Top Runs

18 must-ski groomers, from those who sculpt snow at Vail and Beaver Creek

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Perhaps the best part of ripping down early morning corduroy at Vail and Beaver Creek is that you don’t need to worry about where best to ski: It’ll be good anywhere, and everywhere. To help you prioritize, we asked a cat driver at each mountain, and their bosses, which runs they’d hit first thing.


Riva Ridge: “I don’t know that there’s a better top-to-bottom groomer in the world than Riva Ridge,” says Vail mountain operations director Kate Schifani. The frontside screamer, named after the site of a WWII 10th Mountain Division battle, drops almost 3,000 vertical feet. “It’s got great pitch; it’s everything you want in a 3½-mile run. It’s steep where you want it to be, then levels out to give your legs a break before you get right back in it.” Cat driver Stephen Becht says Riva gets groomed three nights a week, and always on Friday.

Genghis Khan: “The good thing about grooming is it’s usually pretty easy to find,” Schifani says. One exception is Genghis, which dives east from the long southwest ridgeline in China Bowl. It’s the most consistent steep pitch on the mountain and starts with a cornice entry—and airtime if you want it. Genghis doesn’t get groomed every night, and often it comes down to a conversation between staff to decide when that happens. “That’s one of the reasons we ski almost every day,” Schifani says, “because we want to look at it.”

Preparing Avanti, a signature frontside groomer, for a new day

Avanti: Among the runs that do get a nightly manicure, few satisfy the morning speed jones like Avanti, a frontside classic that packs a particularly exhilarating punch halfway down. “It’s just the right pitch, the right length, nice and wide,” Schifani says. “You can just lay into a turn and not worry about anything else but how fun it is at that moment.” (Other worthy trails that are groomed nightly include Northwoods, Lodgepole, and Swingsville.) Avanti, which is lappable from Chair 2, is also one of the best bangs for your buck if you’re churning out vert.

Born Free: Like Avanti, Born Free is so highly regarded at Vail that a lift named after it runs just above the piste. But forgo that lift and take the Eagle Bahn Gondola to the top, because that’s how Born Free is best experienced. The descent from Eagle’s Nest to Lionshead epitomizes what Schifani describes as an epiphany of skiing perfect corduroy: “It’s kind of like going to a symphony orchestra—really predictable and almost timeless, whereas skiing powder is more like going to a rock concert.” Since Born Free is often the first run to open each autumn, there are plenty of opportunities to confirm that timelessness.

The Slot: “I like to think that Vail has the best snow on planet Earth,” Schifani says. “But I could be biased.” Slot is one of the runs that proves Schifani’s theory on many winter days. The signature southeast pitch into upper Sun Up Bowl is best experienced with an inch of wind buff on top of fresh corduroy after a six-inch storm. It’s groomed every night, in part to provide access to intermediate skiers who might not otherwise venture into the Back Bowls.

Blue Ox: Vail’s cat crew covers an enormous geographical range each day of the season (which, for those wondering, totaled 171 days last season). When the full mountain is open, the roster includes Blue Sky, China Bowl, and the entire frontside—40 to 50 runs every night in the heart of winter. On the far eastern edge, Blue Ox gets groomed just once or twice a week—typically Friday and Monday nights, according to Becht. If you see it on the grooming report, which usually is published just before the mountain opens, head straight there. And bring a buff to save your face because it’s as fast as groomers get.

Morning Side Ridge: Plunging down the gut of Sun Down Bowl, this locals' favorite can be fickle for cruiser lovers—last year’s shallow snowpack didn’t allow the cat crew to touch it at all. But when it’s good, it’s excellent. During a regular snow year, it gets groomed twice a week, usually on Monday and Thursday nights. “It has a couple of really steep pitches that are super fun,” says Vail grooming manager Patrick Cook. “It’s one of our longest-lasting runs.”

Northstar: Last year, Cook added this Northeast Bowl favorite to the list of runs that get the nightly corduroy treatment. That’s no surprise: The trail includes three pronounced faces after navigating a narrow gully at the top. “The last face is one of the steeper pitches on the mountain,” Cook says. “We usually winch it, but it can be free groomed too.”

Jade Glade: Genghis Khan gets most of the attention in China Bowl, but its neighbor to the north, with a long, sustained pitch, is arguably just as classic. The catch? “You can’t tell if it’s groomed unless you ski over the ridge,” Cook says. This means despite Jade Glade’s propensity to hold snow and the tree islands that make each fall line feel unique, plenty of guests ski right by it.


