According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA), the El Niño that is shaping up continues to intensify and is likely to be one of the strongest on record by the time it peaks this winter.
While this may have negative effects for some parts of the country, there are clear benefits to western U.S. ski resorts, who stand to see higher than average snowfall amounts. For drought-stricken California, this potential scenario has a two-fold benefit as the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is not just a boon for ski resorts but is also the life-blood of the water supply for the state and world’s sixth largest economy.
A dip in the jet stream propelled by warmer than average water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean is expected to bring above average precipitation to much of California as well as the southern Rockies. So ski resorts in California, southern Utah, southern Colorado and New Mexico stand to be the beneficiaries of Mother Nature, and remain cautiously optimistic for a great ski season ahead!
Here are our El Nino Ski Resort Picks for 2023/24…
Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows (North Lake Tahoe, CA)
During a strong El Niño, the jet stream in the western hemisphere dips much lower than usual. This, combined with more storms as a result of warmer ocean temperatures can result in a funnel of storms throughout California. Of course if it’s cold enough, this precipitation falls in the form of snow. And that’s key, as the elevation of mountains in the western U.S. will be key in determining which ones get a lot more snow and which ones get more rain (which is worse than not getting any snow).
With an elevation of 9,050 feet at the top and 6,200 at it’s base, Squaw Valley, on the north end of Lake Tahoe, sits up high enough in the Sierra Nevada mountains to see plenty of snow. In fact, in good years, the Lake Tahoe ski resorts routinely see more snow than any other resort in the lower 48 states. This year does not look to be an exception as they have already received several feet of snow in November
How to get there: Squaw Valley is a 3 hour drive from San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) airports which offers nonstop service from most major airports. For a shorter drive, you can fly into Sacramento (1.5 hours) or Reno (1.5 hours) but there are fewer flights.
Elevation: 9050 peak, 6200 base
Lifts: 29 (including 110 person aerial tram and 28 person gondola)
Avg Annual Snow: 450 Inches
Total Acreage: 3600
El Niño is setting up nicely to douse the Lake Tahoe area with plenty of precipitation this season. The only question is does it stay cold enough throughout the season to see primarily snow. If it does, the Lake Tahoe resorts could be the far and away the best place to ski this season and Squaw is at the top of that list.
Heavenly Ski Resort (South Lake Tahoe, CA)
Heavenly Ski Resort on the south end of Lake Tahoe should also benefit generously from the El Nino weather pattern. Owned by Vail Resorts since 2002, Heavenly is not quite as sophisticated as Squaw Valley in terms of lifts, lodging and general infrastructure, but makes up for it with incredible powder skiing—4800 acres of it, the most of any ski resort in California—and panoramic views of Lake Tahoe. Heavenly is also the highest of the Lake Tahoe ski mountains at 10,060 feet. With more than 3 feet of snow in just the first 2 weeks of November and more on the way, Heavenly is off to a great start!
How to get there: See Squaw Valley
Elevation: 1067 Peak, 6540 Base
Lifts: 29 (including aerial tram and gondola)
Avg Annual Snow: 360 Inches
Total Acreage: 4,800
Same outlook as Squaw with one exception. With a peak elevation 1,000 feet higher than Squaw, Heavenly has slightly less of a chance of rain. Heavenly doesn’t get as much notoriety or as many skiers as Squaw—and that’s great if you prefer Heavenly. Could be epic.
Taos (Taos, NM)
Surrounded by sacred wilderness, and infused with the cultures of the Native Pueblo, Hispanic and European peoples who have defined it, Taos Ski Valley is steeped in legend and mystique.
Taos is a powder lover’s paradise, known for having light dry powder, almost non-existent lift lines, steep chutes, big bumps and great tree skiing. The resort boasts 1,294 acres of skiable terrain and receives an average 300 inches of snowfall annually. Taos has trails for all ability types and is home to one of the country’s highest rated ski schools.
How to get there: Taos is a two hour drive from Santa Fe. The Taos Regional Airport is also an option but there are no direct flight.
Elevation: 12450 Peak, 9200 Base
Avg Annual Snow: 305 Inches
Total Acreage: 1294
With 305 inches annually, Taos gets a lot of snow but is not on the same level as the Tahoe resorts. That said, it’s location in northern New Mexico—considerably further south than Tahoe—puts it square in El Niño’s predicted path of stormy weather. And at 12,450 feet at its peak and 9,200 at its base it should certainly be cold enough on Taos for all snow this season. Could be a banner year at Taos.
