Ski season begins in the US and Canada: What to know before you hit the slopes in 2021

Families and friends in a ski resort
North America's ski resorts are set for a busy 2011/22 winter season © Getty Images

With the seasons officially changing and cooler weather covering most of North America, ski resorts across the United States and Canada have started opening their runs for the 2021-22 ski season. Just like last year, skiers will spot changes meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association show ski areas in the United States recorded 59 million ski visits during the 2020-21 season. That was the fifth busiest season on record since the organizations started tracking visitation in 1978. The association expects to see the demand for skiing just as high this year.

If you're planning a ski trip this year, tuck a mask in your ski jacket pocket and expect these changes from last year.

What to expect outside: full capacity

When you're outdoors, it likely will feel like a return to normal. Expect to see ski lifts operating at full capacity. Fewer resorts plan to have reservations systems to manage entry this year. Most no longer require masks when skiing or hopping on open chair lifts outdoors.

Also, the 2021 season will see the return of outdoor events with spectators. If you're planning to attend, make sure to check the requirements at your destination. Some places may require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend. For example, Washington State requires those 12 and older to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 administered within 72-hours prior to the event to attend.

Woman enjoying snow in Whitefish, Montana
Expect some changes this ski season ©Getty Images

Indoors: dining, masks, and vaccine proof

Depending on where you travel and the resort you visit, you'll encounter different requirements when you walk inside the lodge. Most places still require masks and some will make you show proof of vaccination if you go indoors to dine.

Vail Resorts, which owns 34 ski resorts in the US and Canada, will require proof of vaccination for those 12 and older to enter its cafeteria-style restaurants. Like last year, it will also require reservations for dining and masks to be worn indoors when not actively eating or drinking.

Meanwhile, Aspen Skiing Company-owned resorts in Colorado require visitors to show proof of vaccination to stay at its owned and operated hotels as well as to enter its full-service, seated dining areas.

Ski Utah published a list of COVID-19 protocols at each of the 15 ski resorts in the state.

Canada has more stringent requirements, but you've likely met them if you're entering the country. For instance, British Columbia's Provincial Health Authority requires visitors to table service restaurants and bars to show a BC Vaccine Card along with a valid government-issued photo ID to enter. Banff Ski Resort in Alberta requires guests to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative Covid-19 rapid test within 72-hours of arrival at the resort.

For those who are not Canadian residents, the proof of vaccine you used to enter Canada and your passport will satisfy that requirement.

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Lake Tahoe is preparing for a busy ski season © Shutterstock / Cavan Images - Offset

Ski buses, trains, and other transport return in 2021

On the weekends, the roadways out to the ski resorts from Denver can be a traffic nightmare so one piece of good news for this season is some of the alternative transit options have returned in Colorado, the most popular state in the US for skiing.

The Winter Park Express Ski Train will return on Jan. 14, 2022, after being canceled in 2020. The service, run by Amtrak, operates on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, delivering skiers from Denver’s Union Station directly to Winter Park Resort. (Denver International Airport also is accessible through Union Station.) It takes approximately 2 hours but you’ll have a scenic view of the Rocky Mountains as you go.

The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang, which provides service out to Vail and Eagle, is bringing back Snowstang, its bus service that provides transit to Loveland Ski Area, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, and Steamboat Resort and Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs.

At Lake Tahoe, the North Lake Tahoe Express shuttle service is operating between the Reno Airport and North Lake Tahoe Truckee. Utah Transit Authority’s Sky Bus starts operating in December in most areas.

There is a federal mandate requiring masks on public transportation so you will need to wear a mask on board.

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Public transport options have returned to US ski resorts © Tomas Cohen / Vail Resorts

The Caldor wildfire and ski resorts

COVID-19 was not the only challenge to face ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada. The Caldor wildfire, which burned from August through October, threatened many of their properties.

Heavenly and Kirkwood resorts escaped damage but Sierra at Tahoe did not. The resort still has not announced an official opening date for its slopes as it evaluates damage from the fire though it is hopeful it can open in 2022.

On its website, the resort reported that the West Bowl Express will not be accessible this winter.

It also said the Grandview Express haul rope, which suspends the ski lift’s chairs, was damaged during the fire. Sierra at Tahoe has ordered a replacement cable, but it is currently in production in Switzerland.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

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