The Difference Between East and West Coast Skiing

If you've ever skied or snowboarded, you've likely heard someone talking about East Coast vs. West Coast skiing. What's the difference? Keep reading to find out!

Two photos. On the left is Mount Bachelor. There is a lift visible along with several steep peaks. On the right is Loon Mountain and there is a lift visible with several smaller hills.

Every view from coast to coast has something unique and interesting to offer. Mt. Bachelor (left) and Loon Mountain (right) both offer stunning views of the surrounding peaks. Photos courtesy of James C.

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It was a lifelong dream, and I finally achieved it: on a 5,601mi road trip, I camped out in my car at (or near) resorts for just over a month of blissed-out riding across America. From coast to coast, the conditions waffled between epic and awful this year, and crowds and ticket prices hit an all-time high.

Even so, I am not a critic. To me, every day on snow is a gift. Despite the challenges to a good time, I am an unashamed lover of all types of snow and any day on any mountain. If you asked me which was better, Nashoba Valley, MA (15 minutes up the road and our ride is waiting), or Jackson Hole, WY (27 hours away and gas is $6/gallon), my answer would be Nashoba all day long.

As an East Coast native, I dreamed about the Champagne Powder of Steamboat, CO, but I cut my edges on modest groomers in central Massachusetts, and I was grateful every season for whatever mediocre snow we were blessed with. I will not stir up controversy about which is better because that answer depends just as much on where you learned as it does on what is closest to you.

Without saying if the thing is good or bad, after 20 years of riding coast to coast and all over in between, I’ve noticed three distinct differences in the ski scenes in the East vs. West: 1. Snow management 2. Size and scale 3. What it means to be wild

Snow Management

“I can say, without qualification, that if you can ski the East, you can ski anywhere.” –Hans Riemer, skier for 60+ years in North America and Europe

Snowmakers blow snow at a small resort.

Windham Mountain in upstate New York. Photo by James C.

Following a nationwide hunt for pow from Maine to Montana, New Mexico to New Hampshire, the major difference between East and West comes down to one simple concept: snow management. The very survival of resorts east of Denver International Airport rests on the imperative necessity of managed snowpack. Without sufficient snowmaking at the summit, sections off of Jay Peak’s tram will only open with enough natural snow until the ski patrol deems the cover too thin or skied out for public safety.

The climate of the “Ice Coast” band, ranging from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard, is so variable throughout each season that for the last two decades, the only hope for a hill to make it through winter is to manage the snow with groomers and snowmakers and employ surface preservation techniques, like allowing skiing and riding only at night (I see you Perfect North, Indiana). The resulting conditions are most often a layer of dense snow that is regularly groomed and replenished by snowmaking.

The freeze/thaw pattern exacerbated by the scraped-off surface of high-density usage leaves behind a signature icy hardpack that all East Coast sliders pride themselves in the ability to survive. From Snowshoe, West Virginia to Saddleback, Maine, all season long the signature sound of the East can be heard ringing through the forest: “KKKSSHHhhhhh! … KKKSSHHhhhh!”

A building that has a sign reading "snowflake factory". There is a ski resort in the background and snow outside the building.

Snowmaking operations cover 97% of Windham Mountain in upstate New York. Even on 50+ degree days, the skiing and riding can be surprisingly consistent. Photo by James C.

Whereas the West is mostly natural—think fresh snowfall and waist-deep powder—the East is largely screaming fast groomers and icy slalom runs. Which isn’t to say the East doesn’t get powder. I enjoyed 20” of fresh snowfall at Sugarloaf, Maine, this year. Of course, this was two days after a 40-degree-and-rainy outing at Sunday River (also in Maine) wiped out the 20” of powder that had previously fallen.

In recent seasons, however, even the powder-rich Rockies are having these ice sheets propagate across exposed greens and blues as early as January and February. The ice is everywhere now, and the East is well-practiced running a season around it. If you grew up skiing or riding on the variable conditions of the East, you will be able to hold your own anywhere.

Size & Scale

Another major difference in the East vs. West comes down to scale. In the West, there are just more options. There are more powder days, and there is more powder falling. Sure, the traffic and travel are about the same from Denver to Winter Park as from Boston to Loon, but in the vicinity of Winter Park, there are easily two dozen resorts within 100 miles. Nearby Loon, there are only about a dozen.

