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Happier trails for ski resorts

Special to The Times

Mountains of snow fell early on ski haunts, jaunts and jibs across the West this fall, motivating some mountain resorts to throw the lift switches well ahead of schedule.

It's a welcome boost for an industry that's seen the number of guests remain flat for nearly a decade.


FOR THE RECORD:
Ski resort —A Dec. 12 story incorrectly reported that Tamarack Resort in Idaho was the first major ski area to open in two decades. Others, including Moonlight Basin in Montana and Silverton in Colorado, have opened in the last five years.


But ski resorts haven't been just sitting on their mittens. One new resort is set to open this season in Idaho, and many of the majors from the Sierra to the Rockies have coupled renovations and innovations to redefine what it means to go to the snow.

By looking at ski areas as destinations, resorts are attracting one- and two-plankers and their fireside friends looking for a vacation. If kids are in tow, make that a family vacation.

Things are looking up, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Assn.

"The numbers were stable for a long time in the '80s and '90s," he said, "but now we're seeing growth due to the fact that [the sport] is hanging on to baby boomers."

Berry credits faster chairlifts, better ski equipment and nicely groomed runs for boomers' staying power.

The recent growth has allowed resorts to upgrade, modernize and offer even more incentives — such as giving lessons that help skiers and snowboarders improve and adding new rails and pipes and expanded backcountry experience. That, in turn, encourages visitors to ski more and stay longer.

Millions have been spent at ski resorts across the West to create new accommodations and attract retail and restaurants.

"At Mammoth you see a huge change with their effort to upgrade the quality of their lodging and the diversity of their restaurants," Berry said. "And the renovations of Lake Tahoe's south shore with the new hotels … the improvements at Heavenly — all these projects make the resort experience more pleasant."

Dan Goldman, an avid skier and member of SAGA ski club in Los Angeles, is typical of those who want the complete package: great skiing, good food, fine shopping. For those reasons, he is smitten with Aspen, Colo. "You can walk off the slope and right into a nice restaurant or fashionable boutique," he said.

Kinder, gentler terrain parks for beginners, groms (young boarders) and parents are cropping up at many vacation-destination resorts. (Alta and Deer Valley in Utah and Taos, N.M., are among the holdouts that do not allow snowboarding.)

"In the past, the terrain parks were built for the pros or the experts, but now, seeing little kids were wanting to do it, we put in fun boxes [terrain features made of wood, plastic or metal], lower rails and smaller features," said Amy Kemp, a spokeswoman for Keystone, a Colorado resort known for catering to families.

Keystone and Breckenridge in Colorado and Northstar at Tahoe are among resorts that are teaming up with snowboard maker Burton to offer learn-to-ride programs. The instruction gives parents a gentle leg up on snowboards, which are constructed to turn more easily than regular boards. Last year Keystone dedicated an intermediate run for those learning to carve.

"We receive a lot of calls from older skiers who want to try snowboarding," Kemp said. "The kids are learning it and they want their parents to try."

Here is some of what you'll find when you hit the slopes this winter:

California and Nevada Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe: On the Nevada side of the south shore, resort renovations have begun on the mid-mountain East Peak Lodge, including heating, 6-foot tempered-glass windscreens and covered seating on the upper deck and a new outdoor bar and barbecue area on the lower deck.

On the slopes, a new high-speed six-pack chairlift is up and humming, as well as new snowmaking and grooming machines, all part of a $10-million resort overhaul by Vail Resorts, Heavenly's new owners.

Mammoth: This favorite among Southern California skiers adds to its bunk count with the opening of the 67-unit Grand Sierra Lodge, featuring studio to three-bedroom condos and conference facilities. The lodge is the newest addition to the shops, galleries, bars and restaurants in the Village, which opened last year in the town of Mammoth Lakes.

A five-year, $95-million plan to upgrade mountain amenities includes the Village Gondola, opened last season, which connects the town to the mountain, and upgrades to the Mammoth Mountain Inn at the Main Lodge completed this year. The remodel gives the ski-in/ski-out inn on the mountain a Craftsman-style look, new furniture, comforters, and tile and granite countertops in the bathrooms and kitchens.

On Mammoth Mountain, a new high-speed quad replaces the triple Chair 17 near Canyon Lodge. The chairlift, now called the School Yard Express, is part of a new learning area being developed to give newbies an easier time.

Mt. Rose, North Lake Tahoe: On the north shore, 200 acres of the Chutes, a former out-of-bounds area on Mt. Rose, are scheduled to open this winter. Nine double black diamonds and seven singleblack diamonds will challenge advanced skiers. A new Blazing Zephyr six-pack lift will whisk skiers and boarders up 1,500 feet in 3 1/2 minutes.

