If you’re looking for somewhere to go on a family-friendly ski vacation, Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, British Columbia, was apparently born out of its founder’s need to entertain his kids.
Cliff Serwa opened the resort in 1963, and over the years, “he found that if he trekked through the bush and built a road and T-bar [lift], they could slide on the snow,” says Michael Ballingall, a senior vice president of sales and marketing at Big White.
The Serwa name might be familiar to ski enthusiasts, as Serwa’s granddaughter, Kelsey Serwa, won the gold medal in women’s ski cross at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
But what if your grandfather didn’t start a ski resort? What if your kids don’t even have a pair of snow pants? Skiing and snowboarding aren’t the easiest or cheapest sports to get into once you factor in lift tickets, lessons and equipment costs.
Despite those very real barriers to entry, there are ways to have fun in the snow this winter at a variety of price points.
Not only do we have amazing ski areas within five hours of the city (here are 10 to get you started), there are many activities that don’t involve skiing (here are some suggestions.) Here are some wonderful family-friendly options.
Kids growing like the proverbial weeds? Check out shops like Sugarlump in Madison Park, Childish Things in Blue Ridge and Kids on 45th in Wallingford to pick up used outerwear and base layers (or to sell your own gently used items). Visit the U District’s 2nd Base or Ballard’s Wonderland Gear Exchange for outerwear and pint-sized sporting goods. Best practice for many of these shops is to visit mid-week, after the bulk of weekend drop-offs have been sorted, priced and moved out onto the sales floor.
If you think you’ll only use these items for one trip, consider checking out the online company Arrive (arriveoutdoors.com), which rents everything from base layers to goggles for kids in sizes as small as 2T — for as little as $4 per day for a jacket-and-pants combo. If you’re traveling to the snow, Arrive will ship your items to an Airbnb or hotel; you then drop them off at any FedEx location when you’re done.
Stick close to home
Maybe you don’t want a big snowbound commitment. According to the kindly guest services agent Leona Grimes at The Summit at Snoqualmie, “We call ourselves Seattle’s home mountain.” In good conditions, the Summit’s four base areas are about an hourlong drive from Seattle. There are two shuttle services that provide rides to the Summit, but only Flixbus allows children under 18. The bus leaves Sixth Avenue South and South Lane Street in the Chinatown International District at 7:10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and departs the Summit at 11:20 a.m. and 5:10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; round-trip tickets are about $20 per person.
Lift tickets are always cheapest when purchased online, before you get to the mountain. A full day adult/teen pass on a peak day (weekends and holidays) is $99 online, $15 for kids up to age 6, and $67 for kids ages 7-12.
Don’t want to ski or snowboard? The snow-tubing park is open Friday through Sunday. Again, tickets are cheapest online (as low as $14.99) for adults, while you’ll pay $8 online or $10 at the window for kids aged 6 and under. Nordic trails are also open on weekends. Tickets are only available at the mountain; $27 for adults and $22 for youth/seniors for a full day. Also, you can get out on the snowshoe trails for $20/person for anyone age 7 and up. Kids under 6 snowshoe for free, but the Summit doesn’t carry snowshoe rentals for kids under 6, so you’ll need to bring your own.
If you can afford the expense and want your children to learn to ski or snowboard, consider enrolling them in a multi-week lesson program. Not only will you save a few bucks compared to buying daily lessons that aren’t bundled, your kids will be learning from the same instructor weekly, ensuring continuity. Also, they’ll be with the same kids, hopefully forming friendships and helping solidify the fact that skiing is a social sport, one that’s much more fun with friends.
The Summit at Snoqualmie offers weekly lessons for kids as young as 4. For $370, kids meet for 90 minutes weekly for four weeks. Single-day group lessons are $159. Snoqualmie also offers take-home seasonal rentals for kids as young as 4 ($150-$180, depending on the kid’s age). You can also rent a full ski setup ($229.99) or a full snowboard set ($199.99) from Fremont’s EVO, or REI ($170 for a ski setup).
