Top 10 early season ski resorts - Europe

Updated: 8 December 2020

Early season skiing (and by that we mean pre-Christmas) can be immensely rewarding. For many it’s simply the anticipation and excitement of getting back on the slopes. For others it’s the lack of crowds and low prices. 

 

But what about the snow? Just how risky is it booking up in advance for the very beginning of the season? Which are the most reliable European resorts for a pre-Christmas break?

 

Nowhere is guaranteed good early snow, of course, but by choosing your resort carefully you can certainly mitigate the risks.

 

With that in mind, here are 10 of the best early season ski resorts in the Alps for a combination of both snow conditions and likely extent of open terrain - in no particular order...

1. Val d’Isère/Tignes, France

Resort height:

  1850/2100m

Slopes:

  1550-3455m (Espace Killy)

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  300km (Espace Killy)

 

Last weekend in November (Tignes glacier opens from early autumn)

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Tignes: open from 17 October 2020

  Espace Killy: open from 26 November 2020

Val d'Isère ski area, France - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Agence Nuts - Val d'Isère Tourist Office

Val d'Isère and Tignes are arguably the best bet in the Alps for an early season ski break, and should certainly be on everyone's shortlist.

 

Yes, there are other ski resorts equally likely to have snow but, unlike many resorts which wait until the crowds arrive at Christmas, few areas are as dedicated as L'Espace Killy when it comes to opening up as much as possible as early as possible. The area will endeavour to open up most of its terrain early if conditions allow - which they often do.

 

Even if it hasn't snowed, there is some serious snow-making here - especially on the Val d'Isère side, which now boasts one of the largest man-made snow systems in Europe.

 

Add to the mix not one but two skiable glaciers (the best of which is the Grande Motte above Tignes) and it's easy to see why Val d'Isère and Tignes are considered among the best early season ski resorts. Some action is pretty much guaranteed. 

 

Looking for hotels in Val d'Isère?  Click here

 

Looking for hotels in Tignes?  Click here

2. Cervinia, Italy

Resort height:

  2050m

 

Slopes:

  1525-3480m

  (1525-3820m inc Zermatt)

Pistes:

  150km

  (350km inc. Zermatt)

 

Usual opening:

 

  Late October

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 26 October 2020

Cervinia ski area, Italy - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Cervino SpA

Cervinia's height normally allows it to open in late October, with skiing guaranteed on the glacier (shared with Zermatt) if there hasn't been much early snow. 

 

You are unlikely to be able to ski back to resort immediately, though in some years you can ski down to one of the the mid-stations, be it to Laghi Cime Bianche (2810m) or, if you are very lucky, to Plan Maison (2555m).

 

Whatever the case, Cervinia does its best to extend the available terrain as far as possible down the mountain as winter approaches, so that by late November you can sometimes ski all the way back to base. Once any serious snow has fallen, it is likely to stick around due to the ski area's exceptional height.

 

By December, snow cover is often complete - making Cervinia one of the most reliable early season ski resorts in the Alps. Don't forget that (weather-permitting) you can also ski over to Zermatt, across the border in Switzerland, where the first area you will arrive at is its super snow-sure, largely glacial Klein Matterhorn sector.

 

Looking for hotels in Cervinia?  Click here

3. Hintertux, Austria

Resort height:

  1500m

Slopes:

  1500-3250m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  86km

 

  365 days a year

 

2020/21 season:

  Open all year

Hintertux ski area, Austria - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Hintertux Gletscher

If it's snow at all cost you're after, then Hintertux is probably the most reliable ski resort in the Alps.

 

The glacier here (arguably the best in the Alps) is open 365 days a year, and the lower non-glacial areas are both high (by Austrian standards) and shady.

 

Hintertux is probably also the safest bet for an early season ski break, if you can handle the limited extent of the skiing. Granted, the extent of terrain can't compare to the likes of Val d'Isère or Ischgl, but there is more variety and challenge than you might think. This is especially true if the lower non-glacial section of the resort is open - this can be in early November in a good year but is more typically in late November/early December.

 

If the snow is good, nearby Mayrhofen (open late November) will greatly increase your options.

 

Looking for hotels in Hintertux?  Click here

4. Ischgl, Austria

 Resort height:

  1400m

 Slopes:

  1400-2870m

 Pistes:

 

 Usual opening:

  238km

 

  Late November

 

 2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 26 November 2020

Ischgl ski area, Austria - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Tourismusverband Paznaun-Ischgl

Ischgl opens towards the end of November and, despite its lack of glacier, usually offers the greatest extent of early season skiing in Austria, sometimes even the Alps.

 

There are two main reasons for this. The first is good snow-making – with around 60% of the 238km of pistes covered, including all the main arteries and routes down to resort.

 

Even more important though is the area’s height and orientation. Ischgl has far more skiing above 2000m than any other resort in Austria, much of it facing north or north-west - meaning that once an early base is laid down, it tends to stick. What's more, unlike many other resorts, Ischgl will always make the maximum effort to open as many pistes as possible given the snow conditions at the time.

 

Looking for hotels in Ischgl?  Click here

5. Obergurgl, Austria

Resort height:

  1930m

Slopes:

  1795-3080m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  110km

 

  Mid to late November

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 19 November 2020

Obergurgl ski area, Austria - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Alexander Maria Lohmann

With a resort height of 1930m and slopes topping 3000m, Obergurgl is probably the most snow-sure entirely non-glacial resort in the Alps, and is an excellent early season choice if you don't mind its relatively limited terrain.

