Over the last few years, North American skiers have found themselves with a tough choice: Ikon Pass or Epic Pass? These two mega passes currently offer varying levels of access to a total of 101 ski areas—60 on the Epic Pass, 41 on the Ikon Pass—for around $1,000 for each pass. But not everyone needs access to dozens of ski resorts.
For beginner skiers or riders, families with young children, skiers on a tighter budget or those who want a more low-key vibe, independent ski areas may be the way to go. Some unallied resorts have even joined forces via the Powder Alliance, which grants member ski area passholders three free ski days midweek at each of the 18 other resorts. Similarly, the Freedom Pass and, new this year, the Indy Pass offer joint access to fringe resorts across the country.
Many of these smaller resorts have developed incentives and deals to entice skiers, like lift ticket prices under $100, limits on crowds and notably lower costs on food and lodging. It’s not just family-run operations either: Some of the most legendary ski hills in North America are resolutely maintaining independence. Here are some of our favorites. Now all you need to do is pick your destination, plan your trip, pack your bags and hit the road.
Vermont’s Magic Mountain puts a limit on the number of tickets they sell in order to keep crowds at bay. Full-day tickets typically cost $74, but the resort offers $29 lift tickets on Throwback Thursdays (unless it’s a more than six-inch powder day), and on Friendly Fridays, carpooling skiers get up to four lift tickets for $149. Season passes at Magic cost $679 and come with partner resort benefits around the U.S.
Windham Mountain in New York excels for its access—you can be skiing steep trails through the trees or putting your kids in snowboard lessons in just over two hours from New York City. Here, lift tickets cost $98 per day. Better yet, buy online and save 42 percent off the day ticket price.
Colorado’s Monarch Mountain is staunchly independent—a brave stance in the heart of the mega-pass homeland (both Ikon and Epic are based in Colorado). Regular walk-up tickets cost $94 or you can save 40 percent by buying online up until the night before. Monarch has ample snow, out-the-gates cat skiing, affordable lodging and a transferable pass card with $64 ticket refills.
Grand Targhee, Wyoming, is known for deep, abundant snow and sidecountry snowcat skiing. A simple, throwback base area with one lively bar, one cafeteria and restaurant, and a smattering of lodging options round it out. Regular day tickets cost $98, but the resort offers a four-pack for visitors, with four days of skiing for $336.
Silverton Mountain, in Colorado, has always bucked ski industry trends, with solely expert terrain, no snowmaking or grooming and no luxury amenities. Instead, it’s where ski movie dreams can be had by people with day jobs. Though passes cost $184 a day and there’s only one double chairlift to get you uphill, each ticket comes with a renowned guide who’ll make sure it feels like a bargain. (You can even snag a heli drop for just $179 per run.) If that sounds too rowdy, nearby Purgatory Ski Resort has full resort amenities, free skiing for kids under 10 years old and day tickets under $100.
Whitefish Mountain Resort, tucked in far northwestern Montana near Glacier National Park, offers an adult day ticket for $83, with 25 percent off if you buy online. The coolest thing about Whitefish? The snow ghosts—trees coated in an icy rime that look like Halloween on the mountain. Stay in the nearby town of Whitefish, at the base of the ski hill, for access to coffee shops and breweries.
British Columbia’s Red Mountain Resort is a bastion of BC ski culture. You’ll get 3,000 feet of vertical drop, 3,850 skiable acres, catskiing for $10 a run, $89 USD day tickets that can be had for less online, and minimal crowds. The new Josie Hotel opened last winter at the base of the mountain and the ski area’s base lodge bar, Rafters, has some of the best après-ski nachos in ski country.
An hour north is Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson. Here, find top-notch terrain, powder days galore and a base area cafe that’s so good it has produced several popular cookbooks. In addition to day tickets for about $70 USD, it has taken from Europe’s playbook with $26 USD one-ride chairlift tickets to access the expansive backcountry terrain out the gates.