Does skiing change year to year? Of course it does. So, too, do the best ski resort rankings in the world. We’ve again worked most of the summer and fall to add information, statistics, formulas, programming, inputs and outputs to make our ski resort rankings even better. As always, the arbiter of the rankings is an algorithm that measures the one thing that matters most: awesomeness.
If you haven’t been here before, then you don’t know about PAF. A quick explanation: In the name of awesomeness, our algorithm assigns every ski resort a Pure Awesomeness Factor. This PAF decides what ski resorts gain entry to the hallowed Forbes Top 10 Ski Resorts. These resorts have reached for the mantle of awesomeness and found it. Recognize their feat, and bestow upon them the greatest honor you can: ski them hard.
There seem to exist many ski resort rankings these days, but, just like with resorts, there is only one set of ski resort rankings whose PAF dominates all others. During the past year, we’ve improved our datasets, broadened the factors we examine, and performed more in-person reporting with even more qualified people. For this season, we considered the best 220 North American resorts whose data and numbers were crunched by ZRankings. As always, the full rankings for all 220 ski mountains outside these Top 10 can be seen at ZRankings’s best ski resorts.
Our algorithm digests more than 30 categories of data for each ski resort, including inputs from our group of well-traveled experts. When it comes to snowfall, we recognize that not all snowflakes are created equal; some are wet, some are dry, some are mercurial, some are rarely seen. Tony Crocker has once again helped us parse the resorts for poor, good and great snowfall quantities and qualities. We not only consider the kind of snow that falls at a resort, we dissect how well the resort preserves that snow. Resorts with high altitudes and a large percentage of north-facing slopes do better, for instance, especially in the spring, when the sun’s angle becomes less oblique and the days warmer. Complete ski resort snow rankings and snow data for all 220 resorts, in their full ski nerd splendor, with as many geeky stats as can be consumed about ski resort snow, can be found here.
We believe our PAF ratings to be the best barometer of skiing awesomeness available. It is true, however, that every skier is different, and every skier places different priorities on each trip they take. One trip may be for charging hard, skiing steeps and logging vertical, while another might be with the family with a focus on travel ease and ski town ambience. Everybody has a different Pure Awesomeness Factor. To that end, we now allow people to place their own weights on the things that are most important to their trip. We call it the Perfect Resort Finder. See what it recommends for you.
This past off-season brought a lot of change to the ski resort industry. For this coming season, Canyons and Park City have merged into the largest ski resort in the United States, with terrain that will stretch from for five miles from the north edge of what was Canyons to the Town Lift at the south edge of Park City Mountain Resort. The new uber resort, which has taken the Park City name, encompasses 7,300 acres. As a former Park City resident, I find this development to be particularly ripe with narratives. What skiers need to know most is that it’s possible to ski Devil’s Friend—the finest bump run in Utah—and to drink a beer at O’Shucks on Park City’s Main Street with only the assistance of a chairlift and your own ski-booted feet.
There are more additions and changes at many resorts, including Jackson Hole (a brand new lift, two years in the making), Purgatory (another new lift), and the Yellowstone Club (yet another recipe for apres Manhattans). Ramping up summertime activities continues to be a focus for operations-minded resorts—Vail Resorts has been leading the way here. And despite many new challengers, Deer Valley‘s turkey chili remains the best on-mountain food.
On the subject of jackets: we again have produced the Forbes Top 5 Winter Gear list. Every year we select a small coterie of gear products that move their space ahead with innovation. This year, we have a new kind of entrant: true technology—code, people!—in the form of a mobile and web application that will help save lives in the backcountry. See the best gear for 2016 here.
There are new jackets, gear and new chairlifts every winter, of course, but it’s not every winter that we so desperately seek to emerge from the wreckage of the previous season. Skiers everywhere are demanding so much from the coming winter of 2016: more snow, more cold, more high-speed Doppelmayers, more everything. The winter of 2014-2015 left the entire ski establishment feeling hollow. With low snowfalls, especially on the West Coast, and near-record high temperatures across much of the West for most of the winter, there were no resorts that enjoyed a big year. ZRankings dubbed last season the worst winter ever. Mr. Crocker of Bestsnow.net, whose statistics on such things run back decades, says that 2014-2015 was the second worst winter for skiing behind 1976-1977.
And we grant you that the East had a good winter last year. But for these ultimate rankings we primarily discuss the destination resorts of the West, as even a bad year in Utah’s Wasatch will nearly always trump a good year in New England.
Skiers are like Cubs fans, however, and hope always leads us to dream of big dumps just around the corner. Reasons for optimism regarding the coming winter abound. The first thing to consider was that last winter’s poor conditions were far outside the standard deviation of weather patterns for the West. Last year’s weather has little to zero bearing on what will occur this winter. As Meteorologist Joel Gratz of OpenSnow said to us, “The major influence on western snowfall last season was the persistent ridge of high pressure over the northeast Pacific Ocean, near Washington State and British Columbia.” Gratz added that the phenomenon can’t be directly tied to any kind of global climate change. It was plain bad luck.