While Telluride draws comparisons to Aspen and Vail because of luxury lodging options and random celebrity sightings, don’t assume you’ve been priced out and that the slopes are packed. Locals believe the name is a play on the words “to hell you ride” in recognition of Butch Cassidy who robbed his first bank here in 1889. You’re in for a helluva ride at Telluride and Mountain Village, the resort area midway up the mountain. Both offer numerous runs and thousands of acres of terrain.
Technically two separate towns, Telluride and Mountain Village are commonly spoken of as one spot and part of the reason is the ease of travel between the two. Situated at the base of the canyon, Telluride is a historic eight-block town while Mountain Village is more European in flavor, with numerous hotels, restaurants and shops. The 13-minute gondola ride between the two is a scenic experience that locals and tourists complete multiple times a day and beyond the views, the best aspect is it’s free. Environmentalists delight that the gondola transports guests via wind power.
This ease of access offers guests plenty of options when it comes to lodging. In Mountain Village you can choose from a number of boutique hotels. Lumiere is a 28-room residence/hotel property that opened in 2008 and offers ski-in/ski-out access along with majestic views of the mountain ranges. The 95-room Capella Telluride has attracted plenty of attention since its opening in 2009. Just a short walk from one of the lifts and the gondola, the hotel has many amenities including personal assistants for each guest. In Telluride, stay at the 26-room New Sheridan Hotel. The establishment underwent an extensive, eight-month renovation in 2010 that resulted in a wide range of luxury upgrades while staying true to the property’s 117-year history. The hotel is a social hub and houses two of the top places for dinner and a drink in the form of the Chop House restaurant and the New Sheridan Bar.
While some ski resorts cater to either the beginner or advanced skier, Telluride offers something for all levels including those that want a little adventure but aren’t ready to jump off a vertical cliff. Last year saw the addition of Palmyra Peak and Revelation Bowl for thrill seekers, while beginners and cross-country enthusiasts can ski for days on more than 2,000 acres of backcountry powder-packed lanes.
How to get there: Telluride is served via Montrose Regional Airport which offers nonstop service from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Newark.
Elevation: 12570 peak (lift served), 8725 base
Lifts: 18 (including 2 gondolas)
Avg Annual Snow: 309 Inches
Total Acreage: 2000
See Taos. Telluride sets up very similar to Taos in that it’s located in the southern Rockies but has a relatively high elevation compared to other mountains. The only section of Colorado that falls in El Nino’s predicted sweet spot (according to both NOAA and Weather Channel forecast maps) is the south west corner—and that’s exactly where Telluride is. Even in non El Niño years, Telluride can get large storms, particularly in the spring compliments of the “Pineapple Express” weather pattern that douses California. But during a strong El Niño year they could see big storms earlier in the season and throughout. Telluride could/should be the place to be in Colorado this ski season.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten track ski experience with plenty of jaw-dropping, powder-packed, double black diamond runs, then Crested Butte may be for you. With more than 500 acres of lift-served, intense vertical routes, Butte is an extreme skiing mecca (it plays host to the Extreme Skiing Championships every February). But if jumping off a cliff with your K2s attached isn’t your idea of a fun weekend, Crested Butte has plenty of less death-defying slopes.
One of the newer ways to hit the slopes here is via snow cat, large vehicles typically used for snow grooming. CS Irwin, a local company, shuttles guests daily to nearby Irwin where groups travel up the mountain in a high-speed Prinoth Bison Cat with a custom cabin—heated, leather seats, etc.—built for skiers. Once on the mountain, skiers have the chance to carve out their own path on acres of open terrain.
While skiing is what people come for and takes up the better part of the day, at night there are plenty of local watering holes to share your wipeouts and glorious runs down the mountain. Locals flock to Eldo Bar, at which you can try out some craft brews from Eldo Brewery, and Kochevars, the oldest saloon in town, with dart boards and an old-fashioned coal stove. One thing you won’t see around town are chain restaurants and shops, as Crested Butte is listed as a National Historic District. Locals have kept a tight grip on expansion.
How to get there: Crested Butte is served via Gunnison/Crested Butte Airport, which offers non-stop service from Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver and Houston. Montrose Regional Airport is a one-and-a-half-hour drive and offers direct service from eight major cities.
Elevation: 12162 peak (lift served), 9375 base
Avg Annual Snow: 309 Inches
Total Acreage: 1547
About 25 miles south of Aspen, Crested Butte might be central or south west Colorado depending who you ask. We’re not going to split hairs though. It’s considerably further south than Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and the other resorts off I-70 and during an El Nino year with the forecast maps we’ve seen, that’s a positive. “The Butte” is also 9,375 feet at its base making it high enough for the kind of precipitation we want. It’s not likely to get the most snow of this group but might be the safest bet when it comes to not seeing much of the big spoiler—rain.
—T.J. Walter contributed to this story