When Calum Clark, vice president of events for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, selects locations for Olympic-caliber competitions, he might consider Tamarack, Idaho, where he says a 22-foot half-pipe allows snowboarders to go "higher, bigger and more aggressive."
Or he might think of Beaver Creek, Colo., where elite racing hill Birds of Prey is a favorite of competitive skiers.
"Part of [our] strategy is to go to the places with the very best terrain for the competition," says Clark. He also looks for passionate resort staff and advanced snow-making technology. "That converts into a great skiing or snowboarding experience ... which carries from the competitive to the recreational skier."
Good news for avid winter athletes: These areas are open to the public and frequently offer more than just skiing and snowboarding; snowshoeing, hiking, tubing and even dog-sledding are all alternatives to spending a day on the slopes. Top spots include Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy, Holmenkollen in Norway and Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois in Quebec, Canada. With this winter's U.S. snowfall already much better than 2007's, and European slopes seeing snow in January, now is the best time to venture into the white.
By the numbers
Vacations or day trips to snowy areas can range from moderately priced to quite expensive. A two-hour drive to a nearby national or state park for tubing or hiking might involve only the cost of gas, an entrance fee and meals, whereas a weekend trip to a ski resort can quickly add up from ski rental to lift tickets to hotels to airfare. Two adults, for example, can expect to pay between $894 and $1,719 for a weekend stay at the Tamarack Resort, not including airfare and other expenses.
Still, the costliness of such resorts failed to deter the 55.1 million people who visited U.S. ski areas during the 2006-2007 season. Though there were fewer visits than in previous years, improved snow conditions in the U.S. this season may reverse that trend. The national daily average snow depth over a four-week period between January and February in 2007 was 3.8 inches; so far this year it's been 6.3 inches, according to data from the National Weather Service.
To prepare for all that powder, travelers are stocking up on gear, says Alicia Allen, a spokeswoman for SnowSports Industries America, a trade association, including snowshoes and twin-tip skis, which allow a greater range of movement. Since 2006, specialty store sales of each increased by 21 percent and 32 percent, respectively, and may reflect a growing trend toward diversifying snow sports largely dominated by alpine skiing and snowboarding.
"People feel trapped [indoors], especially if they're not a skier or snowboarder," says Bobbi Sankey, marketing and outreach coordinator for the American Hiking Society. "But winter activities like hikes, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing can be just as enjoyable as fall activities."
Winter hiking does not require a lot of gear — just sweat-wicking, non-cotton clothes, which keep a hiker warm and dry, and proper footwear to provide traction. Hikers should also pack high-quality snacks and water.
A few of Sankey's favorite winter hikes are on trails in Hollowell Park in the Rocky Mountain National Park and in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City. These areas are also home to premier slopes like Park City in Utah and Beaver Creek, where resorts offer an array of sporting activities like ice skating, bobsledding and snowmobiling.
The international traveler is not without options, either. Tourists can experience a piece of ski history in Holmenkollen, Norway, where the world's oldest ski museum is located alongside a famous 330-foot jump. Kitzbühel, Austria tempts countless skiers with hills that feature 85-degree angles in some places and opportunities for adventure hiking.
Those who prefer to keep it simple should try tubing. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 51 percent of 175 American ski areas surveyed last year offered visitors the chance to hurtle down a snowy embankment on an inner tube.
"Tubing is very easy," says Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the NSAA. "A lot of resorts consider that a gateway sport to the outdoors."