Stone Creek Meadows: “On a normal day, I do what I call chasing the sun,” says Dan Ramker, Beaver Creek's vice president of mountain operations. “Get off Centennial and go down Stone Creek Meadows, which has all-natural snow, is typically groomed, and has a great fall line for both skiing and snowboarding.” From there, you’re positioned to take Chair 4 to Red Buffalo Express and the top of the mountain. “We usually groom a large percentage of terrain at the top, just hundreds of passes wide, where you can hold your turns for as long as you want.”

Golden Eagle: One of the benefits of Beaver Creek hosting a World Cup downhill every year is that after the racers leave in December, the rest of us get to enjoy the same run. Schussing down 2,600 vertical feet rife with twists and turns and double fall lines is challenging enough, but scoring fresh cord on the Birds of Prey downhill course can be harder than actually skiing it. The cat crew needs three or four machines to groom it in a night, with winches at the top where the pitch is steepest. More often, they’ll groom the lower half, from what’s known as Pumphouse to the bottom.

Harrier: “Harrier is by far my favorite run on the mountain in any kind of condition,” Ramker says. Hop off Centennial and trend skier’s left on West Fall Road to reach the top. “There’s a unique set of tree islands down the middle that gives it a glade-like experience. And two definitive sides funnel toward each other from opposing fall lines. One is more protected from the sun, and the other softens early. The trail is kind of hard to find if you’re not used to it, so it’s a little bit of a secret.” On mornings when it’s been groomed, that means the cord lasts longer.

Beaver Creek's Centennial run, where the 1989 World Ski Championships was raced, drops 3,340 vertical feet over 2.75 miles from the summit.

Centennial: This top-to-bottom classic spans two long chairlifts to the summit (Centennial and Cinch Express) and cleaves its way down the center of the mountain, past Spruce Saddle, and back to Beaver Creek Village. “It’s large,” Ramker says of the run that once hosted World Cup downhillers. “It’s the longest trail on our hill, and its diversity is amazing. It starts with a flat, open gliding section, then a steep face to Spruce Face and another flat gliding section, then Willie’s Face before another flat gliding section. Even for a local who skis every day, it’s a lot of vertical.”

Larkspur Bowl: When asked to describe what makes a perfect groomed run, Ramker says that “it’s flat, not just up and down but laterally across the trail. Between the individual passes it’s nice and smooth. And consistent. A good groomer should feel safe to get and stay on edge.” He might as well have been describing the gut of Larkspur Bowl, a blissfully wide, perfectly sloped football field of open range under Chair 11. Between that, Grouse Mountain, and Birds of Prey, you could ski three lifts all day and never have to decide what’s next until you reach the bottom of each run.

First tracks on President Ford's in Strawberry Park

Upper President Ford’s: One of the black diamond runs that often gets groomed on weekends, Upper President Ford’s (named for the Beav’s most famous former resident, who owned a ski chalet just off the run) is a long, undulating pitch that weaves back and forth skier’s right of Strawberry Park Express. It turns into a blue run halfway down, but the upper portion has a steeper pitch and a slightly gladed feel to it, says Ramker, which keeps it entertaining long after every bit of fresh cord has been shredded.

Raven's Ridge: The only consistently groomed run on Grouse Mountain, this cruiser starts under the lift and trends right between Ptarmigan and Screech Owl, before bending back left two-thirds of the way down for a roller-coaster ride into the finish. “It’s a pretty flowy line and fun to get into the bottlenecks and sidehills,” says cat driver Canyon Eck. “Kind of like driving on a freshly paved road. You can just let loose.”

Sawbuck: Accessed off the Bachelor Gulch Express (Chair 16) via Intertwine, Sawbuck is the quintessential meanderer’s choice, with gentle rollers on a consistent pitch. “It’s a little more mellow, but you can still have fun with it and go fast—and get yourself to different parts of the mountain, whether that’s Bach Gulch or into Strawberry Park (via Chair 18),” Eck says. It’s normally groomed nightly, as well.

Ripsaw: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would love this run. Though it doesn’t get groomed every night (the cat crew tries to hit it on weekends), when it’s corduroy, an easy-going entrance leads to an exhilarating drop that is ideal for testing edges or making figure 11s. “Star Wars warp speed is probably the best way to describe it,” Eck adds. “Your heart pumps faster, you point and shoot, and you feel the adrenaline.”

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