Try out the resort life
If you’re looking to get away for a few days and immerse yourself in a winter wonderland, a ski resort is the way to go. And while certain movies (I’m looking at you, “Hot Dog…The Movie” and “Aspen Extreme”) will have you believe the resort life is full of wild parties, many resorts specialize in family-friendly fun.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint, Idaho, is a 5.5-hour drive from Seattle, and the resort prides itself on being kid-ready. It offers enough challenging terrain for the grown-ups (2,900 skiable acres; 35% advanced, 15% expert level) but also has a pool, hot tub and free movie theater. There’s an on-site daycare that takes kids as young as 4 months ($65/half day, $85/full day), and ski lessons start at age 4. If you stay at the lodge, there is free breakfast daily and kids 6 and under ski for free.
For people who aren’t into skiing or snowboarding, Schweitzer also offers tubing, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.
“Honestly, kids just like to get up here and play in the snow. Building snowmen and enjoying the environment,” says Dig Chrismer, Schweitzer’s marketing manager.
Even though Schweitzer is known as “Idaho’s largest resort,” it’s still small in terms of sprawl; it’s the type of place where you park your car in front of your lodge and don’t move it again until you leave.
“The village being the size that it is — it’s pretty intimate. If the kids are in the 9-13 age range, they can run around and play and you don’t need to panic too much,” Chrismer says.
Despite there being 92 trails, 10 lifts and three terrain parks, Chrismer says Schweitzer is the type of place where people are “aware and looking out” for your kids.
“Where do you want to be? I want to be in a place where my family feels comfortable, and if my kids are out riding, they’re going to be seen and people are going to be aware of them,” she says.
Along those same lines is Big White in Canada. Ballingall likens the resort to a winter version of an RV park or lakeside campground, where parents from all over the world meet at nightly events “because their kids get along in ski school” — and they end up making Big White an annual winter-vacation tradition.
“Other mountains concentrate on big-mountain skiing or cat-skiing or heli-skiing. We tend to concentrate on families,” he says.
This translates to hosting carnival nights and ice-skating nights, but also a ski school where they pick your kids up directly from your condo or hotel room and take them to lessons ($15/child, $25/family), buying you an extra hour of sleep (or time on the slopes).
Parents can slide down 119 trails (54% intermediate, 22% expert and 6% listed as extreme) or rip through the snowboard/ski-cross park.
If neither skiing nor snowboarding are your your thing, the Happy Valley area of Big White features dogsleds, horse-drawn sleigh rides, tubing, miniature and full-sized snowmobiling, ice skating, access to 15 miles of cross-country ski and snowshoeing trails, and “one of the only ice climbing towers in North America.”
“There [are] beginners learning to slide on snow, the jingle of the bells on the horses; moms roasting hot dogs and marshmallows on fires while kids are out tubing. It’s just a cool area,” Ballingall says.
Flights to Big White from Seattle are less than two hours. The resort runs a shuttle door-to-door from the airport ($29.33-$86/person round trip) if you’re staying on mountain, but there’s also a bus from Kelowna ($25/person round trip) if not.
As with Snoqualmie, head online to find the best prices at both Schweitzer and Big White. Resorts often run specials and packages that bundle shuttles, lodging and family lift tickets.
Only time will tell if your kids are set to be the next big ski or snowboard superstars. In the meantime, have fun getting outside this winter — at a price point that fits your budget.
Summit at Snoqualmie 1001 WA-906, Snoqualmie Pass; 425-434-7669; summitatsnoqualmie.com
Big White Ski Resort 5315 Big White Rd, Kelowna, British Columbia; 250-765-3101; bigwhite.com
Schweitzer Mountain Resort 10000 Schweitzer Mountain Rd, Sandpoint, ID; 208-263-9555; schweitzer.com