The List: The 9 Best Chairlifts in North America

The chairlift is the perfect ski vehicle. Not the tram, not the t-bar, not even the gondie. No, the chair

A typical day on Chair 23, Mammoth Mountain. Photo: Peatross/MMSA

The chairlift is the perfect ski vehicle. Not the tram, not the t-bar, not even the gondie. No, the chair is ideal – it provides a moment to get off your feet, look around, and talk, all while staying connected to the fresh air and other elements. Imagine how different the ski culture would be if we didn’t have chairs, if we didn’t have the chance to scope lines, heckle, catch up with bros, or meet someone new. Indeed, when it comes to culture, chairs are every bit as important as aprés…beforeprés.

What makes a great chairlift? In descending order of importance: access to awesome terrain, access to the best snow, exclusivity to terrain, cultural resonance, scenery, and history. Speed and capacity are nice to have, I suppose, but often come in inverse proportions to the chairs that warm your heart; six packs, for example, are simply soulless people movers installed by profit-hungry corporations.

Indeed, that’s why Mad River Glen’s single chair is on the list – not because of the terrain (which is just okay) or the snow (which is usually crap), but because of Mad River’s dogged (and miserly) insistence on keeping the woefully inefficient lift running despite a dozen reasons to replace it. The Mad River single represents skiing culture at is simplest and finest – rooted in tradition, a little crunchy, beloved despite itself.

But enough of that. Here are, in my opinion, the best chairs in North America. For all those I’ve left out, graded too high, or offended, well, I’m sure you’ll let me know.

In alphabetical order by ski area name

Collins, Alta, Utah
Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,854

The best lift at the best powder ski area in the world, Collins services most of the benchmark, gotta-ski runs at Alta: High Rustler, the Backside, Eddie’s High Nowhere, everything off the High Traverse, Gunsight, High Greeley, Eagle’s Nest, North Rustler, Yellow Trail, Baldy Shoulder.

Glacier Express, Blackcomb, British Columbia
Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,965 feet

Riding the highest chair at Blackcomb is like being given the keys to the kingdom, with fast, 270-degree access to alpine and sub-alpine skiing, plus a short hoof to Spanky’s Ladder, a quick booter that unlocks an ungodly amount of backcountry.

Sublette Quad, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Type: Fixed-grip quad
Vertical: 1,630 feet

The chairs at Jackson don’t get their due, not when the tram looms over the landscape like lord and master of all it surveys, but day in and day out, Sublette delivers fast access to most of the mountain, especially good if you want to lap the upper pitches (like, when there’s an inversion). The Thunder quad is fun, but Sublette gets you to the backcountry on both sides of the hill (Rock Springs to the south and Granite to the north via Headwall hike), plus inbounds goodies like the Alta chutes. And jeez, don’t forget the Hobacks – those runs alone would put Sublette on this list.

Single Chair, Mad River Glen, Vermont
Type: Fixed-grip single
Vertical: 2,067 feet

Soft, spoiled western skiers don’t really get Mad River Glen or the obsession with its single chair (single as in only holding one person, not the only chair for the entire hill), but MRG stands for the things in skiing that don’t change and don’t need to be changed: a mountain, some snow (if you’re lucky), and uphill access to it. That’s all. The Single Chair is absurdly anachronistic, but that’s why people love it – because it’s only about chasing turns, not profits. And hey, it’s not just us: Mad River is the only ski resort named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Chair 23, Mammoth Mountain, California
Type: Fixed-grip triple
Vertical: 1,121 feet

The beauty of Chair 23 is in its simplicity: Atop Mammoth’s open, European-style upper mountain, you can see everything you want to ski from the chair – and get access to about two-thirds of the mountain. 23 follows a spiny volcano ridge, with twin chutes plummeting from either side of its hoover-like top station, Dropout to looker’s left, Wipeout to the right, so you can scope your line and get a snow check as people drop in before you. On a powder day, it provides the fastest, surest lapping opportunities – hit it hard and straight back to the chair.

Double, Silverton Mountain, Colorado
Type: Fixed-grip double
Vertical: 1,900 feet

There’s no chair in North America like the Silverton Double because there’s no mountain like Silverton. The highest, steepest lift-served hill in North America is unique in that’s ungroomed, all advanced and expert terrain, mostly guided (though not always), and extremely low skier density. More like a helicopter operation than a typical commercial area, Silverton’s lift gets you 1,800-plus empty acres, and, if you’ve packed a third lung, you can hike another thousand vert to above that to 13,487.

