How to Pick the Right Ski Pass: Ikon Pass vs. Epic Pass 2021/22
The season pass you choose dictates far more than just where you’ll ski. Your ski pass will determine how much time you end up spending in the car, the friends you'll spend time with, and the ski towns you’ll get to know.
We love skiing for this reason. It’s not just an excuse to get outside and play – it also gives us the opportunity to explore and connect.
So in order to help you get the right pass, we did the dirty work. We got down in the pit, read the fine-print , figured out what matters and what doesn’t, and came out with some thoughts about how to pick the right ski pass for you.
Here’s how to choose your ski pass.
...And hey, while you’re at it, drop your name and email into the form below for a chance to win the season pass of your choice!
What’s the difference? The Epic and Ikon Passes at a Glance
Both the Epic Pass and Ikon Pass offer a lot of top-notch skiing close to major metropolitan areas, as well as some pretty incredible destinations for longer trips. The main differences come down to location, the amenities associated with those locations, and price.
With the Epic Pass, you receive unlimited access to many big-name resorts like Vail, Park City, and Whistler. With these (and many other) big names come the amenities associated with high-profile destinations (think: booking Marriott hotels rather than local inns). For some, these amenities are a bonus – comfort and convenience at your fingertips. Others might find these amenities expensive, or they might just prefer a more homegrown “local” experience.
With the Ikon Pass, on the other hand, there are more resorts off the beaten path – and it shows. We find that most Ikon resorts feature incredible (dare we say better?) terrain, a more laid-back feel, and shorter lines. You still get access to many big-name resorts like Aspen, Taos, and Jackson Hole, but they’re usually more tucked away than their Epic counterparts. Access to these Ikon resorts is more limited (7 days per location), but we think that this limitation isn’t a big deal when there are 28 limited access resorts to choose from.
The next major difference between the Epic Pass and the Ikon Pass is price. In the past, the passes were roughly evenly priced – but no longer. Epic made a big splash by announcing a 20% price reduction for the 2021-22 season, bringing the full pass down to $783. That’s $266 cheaper than the Ikon’s $1,049 (or $999 for returning pass holders).
While this price difference is significant and should be kept in mind, hang tight. Stick around for our comparison of the Epic and Ikon mountains, plus what factors not to consider when choosing a pass. You may find that this price difference takes a backseat when it comes to decision time.
Mountains with Unlimited Access
First things first: take a peek at the list of resorts below. Are there places you love on this list? Are there places you’re stoked to explore? Picking a pass that has places you actually want to go will ensure the best bang-for-your-buck.
Some unlimited access Ikon mountains that we love:
- Mammoth – The type of place that leaves your mouth hanging open during the whole drive up. Huge variety of terrain, amazing forest skiing, big alpine bowls, and even a massive park for the hardcore bunch who enjoy the challange of freestyle terrain features..
- Steamboat – Home of champagne powder! There’s nothing like skiing among aspen groves where the powder stays protected and it’s easy to see the next turn. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a moose while on the slopes. On your rest day, pop over to strawberry hot springs for a soak.
- Sugarbush – Two unique mountains sandwiching a whole range of backcountry in the Mad River Valley. Lincoln Peak’s natural bowl offers fast groomers, variable bump runs, and all kinds of gladed terrain. If you’re ready to play among the rocks and trees, check out the Castlerock Double Chair. For more of a locals’ vibe and a killer terrain park, head over to Mt. Ellen and you may even find your favorite World Cup skiers training under the lift.
Some unlimited access Epic mountains that we love:
- Crested Butte – Genuine mountain town charm and a range of exciting terrain. If you’re willing to sling your skis over your shoulder for the short hike up Mt. Crested Butte, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping 360° views of the valley and surrounding snow-capped peaks.
- Kirkwood – A quiet jewel tucked among a ring of peaks to the south of Lake Tahoe. With this hidden locale comes great snow, stunning views, and fewer crowds. The terrain is favorable for a group of mixed skiers – plenty of killer advanced terrain, plus a good mix of beginner and intermediate runs. For a mellow atmosphere and big range of options, this is your spot.
