Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP file
Skiers take the lift up as other take the slope down at Alta Ski Resort on Nov. 19, 2006, in Alta, Utah.
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updated 1/3/2007 6:57:51 PM ET 2007-01-03T23:57:51

The most important part of any ski or snowboard vacation is the snow. But when snow lovers are planning an early-season vacation for December, they have to give the white stuff special consideration. Without it, they’ll be out of luck and out of money.

According to the editors of ''Charlie Leocha’s Ski Snowboard America'', the country's best-selling ski guide, good snow can be found in December at a couple dozen ski resorts across North America. But before you book, you need to look at the region’s weather history, the mountain’s terrain and the resort's snow making prowess. The terrain and snow making information is available on the publication’s Web site, Skisnowboard.com, while the snow conditions can be found on Snocountry.com.

If you are yearning for natural snow in December, you need to head out West, because the slopes in New England and much of eastern Canada normally depend on manmade snow at that time of year. But there’s a contrary opinion on this point (as there often is in the ski business): Many experts advise eastern skiers to stick close to home in December rather than chance poor natural snowfall in the Rockies, California and the Pacific Northwest. Best bet: Check the current snow conditions and keep your eye on the weather radar.

The award-winning staff at ''Charlie Leocha’s Ski Snowboard America'' and skisnowboard.com have selected their list of "Early Season Best Bets" -- a dozen resorts that will put a December smile on a snow lover's face. These ski and snowboard areas not only have some of the best early-season snowfall statistics, they also have resorts with extensive lodging, nightlife and dining. Remote ski mountains that have lots of snow but not much more -- areas like Colorado's Wolf Creek, Vermont's Jay Peak, and Washington's Mt. Baker (the “Guinness Book of Records” most-snow champ) – did not make the list, though die-hard skiers in these regions are no doubt already packing up the car.

Here’s the list, with the top five getting special attention.

1. Alta/Snowbird, Utah
These ski areas share a common box canyon in Utah that squeezes more powder snow out of storm clouds than any other spot in the state. These resorts have the best chance of being blanketed in dry fluffy powder snow early in the season.

2. Jackson Hole/Grand Targhee, Wyoming
Year after year, Grand Targhee gets plenty of early-season snow. The slopes here have been covered with snow in December for more than a quarter-century. Nearby Jackson Hole has almost as much snow plus the charm of the Old West town of Jackson.

3. Steamboat, Colorado
Here’s a surprise winner for those who don't realize that these slopes lie in one of the snowiest corners of Colorado. The snow stays protected by Steamboat's legendary glades. Chances are that more trails will be open here in the early season than at any other Colorado resort.

4. Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada
Our staff whined about occasional rain at this massive resort's lower altitudes and last year was an out-of-character bust. But when there is drizzle below, there's often sun and plenty of snow up high. Enjoy the upper mountain, then ride the gondola down the mountain at the end of the day.

5. Mammoth Mountain, California
The snow gods always seem to favor Mammoth Mountain; in fact, in some spots on the mountain the snow never melts. They were skiing and riding here until well after the Fourth of July. They almost always have awesome early snow.

Other resorts such as Crested Butte in Colorado, Sunshine Village in British Columbia/Alberta, and the collection of resorts that ring Lake Tahoe all have good early snow statistics as well. But head’s up: At Lake Tahoe, it’s feast or famine. When the snow falls, it comes measured in feet or it’s only a dusting.

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On the other side of the country, in New England, more than 75 percent of the trails are covered by snowmaking. This means skiers and snowboarders can count on good trail coverage for early outings provided the temperature is low enough to make snow.

Killington (Vermont), Sunday River(Maine) and Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) are the snow making champions in New England. Le Massif, a mountain outside Quebec City whose trails drop almost into the St. Lawrence Seaway, enjoys its own microclimate that makes finding early snow a good bet.

To recapitulate, here are the “Best Bets for Early Snow” from the editors of “Ski Snowboard America and Canada.”

1. Alta/Snowbird, Utah
2. Jackson Hole/Grand Targhee, Wyoming
3. Steamboat, Colorado
4. Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada
5. Mammoth Mountain, California
6. Crested Butte, Colorado
7. Sunshine Village, British Columbia, Canada
8. Lake Tahoe resorts,California and Nevada
9. Killington, Vermont
10. Sunday River, Maine
11. Bretton Woods, New Hampshire
12. Le Massif, Quebec, Canada

For information about cross-country skiing at any of these resorts link to XCSkiResorts.com.

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