KT22 Express, Squaw Valley, California
Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,767 feet

Is KT overrated or underrated? The debate rages on while the first chair powder morning lineup stretches to the parking lot. Whichever your position on KT, there’s no arguing that the skiing off this lower-mountain lift at Squaw is one of the more sublime drops in the Lower 48, with open faces, fat old tree glades, and a handful of infamous finger slots right under the chair. For pure theater, there’s nothing like it.

Challenger, Sun Valley, Idaho
Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,630 feet

You know that thing I said about speed not mattering? Scratch that. The Challenger quad on the Warm Springs side of Sun Valley hauls ass up Bald Mountain, giving access to the entire area, and then you can turn around and haul ass down. My legs still quiver at the remembrance of the day I skied Warm Springs nonstop from bell to bell and logged 100,000 vertical in 32 runs. Not too many chairs where you can do that.

Peak Express, Whistler, British Columbia
Type: Detachable quad
Vertical: 1,316 feet

Oh, c’mon, it’s Whistler. It’s the Peak Chair. Almost 5,000 acres of terrain and a mile of vertical if you want to go all the way to the valley floor. How to put it in easy-to-understand terms…riding Peak is like…owning New Belgium Brewery…like…being married to a supermodel…like…having a helicopter without the danger of crashing in a whiteout. A minimum of four alpine bowls, including Harmony, plus glades and more.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
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Showing 32 comments
  • J. D.

    The John Paul lift at Snowbasin has to be one of the most underrated lifts in America.

  • steve casimiro

    Hey, everybody. When I first started working on this list, I considered including every really good chairlift. But it’s more fun to keep it short and tight and then kick off a debate. And that IS a good debate — what would #10 be? Deep Temerity? Summit at Alpine Meadows? The new top to bottom one at Whitewater? If you had to pick ONE to add to the list, what would it be?

  • Michelle Quigley Pearson

    Two of my favorites are also the Edelweiss chair at the top of Alpental in Western Washington, and the quad at Loup Loup (retired from Crystal Mountain).

  • kreg

    Challenger, Big Sky

  • Deb

    Revelation lift at Telluride! That amazing backside bowl will all the snowdrift, plus the hike-to access to all the Gold Hill chutes. OK, I am a little biased, but it is an amazing lift and incredible terrain. Just sayin’.

  • Heather

    Straightbrook Quad, Gore Mtn: Accesses all my favorite trails there, the trail underneath is one of the most challenging there which makes for great people-watching (or a nerve-racking trip down the trail knowing everyone’s watching you). Also, padded, so my rear end doesn’t get too cold. 🙂

  • greg

    Challenger Big Sky, yeah, but how about Schlassmans, Bridger Bowl?

  • Jamie Schectman

    Schlassman’s at Bridger would be my 10th.

  • Tom

    I’m glad to see you mentioned Summit at Alpine, one of the best days is just skiing every bowl one by one until you make it all the way out to around the Buttress.

  • David Howland

    It’s a travesty that Schlassman’s is left off this lift. Also the tram at Big Sky is up there as well. And I’m hoping that was veiled sarcasm when you said that the terrain at MRG is “just ok” and that the snow is usually crap. It might not be Western snow and terrain, but anyone who has skied a day at MRG will tell you that the terrain is killer. And I’ve had better powder days at Mad River Glen than almost anywhere else.

  • RB

    Pallavicini at A-basin is tops for terrain and culture in that neck of the woods.

  • stinky

    Little Cloud at the Bird! Especially now that it’s a quad. Not open just yet I don’t think, but a classic pow-getting lift

  • Stylie

    4 Points Steamboat Co…
    Loved it for the under used Pow lines on Deep days.. or… on a Sunny day… skiing, B.M.T.
    ( bumper migration trail)… to White out..ripping bumps, and hitting kickers…

  • Aaron

    Whitewater has got to be on this list. The double chair lift servicing the Summit Side is as old school and epic as it gets. Not to mention the incredible and challenging in-bounds terrain it gives you access to. Plus, zero lift lines = the best

  • Matt

    Have you skiied MRG, arguably some of the best terrain on the east, and the mad river valley is knowm to get more snow than some places out west?

    • steve casimiro

      Are you asking me? Yes. I lived in Vermont, had a season pass to MRG, skied there frequently, and spent more time hanging out with Betsy Pratt than I’d care to admit. My perspective on Mad River might differ from yours, but it isn’t because I don’t know the mountain.

