Snow season in the West

Heading down a groomed run at Squaw Valley, Calif. (Jeff Engerbretson)

In real estate, it's "location, location, location." At ski resorts throughout the West this winter, it's "price, price, price."

The good news for snow sliders: One lesser-known resort, some of the usual (or unlikely) suspects and four historically competitive-yet-now-cooperative mountain destinations are offering great deals.

Beyond their annual efforts to fill chairlifts, restaurants, bar stools and beds, resorts are reacting to last winter, which was among the mildest and driest nationally in 20 years. Partly as a result, skier and snowboarder visits in 2011-2012 dropped 16% across the country from the previous season, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade group. In California, ski season business at mountain resorts fell 27% from the previous very snowy season, according to the California Ski Industry Assn.

On-mountain, the biggest news in the West is Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's effort to woo intermediate skiers and riders to what has been a destination best suited for experts. The Wyoming resort's $8 million in capital improvements, concentrated in Casper Bowl, include more intermediate terrain, a new high-speed detachable quad chairlift, expanded snowmaking, three new grooming vehicles and a Burton intermediate snowboard park

Meanwhile, back at the cash register, Eagle Point Resort (formerly Elk Meadows Resort) in Southern Utah is offering California skiers and riders free lift tickets all season. There are no blackout days or strings attached other than requiring you to provide your name, proof of state residency and an email address. (Residents of other states can ski free at Eagle Point on Thursdays in January.)

Eagle Point is 18 miles east of the ranching town of Beaver in the Tushar Mountains, a six- to nine-hour drive from Southern California and 31/2 hours from Las Vegas. The resort has more than 600 acres of inbounds terrain, a 1,500-foot vertical drop, annual average snowfall of 400 inches and hundreds of square miles of backcountry beyond its boundary gates.

In an attempt by independent A-list resorts to counter Vail Resorts' two-state, multi-resort Epic Pass (see below), Utah's Alta, Colorado's Aspen/Snowmass, Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Lake Tahoe's Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows — all under different ownership — have joined to offer the Mountain Collective pass.

It's available through Dec. 17 for $379 for adults and $239 for children 12 and younger and includes two days at each of the four destinations (note that Alta does not allow snowboarding), plus a 50% discount on unlimited lift tickets at each after the first eight days are used. Mountain Collective passholders also are eligible for exclusive lodging deals at the four resorts throughout the season.

At Keystone, one of Colorado's most popular resorts, kids 12 and younger can ski or ride free every day all season, including Christmas, New Year's and other holidays. The catch: They and their parents must stay a minimum of two nights in resort lodging (village, base area and ski-in/ski-out slopeside condos and hotels) booked through Keystone's central reservations service.

Vail Resorts' acquisition earlier this year of Lake Tahoe's Kirkwood meant visitors there were eligible for Vail's Epic Pass, which was available through Dec. 2. The unlimited interchangeable season pass is honored at its two other Tahoe properties, Heavenly and Northstar, plus Colorado's Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.

Southwestern Colorado's Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Telluride Ski Resort are offering the Telluride Crested Butte Ultimate 6 Pass ($399) through Saturday. It is good for three days of skiing and riding at each and works out to $66.50 per lift ticket, about a 30% discount on the one-day rate at each resort. Once the first six visits have been used, additional days may be added at each resort at 20% off the single-day rate.

Here are highlights of what's new this season in California and across the region.

Southern California

Mountain High has invested $1 million in an enhanced family learning center, a new terrain park with natural features and an expanded Foggy Goggle Lounge. Mountain High's Anytime Season Pass is good at both Stevens Pass, 78 miles east of Seattle, in Washington state, and at Sierra at Tahoe.

Big Bear Mountain Resorts (Snow Summit and Bear Mountain) has revamped Bear's Red Bull Plaza park with a parking structure and billboard wall ride. Also new at Big Bear: Riglet Park, with miniature features for kids 3-7 who are learning to snowboard.

At Snow Summit, the Bear Bottom Lodge deck has been expanded by nearly 1,000 square feet and there's a new indoor/outdoor Slopeside Pub.

Eastern Sierra

Mammoth Mountain adds the Unbound Playground Progression Park, near Canyon Lodge, with low features and instructional signage for wannabe freestyle skiers and snowboarders.

Lake Tahoe

Squaw Valley and Squaw-owned Alpine Meadows, which share lift tickets and season passes (and, until joined by a lift, free shuttle rides between the two), have $24 million in improvements. Squaw gets two new lifts: the high-speed, six-seat Big Blue Express, which replaces the High Camp lift, and the Mountain Meadow triple, which replaces the Links double. The resort also spent $2.6 million on snowmaking enhancements and a remodeled Olympic Pizza Bar. Alpine Meadows' redesigned terrain park has grown to a mile long.