Schussing, Alaska-Style. Don’t Forget the 49th State When Planning a Ski Vacation

Vail, Breckenridge, Park City, Mammoth Mountain. The great names in ski resorts are practically engraved on the tongues of die hard skiers and riders around the world. Alaska? Not so much.

Why the reluctance  to ski some of the steepest and deepest powder known to man, with views to rival those of the Alps?Is it the cold? The remote nature of Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod? Or, perhaps, could it be that most skiers, particularly those with kids in tow, simply forget that we exist as a quality alpine skiing and riding venue?

We’ve trained a few Olympic athletes, Alaska has, and the Alpine National Championships have swarmed the slopes of Alyeska Resort a few times, (granted, we did have a little trouble with a volcano during that last one in 2009, but heck, it made things interesting). That same Alyeska resort nets some 600 inches of snow each year, and remains open through May on weekends to appease the serious mountain hog with a little spring slope time. Other areas aren’t quite up to the standard of Alyeska, but remain stalwart figures representing the best in wintertime recreation for families; local or otherwise.

How to find these little snowy gems? Most areas dwell within the larger cities (read: Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks). All have web sites that explain their respective attributes and drawbacks, existing, as most businesses in Alaska do, with a minimum of B.S. and a whole lot of truth. With the exception of Alyeska, a ski vacation to the 49th state will not reward with hot tubs, spas, and disco nights in the lounge. They also will not cost an arm, leg, or your firstborn to participate, either, and the down-homey, friendly ambiance may just make you a believer.

Some things to remember, though: Skiing or riding in Alaska requires a bit more preparation, especially in the clothing and keeping-warm-and-fueled department. So will actual travel arrangements. Here are our suggestions and recommendations for a family considering a ski/snowboard trip to Alaska.

Best time to ski or ride? Christmas; before, during, or after. Alaska is a joyous, snowy, magical place during the December and January holiday season. Sleigh rides, lights, and special deals make a trip to a Last Frontier ski area tons of fun. That said, the advent of springtime in the Lower 48 means prime ski time in Alaska. The days are longer, the snow smooth, and the scenery gorgeous well into April. Yes, April.

Where Should We Go? If this is your first time skiing outside of the Lower 48, and a resort-style experience is your MO, begin by flying to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines, rent a car, and drive 45 miles south to Alyeska Resort. Modern, big, and full of apres’ ski activities for the entire family, Alyeska brings big resort happenings to funky  Girdwood. Dog mushing, Nordic skiing, or just hanging around the beautiful Hotel Alyeska are rewarding experiences in themselves, and the folks at the resort do love families. Look for their good package deals online.

If you are a fairly adventurous fam, fly into Anchorage, stay at one of the hotels found in the Great Alaska TourSaver (we like Dimond Center) and head up to one of the best in backcountry skiing or riding, within a half-hour drive of town. Arctic Valley is a completely volunteer-run operation at a site owned by the Anchorage Ski Club. Most of the older folks in town learned to ski here, and it operates four chairlifts with intermediate and above runs, but recently opened a pony tow and, wahoo! a tubing area for those who would rather slide down on their kiesters. Good snow? Some of the best, and also some of the best hospitality I’ve found yet in a ski area. The Alpenglow Chalet serves simple meals, and kids are free to roam about, watch movies, and play with toys in the lodge. The road is on Fort Richardson Army Base land, however, and is steep and potentially scary for some, so rent a 4 WD or find somebody to drive you. But once you get there, you won’t want to leave. True story.

Juneau, Alaska’s capital, has its own ski area in the form of Eagle Crest, a middle-of-the-road area that caters to the southeast Alaska crowd. Nicely outfitted with lifts and runs for just about anyone, Eagle Crest has yet to open for 2010-11, but should boast some pretty good snow when it does.

Fairbanks? You bet. Even the Far North has its alpine runs, albeit on the chilly side. This is where the unexpected can happen, with closures due to weather and/or wind chill frequent and frostbite a real possibility. Called Mt. Aurora SkiLand, this little area claims to run the farthest north chairlift, and probably does, too. About 20 miles from Fairbanks, SkiLand is open only on weekends and can draw a big crowd when the weather is nice. AND, folks, they offer a cool Northern Lights viewing package at neighboring Mt. Aurora Fairbanks Creek Lodge, a charming, 12-room bunkhouse/roadhouse that provides true Alaskan hospitality. Fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Alaska Airlines or Era Aviation and rent a car at the airport.

What Do I Need to Bring? The warmest ski clothes you have. Kids need balaclavas/masks/hoods, uber-warm mittens, snowsuits, and those wonderful Little Hotties hand/toe warmers. Nothing ruins a ski vacation faster than cold children. Fashion is trumped by function up here, and we can spot a visitor a mile away by his or her clothing. Go for warmth and screw the looks. Ski rentals are available at a few places like Sports Authority and Alyeska, but if you have your own, bring it. Better to be comfy in your own gear than miserable in someone else’s.

Anything Else? Plan for cancellations due to weather. Visit local Convention and Visitor Bureaus in each city to make sure everyone has found an activity to his or her liking. Dog mushing, hot spring soaking, Nordic skiing, sleigh riding, aurora viewing, eating, drinking; it’s all here.

Experience Alaska from the slopes this winter; we’ll be waiting for you!

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