Image: ski school
Robin O'Neill  /  AP
An instructor leads her pack of young skiers down the slopes of Whistler Mountain in British Columbia as they learn the basics.
updated 12/8/2010 10:22:55 AM ET 2010-12-08T15:22:55

Family ski resorts provide opportunities for parents and children to spend precious time together, as well as rare time apart to ski at their own levels. The best resorts have gentle slopes for little skiers, first-rate instructors for children ages 3 and older, childcare services for kids younger than 3 years old and more than enough activity to keep Junior busy when he leaves the mountain.

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These 10 ski resorts fit the bill in North America and are our Family Vacation Critic favorites for family ski vacations:

1. Smuggler's Notch, Vermont
"A family that skies together, stays together" should be the motto for Smugglers' Notch Resort, situated just outside of Stowe. Its fully equipped condos cater exclusively to families, and the lineup of activities for kids — both on and off the mountain — is an ideal checklist for any family-focused resort. They have three of their own Green Mountains to carve that perfect turn and a magic learning trail where young children ski up to exhibit panels and learn about winter animals. Then there are horse-drawn sleigh rides, indoor pools, outdoor skating rinks, a lighted snow-tubing hill and nightly family entertainment. Yet, what really separates it from other ski areas in the East is its ability to teach young, inexperienced skiers the confidence to glide down the mountain effortlessly.

Slideshow: Hit the lifts (on this page)

2. Okemo, Vermont
There's a slew of reasons families return to Okemo generation after generation, making it one of the most popular ski resorts in New England. The Okemo Ski + Ride School features an accomplished staff of more than 400 instructors. Jackson Gore Inn is one of the premier "ski in, ski out" hotels in the state. The heated indoor and outdoor pools, ice-skating rink and large indoor fitness area are well-loved after a day of skiing. First and foremost is the varied terrain and the impeccable grooming that allows novice skiers to feel like Olympic downhill champions as they cruise down the long boulevards. Through the ingenuity of powerful snowmaking machines and all-night grooming, Okemo can turn adverse skiing conditions into favorable surfaces, a feat that's valued in New England.

3. Park City, Utah
The town of Park City seems to be running as smoothly as most high-speed quads these days. This stems from Mother Nature's benevolence and the deluge of snow the region received the past several years. The resort's proximity to the Salt Lake City Airport (less than a 45-minute drive on I-80) a free complimentary ski pass the day you arrive and, of course, the fame that comes from hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2002 also play a role. The four-man bobsled run at Utah Olympic Park is open to the public, so you can get a feel of what it's like to zip around the track, reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. And, oh yes, there are hundreds of serpentine trails to choose from at the three ski areas — Park City, Deer Valley and the Canyons — that make up this family-friendly locale. Remarkably, many of the easiest trails start from the top of these peaks, so first-time skiers are rewarded with glorious mountain vistas. Yet, that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's also dog-sledding, hot-air balloon rides and the Old Town district that easily transports kids back to the days of the Wild West, when Park City was a big mining town.

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4. Big Sky, Montana
When skiers discuss really big ski areas in America, the conversation usually turns to Colorado's Vail or Utah's Park City. Rarely does Montana figure into the conversation. Yet the biggest single ski site in the U.S. is a hop, skip and a jump from Yellowstone National Park in the southeastern corner of the state. Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin, two ski areas operating on opposite faces of 11,166-foot-high Lone Mountain teamed up in 2006 to offer a combined lift ticket that covers 5,512 acres, edging out Vail as the largest ski area in the country. But unlike Vail, which reports over 1.5 million skier visits annually, these Montana twins total less than 350,000 a year. Families come to this part of the world to leave the hectic pace of modernity behind and breathe in the crisp, fresh air. Kids will enjoy the quiet runs, dog-rescue demonstrations and on-mountain scavenger hunts. Parents will relish the "ski in, ski out" properties, where you can swoosh right up to your lodging. An added bonus is the one-hour drive to Yellowstone to cross-country ski or snowshoe with the wild bison, elk and moose in winter.

5. Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado
Get lost on Vail's back bowls, a winter wonderland devoid of trees, and you feel like you just entered the "Star Trek" episode where Captain Kirk landed on the Arctic Circle. Or make those turns on the meticulously groomed and serpentine Riva Ridge, and you'll reach that state of meditative bliss that can only be found from skiing long runs from an 11,570-foot peak. The apres-ski scene is also hard to top — a glorified theme park with a kids' snowmobile track, ice-skating rink 10,000 feet up the mountain, tubing hill and Kids Adventure Zones, where children can ski or snowboard over bumps and twists in a make-believe mine and ancient Indian Burial Ground. To top it off, the resort offers fireworks on select evenings throughout the season. The stellar terrain and long list of attractions can lure crowds, especially on weekends, so consider heading twenty minutes down the road to Beaver Creek, which arguably runs the finest children's ski school in the West. Ski-through tunnels and little slalom courses are several of the programs that make skiing fun.

6. Steamboat, Colorado
Steamboat has one of the premier teen programs in the States. "Rough Rider" clinics are offered daily for kids ages 13 to 18. Afterward, teens can mingle among themselves in Night Owls, partaking in such activities as tubing and indoor climbing. Not to be forgotten, children ages 4 to 12 have five kids-only lifts and special ski terrain around frontier-style forts. At night, the Kids Adventure Club features supervision, movies, games and snacks. Or drag the entire family over to Steamboat Springs for a look at an authentic Wild West town. Also, be on the lookout for the Family Snow Festival, which usually happens during Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend. Last year's performers included Smash Mouth and Mitchel Musson from the Hannah Montana series.

7. Northstar at Tahoe, California
A new Ritz-Carlton hotel, situated at mid-mountain, is just one of the many changes happening at Northstar this winter. Trails have been added to offer easy access to the resort, including doubling the size of the beginner teaching area. Also new this year, the Burton Snowboard Academy will offer instruction for wannabe boarders ages 4 to 12. After a day on the slopes, head to the Village to skate in the large rink, roast s'mores and drink hot chocolate around the large fire pits or try your hand at the bungee-jumping and rock-climbing walls. There is also a good number of indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs to soak that weary body after a day of skiing.

8. Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado
Aspen has earned its reputation as one of the premier places to teach kids and their parents the skills necessary to ski the Rockies. Indeed, they cater to kids, both on the mountain and off. The Family Zone in Snowmass is home to interactive kids' trails, races and a terrain park. Down at Snowmass village, they unveiled the Treehouse Kids Adventure Center several winters ago, and it's become a huge success. Themed rooms — such as one devoted to rock-climbing, another to puppet shows — entertain all children. Other activities include a guided snowmobile tour, ice-skating and a family Snowcat ride to a cabin, where there are Western sing-alongs and barbecue.

9. Whistler, British Columbia
Earlier this year, the Winter Olympic Games headed to British Columbia, with Whistler hosting all alpine skiing, nordic and sliding events. The ski resort has come a long way since opening in 1966 with one gondola, one chairlift and two T-bars. Today, Whistler and the neighboring Blackcomb Mountains have a whopping 8,171 acres of skiing terrain and a mile-high vertical drop, both tops in North America. Whether you're a novice or an Olympian, the terrain is varied enough to entertain all. Along with ski and snowboard schools offered to all ages, take advantage of Fresh Tracks, a chance to grab breakfast on the mountain and be the first to ski down. Children will also like the tubing, horse-drawn sleigh rides, helicopter tours and the chance to zip-line on the longest run in North America.

10. Badger Pass, Yosemite, California
It might feel strange to be in a National Park come winter, but mighty Yosemite is home to one of the oldest downhill ski areas in California. Badger Pass was built in the late 20's in a bid to get the 1930 Winter Olympics. The bid failed, but the resort, with a vertical drop of only 800 feet, is now one of the best places in the west to learn how to ski. The bargains at Badger include two-hour ski lessons for only $35 a child. But, this is Yosemite, so take advantage of your surroundings. A short snowshoe trek into Mariposa Grove, and you'll be making snow angels at the roots of 200-foot sequoia trees. Cross-country skiers will cherish the 10 miles of groomed track that leads to 7,000-foot-high Glacier Point. Ice-skaters can swirl around the Curry Village rink, which is dwarfed by the majestic cliff walls of Half Dome.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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