- Stowe – A Vermont classic. Those looking for the steeps can hop on the Forerunner Quad up Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. If you’re looking for something a little extra, hike to the top of the mountain for some of the best backcountry terrain around. Congratulate yourself on a job well done with a local beer and shockingly good sushi (yes, we know!) at the legendary Matterhorn.
Mountains with Limited Access
We think that “limited access” throws people off more than it should. While it’s worth noting that the Epic Pass has a longer list of unlimited resorts than the Ikon Pass, we like to remember two things:
First, quality > quantity. Both passes have high-quality skiing, so it’s about where you enjoy skiing more than the number of options.
Second, both passes offer more than enough skiing. Unless your go-to resort is on the “limited access” resorts, you’re unlikely to run out of days on the mountain. For reference, there are only about 16 weekends per ski season, so even if you ski every single weekend, you just have to hit 2 locations and it’s a non-issue.
Some limited access Ikon mountains that we love:
- Alta / Snowbird – This dynamic duo never ceases to impress. With chutes, bowls, and tree skiing galore, these connected ski areas have some of the best terrain and snow quality around – and all within 45 minutes from Salt Lake City. Stick around for the hoppin’ après scene at Alta.
- Jackson Hole – Big mountain, backcountry feel – but with waffles! Instead of chewing on another squished pocket sammie, you’ll want to cozy up with a hot waffle at Corbet’s Cabin at the top of the aerial tram. After you’ve gotten your fill, head out for a 4,100 foot run down the bowls, trees, and chutes of Rendezvous Mountain. This is nirvana.
- Killington – We’re not kidding when we say Killington skiers are a different breed – they have legs of steel. In the early season, you’ll find everyone and their mother barrelling down Superstar, a famously steep pitch right under the lift. When spring rolls around, it’s time to dip into the Vintage Closet to make an even flashier appearance as you blast through bump runs all day.
Some limited access Epic mountains that we love:
- Telluride – Steep and deep at its finest. The San Juans are some of Colorado’s most rugged and remote mountains. Getting to Telluride may be quite the slog – they don’t call it “To-Hell-You-Ride” for nothing – but intrepid travelers are rewarded with unmatched views, terrain, and mountain town culture.
- Sun Valley – With its mining heritage on full display, Sun Valley is perfect for skiers in search of a little western nostalgia. And with two mountains, there’s something for every type of skier. If you like fast and steep, be sure to take the 3,300 vertical foot run down Warm Springs for a proper leg-burner lap.
- Kicking Horse – Originally a heli-ski operation, Kicking Horse has wild terrain that has been featured on the Freeride World Tour circuit every year. There are countless cliffs and lines that have only seen a handful of ski descents. With astonishingly light powder and bad ass terrain, there’s a reason people make a stop here on their tour of BC’s famous Powder Highway.
Make the Most of Your Location & Time
Your location and the amount that you (realistically!) plan to ski are two of the biggest factors to consider when buying a pass.
If you’re a weekend warrior…
You’re posted up in a city during the workweek. Come Friday, you’re racing to the nearest mountain for a day or weekend trip. In this case, you’ll want to focus on which resorts are within a reasonable driving distance.
If you’re a sneaky remote worker...
You’re among the growing cohort of people who roll out of bed and throw on a button-down in time for their Zoom meeting. Lucky you! Now you can trade out the sweats for ski pants, and your boss will never be the wiser.
Since you’re remote, maybe you can swing a longer stay in a mountain town. Salt Lake City has a charming old town and some delicious food (eat at the Red Iguana – you won’t regret it). Best of all, it’s just 45 minutes from four Ikon resorts with some of the country’s best skiing. If this is calling your name, go Ikon.
Given that you’ll be spending more time in one spot than a weekend warrior, you could also target higher-traffic resorts during less busy times. Vail during any school break is madness, but Vail on a Tuesday is pretty sweet. Either pass will do in this case, but if you’re especially excited about the Epic’s “big-name” factor, then go Epic.
If you’re a vacation-only skier...
The world is your oyster! Start by thinking about where you want to go. Maybe you’ve always wanted to peek over the edge of Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, so go for the Ikon. Perhaps you’ve been dreaming of an après ski sake while you soak in a Japanese onsen. Lucky for you, the Epic has strong coverage in Japan. In either case, you’ve got options.
