For the last three winters, Jessica Walters and her husband, Andrew, have ventured nearly 6,000 miles from Colorado to ski Japan’s famously powdery slopes.
Ahead of their first trip, Walters extensively researched all of the Japanese ski resorts to figure out where to go. But the couple also winged it one year, flying to Tokyo and then researching which mountains had the best snow conditions. They’ve since taken friends with them.
Even while skiing, the Walters found themselves immersed in a new culture — on the slopes, they chatted with friendly locals, drank Japanese beer and ate tuna sashimi and ramen for lunch.
“Japan isn’t necessarily known for its steep and gnarly terrain, like the slopes of Switzerland, but it is known for some of the deepest, powderiest, fluffiest, get-face-shots-with-every-turn conditions,” said Walters, 30, an emergency department trauma nurse who lives in the foothills outside of Boulder. “Each day the resorts get feet, not inches, of new snow. It was the amazing skiing and snow conditions that originally brought us to Japan, but it was the culture, the food and the people that have brought us back time and time again.”
RELATED: Colorado skiers share their tips for how to plan a ski trip
There’s an easy way to get out and explore more of the world this year: let your ski pass guide you. There are dozens of vacation-worthy destinations included on the Ikon and the Epic passes, so if your winter travel calendar is blank and you need a little inspiration, look no further than your ski pass.
Whether you’re a hardcore skier who wants to travel for new slopes or a big-time traveler who likes to dabble in skiing, your ski pass is the perfect travel muse. Here’s how to make it happen.
1. Look for direct flights.
Let’s face it, flying in winter can be dicey. Rather than risk missing a connecting flight, consider looking for destinations with direct flights from DIA — there are multiple spots on both the Epic and Ikon pass.
Take a closer look at your options — paying attention to blackout dates or other limitations — and see if any of the destinations or surrounding regions inspire you. Then cross-reference this date with your list of direct flights and start planning.
RELATED: Which North American ski resorts have direct flights from Denver
2. Visit places where you won’t need a car.
Renting a vehicle that can tackle winter road conditions can be a huge added expense. Consider narrowing your ski vacation possibilities to places where you don’t need a car to get around (think shuttles, shared rides and public transportation).
You can fly direct from Denver to Ketchum, Idaho, in just two hours, for example, and be on the famed slopes of Sun Valley Resort in no time. Stay at the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum and someone will pick you up at the airport (for free), drive you anywhere you want in town (for free) and pick you up when you’re done (for free). The Limelight, owned by Aspen Skiing Co., also offers a complimentary rental car to guests, so you can drive yourself around for a few hours, if you prefer. As a bonus, the incredibly charming Ketchum downtown is totally walkable.
Thinking farther afield? Ikon pass holders can fly to Zurich and take a train to Zermatt Matterhorn.
3. Don’t just ski.
You’ve traveled all this way … now what? Well, the obvious answer is to ski your pants off, but that doesn’t make for a well-rounded experience. Give yourself time off the slopes to rest, for one, but also to explore the locale. Research the best local happy hours. Visit a quirky museum or landmark. Take a tour at a local brewery or distillery. Catch a concert or theater show.
“Explore the other things that country has to offer,” Walters said. “That’s something I had to remind my husband and some of the other people I traveled with who get what we call ‘powder panic.’ It’s more than just skiing. It’s an experience too.”
4. Plan mid-distance road trips for long weekends.
Running low on vacation hours? No problem. There are plenty of road trip-worthy ski hills that are perfect for a long weekend — leave Thursday, come home Sunday.
You can drive to many of the ski resorts in Utah from the Front Range in roughly eight hours (pro tip: get a compelling audiobook). When you arrive, you’ll likely be greeted by incredible snow. Case in point: The Cottonwood Canyons are some of the snowiest places on the planet — Alta Ski Area gets an average of 551 inches each year.
5. Start planning early.
Grab your calendar and start blocking off dates. Don’t be afraid to be “that friend” who keeps pestering everyone to commit to trips.
Matt Hissey and his friends take their ski travel plans so seriously that they’ve created a dedicated Facebook group to get things organized. The self-proclaimed “Ski Skanks” start with a broad poll to determine where everyone wants to go. From there, they narrow their options, add potential Airbnbs and flights, and then finalize itineraries.
“Just do it,” said Hissey, 31, who lives in Denver and works in commercial real estate. “Look at the calendar and say, ‘Hey, what’s realistic?’ Ask your friends about it. Otherwise, the season will pass and you’ll miss it.”
6. Plan your dream trip.
Don’t wait. Just dive right in and take that dream trip you’ve been thinking about. Both Epic and Ikon offer you the chance to ski all over the world — Valle Nevado in Chile, Skirama Dolomiti (eight resorts) in Italy, Perisher in Australia. Start researching ski areas or make plans with a friend who has already visited a particular destination.
Traveling internationally can be overwhelming, but skiing can add some structure to your itinerary — you can fill the rest of your time with activities that will help you experience the local scene and culture.
7. Go on an organized trip, or travel solo.
New to the city? None of your friends bought a ski pass? Overwhelmed at the prospect of planning a trip? Consider letting someone else do the work. Lots of groups organize ski trips — social groups, college alumni offices, special group travel companies.
If you’d rather keep it casual, consider traveling solo and staying at a hostel where you’re likely to find a group of fellow solo travelers looking for skiing and riding buddies.
8. Don’t write off late-season skiing.
If you’re like me, you tend to start freaking out when you realize how quickly January and February are going to fly by. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that late-season skiing is often some of the best, with a deep base, bluebird skies and fresh powder. Historically, places such as Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in California and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia get lots of spring snow and stay open late.
Don’t forget that some resorts on your pass are in the Southern Hemisphere, which means you can take advantage of really “late-season” skiing.
9. Splurge and scrimp.
To keep your bank account happy, consider a mix of trip accommodations. Plan one or two “splurge” trips at nice ski-on/ski-off hotels or Airbnbs to treat yourself. Then, keep things simpler for other trips and stay in hostels or budget lodging.
And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. For example: If you’re planning a long weekend in Winter Park, consider booking a cabin at the new River Run RV Resort (which has some great hot chocolate by the way). Though the tent, glamping and RV campsites aren’t open in winter, you’ll still have access to all the resort’s broader amenities – fire pits, laundry facilities, shuttle service — and a super cozy cabin. Since summer is the resort’s busy season, you can get a great deal in ski season — cabins start at $130 to $150 in winter, compared to $259 to $289 in summer.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.