Sitting on a picnic table overlooking Snow Summit's recently opened ski and snowboarding school, Jennifer Miller watched her three children — ages 3, 4 and 6 — shuffle on small skis to an expanded ski lesson area complete with two new surface lifts.
"We've noticed a big change this year," the Santa Clarita resident said of the 240-acre resort near Big Bear Lake. "I think it's a lot nicer."
The improvements are part of more than $3 million in investments made by Mammoth Resorts, the ski resort operator that purchased Snow Summit, along with its sister resort, Bear Mountain, in 2014.
Mammoth Resorts, which has long owned the Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain resorts in the eastern Sierra Nevada, is making good on a promise to spend on much-needed upgrades at the two resorts in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains.
The upgrades so far include the $1-million ski school, dubbed the Adventure Academy, which opened in December. The 5,000-square-foot building, where first-time skiers rent their gear and book lessons, replaces one about half that size.
The upgrades also include a new mountaintop restaurant along with a renovated food court, a new coffee station, an overhauled outdoor eating space and a new snow tubing area near the base of the mountain.
"When you have things for people who don't want to ski, you give them a reason to come," said Dave Likins, president of Mammoth Resorts.
He said he expects Mammoth Resorts will invest up to $150 million at its four resorts over the next 10 years.
Most of the latest upgrades have been built at Snow Summit because it serves visitors year-round, including mountain biking and hiking in the summer. But Mammoth Resorts also renovated two existing restaurants at Bear Mountain, which opens only during the snow season.
On Snow Summit's slopes and in its eateries, skiers and snowboarders agreed that the investments have been long overdue for a resort that they say had a tired, '70s vibe.
"It felt like a leaky lodge before," Mary Magill of San Diego said of the old ski school, where she had enrolled her two children for lessons.
The new school has a place where skiers can rent skis, snowboards, boots and helmets. There's a classroom and a corner lined with storage cubbies, where skiers can park their shoes and other belongings. The gentle slope used to give ski lessons — once located several hundred yards away — is now adjacent to the school.
Some skiers groused that the improvements have come with a price, such as a new $20 parking fee on weekends and a $10 hike on the daily lift tickets.
"It's definitely more corporate and more money is getting taken away," said Julian Nguyen, a snowboarder from San Diego who has been visiting Snow Summit since 2010.
He said the higher prices are making him consider abandoning Snow Summit for other resorts, such as Snow Valley, about 17 miles away.
"I'm not concerned with all the new knickknacks," he said.
Other Snow Summit visitors shrugged off the higher costs, saying prices are rising everywhere.
"It's what the market will dictate," said Ryan Carrillo of Los Angeles, who was eating lunch in Snow Summit's new outdoor eating area with friend Travis Doyel.
And if Snow Summit and Bear Mountain begin to resemble the pricier Mammoth Mountain resort, that's fine too, they said. "Mammoth is great," Doyel said. "That's normally where I go skiing."
Resort spokesman Justin Kanton defended the higher prices and new fees, saying Snow Summit remains affordable.
The new weekend parking fee is limited to the "preferred lots," which represent about a quarter of the nearly 5,000 parking spaces available at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, he said. There is no charge for parking in the other spaces.
The adult daily lift ticket for peak-demand days rose to $99, up from $89 last year, an 11% increase.
Ski lift prices have been rising across the country.
Lift ticket prices have jumped an average of 5.6% at ski resorts throughout North America this season compared with last year, according to Liftopia, a website that sells lift tickets for ski venues across North America. That's on top of the 9% increase last year from the previous season.
A one-day adult lift ticket for Mammoth Mountain, for example, rose to nearly $150, an increase of approximately 10% over last season.
The higher daily rates and the new parking fees weren't adopted to pay for the $3 million in improvements, Kanton said. And Mammoth Resorts didn't invest in the upgrades to target higher-spending skiers, such as those who visit Mammoth Mountain, he said.
Instead, Kanton said, the new owner expects the improvements to draw more Southern California visitors and boost food and beverage sales. He noted that nearly a quarter of Snow Summit's visitors are first-time skiers.
"We are looking down the hill and see 22 million potential guests," he said.
At Snow Summit, a food court at the base of the mountain has been transformed to include three new food stations: a taco bar, an Asian food eatery and a salad station. The renovation, which was completed in December, replaced traditional resort fare: pizza, burgers and hotdogs.
A new coffeehouse — Ironwood Coffee — was added in the outdoor eating area, a paved expanse of picnic tables and a fire pit.
At the top of one of Snow Summit's peaks, the resort converted a utility building into a new barbecue joint, dubbed Hog on the Rocks. On the top of another resort peak, the resort remodeled an existing food spot to create a new brewhouse, called Skyline.
"We want to turn Snow Summit into a culinary experience," Likins said.
At the base of the mountain, near one of the lifts, Snow Summit built a snow tubing area, with three parallel runs.
Diane Byers of Murrieta took her 4-year-old daughter on the tubing runs on a recent weekday while her husband went snowboarding. "That's perfect for the little ones," she said.
Nearby, Snow Summit is working on something for older visitors: Two towers have been built to support a zip line that is expected to open this summer.
From the zip line tower, visitors can look down on a 30-foot climbing wall that was installed last summer.
Likins said other changes are coming, including a renovation to the ski rental shop and a new wireless network to give visitors free Internet service.
"We are taking advantage of what we can do at the resort," he said.
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