The Best Places For Early Season Lift-Access Powder in North America:

Grand Targhee, WY on December 24th, 2015. photo: grand targhee
Grand Targhee, WY on December 24th, 2015. Photo: Grand Targhee

Today is Sunday, October the 13th, and let’s face it, us powder hounds are absolutely itching for the goods. Although your average skier would be ecstatic to have good conditions as early as the December holidays, Powderhounds are much too spoiled, one could even say entitled, to be content with such mediocrity, with true bliss reserved for those deep mid-winter days. This may seem like an imminent and insurmountable emotional struggle, but there are effective solutions that I will now share with you, out of the goodness of our hearts here at the Brains. These are secrets. We are about to share secrets with you.

This list is not about who opens the earliest, or who makes the most snow, or even who has the most terrain open at such and such time. Nope, folks, this is about the perfect combination of weather patterns, altitude, terrain features, and NO CROWDS (!) that make some places go off while the plebeians back home are still leaf-peeping.

Grand Targhee, WY on October 5th, 2016. photo: bryan gill
Grand Targhee, WY on October 5th, 2016. Photo: Bryan Gill

Planned Opening Day: Nov. 22nd

Yearly Snowfall: ~500 inches

Snowmaking: Yes, but only to facilitate loading, says Grand Targhee.

Why Does It Go Off Early?: Grand Targhee has a great combination of west-facing aspect, high elevation (~8,000 – 10,000, northern and inland = cold air and powder snow) and wonderful cruising terrain that allows full operation before December. They are also notoriously devoid of crowds, and there will be plenty of tracks to be found here. Good side-country, backcountry on Teton Pass and an on-mountain cat skiing operation also put this place at the forefront of early resorts. Looking to get more snow and cold air next week, so things may be particularly good this early season.

These are the four best resorts opening before Thanksgiving to get floaty tracks. All three of the U.S. resorts featured here don’t use snowmaking on their slopes, yet still, open early and, more importantly, generally get all of their terrain open before December. I find it especially satisfying when you can cruise the whole mountain this early, not to mention it as a testament to snowfall. By the time Christmas rolls around, these mountains will have been open for a month and a half or more, and many powder days will have came and went.

Wolf Creek, Nov. 5th 2015 PC: snowindustrynews
Wolf Creek, Nov. 5th, 2015. PC: Snow Industry News

Planned Opening Day: Nov. 1st

Yearly Snowfall: ~465 inches

Snowmaking: None

Why Does It Go Off Early?: Wolf Creek is high. With the peak at ~12,000 and 1,600 of vertical, this place is higher even than the Jah herb floating around CO.  It gets cold here, and fast. No need to worry about rain. Even more importantly, however, is the early winter weather pattern that tends to bring big storms that feed off leftover monsoon moisture down in the four corners. The resort is situated on a giant south-west facing buttcrack of the San Juans also called Wolf Creek Pass, and which funnels the moisture so efficiently that the resort can clock a couple of dozen inches of snow while Pagosa Springs, the nearest town at the base of the pass, will get just a light shower. Wolf Creek also has generally grassy/forest terrain that doesn’t need as much cover as, say, neighboring Telluride. All told, you can expect at least a few deep days here in November, and let me tell you the place is empty (seriously, though).

Nov. 14th, 2015, Mt. Baker Ski Area PC: Mt. Baker
Nov. 14th, 2015, Mt. Baker Ski Area. PC: Mt. Baker

Planned Opening Day: Conditions dependent…

Yearly Snowfall: ~700 inches

Snowmaking: None

Why Does It Go Off Early?: Mt. Baker offsets its fairly low elevation and coastal setting with none other than copious amounts of precipitation. While Baker needs more cover than Wolf Creek, it is generally fully open before December. Baker keeps a month by month record of their snowfall since ’05, and we can see that the record snowfall for November is 250 inches.That’s more than the season total for just about every resort east of the Rockies. 6 out of the past 11 years have seen more than 100 inches in November alone, and December is generally one of their best months (record 251 inches).The possibility of 200-300 inches before Christmas? Count me in. Baker also has great expert terrain and side-country second to none for such a small resort. Before you buy in too early though, be warned that a weather pattern just a few degrees above normal can make all the difference, regardless of how many storms we get hitting the Pacific NW.

Wenkchemna Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Wenkchemna Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada  PC: Basecampgroup

Planned Opening Day: Nov. 8th

Yearly Snowfall: ~300 inches

Snowmaking: Yes

Why Does It Go Off Early?: Banff and its three resorts are the prime tenderloins of early season skiing. While they don’t boast huge snowfall numbers, these places are frigid and hold conditions for days if not weeks. The West Coast gets huge fall rainstorms (i.e. next week), and Banff gets the leftovers, but with a full helping of cold air that doesn’t make it south for months to come. I imagine that skiing Banff in November could compare to California mid-winter, based on the temperature and its effect on snow quality. A major complaint is that its too cold to ski here during the dregs of winter, so it may be best to come early. There are also three medium-sized mountains, for a skiable acreage that’s about 3 times the size of Wolf Creek and Mt. Baker combined. Not to mention that this place is insanely beautiful and in the middle of a national park.