Mountain High, Wrightwood: This paradise for jibbers, as trickmeisters of the hill are called, is just a snowball's throw from Los Angeles and offers new layouts and features all over the mountain. The resort expanded the Playground to 40,000 square feet this year. The base-area jib park also has a new Jib Pipe and new features, including a 40-foot flat rail called the Long Ranger, and Tonto, a sloping A-frame rail. A new 16-by-20-foot deck for spectators, barbecues and event judging has been installed above the Playground.

Northstar at Tahoe, Truckee: Northstar at Tahoe opens a new high-speed quad to replace the old triple lift that ran from the village base to midmountain. A new grooming fleet will help maintain 70% or better coverage on open trails. Northstar also has added a fleet of rails and boxes to its parks this season and a new family terrain park called the Straights, offering rolling freestyle terrain.

Upgrades and expansions are in the works around the base of Northstar, including the first phase of a $200-million renovation set for completion next December that includes a pedestrian village with a fitness center, year-round skating rink, restaurants, shops and 100 condominiums. The second phase is slated to start in the spring.

Sierra-at-Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe: New additions to the Bashful Park terrain park in the West Bowl include four boxes ranging from 15 to 30 feet and four rails ranging from 15 to 20 feet, among other rails and jibs. The resort put $400,000 into new grooming equipment, promising 100% grooming on the beginner terrain and 96% on the intermediate runs.

Squaw Valley USA, North Lake Tahoe: 22 Station, the second phase of the Village at Squaw, opened last year on Lake Tahoe's north shore. New this year at the Village is the Trilogy Spa, part of a $250-million development.

Colorado Aspen: A historically high-end destination, Aspen plans to pamper guests even further with a redo of the St. Regis Hotel (listed in Condé Nast's top five mountain resorts), downtown at the base of Aspen Mountain. One wing of the St. Regis has been transformed into 25 two- and three-bedroom residences. Twenty new guest rooms and suites, each with a fireplace, have been added to the hotel, and existing rooms got a face-lift and new furniture. A new 15,000-square-foot spa has space for the yoga and Pilates crowd, as well as 15 treatment rooms for private massages and body treatments.

Aspen Skiing Co.: The company that operates Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass ski resorts has put $10 million into improvements for the 2004-05 season. New chairlifts at Buttermilk and Aspen Mountain will get skiers and snowboarders up the mountain faster, just in time for the ESPN Winter X Games scheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 at Buttermilk's Crazy T'rain Park.

Keystone: The backcountry experience at this resort in Summit County, about 90 miles west of Denver, will expand again this season, with a snowcat tour that gives skiers a chance to lay first tracks.

The cat takes skiers and snowboarders from the top of Dercum Mountain to the top of Bergman Bowl (recommended for advanced intermediate skiers) or Erickson Bowl (expert terrain), then continues making round trips for four or five hours, carrying skiers and boarders from the bottom of the bowls to the top. The cost is $71. (Hiking to the bowls would take as much as 45 minutes.) Reservations are required: (800) 468-5004.

Steamboat: New this year is the Steamboat MountainWatch, a locater system that helps group members find one another with the help of a wristband, whether they're inside or outside on the mountain, as well as receive info on weather and lift status. Steamboat is the first ski resort in the country to try the technology.

In an ongoing effort to protect the mountain environment, the resort also fires up a new Green Energy Chairlift, a Leitner-Poma fixed-grip triple lift powered by wind-generated electricity.

Telluride: In January, on the southwestern side of Colorado, Telluride will open a new guided-terrain tour of Mountain Quail, the highest point on Prospect Ridge, a popular area opened in 2002. Expert skiers who make tracks into the new terrain must wear a beacon and carry a shovel (provided by the resort) and sign up in advance. Also new this year at Telluride is the "Heli-ski one run," dropping powder skiers on the most remote peaks.

Vail Resorts: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts (and Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.) also have spiffed-up alpine real estate. Ten new snowcats join the grooming fleet, upping the corduroy count (the lines that grooming machines leave that look like corduroy) by a third in Vail. The construction of a new 50-foot-wide stone-and-steel bridge at Gore Creek kicks off a $500-million redevelopment project slated for Vail Village and Lionshead. The remodeled Game Creek Restaurant still offers fine dining but with a fresh look and new furniture indoors and on the outdoor deck.

At Beaver Creek Resort, two new high-speed quads are scheduled to open Saturday. Half the mountain's terrain gets groomed this winter, up a third from last year.

Winter Park: If your idea of luxury is sipping a latte on a remote mountaintop, the lodges at Winter Park Resort have a perch for you. A new Starbucks and Coffee Shop & Bakery are among the upgrades to the resort, where panoramic views of the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains are reason enough to sit a spell.