More important than all of that science and statistical melarkey, however: our old friend, El Nino, is back. He’s supposedly stronger than he’s ever been. Resorts have seized upon this mythical warm-water effect in the Pacific and knitted it straight into their marketing. Nearly every resort in the Sierra, some of which received less than 100 inches of snow last year, are touting El Nino’s coming effects. Even Colorado resorts, like Winter Park and Aspen Snowmass, are trumpeting El Nino. If you watch the social and advertising activity of the resorts—and we do—it seems as if El Nino has guaranteed a monster winter.
Early results, in fact, seem to bear this theory out. Snowfall has been strong out west so far. Many resorts—Whistler-Blackcomb (insanely prolific snowfall thus far), Vail, Steamboat, Taos—look more like their early January selves right now than their mid-November analogues. Bookings are up everywhere in the ski world, especially at Park City, says Dan Sherman, vice president of marketing at travel agency Ski.com. The new gondola and the vastness of the newly combined resort has put Park City high on people’s lists.
With that, we will stop dithering and do as we hope El Nino does: bring it. Here are The Top 10 Ski Resorts for 2016:
Jackson Hole, a perennial favorite of the PAF algorithm, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year by adding a lift that will grant easier access to its top ridge on the north end of the resort—and its high backcountry gate into Granite Canyon. Some people love this, some hate it. We will see how things turn out and report back. What’s not debatable, however, is that this lift opens up more continuous vertical for skiers who might prefer to stay off of Jackson Hole’s aerial tram (also known as the best lift in skiing).
There’s no inviting way down from the top of the tram for people who prefer predictable, groomed slopes. So this new lift, which will access all kinds of terrain, including the fabled Crags as well as a blue run, named, if you can believe it, Crags, is another cog in the successful effort to expand blue terrain at Jackson. The vistas off of this lift going north toward the Tetons may be tops in all of North America.
Also new on the mountain for 2016 is the Piste Mountain Bistro, whose stylings mesh a high-end contemporary look with subtle hints of where you’re at (the No. 1 ski hill in North America). Bravo to Jackson for not serving up another banal take on logs and timbers. But we haven’t eaten there yet as it’s brand new, so we can’t comment on the fare. Another wrinkle for 2016: bring your season pass from that *other* resort (any resort) to Jackson from Jan. 11 to Jan. 31 and they’ll give you 50% off of your daily lift passes.
Last year, Jackson fared better than nearly all other areas in netting 316 inches of snow—pushing it ahead of most Colorado resorts by 100 inches, and giving it three times as much snowfall as some resorts in Tahoe. An unseasonably warm February and March in Jackson, however, meant that the mountain needed every inch of that snow to keep itself decent. El Niño typically pushes more weather south of Jackson, but the resort has had some absolute monster years during the last decade while other areas have floundered, so we’re not betting against Jackson.
We judge the terrain at Jackson Hole to be the best in North America. If you disagree, register your complaint in the comments section and we can brawl about it. Its lifts are the best, the snow is excellent and its dining and all around game continues to rise—things that are all reflected by the judgment of the PAF algorithm and its top status here.
Access to Jackson Hole continues to get better, too, further cementing its airport as one of the best in skiing, as United, American and Delta have all upped their focus on flying here. There are now 13 cities with some form of direct flight into Jackson during the ski season. American has restarted its legendary Chicago-to-Jackson route after several years of dormancy, and the airline also will begin flying a new route from Los Angeles. Delta is bringing service from JFK and United is adding more service from Newark.
The town of Jackson continues to tick up, as the eating scene is making quick work of the gap that once existed between this northwest corner of Wyoming and places like Aspen and Park City. Gavin Fine’s Fine Dining Restaurant Group has led the way, with Bin22, Q Roadhouse & Brewing Co., and, our personal favorite, The Kitchen. Get the Yunnan-style Striped Bass.
There’s even Whiskey brewed in these parts now—Wyoming Whiskey—we recommending grabbing a bottle when you’re in town (although it’s distilled closer to the Bighorn Mountains). Stash a little flask inside your Gore-Tex for that let’s-stand-around-and-act-hard moment at 4 p.m. And don’t forget for lunch to pack a Tram Bar, the best little energy package made in America that happens to derive its name from the most famous of lifts here.
We’d be remiss to not mention the brewing scene in Jackson, which has evolved to be one of the best in the Mountain West. There are only two beers you need in this world: a pilsner and a stout, and Snake River Brewing has excellent versions of both: Zonker Stout and Monarch Pilsner. Just leave some for us.
Like Snowbird, Alta and all four Aspen mountains, Jackson Hole is a member of the Mountain Collective, which gets you two lift passes at member resorts and 50% off all additional lift tickets. One of the better bargains in skiing, if not the best.
Where to eat: The Kitchen is the place you should be eating.
Where to stay: The Four Seasons at Jackson Hole – It’s impeccable in all ways, with good cheeseburgers, too.
This article appeared on Forbes Magazine website on November 17, 2015.