 

Ischgl may have a larger ski area, but Obergurgl has the distinct advantage of offering the more reliable resort level snow. Claiming 99% artificial snow coverage, the resort is usually up and running by mid-November.

 

Nearby Sölden's two glaciers give you further options in the unlikely event that local conditions aren't up to scratch.

 

Looking for hotels in Obergurgl?  Click here

6. Val Thorens, France

Resort height:

  2300m

 

Slopes:

  1800-3230m

  (1260-3230m - 3 Valleys)

Pistes:

  150km

  (600km - 3 Valleys)

 

Usual opening:

 

  Mid to late November

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 21 November 2020

Europe's highest ski resort, Val Thorens, normally opens a week earlier than its main early season rivals Tignes/Val d'Isère.

 

Thanks to the resort's altitude and state-of-the-art snow-making, snow cover on piste is normally assured from late November, although snow conditions can be more hit and miss off-piste.

 

The available terrain is usually less extensive than in L'Espace Killy - at least until the rest of the 3 Valleys open up in early to mid-December - but Val Thorens does have the distinct advantage of being more compact, as well as offering more reliable resort level snow.

 

Val Thorens is just one resort of the vast 3 Valleys ski network, which also includes Les Menuires, St Martin de Belleville, Méribel, La Tania and Courchevel. Of these, Courchevel is another safe early season option - if you can hang on until early December - not least due to its immaculate grooming and piste maintenance.

 

Looking for hotels in Val Thorens?  Click here

7. Sölden, Austria

Resort height:

  1380m

Slopes:

  1350-3250m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  150km

 

  Late September

 

2020/21 season:

  

  Open from 28 September 2020

Sölden Ötztal ski area, Austria - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Ötztal Tourismus

Sölden may not boast the highest natural snowfall, but it does have two excellent glaciers, one of which nearly always opens by late September. The other usually follows in early October, making Sölden one of the best resorts in the Alps for a very early ski break.

 

Additional slopes may also open early depending on conditions, though you normally have to wait until mid to late November before any significant non-glacial terrain becomes operational.

 

By early December, however, you can count on the majority of this high altitude Austrian ski area being open - as well as being able to ski back to resort.

 

Looking for hotels in Sölden?  Click here

8. Zermatt, Switzerland

Resort height:

  1620m

Slopes:

  1620-3820m

   (1525-3820 incl. Cervinia)

Pistes:

  200km

   (350km incl. Cervinia)

 

Usual opening:

 

  Main ski area: from mid-November

  Klein Matterhorn glacier: all year round

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 30 November 2020

Zermatt, Switzerland - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: weathertoski.co.uk

Zermatt may have a relatively dry climate but with both a large glacier and the highest pistes in the Alps, its snow preservation is excellent. Skiing is possible all year round on its Klein Matterhorn glacier.

 

Other non-glacial parts of the ski area normally open in late November, starting with the Gornergrat sector, followed by neighbouring Sunegga. 

 

The extent of early skiing available in Zermatt is dictated by snow conditions, but by early December there is normally a good network of pistes open linking all three of the resort's main areas.

 

Don't forget that (weather-permitting) you can also ski into neighbouring Cervinia, across the border in Italy, which has its own extensive and snow-sure ski area, open from late October.

 

Looking for hotels in Lech-Zürs?  Click here

9. Obertauern, Austria

Resort height:

  1740m

Slopes:

  1630-2315m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  100km

 

  Late November

 

2020/21 season:

  

  Open from 26 November 2020

Obertauern, Austria - Weather to ski - Top 10 early season ski resorts, Europe Photo: Tourismusverband Obertauern

Obertauern does not have a glacier to fall back on, but its impressive natural snowfall and comprehensive snow-making usually mean that there is plenty of terrain open by the time the resort opens in late November.

 

The resort's geography is also a factor in helping to preserve the snow. The top height of 2315m is not spectacular but, situated on the eastern side of the Alps, average temperatures (relative to height) are considerably lower than in the western (and especially north-western) Alps, which are more exposed to the warming effects of the Atlantic gulf stream.

 

Looking for hotels in Obertauern?  Click here

10. Les 2 Alpes, France

Resort height:

  1650m

Slopes:

  1300-3570m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  205km

 

  Early December

 

2020/21 season:

 

  1 December 2018

Resort height:

  1650m

Slopes:

  1300-3570m

Pistes:

 

Usual opening:

  205km 

 

Early December (sometimes opens for one or two weeks during the late-October holidays)

 

2020/21 season:

 

  Open from 28 November 2020

  (also open from 17 October to 1 November 2020)

Les 2 Alpes ski area, France - Weather to ski - Top 10 early ski season resorts, Europe Photo: Office de Tourisme des 2 Alpes / Laurent Salino

Les 2 Alpes used to always open its glacier area for the autumn half term (in late October) before closing again in November, and re-opening "properly" in early December. Note that in recent years this has not been possible due to insufficient snow cover, but this year the resort will be open from 17 October to 1 November 2020 thanks to significant early snowfall.

 

Whilst complete early December snow cover is not guaranteed, the resort boasts the largest skiable glacier in Europe and the highest pistes in France. Its upper slopes are likely to have good conditions, especially on the glacier, which is one of the best in the Alps. What’s more, most of the upper runs face north, more or less guaranteeing some decent early season snow, even if it takes a while to get up to it.

 

Lower down, early season conditions are more temperamental (particularly on the steeper west facing home-runs), but they do have snow-making and, if you are very lucky, you can enjoy one of the longest vertical drops in the Alps. 

See our latest update on weather and snow conditions in the Alps

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