A new snowskate park makes its debut at the base of Winter Park Resort this season, offering a series of small rails and boxes to entice snowskaters. Part of Winter Park's $4-million investment this year is in its three terrain parks — ranked No. 9 in a Ski magazine reader poll — and includes new jumps and rails in the intermediate Kendrick Terrain Park and the advanced Rail Yard.

Idaho Tamarack Resort, Donnelly: This resort, in the Council Mountain Range near McCall, is the first major ski area to open in more than 20 years. Twenty-five of the 60 runs are to be open this season along with a 10-acre terrain park. The 62 two- and three-bedroom ski-in/ski-out cottages and chalets at the base of Tamarack Mountain range from 1,200 to 2,400 square feet and start at $109 per person per night, which includes a lift ticket. The mountain is to open for skiing Wednesday, although the lodge and much of the village won't make their real debut until December 2005. This season, temporary facilities house rental shops, ski schools, seven eateries and other slope essentials.

Sun Valley: This season, the original winter wonderland known for catering to European and Hollywood royalty since the 1930s unveils a multimillion-dollar remodel of the historic Sun Valley Lodge. It has added DVD players, plasma TVs and high-speed Ethernet Internet connections to each room, along with new heating and air conditioning.

Sun Valley is even reaching out to families; it is to open the Dollar Mountain Lodge, a 26,000-square-foot family center, on Friday. It has a state-of-the-art children's ski and snowboard center, a game and television area downstairs and a new tubing hill outside. Upstairs in the two-story day lodge, a new upscale-casual restaurant named Carol's Café (after resort owner Carol Holding, who pushed for the family center) offers views of the slopes from a heated deck and a menu that includes wood-fired pizza and made-to-order salads and sandwiches.

Montana Big Sky: This resort is adding 12 new log homes to the 20 Powder Ridge cabins already open, part of a 10-year plan that includes upgrades to the village and terrain and, eventually, 68 more cabins. The lift-accessible three- and four-bedroom hand-hewn abodes have vaulted ceilings, river rock fireplaces and private hot tubs. Powder Ridge joins the Summit at Big Sky, a $50-million condo project opened in 2000 about 300 feet from three high-speed lifts.

Accessing Southern Comfort, the gently rolling runs at Big Sky, will get easier later in December with the debut of a new high-speed quad. The wide, groomed runs on the south face of Andesite Mountain provide afternoon sun and a comfortable pitch for beginners.

New Mexico Taos: Taos Ski Valley, holding up the south end of the Rocky Mountains, is known for its purist ski conditions, not its amenities. But Taos is putting the finishing touches on its first major building project in a decade, the Edelweiss Lodge, a luxury ski-in/ski-out facility set for a January opening.

Rooms have private balconies, fireplaces, kitchens and high-speed Internet access, along with two outdoor hot tubs overlooking the river.

Kids will be kept in the loop with a game room and nightly films. The lodge also has a new bar and bistro, ski shop, spa, exercise facilities and underground parking.

Utah Park City: This home of the 2002 Olympics' Eagle Superpipe adds a new lighted jib park to its terrain features this year, along with 50 fun boxes, rails and hits for the freerider.

For the first time, Park City Mountain Resort offers parents-only terrain park lessons for skiers or snowboarders.

The nightlife in Park City gets even brighter with the new Bacchus Wine Bar, serving up live jazz and 100 wines by the glass. A free city transit system makes barhopping around Park City easy. The shuttle also stops at Park City Mountain and Deer Valley ski resorts.

Wyoming Jackson Hole: The king of the cowboys, ranked in the top five for steeps in Skiing magazine, officially opens the Crags this season, a previously closed inbounds area above the popular Casper Lift. The additional ungroomed expert terrain adds 200 acres and 1,000 vertical feet to the resort's 2,500 acres bordering Grand Teton National Park.

Canada Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia: The Four Seasons Resort Whistler makes its debut this winter at Whistler Blackcomb. The 242-room hotel at the base of Blackcomb Mountain in the Upper Village has fireplaces in each room, a ski concierge, a bistro and full-service spa with an outdoor pool and hot tubs, a fitness center and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

Three existing lodges reopen this season after remodels — the Blackcomb and Crystal lodges and Fairmont Château Whistler.

Whistler, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, this year will open 1,100 acres of new terrain on Whistler Mountain that includes 400 more acres in the Peak to Creek area and 700 acres in the Flute Bowl, a hike-to inbounds backcountry area.

Whistler launches a Superpipe and an upgraded terrain park on Blackcomb Mountain, where for the first time the Snowboard World Championship will be held in January. Like Buttermilk (host of the Winter X Games) the park features will open to the public for the rest of the season after the competition.

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Taking to the Western slopes

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