That's an excellent description by boodizzle. As for recommendations and what to expect in various places:
SLC (Salt Lake City Utah) Area:
If you go here you'll have a chance at hitting the cottonwood canyon mountains: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude and then you can head over to Park City and hit all those mountains too plus Powder Mountain if you want to go further North. The logistics here are that if you fly into SLC, where you stay for cottonwoods is on one side of the mountains and you can get by without a rental car and have a pick of hotels. Find something near one of the bus lots that go to the mountain. Many people use the buses and sometimes (I think it's required). On the Park City side you'll be with a rental car. The allure of SLC is that you'll get a lot of different mountains and get a real nice variety of "North American West Skiing" at it's finest. The apres is not like Europe at all however downtown Park City can be a good time. The idea though of skiing hut to hut or something just doesn't exist here (or anywhere in NA for that matter). Logistics: Fly to SLC, rent car, stay at whatever hotels you'd like.
There's 3 mountains: Lake Louise, Sunshine, Norquay (local small). This is a fantastic trip as you get to see the Canadian Rockies that to me are a lot more scenic and pointy compared to the US Rockies. Banff is in a national park and the area is beautiful (and often bitter cold). You will likely stay in Banff or if you have the budget the Fairmont at Lake Louise! The town is fun albeit a bit touristy.
Logistics: Fly to Calgary and then get a shuttle bus to Banff. It's an hour and change to get to Banff (maybe it's 1:45 I always fall asleep). You would not have a rental car here. Most people utilize the fairly robust bus service which is free (as I recall). If you rent a car there's fees for being in the national park with a car.
There's Squaw, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Mt Rose, Kirkwood, Northstar, etc. This is another gorgeous area and has a lot to offer. Skiing of course is world class. There is no real 'ski town' feel here though. You'll be staying somewhere around the (very large) lake or by one of the resorts and drive each day. Logistics: Fly to Reno or Sacramento and rent a car and drive. Note you may need snow chains which NO rental cars come with. Figure $50-100 for that if you need it. You could also use this as a jump off point to visit other places in the area. You can drive to Mammoth & June but you'll want to stay the night. It's 2.5-3 hours south.
: Aspen is everything everyone says it is and more. However it's not all glitz, you can really find anything. To me it feels very honest, what you see is what you get. When it's glitzy it's glitzy, when it's gritty local hike to sidecountry it is that. Lodging is often expensive. Logistics: Fly to Aspen, the airport is in the city. You will connect through Denver. YOU DO NOT need a rental car as there's a great free shuttle service. Some hotels run their own free pickup from airport too. "Extended Trip Tip" -- Rent a car at the Aspen airport and spend a night up in Steamboat (about 2 hours away).
Front Range Colorado:
That includes Vail and east IMO. I kinda think of Aspen and Steamboat as inaccessible for weekenders for a day due to the distance. IMO people will drive from Denver to Vail for the day, but not Aspen Highlands. If you do this area you'll want a rental car and bounce between resorts and possibly hotels. This would be a similar experience as SLA/Park City. You'll find bit of "ski town" feel at various places but there's no single central place. If you wanted 1 stop shop where you are in a "town feel" then that would be Breckenridge. You'll likely fly to Denver, rent a car and then drive the 2.5-3.5 hours. Snowchains may be required here too.
From Big Sky on, since it's mostly single resort places where IMO you can be happy for a week but you'll probably get bored beyond 7-9 days of straight skiing.
From this point on, you'll end up hearing single resort destinations. Big Sky is one of the bigger ones. Here you'll be flying to Bozeman probably connecting through Denver again. Then it's 1.5 hour shuttle ride to the mountain. Most far flung travelers stay at ski in/out resort hotels. If you are in town there's shuttle but it's a pain and given cost difference probably not worth it for someone making a big trip from Europe
: Same idea as Big Sky but here you stay in a more vibrant town and take a bus. You fly to Jackson Hole again probably from Denver.
Same category as Big Sky, fly to Vancouver, long trip by car/train(?) and then plop at the resort.
ALL OF THE ABOVE have excellent skiing from mellow to wild. Don't tell me you want the "most extreme" -- all of these places have extremes that you likely can't handle. If you are doing backflips into Corbet's then you wouldn't have asked about NA ski areas to begin with as you'd be in the know already. "I want the most snow" -- they all have a ton of snow. If you want to get in a pissing match about 640" of snow vs. 580" of snow then you're on your own. Now as far as timing some of the resorts are better at various times of the year. Quick list:
Early Season on (xmas): Banff, Big Sky, Jackson. Mid Season: Aspen, SLC, Tahoe, Colorado Late Season: NOT Aspen. SLC, front range Colorado, Tahoe (check first). No CLUE: Whistler. Seems to be incredibly unpredictable on weather.
Kickinghorse, Fernie, Mammoth, Taos, East Coast (all of it!). Some of these places are WAY far out and relatively small. For a traveler from Europe my recommendation would be to hit the majors first and maybe on the third trip to the US explore something like this.
: I skied a decade on the east coast so I don't want to throw too much shade as I enjoy the east coast but for someone coming from Europe go west first my friend!
Lastly consider an IKON full pass if your destination uses IKON. It can be a good way to limit your ticket expense plus if you for some reason create a road trip or multi-destination trip it'll pay for itself quickly.
boodizzleI'm an American, but lived in Europe for a number of years and skied a decent amount of different resorts over there. For me, I think the big thing is they are just different. North American resorts are set up in a different way (more skiing all the way down to a central base or town and not taking a gondola up to a mid-mountain to start your day). More tree skiing in NA than Europe. More exposed alpine skiing in Europe. You can find both on either continent, but just generally speaking that was my experience. If you like skiing and checking out new places, I am sure you would enjoy it despite the increase in travel and ticket costs. A trip to Grand Targhee or the interior of British Columbia is always worth the money to me (Red, Fernie, Kicking Horse, Revy, etc..).