The resorts in the West have higher verticals and longer trails, the ticket prices are higher, and the crowds are bigger to match. On the same day that Instagram was showing lift lines exceeding an hour and a half at Breckenridge, on a fresh powder Saturday in Maine it was less than half an hour for singles to get from the back of the line to the top of the lift. Perhaps smaller mountains means smaller lines, or maybe it is true what they say: Go to Sugarloaf for the skiing, go to Sunday River for the scene. It’s the east coast A-Basin vs Keystone.

Several people stand in a crowded line at a ski resort.

Worst line of the trip: Sugarloaf, ME Saturday after 20” fell the day before. Only 20 minutes from the back of the singles line to the top of the lift. No friends on a powder day. Photo by James C.

There is also the plain and simple fact that so many of the mountains in the East have below-treeline summits, so there are fewer wide-open powder fields. Bowls do exist in the East, they are just more prevalent in the Rockies and Sierras than in the Adirondack, White, or Appalachian mountains; the snowfields of Mt. Bachelor, OR, dwarf those of Sugarloaf significantly.

Topping out at 4,237ft at the summit, Sugarloaf has the only above-treeline lift in the East. At Mary Jane (part of Winter Park), there is a six-person express chair to the barren summit at 12,060ft and even higher lift access at Arapahoe Basin, CO. There are hundreds of skiable acres above treeline at Mt. Bachelor, but at a certain point these comparisons aren’t fair because the Rockies begin at a higher elevation than everything to the East, and the enormous far-West-Coast monsters were made with volcanic forces hard to grasp with our tiny minds.

A ski lift at Mount Bachelor. There is a sharp peak and a lot of snow.

Ski a volcano crater at Mt. Bachelor. You’ll feel tiny getting lost in the 360 degrees of snowfields around the sixth-largest resort in America. Photo by James C.

Speaking of trees, the glade scene in the East has grown substantially in keeping with demands. Sugarloaf opened Brackett Basin, and Sunday River now has Blind Ambition and Yetiville, two expansive glades. I wouldn’t say any of those are in the same league as the never-ending, unnamed tree runs at Steamboat, nor would I claim that skiing trees at Jay Peak is the same as Ski Sante Fe, NM. However, I will say if you are in the East, you can find terrain to prepare yourself for the West. Alternatively, if you live in the West, you can find plenty to test your limits in the East.

Two pictures. On the left are some snowy trees in Montana and on the right are some snowy trees in Maine.

From Snowbowl, Montana (left), to Sugarloaf, Maine (right), dreamy tree runs are an absolute joy. Photo by James C.

There is another thing that happens with the kind of size and scale of the industry in the West. In the West, ski towns like Steamboat or Aspen set the gold standard for what that term means with gondolas taking off from the high school, and neighborhoods built well above the main lodges.

Again, these exist in the East but are much more prevalent in the West and as such, are able to support a higher number of affiliated jobs. Lift technicians and operators, ski-school staff, hospitality positions, and operations personnel have a variety of resorts to choose from along the I-70 corridor in Colorado, as do commuters from Salt Lake City, Utah. New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont all have winter professions and offer seasonal employee housing, but in the West, there are just more options to choose from.

What It Means to Be Wild

A bighorn sheep grazes a snowy area with mountains in the background.

A bighorn sheep visiting for lunch on the summit of Taos Ski Valley, a short hike from the top of the Kachina Peak Lift. Photo by James C.

Another major demarcation between East and West with wide-reaching implications isn’t really about skiing at all. A major cultural difference between the two is “the woods“ vs. “the wilderness“. There is a taste of this in the speed limits you will encounter. As you’re driving from East to West, the speed limit generally doesn’t rise above 65 until Ohio, and even then it’s just to 70. By Colorado, you’ll be zipping 80mph!

Out West, a double-black diamond “easiest way down”, like the one on Kachina Peak, is not uncommon. It is known that you can easily overstretch your skillset without much effort at all in the West. Cliffs, no-fall zones, and really gnarly rocks and tree features populate in-bound trails throughout the West.

A sign that reads "Easiest Route - Main Street" with a double black diamond denoting its a difficult run. There is snow in the background.

A double black diamond being the "Easiest Way Down" is a sure way to know you're in the West! Photo by James C. 

On the East Coast (in which all the skiable states would fit within Utah’s borders), the relationship with the woods is something like a leisure activity for weekend warriors, retirees, and varying degrees of ski bums. Outdoor activities and outdoor risks tend to be confined to the open spaces between highways that have yet to be tamed by the development of suburban sprawl.