And remember, the “limited access” resorts on the Ikon probably offer more than enough skiing for vacation. After a few days of pounding your quads on the slopes, your legs will probably be begging for a rest day and some serious hot tub time.
If you’re a traveler…
You hop in your van and go wherever you damn well please. The rest of us are never sure whether you’ll be Facetiming us from Taos or Tahoe. We’re honestly pretty mad about it, but we’ll help you brainstorm some cool routes anyway.
Some resorts you can link together:
- Ikon Colorado: Start off with tree skiing and $5 breakfast burritos at Mary Jane. Follow up with A-Basin’s back bowls and parking lot grill-outs. Roll along to Copper and Steamboat, and if you’re feeling extra sendy, keep heading west to Aspen. Winter Park/Mary Jane ⮕ A-Basin ⮕ Copper ⮕ Steamboat ⮕ Aspen
- Ikon West Coast: We had a couple of friends who had a blast working their way down the coast on the Ikon. They hit Crystal, WA ⮕ Mount Bachelor, OR ⮕ Squaw Alpine Meadows, CA ⮕ Mammoth, CA ⮕ Big Bear, CA
- Epic Colorado: Begin with the Front Range bunch: Keystone and Breckenridge in Summit County, followed by Vail and Beaver Creek in Vail in Eagle County. Then, jet off to Crested Butte and Telluride for the steep stuff and real mountain town experience. Keystone ⮕ Breckenridge ⮕ Vail ⮕ Beaver Creek ⮕ Crested Butte ⮕ Telluride
- Epic Northeast: Ski the east! Make a nice loop around Vermont and New Hampshire by tagging these spots: Stowe, VT ⮕ Okemo, VT ⮕ Mount Snow, VT, ⮕ Mount Sunapee, NH ⮕ Attitash, NH ⮕ Wildcat, NH
Pass Features and “Perks” You Should Ignore
Both passes have their faults and supposed “perks.” These are the characteristics worth forgetting.
X Limited Access: The average skier spends 2.7 days on the slopes per year. You probably ski far more, but the 7 days offered by most “limited access” Ikon resorts will be plenty of skiing, especially if you’ll be visiting a few resorts in the same region (think: Utah, Colorado, and California). Just do the math: 7 days x 28 limited access resorts = 196 days at limited access resorts! Unless your go-to resort falls in the “limited access” category, don’t stress this limitation too much.
X Price Difference. It’s true, the price difference between the passes has widened this year. Epic announced a 20% price reduction, making the Epic Pass ~$215 to ~$270 cheaper than the Ikon Pass.
While that’s certainly a chunk of change (especially if you’re buying for multiple members of your family), remember that add-ons at some of the higher-priced Epic mountains can make up the difference for a single pass. For example, if you plan on visiting Vail, you may end up paying $50 per day for parking. Within just a few days, the margin between the passes begins to narrow. We say pick the pass that you’ll enjoy more.
X Skiable Terrain. This is 100% a marketing gimmick. If you skied all day for 365 days per year, you still couldn’t ski it all. Forget this shiny, useless fact.
X Buddy Program. This feature should let you buy discounted lift tickets for your passless friends. It would be nice if we could hook up our flatland friends with cheaper tickets when they come to visit. In reality, there are too many blackout days for this feature to be useful.X Average Snowfall. Mother nature is a finicky beast – just ask our friend who visited Niseko in 2018, Japan’s driest year in a decade. Even the spots known for bottomless pow can come up dry. We recommend skipping this factor and perfecting your snow dance instead. Call us for the dance party.
So, what do we really think?
Specific resorts matter, and that’s why we end up favoring the Ikon. Epic wins every time when it comes to the number of unlimited access resorts, but peeling back the curtain reveals that IIkon offers a wider range of charming destinations with more exciting terrain. Meanwhile, the Vail-ification of many Epic mountains has made them busier and more uniform, which is less appealing to us.
At the end of the day, select the pass that you think you’re more likely to use.
Agree with our analysis? Disagree? Still unsure? We’d love to hear from you!
And if you haven’t already, enter to win a 2021-22 season pass of your choice: