The concise and correct answer to this question, of course, is to take a ski trip when the snow is best. It's impossible to know months ahead of time when your favorite resort will get 20 inches of snow in one day. But we do know when, according to historical snowfall, elevation, latitude and slope aspects, when a particular resort skis its best.
The conditions at some resorts peak in mid January, while others peak in February, and others in March. The peak time for snow conditions at Jackson Hole, for instance, tends to be in late January, whereas the peak at Whistler is in late February, and the peak for Beaver Creek is in March.
For some ski resorts, we feature pages focused entirely on when the best time to ski that resort might be. We focus on crowds, prices, flights and, of course, snow. Some of those pages:
We recently calculated The Total Snow Scores throughout a typical ski season (December through April) for all 220 resorts in ZRankings' database. We've added graphs of the results to every resort profile page on our site (so check it out before the next time you plan a ski trip.)
The differences come from what direction a ski resorts' slopes face, their elevations and latitudes. Jackson Hole, for instance, has a lot of terrain facing east. This fact doesn't mean a lot when the sun's angles are more oblique, like in December and January, but it becomes more important later in the winter, as the days get longer and the sun stronger and those eastern slopes see more and more sun, starting at sunrise. Breckenridge has the same amount of east-facing terrain as Jackson, but its high elevation keeps conditions from falling off as quickly.
By looking at this, you can see that snow conditions at Telluride typically peak around mid-March, which is great news for spring breakers. From this graph you can also see that conditions at Telluride are near peak for about an entire month from mid-February to mid-March. Not all resorts have such a long period at near-peak levels, but Telluride's high elevation and its abundance of north-facing terrain help it preserve good conditions for weeks.
From our vantage point, there seems to be no reason to not use science and data to your advantage when it comes to booking a ski trip. It's true that most of us are limited as to when we can take trips: perhaps the New Year's holiday or Spring Break are the only times the entire family can get away. But those who have flexibility should consider timing their trip with peak snow times at their chosen resort. A ski trip with peak snow provides an indelible memory.
Resorts faring the best in the latter half of winter will be those with more elevation and north facing slopes, such as Telluride. Some resorts' typical conditions can peak but then hold the line relatively close to 100% of their peak for several weeks.
A higher cadence of snowfall can help keep a mountain's snow profile score higher, even as its topography might make preserving snow harder. The fact that Jackson Hole is in the top 15 for snow volume in North America helps its slopes stay fresh, even with so much east-facing terrain.
The following graph shows Telluride's typical conditions compared with the rest of North America. As you can see from the previous graph, snow conditions at Telluride usually fall off noticeably around mid March. But because that's the case at most resorts, Telluride's score relative to other resorts actually ticks up a touch between March 1 and April 1.
Looking at Telluride's snow quality over time compared with other resorts, it also becomes clear that picking Telluride for a mid-December trip could be a dicey proposition. Planning a December ski trip anywhere can be risky, but it's more risky at Telluride than many other places. As shown in the graph, however, it's clear that odds greatly improve by Jan. 15 at Telluride.
So while conventional wisdom might say that the best time to ski is in mid-February, that's not always the case. It all depends on the resort and its geography, topography and its average snowfall.ZRankings has special package rates to ski the best resorts at the best times!
Christopher Steiner is the founder of ZRankings and a New York Times Bestselling author of two books. Find him on Twitter here.