  • Jim M

    Pallivichini – A-Basin. Worked two seasons up there and with the whole Basin and all of Keystone at our disposal, we’d ride “Polly” until it hurt and NEVER once got bored. Big bumps out front, the cornice drop, the super-steep Waterfall lines on skiers left and the moderate drops and varied terrain of Standard – just RAD. Add in the easy access to the party in the parking lot and it deserves a place in history. (NOTE: I just checked and they are now selling prime parking spots on “The Beach” for $100+, where we used to party for free. Damn, and they wonder why the industry struggles for new blood!)

  • merlinmurph

    MRG gets more snow than some places out west? More snow than LA, maybe 😉

  • John Giardina

    Mt. Eyak ski lift, Cordova Alaska!! The oldest single chair the the states. A place where you can ski from 3000′ to sea level in one run. If you have been here you know what in saying!!

  • Shawn Taylor

    Ch 6, North Bowl, Schweitzer Mtn ( new name snow ghost chair and outback bowl) Old school double with center pole made in the 60’s, reeeeal slow, with face shots for days after a storm

  • RobH

    Great post Steve. Hmmm, no 10? Local bias has me thinking Summit @ AM (please KSL, don’t f it up by expanding access w/new high speed chairs…let it be). But I’m thinking maybe the best chair is the one you are on. Wherever you go, there’s you are.

  • sibs612

    Schlassman’s at Bridger cannot be missed on this list (at least skiers and snowboarders can benefit it) Rouse House where ya at?!!

  • Jared Hoke

    I agree with many posters about this one or that one, but so far everyone has missed one of my faves: the main chair at Aspen Highlands. It’s a nice l-o-n-g ride -or it was; I haven’t skied there in a long time- and the top is SPECTACULAR, both for rubbernecking and for that STEEP face down the west side. When the snow is right and not already chopped up, it’s as Good As It Gets.

  • Lynda Gentry

    I love Alta and ski there every year. I would pick Supreme over Collins.

  • Ski2fly

    Summit lift at Bachelor. Access to 360 degrees of skiiing and awesome views. High Campbell at Crystal deserves honorable mention for easy access to some great 7000′ Cascage peaks and bowls as does 7th Heaven at Steven’s Pass. 7th was the “Peak Express” of its day, now it just rates as a tiny chair up a small pitch.
    Edleweiss at Alpental also deserves honorable mention. This lift was a pioneer at opening up killer, challenging sidecountry.
    Palmer Lift Mt. Hood. Lift served skiing through August, nuff said.

  • Pow Chaser

    Polar Peak – Fernie!

  • SkiDaBird

    Alta is the famous place but I think the best lift in Utah has got to be Summit at Solitude. There isn’t anyone on the lift, even on a powder day, its an old slow double so it doesn’t track out at all, and there is a LOT of great terrain. Evergreen, Cathedral plus the Milk Run Parachute area via long traverse, Buckeye side, the main face of Honeycomb, and if you want a hike, Fantasy has some crazy terrain. All in all, good list and I’m proud of the maturity of the commenters. Very little hate going around and only a few ignorant comments.

    • VirtualViking

      Totally agree with Summit at Solitude. It’s perfectly named, crowds are rarely a problem and the terrain is great. But the Summit lift is not only old and slow, it’s narrow! When I’m there with one of my ski buddies (both of us being grown men) we always take separate chairs. The two of us in one of those chairs makes us a little too… snuggly. Plus side, it’s not like there is a line waiting behind you that would complain.

  • BHH

    i dont agree with the peak express – overcrowded, short runs, not really that steep. i mean wildly overcrowded. like a zoo really. the main bowl gets rutted up.

    Pallavicini at A Basin is awesome – fantastic terrain and old school. That gets my vote.

    Temerity at Highlands is really good. only drawback is the exposure. the trees off to skiers right are really good and not too tight, the access to the Bowl is solid and the runs on steeplechase are sublime. Long steep sections.

    For the east castle rock at sugarbush, the forerunner quad at stowe are great. multiple black lines, tough, classic! the summit lift at whiteface is also old school….

    Sublette is solid but Thunder is also solid with paint brush, tower three chute, hoops gap. JH deserves two lifts more so than Whistler-Blackcomb…

    I vote for Pallavicini….

  • annonmus

    Mad River is an amazing ski resort and there is no reason to be making fun of it!!

  • jake

    cornice at Kirkwood or mt lincoln at sugar bowl

  • Russ Fox

    FYI – The vertical drop of Challenger Quad at Sun Valley, mentioned above, is not 1,630ft but a whopping 3,142ft!, This is the biggest vertical of any chairlift in North America, possibly the world.

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