Palette Magazine

A guide to LGBT-friendly winter ski vacations in Aspen, Vancouver, Montana and more

By Erica Landau

The 2016 edition of Aspen Gay Ski Week will be held January 17–24.
The 2016 edition of Aspen Gay Ski Week will be held January 17–24. © Matt Power

Going out west may embody American spirit and grit, but you don’t have to check comfort, community and nightlife at the cabin door when heading on a wintry, outdoor adventure. Instead, check out these five LGBT-friendly destinations, all located in North America’s western corridor and all offering a different slice of the continent, before choosing your perfect winter wonderland.

Aspen

There are few things as luxurious as a ski vacation in Aspen. Veiled in crisp blue skies and surrounded on three sides by gleaming snow-white peaks, this old mining town swells with furs, flash, celebrity sightings and general fabulousness during the winter months.

But a serious nightlife scene doesn’t come at the expense of sport. Skiers and snowboarders can choose from four mountains: Aspen Snowmass, with its 150 miles of trails, is the perfect one-stop destination, offering something for all skill levels; Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands deliver more challenging terrain for experienced skiers; and Buttermilk, home of the ESPN Winter X Games, has a surfeit of slopes devoted to beginners and intermediate practitioners. You can take on all four with one convenient lift ticket.

And it’s only the lifts that stop when the sky grows dark. Aspen keeps up with a nightlife scene as sizzling as any hot-tub get-together. Aspen was home to the first-ever Gay Ski Week in the 1970s, back when only a few California ski clubs comprised the entirety of the now season-long, multi-destination event. Today, Aspen Gay Ski Week, which takes place mid-January, consists of a wide range of activities, including aprés ski parties and cocktail receptions around town. There are also numerous lunch and dinner events, a comedy night, a free-for-all pool party and a roster of performers and DJs.

The award-winning Ellina is a must for visitors seeking a cool atmosphere, upscale dining and an extensive wine list. On the other side of the spectrum, Hops Culture serves up an incredible beer selection to pair with comfort foods like its signature gourmet mac-and-cheese — which comes in three variations. Gay-friendly hotels include the modern and centrally located Limelight Hotel, the historic Hotel Jerome, which also houses LGBT-favorite nightspot J-Bar, and the bustling Sky Hotel with ski-in access from Aspen Mountain.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe moves at a slower pace than some of its counterparts. But the laid-back vibes only serve to enhance one of the richest and most gorgeous wintery backdrops you will ever encounter. Nestled between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe offers no less than seven ski resorts, all situated around or near the giant, deep blue lake. The lake alone, which is the greatest draw outside the snow-capped mountains, spans 22 by 12 miles and is the second deepest in the U.S. You may not be able to swim in it in the winter, but the sweeping views of the fresh topaz water as you glide down the mountain or ride up the gondola alone are worth the price of your lift ticket.

It’s almost impossible to hit every noteworthy destination in a single trip when vacationing in Tahoe. With hundreds of lifts, thousands of acres of varied terrain and fun and entertainment at every base facility, the possibilities are virtually endless. Few match Heavenly Mountain’s bounty, though. The mountain, which straddles the California and Nevada border, offers unrivaled views of the lake and the Nevada landscape, as well as the area’s longest vertical drop and the most expansive options of any area resort. Such beauty and selection doesn’t come cheap, however — expect a day pass to set you back around $100.

If other mountains beckon, the California slopes at the Sierra at Tahoe ski resort have an extensive network of trails suitable for beginners, and Mt. Rose draws experienced snow-sport enthusiasts to its legendary “chutes,” daring skiers to traverse some

of the steepest terrain in North America.

Vancouver

An hour and a half north of Vancouver, the resort town of Whistler glistens between Blackcomb Peak and Whistler Mountain. Whistler gets its name from the high, oddly pleasing scream of the hoary marmot — or “whistle pig” — though if the name also suggests speed and wind, the association isn’t accidental.

Until the 1960s, the municipality of Whistler was called Alta Lake, and the mountain was called London because of its penumbra of fog. The names were changed in the 1960s in the hopes of luring both tourists and, perhaps, the Olympics. The strategy worked. Whistler is one of the most stunning resort towns in the continent, as the world learned when Whistler and Blackcomb became prominent gaming locations for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Nearly as attractive as the surrounding scenery and on a vastly more human scale, tiny Whistler village looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life — an almost too-perfect wonderland of cobblestones, bridges, inns and taverns, hearths, chimneys and warm yellow light spilling out of shops and warm cafés. The coziness of the village doesn’t hint that the town harbors some legitimately wild nightlife, mostly in gay-friendly joints like Buffalo Bills and Maxx Fish.

From January 23 to 31, Whistler will glam up for its annual Whistler Pride and Ski Festival, and thousands from across the globe will descend on the village to party in the streets. Near the end of the week, they will mount a ski-born pride parade down Whistler’s face. Accommodations there are all gay friendly, from the grand — Whistler has a lovely Four Seasons — to the funky — pet-friendly Aava Whistler Hotel underwrites local LGBT events, and many visitors report that its hot tubs are wonderfully steamy.

Montana

The zigzagging southeastern border between Montana and Idaho wanders over much of the country’s most amazing scenery. On the Montana side, just a few miles shy of Yellowstone National Park, is Big Sky. The town is divided into two sections: the Mountain Village, where you’ll find the immense Big Sky Resort, and the Meadow Village, thousands of feet below. At the latter, summertime visitors can access white-water rafting, kayaking and world-class fly fishing; and visitors there can find a number of faux-old-timey businesses of considerable charm throughout the year. Mostly, though, you’ll find space. Even the largest of the businesses in town are dwarfed by the surrounding terrain and the (big) sky overhead.

Big Sky Resort, the country’s largest ski resort, includes what used to be the independently owned Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin. Together, the resorts boast more than 250 runs, 30 ski lifts and nearly 6,000 acres of explorable mountain terrain.

The dining options there are nearly as expansive as the terrain. For a uniquely western take on decadence, gourmands should visit The Cabin Bar and Grill in the Mountain Village, where French pâté and Wisconsin brie are served alongside river trout, elk chops and game burgers.

Jackson

Jackson, Wyoming, sits at the southern end of the Jackson Hole valley, just south of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and west of the vast Gros Ventre Wilderness. Take a stroll east of town, and you may find yourself in the middle of the world’s largest free-ranging herd of elk. Jackson was the first city in Wyoming to pass anti-discrimination legislation for sexual orientation, and it takes pride in being one of the region’s most socially liberal communities.

Snow King Mountain — which possesses the steepest north-facing slope in the contiguous United States — was Wyoming’s first ski resort and at 80 years old remains vibrant. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which has come to overshadow Snow King since opening in the 1960s, has one of the country’s greatest concentrations of difficult slopes spread across Aprés Vous and Rendezvous Mountains.

There are also some great eats in downtown Jackson Hole. Check out the duck cakes or the grilled wasabi elk filet at The Blue Lion. The steak tartare pizza and a Korean riff on venison at the upscale Snake River Grill are worth checking out, too.•

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