According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific—the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or “ENSO” for short. The pattern can shift back and forth irregularly every two to seven years, and each phase triggers predictable disruptions of temperature, precipitation, and winds. These changes disrupt the large-scale air movements in the tropics, triggering a cascade of global side effects.”
Historically, a strong El Nino produces above-average snowfall for southwestern U.S. during the colder half of the year—October through March. OpenSnow.com snow forecaster Joel Gratz says certain resorts in ski country typically benefit more than others during a strong El Nino winter. Here they are:
Where to stay: For a central location to a host of Lake Tahoe ski resorts, we recommends staying in South Lake Tahoe near Heavenly ski resort. The full-service Ridge Tahoe offers all the creature ski-vacation comforts, including an outdoor hot tub.
Top-to-bottom powder runs have never been easier at Taos. The New Mexico ski resort may be in for one awesome EL Nino winter, especially when combined with the opening of their new chairlift to the top of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, formerly a hike to zone. Typically during El Nino winters the arid state is anything but dry, which is much welcomed by skiers and and chili pepper farmers alike. It’s said that the extra precipitation makes the peppers even spicier.
Where to stay: For a perfect blend of classic ski-chalet charm and New Mexican ambiance, make a reservation at the Alpine Village Suites Taos. You’re also less than 250 yards from the lifts.
According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 20-inch snow storms on Colorado’s Front Range, which could affect Winter Park and Keystone ski resorts, are almost twice as likely to occur during El Niño years as neutral years. Most monster storms tend to hit during late fall, early winter and spring, while mid-winters can be relatively dry. Southwestern Colorado ski resorts usually benefit the most from El Nino winters, especially Telluride, but ski resorts such as Crested Butte, Aspen and Snowmass often profit as well, because of their central and directional location.
Where to stay: Since Telluride typically makes out the best during El Nino years, we recommend high-tailing it to the San Juans and setting up shop at the Peaks Resort and Spa. Here, you’ll enjoy ski in ski out access and full-service hotel comforts and amenities.
Southern Utah is generally more affected by El Nino than the Salt Lake City area. However, the power of the “lake affect” snow should not be underestimated. The Great Salt Lake’s warm waters amplify snow storms in the area. The lake effect is usually strongest from mid-fall through mid-winter, when lake waters are warmer and land temperatures are cold enough to support snow. With annual averages around 500 inches, Big Cottonwood Canyon ski resorts, Brighton and Solitude, and Little Cottonwood ski resorts, Alta and Snowbird, typically see the most snowfall in the Salt Lake City area.
Where to stay: For a host of services and amenities, including awesome outdoor hot tubs and a range of onsite restaurants, we recommend the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird.
We tapped Mountain Travel Expert Liz Everett to provide helpful tips on how to take advantage of an El Nino winter.
Mountain Travel Expert Since 2004
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Originally from the icy trails of New Jersey, I moved West to pursue powder and a career in writing and editing. Now in Aspen, Colo. and working for Ski.com managing the website and blog content, I couldn't be happier. You'll find me skiing at Aspen Mountain or Aspen Highlands in the winter and mountain biking at Snowmass in the summer.