In the West, the wilderness is a way of life. Enormous parks throughout Denver have residents rushing outside in all kinds of weather. It is not a question of if you are doing something outside this weekend, it is practically mandatory: What are you doing outside this weekend? Far removed from the puritanical East Coast, in the West, the wilderness is work and a way of life for many.

An area of fresh snow with some tracks that is roped off and has a "closed" sign.

A “Closed” sign entices riders to sample the fresh snowfall from the night before. Photo by James C.

Allow me to illuminate with an example. At my regular haunts on the East Coast, ducking ropes was how to score powder hits more than two days after a storm. Technically frowned upon, “everybody does it” with the caution-to-the-wind abandon of junkies on holiday. My brother and I went out West for our first big trip to Colorado, and at Arapahoe Basin, I spotted a jaw-dropping, untouched zone that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. I pointed it out (to my brother’s hesitation) and when we saw other people skiing there, we decided it was time. We ducked the rope that signaled “fresh powder over here”, and I proceeded to wipe out over and over like the total powder virgin I was.

At the end of our exhilarating/embarrassing “first tracks” descent, a ski patroller was waiting. He proceeded to very publicly chew us out, clip our tickets, and bring us to the on-mountain sheriff to receive what further punishment awaited. This, of course, was all new to us. A sheriff on the mountain? Unheard of. Avalanche dangers? We’d never even considered such a thing at a resort.

After leaving us on ice for a time, the sheriff informed us that an individual who once ducked a rope at a nearby Vail property wandered into an avalanche blasting zone and was now banned for life from all Vail properties. Is that what we wanted to bring home from our vacation?

“No, sir.”

‘The zone you snuck into was being cut into an argyle pattern by a national ski team wearing beacons and carrying shovels, probes, and safety gear. In the case of a slide, only small sections would drop instead of the entire hillside. You endangered hundreds of people below with your stunt, and I could arrest you and criminally charge you. Get the picture?’

“Yes, sir.”

We continued that trip having plenty of fun while staying inbounds. Again, dangers do exist in the East, though they are much more common in the West.

Don’t Snooze on the East Coast

The Bomb Hole Podcast, Episode 95 with Maggie Leon sums it up, echoing many others:

“I just think the East Coast scene gets slightly overlooked when there’s a lot of really cool shit going on.” –Maggie Leon, pro snowboarder

And co-host Ethan Stone puts it another way:

“Every pro snowboarder that rides the streets in the U.S. lives on the East Coast right now. … People maybe forget about that. The East has a lot of street spots and Salt Lake’s not getting the snow it used to. East is on the map.” –Stony Buds (aka Ethan Stone), photographer

A man tries a snow skate on a small hill.

Trying a snow skate for the first time on a huge sledding hill behind a municipal building in Belgrade, ME. Photo by Marthe Vansickle

What I loved about growing up on the East Coast and what I continue to love about returning are the rolling hills for miles and miles around the big resorts. Behind the high school, in a neighbor’s backyard, or like Jeremy Jones strapping into a snowboard for the first time on a golf course, hills are ready to ride everywhere out east. Little adventures are all around for those willing to seek them out. I landed my first 180 in Waltham, MA off a jump that my buddies and I built on a snow day. We dragged picnic tables around and built our own rails to goof around on. The East may be small, but it is mighty!

The great news is that no matter where you go from Maine to Mammoth, there is incredible snow out there! Also, everywhere you go, there will be terrible snow. Despite the weather waffling from unseasonably hot to extremely cold, snowmakers and groomers work wonders to keep trails open as long as possible across the country. A resurgence of ski tourism leaves icy hardpack sections across most open faces by Sunday afternoon of a long weekend, so as always, the best worms go to the early birds. But do the worms taste any different to Snowbirds vs. Loons? Get out there and find out for yourself.

If you are curious which resort might be the best for you, or how you can use your local terrain to get ready for the Big Show on your next travel trip, chat with a Winter Sports Expert so you can adventure with confidence.

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My experience began on the east coast learning to ski at Pat's Peak in New Hampshire and it wasn't long before I was totally hooked on winter. After learning to snowboard at Nashoba Valley (another Ice Coast hill) my progression took off from there. Two seasons later, I had my first taste of the wes...

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