The Best Ski Resorts in the World?

What is the best ski and snowboard destination in the world? A tough question. If the snow or weather are poor, even the best resorts will struggle to provide as good an experience as a smaller resort with clear skies and powder snow. Fighting with herds of other skiers to get on the lifts, or get served in the restaurants or have some room on busy slopes can put anyone off any resort. Ski-in/ski-out convenience, off-piste activities, rustic charm, apres piste… all these count for some people as more important than mile after mile of pristine piste.

However it is fair to say that there are some resorts that have everything that can make for a fabulous winter sports holiday. The following 30 winter sports destinations have the largest amount of piste of anywhere in the world, and no less than 10 of them are in Switzerland. France also has 10, Austria 8, Italy 3 and Canada and the USA 1 each.

Each ski region listed has over 200km piste and you can be pretty certain that every one has funparks, toboggan runs, off-piste, freeride opportunities, Nordic circuits, plenty of bars and a host of other amenities. Which are the very best, though? here are my choice of ten.

I rate some of the Austrian resorts less highly for on-piste than off-piste. They do get good snow, but are often lower than the French and Swiss resorts. Also many of the areas are not linked and in effect comprise a geographically close collection of relatively small resorts. However St Anton in the Arlberg is definitely one of the premier ski destinations in the world, and Ischgl almost makes the cut. I remember when you could ski a circuit round St Anton and St Christoph to Lech and Zurs, but now they are a short bus or taxi ride away.

France has the best linked ski areas in the world, with the Trois Vallees and L’Espace Killy definitely in my top 10 winter sports destinations in the world. Avoriaz in the huge Portes du Soleil that links it with Switzerland would also just make the cut. Not as extensive a ski area, but just outside my top 10 would be Chamonix.

Whistler and Vail are the pick of the North American resorts, although there are many other excellent and slightly smaller destinations.

Italy has many wonderful medium-sized resorts, but Cervinia is the only one I would include in the very best resorts, largely as part of the wonderful Matterhorn ski area it shares with Zermatt. Cortina gets an honourable mention.

And rounding out the top 10, would be St Moritz, Verbier and DavosKlosters from Switzerland. I would probably rate the Jungfrau as being as good if not better than Les Portes du Soleil, and honourable mentions go to Saas-Fee and Val D’Annivers (which, with 220km of piste spread over the valley probably should be in the top 30). But top of the list… Zermatt!

Anyway, by size of piste, here are the top 30:

Country Name Resorts Piste Km # Lifts Lifts/Hr Bottom m Top m
Switzerland & France Les Portes du Soleil Champèry, Les Crosets, Torgon (CH), Avoriaz, Morzines, Les Gets (F) 650 200 256000 1000 2460
France Trois Vallées Courchavel, Meribel, les Menuires, Val Thorens 600 198 260000 1300 3300
France & Italy Voie Lactée/Via Lattea Montgenèvre, Clavière,Cesana, Sansicario, Sestrière, Sauze d´Oulx 575 138 100000 1860 2823
France Megève Megève, Combloux, Saint-Gervais, La Giettaz, St Nicolas de Véroce, Les Contamines Montjoie 490 206 52000 850 2350
Austria Bregenzerwald Bezau, Alberschwende, Egg, Andelsbuch etc 450 174 131528 600 2050
Austria Zillertal Mayrhofen, Finkenberger, Tux, Hintertux, Zell, Gerlos, Konigsleiten 433 115 107820 630 3250
 Italy Aosta Valley Espace San Bernardo, Monte Rosa, Alagna, Pila 429 108 123000 1200 3260
France Les Arcs-La Plagne Les Arcs, La Plagne 425 131 207044 1250 3250
Switzerland Engadin St.Moritz, La Punt, Maloja, Pontresina, Samedan, S-chanf, Sils, Silvaplana, Zuoz 350 54 67480 1730 3303
Austria Salzburg Flachau, Wagrain, St. Johann-Alpendorf, Radstadt, Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Kleinarl, Eben, Filzmoos 350 187 140000 650 2200
Switzerland & Italy Matterhorn Ski Paradise Zermatt (CH), Breuil-Cervinia, Valtournenche (I) 350 52 86751 1524 3883
Switzerland 4 Vallées Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz 331 88 79710 1400 3330
Switzerland Adelboden-Lenk Adelboden, Frutigen, Lenk 311 98 52420 1100 2400
France Les Sybelles Le Corbier, St-Jean-d´Arves, La Toussuire, Les Bottières, St-Sorlin-d´Arves, St-Colomban-des-Villards 310 73 30000 1550 2620
France L´Espace Killy Val d´Isère, Tignes 300 87 155925 1550 3456
Austria Innsbruck Nordpark, Patscherkofel, Axamer Lizum, Kühtai, Muttereralm, Rangger Köpfl, Glungezer, Schlick 2000, Stubaier Gletscher 285 79 68000 856 3210
Austria Arlberg St. Anton, St. Christoph, Stuben, Zürs, Lech, Klösterle/Sonnenkopf 280 85 123600 1304 2811
France Le Grand Massif Sixt, Samoens, Flaine, Morillon, des Carroz 265 73 85603 700 2500
Switzerland Davos-Klosters Davos, Klosters 260 48 64421 810 2844
France Serre Chevalier Briançon, Chantemerle, Villeneuve, Le Monêtier-les-Bains 250 62 77000 1200 2800
Switzerland Gstaad Mountain Rides Rougemont, Saanen, Gstaad, Saanenmöser, Schönried, St. Stephan, Wasserngrat, Wispile, Zweisimmen, Château-d’Oex, Eggli, La Videmanette, La Braye, Rinderberg,  Rellerli, Glacier 3000 250 62 57600 1000 3000
Austria Wilder Kaiser/Brixental Söll, Kirchberg, Ellmau, Brixen, etc 250 89 140000 650 1965
France L´Alpe d´Huez Massif des Grandes Rousses 237 82 101000 1120 3330
Canada Whistler Blackcomb Whistler, Blackcomb 228 39 65907 653 2284
France Les Deux Alpes Les Deux Alpes 220 46 71767 1600 3566
Switzerland Flims Laax Falera Flims, Laax, Falera 220 27 40410 1100 3018
Austria Montafon Golm, Kristberg, Scruns, Gargellen, Gaschurn 219 61 90320 650 2300
USA Vail Vail 215 32 57802 2450 3527
Switzerland & Austria Silvretta Arena Samnaun (CH) Ischgl (A) 215 45 78900 1700 2900
Switzerland Jungfrau Wengen, Mürren, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen 213 34 44150 940 2971

