I never thought I’d be planning a family ski vacation. For one, I prefer museums to moguls. And secondly, I hadn’t been on the slopes since a disastrous trip to Vail in high school that left me banged up and bruised and vowing never to try the sport again. But now I have a three-year-old son and a partner, an expert skier who has been obsessed with getting our son on the slopes since the day he was born. I was tasked with planning (since I’m the travel person) a family ski trip during the holidays. It had to be out West since we’d be out there visiting family and because I was told the drier climate and powdery snow made for more pleasant conditions than the East Coast. We also needed it to be family-friendly since mom and child were basically brand new to the slopes. I didn’t want to be dodging Olympic-level downhill racers while I tried to master a C-turn.
Enter Mammoth Ski resort, which sits atop an 11,000-foot-high active volcano along the Eastern Sierra Mountains in the middle of California. There’s always snow (with nearly 450 inches this year alone, the resort will stay open until July) and I had heard from several friends that they had great adult classes as well as all day daycare. So while I was off learning how to ski again (or at least not breaking a bone), my son would be making pizza wedges in the powder and mastering how to get on and off the magic carpet. Afterward, he would be rewarded with hot chocolate followed by a nap.
The hotel options were your standard old ski resort fare: Alpine design meets airport lodging. We picked the Westin Monache Resort because it was just a three-minute walk to the gondola and the rooms were efficiencies so you could make your own breakfast in the morning and stock the fridge with afternoon snacks. The location was ideal but the crowded elevators (lots of small dogs and packs of kids on their way to the hot tub) and the business hotel vibe made it feel a little clinical at times. But we were here for the skiing, or at least some family fun!
And it was. An hour into my lesson I was making my way down bunny hills with confidence and realizing that ski culture has changed dramatically since my last foray in the nineties. The skis are much more streamlined these days and was it me, or were the instructors so much nicer? As I swooshed down my first run, my instructor was protective, warning to a scrum of hot-dogging snowboarders to “watch out for my student!” Mammoth is really all about families so it was common to see skiers from age 5 to 75 making their way down the trails. And with 150 runs to choose from with gullies, groomers, and bowls, there is something for everyone. I stuck to mellow trails like Hansel and Easy Rider while my partner, a black diamond regular, stuck to the vertical drops and steep chutes on Dragon’s Black and Heuvos Grande.
For apres-ski we headed to the outside deck of Canyon Lodge, where most days turned into a wintery barbecue scene: Allman Brothers and Steve Miller blasting through the sound system, dogs and burgers on the large grill, and plenty of beers on tap. What Mammoth lacks in the glitz of say Aspen or Park City, it makes up for with pure college dorm-style fun. And at night, my body was so bone tired from the skiing that I was in bed by 8:30 every night watching Peppa Pig with my son. There was no time for glamour.
Now that I had conquered my fear of getting back on the slopes, I realized that I needed to practice closer to home. While many people think East Coast ski resorts can’t compare to those out West, it really didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t trying to go professional. I just wanted to be able to navigate the beginner trails without breaking a leg. I also wanted to be able to ski for an afternoon and call it a day.
So instead of searching for the ultimate resort on the East Coast, I decided to start with one of my favorite hotels as a base. That way, if the skiing was lacking, we could still have a great winter weekend. Anthony Champalimaud, the owner of the Troutbeck in Amenia, New York which I enjoyed so much last summer, had told me there were a few ski resorts nearby. Indeed, within an hour there was Catamount and Mohawk Mountain, in Cornwall, Connecticut. We decided to visit Mohawk Mountain, just twenty minutes from Troutbeck, one weekend in late February. Like Mammoth, it was established in the 50s, and with its covered bridge and bright red pine lodges, has a homespun vibe. But it’s a lot smaller in scale than Mammoth with only 24 trails, mostly beginner and immediate. It seemed like lower stakes but loads of fun.
So we checked into Troutbeck late Friday evening and were up early the next morning to fuel up for the day with quinoa pancakes and perfectly fried country eggs in the hotel’s sunroom. It had snowed overnight so it would be good conditions for skiing, but it was also hard to leave Troutbeck’s cozy public rooms, which were all lit with fires and filled with art books. Why venture outside when you could sack out with a book on one of the leather Chesterfield couches or get in on an epic game of Risk— as a group of friends were doing in the library. But we had committed to a lesson for both my son and myself so we were off to Mohawk. My teacher, a local who only started skiing after 40, quickly assessed my movements and made a few micro adjustments. I was swinging my upper body too much as I cut into my turns, which was making me wobbly below. I followed him down a few trails making sure to keep my upper body “still and quiet” and soon enough I was in control and cutting across the slopes with surprising ease. The snow was a little icier than out west but the wide bowls made for mellow skiing. I also could stop on the slope and watch my son bomb down the bunny hills with absolutely no fear. In a few years, we’d be skiing together, which made it all worth it.
After our lessons, we stopped in the lodge for a hot chocolate and I bumped into an old friend who has a house in the area. She was waiting for her teen daughter to finish a race on another nearby slope. We decided to meet later on at Troutbeck for a drink because I couldn’t think of a better place for an apres-ski celebration: an old friend, a perfectly composed Negroni, and a roaring fire. And I would cap it off, not with a dip in a hot tub but a long soak in the claw-footed tub in my guest room.