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SAM Magazine—November 2, 2020, Boulder, Colo.—SKI released its annual resort guide, which ranks the best 50 resorts across North America based on its 2020 reader survey. In the West, Sun Valley, Idaho, took top honors, while Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., was named number one in the East. SunValley2Sun Valley

Challenge often took a backseat to authentic charm, infrastructure, and customer service when it came to the top performing resorts in the West. Quirky, well-appointed ski towns like Ketchum, Idaho; Park City, Utah; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; and Crested Butte Colo., all helped boost their nearby resorts into the top 10.

SKI readers lauded Sun Valley’s lifts, grooming, lodging, dining, and local flavor, bumping it to the top of the pile despite lower challenge and terrain scores. Second-place finisher Deer Valley, Utah, was recognized for its impressive grooming and customer service. Third place, Whitefish, Mont., was popular for its service and local charm. So was fourth place, Taos Ski Valley, N.M., which also scored highly on terrain and overall satisfaction. Last year’s winner Aspen Snowmass, Colo., scored well across the board, particularly when it came to nightlife and its après scene, netting it fifth place for 2021.

In the East, terrain seemed to be the biggest factor, although charm was also key. Its friendly atmosphere, quality customer service, and variety of terrain helped Smugglers’ Notch top the rankings in the East despite an aging lift infrastructure. Number one last year, Tremblant, Quebec, took the number two spot for 2021, with SKI readers praising its European-style village and après offerings in addition to its terrain and lifts.

Mad River Glen, Vt., with its iconic single chair, snagged third thanks to its charm and challenge as well as its value and vibe (so many buzz words). Put another way, SKI readers love that Mad River Glen is unpretentious and has serious expert terrain. Fourth-place Killington, Vt., lacked the charm of some of its competitors, but scored really well in terrain and nightlife. While Whiteface, N.Y., in the fifth spot was an all-rounder with solid scores for terrain, scenery, charm, challenge, nightlife, and down-day activity.

Find the full list of rankings and profiles in SKI’s resorts of the year guide.

Some observations from the writer:

Some observations from the writer:

It’s interesting that grooming was a major feature of the top two western resorts, while terrain/challenge was such an important factor to the eastern resorts that performed well. Normally, I’d imagine these things would be reversed. Have grooming and snowmaking become so ubiquitous in the East that they are no longer of note?

Similarly, is diverse terrain just a given for visitors out west and therefore less valued? It’s also interesting that “charm” is so important to these rankings in both regions. The local vibe of Smuggs’ is not the same as the local vibe of Sun Valley, and yet, in both cases, that sense of authenticity clearly resonated with SKI readers. Charm seems hard to define (and perhaps even harder to manufacture), and that makes it difficult to have tangible, actionable takeaways from these rankings.

If everyone has great snowmaking, grooming, lifts, lodging, dining etc., how does one stand out from the pack? It seems to me like it’s a question of knowing and leaning into one’s branding. —Katie Brinton