 

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Weather Outlook (6 days)

The weather system over the Alps falls into several distinct regions, where typically most resorts in one region share the same overall weather. However, the unpredicatability of weather systems as they pass over the Alps plus the effect of micro-climates wreck havoc with many forecasts.

I have found the reports from Snow-Forecast.com to be amongst the most granular. They provide a premium service, but also a free six day forecast for hundreds of resorts. Here are a few links to their reports for the main Alpine resorts in each region of Switzerland:

Adelboden, Gstaad and the Bernese Oberland
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Adelboden/6day/mid

Andermatt and East Central Switzerland
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Andermatt/6day/mid

Champéry and Les Portes du Soleil
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Champery/6day/mid

Crans-Montana and the North of the Valais
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Crans-Montana/6day/mid

Davos-Klosters
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Davos/6day/mid

Engelberg and West Central Switzerland
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Engelberg/6day/mid

Lenzerheide/Flims and Central Graubunden
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Lenzerheide/6day/mid

Leysin and the Vaud Alps
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Leysin/6day/mid

Pizol and North Central Switzerland
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Pizol/6day/mid

Scuol and East Graubunden
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Scuol/6day/mid

St Moritz  and the Engadin
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/St-Moritz/6day/mid

Verbier
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Verbier/6day/mid

Wengen and the Jungfrau
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Wengen/6day/mid

Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Southern Valais
http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Zermatt/6day/mid

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Ski Maps of Switzerland

Piste maps are fine, but they rarely give enough information for the more adventurous skier or snowboarder. Increasingly freeride areas are shown on piste maps, but the more adventurous freeride areas don’t figure. Which is a shame, because there are many relatively safe freeride areas away from the main pistes that can be undertaken without a guide. The Gemsstock and the Laub (off Titlis) are two of the best examples you can explore without donning skins or snowshoes. Whilst the pistes go one way in Zinal, Verbier, Glacier 3000, Lenzerheide and many other resorts, you just need a little local information to flip off the other side of the mountain and experience untracked snow.

So where do you go for more information if you don’t speak the language well?

Although the best guides for ski or snowboard touring and freeriding Switzerland are in German, there are two map series that show all the information you need to plan a route with English annotations. One is produced by Freeride Maps at 1:25,000 and the other is  the Federal Office of Topography Ski Tour map Series 1:50,000 series (for which a separate, free English-language list of the conventions used is available). Both are good, but expensive at about SFr 25 or so for each map.

I had hoped that the Atlas of Switzerland would provide this information but it doesn’t, and the user interface is not intuitive, the documentation is poor,  it only works down to 1:100,00 and includes relatively little useful information for the winter sports enthusiast (although you can figure out slope inclines). Nice idea, not so well executed. And I can’t reproduce the rather neat 3D images you CAN produce with it because the copyright restrictions are pretty Neanderthal.

If you use a GPS there are some great tools for you. Garmin have about 100 resorts in Switzerland mapped, although off-piste is not addressed. Don’t knock Google Maps, either. It has some useful information including the locations of most significant lifts. BTW Switzerland insists on using it’s own mapping system, the Swiss coordinate system (or Swiss grid) is different from the usual latitude/longitude system used elsewhere.

Finally, a disclaimer. Go off-piste only with a guide if you are not an experienced freerider. The mountains are indifferent.

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