Besides the new paint on its old lodge, the Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park now boasts state-of-the-art chairlifts -- Eagle and Badger -- with truly smooth rides. All of this and more as Badger Pass chalks up its 75th year as a ski area operating entirely within a national park.
Colin Baldock, area manager for Badger Pass, calls it "the best little ski area in the USA." Pressed to explain why, Baldock makes it clear he does not think he is exaggerating.
"In my ski-instructing experience in Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., Badger Pass is the best family ski area I have worked at," he says. "It is safe, easy and relaxing. The area is not intimidating like the larger ski areas. All the lifts leave from the one base area, and all the ski runs end back in the base area. Mom and Dad can watch their children from the lodge desk."
Several years ago, I brought my younger children here to learn to ski under the watchful eye of Nic Fiore, who served as Badger's ski ambassador until his death last year. On my youngsters' first day of lessons, Fiore, whom we didn't know, swooped over and plucked both children out of line, put them on a chairlift with him and gave them half an hour of personal coaching, thereby adding their names to the list of more than 100,000 people who had been taught by the dashing French Canadian.
It had been awhile since I had come to Badger Pass, but a 75th anniversary proved too much to pass up. The fact that Badger -- sitting at 7,300 feet -- is having a great snow year added to the appeal.
Always so inviting
Interest in skiing in Yosemite began as early as 1929, when enthusiasts decided to enter it in the competition to host the 1932 Winter Olympics. They were undaunted by the fact that Yosemite did not have a ski area. It offered more snow play and ice skating than anything else.
Olympics officials were less than impressed and awarded the competition to Lake Placid, N.Y.
In 1933, the Wawona Tunnel opened, and suddenly there was better access to Glacier Point and the terrain in between. Members of Yosemite's Winter Club began climbing the slopes in search of the best places to ski. They spent much more time climbing up than skiing down but clearly saw the potential.
By 1934, skiers were visiting Badger Pass, even though there were no facilities worth mentioning. That was about to change.
Yosemite's park superintendent lobbied hard for money to build a lodge, and the Tyrolean Ski House opened in December 1935. Today's lodge, although somewhat bigger, maintains the look and style of the original.
Besides new paint, the lodge now has a burrito bar upstairs in the Snowflake Room, as well as a greater variety of salads. Basically, though, we're talking standard ski area-type food. The chili is both popular and good.
In keeping with Badger Pass' laid-back approach, skiers can bring their own lunches without getting nasty looks. During my recent visit, I saw about as many people with home-packed lunches as I did people lining up for the lodge food.
Speaking of lines, waits at the ski lifts can be almost nonexistent. At worst, the wait is a handful of minutes before you are on your way to enjoy the more than 600 vertical feet. On weekends, there may be 1,000 skiers a day, but midweek there are fewer than 300. And unlike in many big ski areas, the ratio of skiers to snowboarders is 60 to 40. The boarders also have a Terrain Park, and there is a two-lane tubing hill.
The Badger Pups learn-to-ski program emphasizes its low instructor-to-student ratio, and it's impossible not to watch the lessons with the smaller children without smiling.
Take it all in
Of course, Badger Pass is not just about skiing. You are, after all, in Yosemite National Park, where winter may be the best time of year to take in the views. One of my favorites is Half Dome as seen from the ice skating rink in Curry Village.
A free shuttle bus to and from Badger Pass makes regularly scheduled stops in Yosemite Valley. If you are staying at Yosemite Lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel or Curry Village, the shuttle schedule is posted and easy to find. This year a new shuttle bus makes one round trip a day on weekends from the nearby town of Oakhust. It stops at Miller's Mountain Sports in Oakhust and at Tenaya Lodge in the small town of Fish Camp. It costs $10 per person and saves you the $20 park entrance fee. The ski area usually has plenty of parking for cars.
At Badger Pass, there's a bonus for people feeling a bit more adventurous: cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The area boasts more than 84 miles of cross-country and snowshoe trails, which can be used at no charge.
The Glacier Point Road, which takes people to the famed point in summer, becomes a 10 1/2 -mile ski or snowshoe trek -- a 21-mile round trip. And it is awesome. On skis, the trip takes four to five hours one way, with pauses to catch your breath.
Getting to Glacier Point on skis is only part of the story. There also is a place to bunk for a night or two. A fairly new and impressive stone and wood building that serves as a tourist center in the summer becomes an overnight lodge in the winter. It can accommodate up to 20 people in bunk beds, and a roaring stone fireplace keeps everyone cozy. The package prices include a hearty dinner and breakfast. If you are an experienced cross-country skier, you can make the trip on your own. Guided one- and two-night tours also are available.
When you ski around a curve in the road and break out from the trees, Half Dome erupts in all its majesty before you, a genuine "oh, my gosh" moment.
"I think most people are always surprised by what they see," said guide Rick Stockwell. "There is no amount of pictures that can prepare you for actually seeing it yourself. I can go out each time and never get tired of the view."
The evening's setting sun often turns the famed piece of granite a red so intense it stops conversations in mid-sentence. It's more than worth the effort to get here.
Because of the unique nature of the ski area inside Yosemite, some have questioned whether it will remain. Park superintendent David Uberuaga sought to ease those concerns, telling me, "I see this as an integral part of the future of Yosemite. It is part of the fabric of the park -- a special family thing." Works for me.
Let it snow!Go online to view more pictures of Badger Pass and Yosemite in the wintertime.