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.
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.
Mammoth Mountain adds the Unbound Playground Progression Park, near Canyon Lodge, with low features and instructional signage for wannabe freestyle skiers and snowboarders.
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.
Northstar's 40th birthday celebration Dec. 22 will feature U.S. Olympic gold medal snowboarder
As soon as conditions permit, Northstar will build a 22-foot super-pipe on the Cat's Face trail off the Vista Express lift. For the first time, snowcats will offer rides on Sawtooth Ridge, providing better access to "sidecountry" slopes. Guided backcountry tours will bring skiers and riders to new terrain beyond the gated-access Sawtooth Ridge resort boundary.
On the South Shore, Heavenly's Peak Performance Academy offers new clinics, helping boarders handle the resurrected 18-foot half-pipe. Last winter's après-ski "Unbuckle" parties at the mid-mountain Tamarack Lodge were so popular that they'll be held seven evenings a week this season. Heavenly will play host to the U.S. Freestyle Championships March 29-31 on the steep Gunbarrel run.
Kirkwood's $5 million in improvements, courtesy of new owner Vail Resorts, targeted restaurants, bars and restrooms. A new snowcat road will improve access to expert terrain for the Expedition Kirkwood program, which offers classroom and on-mountain courses in avalanche certification, beacon training and backcountry awareness.
Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new 10-person, Wi-Fi-enabled gondola that replaces the Vista Bahn Express lift in Vail Village.
Beaver Creek opens 17 acres of new terrain and adds snowmaking coverage to 30 more acres.
Aspen Mountain's Little Nell Hotel has a new $2.5-million restaurant, Element 47 (the periodic table number for silver, which was mined extensively in the area). Nearby Snowmass opens the $13-million Restaurant at Elk Camp and adds 230 skiable acres on Burnt Mountain, bringing total skiable terrain to 3,362 acres.
Copper Mountain's 300-foot zipline, which was added during the summer, will continue operating through the ski season. The zipline allows two people to travel side-by-side 30 feet above the resort's West Lake ice skating rink at speeds up to 30 mph.
Arapahoe Basin has added a conveyor lift in its Pika Place Learning Arena for beginners and Aces' Kids Park, a beginner-level terrain park adjacent to the new lift.
Winter Park's new tubing park features four lanes, conveyor lift access and a warming structure serving hot chocolate.
Alta celebrates its 75th season with its own anniversary beer, produced by Wasatch Brewery. The Jan. 15 anniversary will be marked with fireworks and a torchlight parade by skiers down the mountain.
Canyons Resort introduces the Ultimate Mountain Experience, with six Olympians and six other athletes coaching guests for three-day sessions under the direction of former U.S. Ski Team men's alpine coach Phil McNichol.
Deer Valley replaced its fixed-grip Deer Crest chair with a high-speed detachable quad as part of $8 million in improvements.
Park City Mountain Resort offers a new terrain park, Neff Land, and a three-day freestyle camp for children.
Snowbird replaced its Little Cloud double chair with a high-speed quad. The new lift reduces ride time to the top of Snowbird from eight to 3 1/2 minutes.