Whilst many British skiers are familiar with the Austrian resort of Mayrhofen, most of them know nothing about the Zillertal – the valley in which it’s set.
They’re missing out on one of the best ski areas in the Alps as a result.
Why? Because this 42km-long valley, just around the corner from Innsbruck, is home to not one but three ski areas offering more than 150km of pistes. In fact, there’s a total 668km of groomed and waymarked trails to be skied in the Zillertal – and oodles of off-piste in between. That’s more than the vaunted Three Valleys of France
It’s not just the quantity of skiing that’s impressive. The variety is what really counts. There’s everything here from Europe’s best lift-serviced glacier-skiing to Rocky Mountain-style, tree-studded off-piste – as well as a high-quality terrain park and a mountain more or less set aside for beginners.
There’s some pretty interesting infrastructure too. Let’s not forget that Innsbruck (population: 120,000) is just around the corner – and Munich is a couple of hours away by car. As a result, the Zillertal absorbs a lot of big-city energy and creativity, and in the middle of the mountains you’ll find some pretty cool bars and restaurants – as well as plenty of fast lifts.
Here’s how the resorts are laid out.
View Ski areas of the Zillertal in a larger map
Are there drawbacks? Yes – because the skiing doesn’t all sit together in one compact unit, like it does in the Three Valleys. The only feasible way to sample it all in a single week is book a hire car and get day-tripping. What’s more, despite the presence of a glacier, most of the slopes are below 2500m, and therefore susceptible to thaws. But don’t let that put you off – especially if you’re the kind of skier who’s getting tired of the same old resorts. Plan a mid-winter visit (before the end of February), book a hotel which offers easy access to the main areas, and ski somewhere new each day. By the end of the week it’ll feel like you’ve rolled five holidays into one.
These are the five main ski areas in the valley.
A slice of American freeride culture in the Alps.
Hochfügen is the Zillertal’s big surprise – a place where off-pisters are both welcomed with open arms and encouraged to be self-sufficient. Facilities include a transceiver check point – where you can check your avalanche beeper is both receiving and transmitting a signal – and info boards to tell you what kind of terrain lies ahead. It’s a shame they don’t go the whole hog and secure the slopes against avalanches, as they do in North American resorts: but all the same, the culture is a lot closer to what you’ll find in Snowbird in Utah, than a regular Alpine resort. The terrain is pretty similar to Snowbird’s too.
The ski area is squirreled away in a little valley to the west of the Zillertal, and is home to a handful of hotels (including one, the Sporthotel Lamark, which has a superb restaurant). It’s also connected by a gondola to the neighbouring ski area of Hochzillertal (see below). Together, they offer 171km of pistes.
Easy-cruising pistes above the treeline – and a superb mountain restaurant-cum-bar-cum-hotel-cum-sauna-cum-igloo.
Most of the pistes in the Hochzillertal ski area overlook the Zillertal valley. They’re wide, confidence-boosting and – for the most part – above the treeline. It’s a great place to be on a sunny day if you’re an intermediate, looking to work on your technique: but less interesting when the clouds come down, visibility drops to almost nothing and you have to ski more or less by sense of smell. At that point it’s time to jump on the gondola to neighbouring Hochfugen in search of tree-lined slopes. Or you could pile into the Kristallhutte, which is one of the coolest mountain huts in the Alps.
The link to Hochfugen is a godsend, by the way: not only has it boosted the amount of interlinked skiing to 171km of pistes, it’s also increased the variety of terrain on offer. Ski both Hochzillertal and Hochfügen in a day and you’ll feel like you’ve been to two different mountain ranges.
When it gets busy above Mayrhofen, this is where to come.
Blink and you’ll miss them: the two gondola stations which mark the main access point to the Zillertal Arena. There’s no “resort” here – just an area of car parks squeezed between the mountain and the main road through the valley. But that shouldn’t stop you from spending at least a day here. This is another biggish area (166km of pistes), and it offers a lot of variety too, as it snakes its way east along a couple of ridgelines towards the neighbouring federal state of the Salzburgerland. Most of the pistes are rated red or blue, for intermediates, but there’s also plenty of easy freeriding to be done between the pistes when conditions allow. The slopes are noticeably quieter than they are in nearby Mayrhofen (see below), which is only 10km away.
Further information: www.zillertalarena.com.
The natural hub for freestylers and night owls.
Three things in Mayrhofen are world-class: the buzz at the Ice Bar when the lifts close; the freestyle scene at the Vans Penken terrain park; and the detailed – and free – avalanche-awareness training on offer in the resort from time to time, courtesy of SAAC. There’s other good stuff besides – check out our main Mayrhofen resort report for details. But it would be crazy to come here just to cruise the pistes, without exploring at least one of the other ski areas in the Zillertal.
The Hintertux glacier
Snow insurance for the entire valley. Steep pistes, too.
Wherever you’re skiing in the Zillertal, it’s great to know the Hintertux glacier is at the far end. It’s open 365 days a year, and offers a decent variety of pistes which are cold, soft and grippy throughout the winter. For a glacier, they’re pretty steep too – which is why so many national ski racing teams train here during the late summer in preparation for the start of the World Cup.
Nevertheless, if the snow is in good nick elsewhere in the valley, I wouldn’t advise making the journey up to Hintertux. Save it for the days when there’s a thaw elsewhere in the valley, and make sure you go right to the top of the lift system. Strangely, the slopes up here are usually quieter than they are lower down – which is odd given that this is where you’ll find the best snow.