon is following the same protocols for its 44 partner resorts, which include Jackson Hole, Taos, and Big Sky, with tickets now available online. As of this writing, Aspen/Snowmass is not requiring advance reservations, but is encouraging guests use the Aspen Snowmass App to purchase lift tickets, sign waivers, and rent gear, which should mean less time in the ticket office and more time on the mountain.
Here's one more reason to get a pass: If a mountain needs to close or a traveler needs to cancel a reservation due to a positive Covid result, both Ikon and Epic passes include new insurance that guarantee refunds. Learn more about Ikon Adventure Assurance and Epic Coverage.
Stay Safe on the Slopes
Gondolas and Lifts
Across the United States and Canada, face masks will be required when loading and unloading gondolas and chairlifts, and riders will be loaded as families and groups that are comfortable together. Gondola cabins will be sanitized at least twice daily, and windows will stay open to maximize airflow. While lift lines may be longer than usual, fewer people swooshing downhill will make for a more relaxed and safer experience, making it easier to space out from the restless powder hounds.
Ski Schools and Group Lessons
As for ski schools and group lessons, instructors and participants undergoing will have to undergo testing and online health screenings, and class sizes will be limited to six or fewer. With many global borders still shut, the instructors from Latin America, Australia, and South Africa who chase the powder to the Northern Hemisphere unfortunately won't be on the slopes this year, as mountains will rely heavily on local talent.
Early Access, a new, unguided first tracks program at Big Sky Resort in Montana, will allow guests to load the base lift at 8 a.m. (one hour before public access) to get a head start on the day and allow for more distancing throughout the mountain and alleviate morning base area congestion. Both lift ticket and season passholders can purchase Early Access from mid-December to March, and must be booked online in advance.
To escape the crowds and find the freshest powder, Auberge Resorts Collection's The Lodge at Blue Sky helicopter adventures will whisk guests on a 10-minute flight to over 200,000 acres of skiable high-altitude terrain.
Want Total Privacy?
If you simply must have the slopes completely to yourself, Plattekill Mountain in the Catskills is offering the option to buy out the entire mountain and its 38 trails for a private group to ski, snowboard, and snow tube.
Many ski destinations, like Aspen and Jackson, often require more than one flight. Starting this year, JetBlue and Southwest will operate non-stop flights to Telluride from Boston Logan Airport, JFK, and LAX.
Expect more grab-and-go food options mixed with increased outdoor seating — some tented with heaters, some not. All resorts will be complying with their state's regulations for indoor dining and monitoring the number of people inside lodges at a time. At most of the large, quick-service restaurants, such as Two Elk in Vail, Miner’s Camp in Park City and Pioneer Crossing in Breckenridge, lunch lines will be reconfigured cafeteria-style: guests will come in, go through a single line, and pass all the food options until they get to the cashier. Masks are required inside restaurants at all times, except for when seated at a table and dining. Several are also updating their mobile apps to provide order-ahead options to help space out the lunch rush. Park City, Stratton, Vail, and many other resorts are going cashless this year to minimize unnecessary touchpoints. Since indoor lodges will have limited dining, it will be a good idea to have extra layers and warmers if you need to eat outside on an extra frosty day when your toes go numb after one run.
Many resorts are opting to keep ski lockers, asking guests to leave extra gear in their cars. Like lift tickets, equipment rentals will be done in advance to limit spacing in rental shops. Expect transactions to be cashless.
The Scenes Off the Slopes
This year, the typical festive routine of capping off a great day on the slopes with rounds of hot toddies, champagne bottle service, and DJs blasting Mariah's finest and '80s throwbacks will be appropriately toned down. Bar service will be replaced with table reservations, to-go cocktails, and après bar carts roaming hotel hallways. Indoor dining capacity will vary by state, so you should check with local governments for updated protocols before you travel.
That said, you will still be able to toast your powder runs with your quarantine pod, though, as the 2020 motto goes, wear a mask around others and don't be a jerk. Here's what après and off-piste activities will look like in favorite ski destinations around the country.
The party at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro is taking the year off. This winter, the restaurant will return to its original standing as a cozy, European-alpine bistro. This means afternoons of warming fondue, charcuterie, raclette, and mulled wine to share with friends, instead of the typical six-figure champagne bill. (Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?)
Firefly, a new live music lounge and restaurant club, will open for pre-dinner cocktails, light bites, and after-dinner nightcaps accompanied by live music. A roaring fireplace, marble bistro tables, glass chandeliers, and a curated art collection will cozy up the space.
The Little Nell is converting its Chair 9 après-ski lounge into an intimate wine bar offering private reserved seating for up to eight people. The servers, all certified sommeliers, can guide guests through the extensive wines-by-the-glass options, to go with the menu of charcuterie and cheese boards.
In partnership with the Aspen Historical Society, guests at Auberge Resort Collection's Hotel Jerome can explore the silver-mining town of Aspen via horse-drawn carriage accompanied by a historian. (The rate is $325 for four adults and $425 for six.)
The high-altitude Mountain Village has creatively retrofitted their extra gondolas into eight-person heated dining cars, with black-leather banquets, string lights, and pop-up wooden tables. Throughout the winter, different restaurants will occupy the pop-up with a rotating menu of après and dinner specials.
If you think you're sore after skiing, imagine how the Olympians feel. American Olympic freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy shares his essential recovery rituals in the new après recovery lounge at Auberge Resorts' Madeline Hotel & Residences. Muscles are relaxed by Hyperice, Normatec, and Hypervolt therapies with a cool down playlist curated by the skier himself.
Park City, Utah
Nothing sounds cozier then bundling up to snowshoe the remote snowy forest, ending up at The Lodge at Blue Sky's warming alpine yurt with bubbling pots of fondue and mulled wine waiting. (The rate is $225 per person with a 10 person maximum.)
With towering mountains and more than 14 miles of groomed Nordic trails, cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park will be a great way to avoid crowds and explore a different view of the mountains. Anvil Hotel is partnering with a certified naturalist guide to lead guests on a private, four-hour snowy adventure and winter ecology and wildlife lesson. Afterwards, Death & Company Black Powder cocktails are served at Glorietta Trattoria in the hotel.
While Yellowstone National Park was one of the most crowded destinations in the U.S. this summer, winter in the park is virtually empty, with ranger-led tours available on snowmobiles, snowshoes, and heated snow coaches to see Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the frosty bison.
With the highest peaks between the Rockies and the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes region is home to lesser-known, relaxed, and less crowded mountains. Before or after skiing, Finger Lakes Yogascapes stretches tight muscles with snow-ga, a practice led on snow shoes that uses ski poles for balance. If you'd rather soothe your muscles with warming carbs and cocktails, head to Bristol Mountain's slopeside waffle house or The Cannery for outdoor fire pits, local brews, and craft whiskey.