It was late June and retired firefighter Keith Newlin was speeding down the slopes of Snow Valley Mountain Resort near Running Springs. Never mind that the sun-soaked mountain was free of all winter snow.
The outdoor enthusiast was one of the first cyclists to try out Snow Valley’s new three-mile downhill cycling trail. Newlin and his bike zipped to the summit on a $6-million high-speed lift that was installed in December for skiers and snowboarders but converted this summer to carry bicycles.
“It was exciting,” Newlin said of his day on the slopes. “I’m glad they are doing it. Snow Valley has a lot of potential for summer stuff.”
Like other ski resort operators in the West, Snow Valley is no longer relying solely on winter snow to draw visitors to the peaks. The latest season of weak snowfall once again pushed ski resorts such as Snow Valley to add new money-making activities for summer and fall, including zip lines, yoga, downhill cycling, kids camps and mountainside weddings.
“It’s definitely part of what we have been seeing for the last several years,” said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., which represents 30 ski resorts in California and Nevada. “It will only continue to grow.”
Such activities have grown partly because of the unpredictable snowfall over the last few years, a condition many scientists are blaming on climate change. The federal government gave the ski industry a boost by adopting a 2011 law that allows resorts that lease forest land to add year-round activities.
The 2016-2017 ski season was a boon for resorts in the West because of record snowfall and surging visitation numbers. But Mother Nature was not as generous with her snow during the most recent ski season.
California’s snowfall measured only 58% of the annual average as of April 1, the most recent measurement by the state’s Department of Water Resources.
At California and Nevada resorts, ski visits dropped 14% this season — from 7 million visitors during the 2016-2017 season to 6.03 million this season, according to Reitzell. Ski resorts in the West operated for an average of 140 days this season, down from 150 days last season, he said.
“As we have learned over the years, it’s a basic formula: If it snows, they will come,” Reitzell said.
To hedge its bets against further seasons of meager snow, the state’s most popular resort, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in the Eastern Sierra, plans a summer unveiling of Mammoth Mega Zip, a zip line with what the resort describes as the tallest vertical drop in North America (2,100 feet).
The zip line will allow two riders to fly down the mountain side by side for more than a mile, reaching speeds of up to 60 mph.
The resort is also opening a new elevated obstacle course for kids and a new network of rock climbing routes. The resort also is allowing electric bikes on the more than 80 miles of trails in the Mammoth Bike Park.
“As we see our summer visitation numbers continue to grow, we are going to continue to add activities for all ages,” Mammoth resort spokeswoman Lauren Burke said.
Mammoth Mountain has yet to disclose the fee to ride the Mega zip line, but a pass to use the bike park ranges from $55 to $59 a day.
The Snow Summit ski resort near Big Bear this year also added a summer day camp that lets kids hike, scale a 30-foot climbing wall, play on a trampoline, ride a chair lift and speed around on a mountain bike, among other activities. The camp can cost up to $48 a day, depending on the day of the week.
“I don’t look at it as if we are trying to make up for the winter snow,” said Justin Kanton, marketing manager for Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which includes the Bear Mountain and Snow Summit resorts. “We are trying to provide a fuller lineup of activities for the summer. We are trying to make sure people have stuff to do when they are up here.”
At the Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, a gravity-powered coaster opened on the mountain in 2016 to add to the resort’s summer activities. But the snow dump in the winter of 2016-2017 was so heavy that it damaged the tracks, forcing the resort to keep the ride offline last summer.
The Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster, which is tentatively scheduled to reopen June 30, reaches speeds of up to 27 mph on 3,400 feet of track, powered entirely by gravity on a descent of 300 feet. The riders can use levers to slow or stop the sleds.
The resort, which hasn’t revealed how much was spent to build the coaster, charges riders $27 each.
The resort also is starting a daily yoga class on a mountainside observation deck, at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. The classes, offered during July and August, are free but guests who don’t have an annual ski pass must pay $49 for a gondola ride to the observation deck.
At Snow Valley, the six-seat, high-speed ski lift that opened in December can carry 2,600 skiers and snowboarders per hour, moving 1,000 feet per minute, compared with 400 feet per minute on the lift it replaced, said Kevin Somes, vice president and general manager of the resort.
The lift was modified this summer to carry bikes to the summit so that riders can speed on the three-mile trail to the base of the mountain on what Somes describes as a route of intermediate difficulty.
“There is a trend that the whole industry is moving toward: generating revenue year-round,” he said.
Resort management hopes to expand cycling in the next few years to 10 miles of bike trails. Riders who take the lift now, however, also get access to the neighboring Rim Nordic Bike Park, which has about 13 miles of trails, with difficulty levels that range from beginner to advanced.
With the faster ski lift, Somes said he hopes to also offer scenic locations on the mountain — such as verdant meadows — as sites for outdoor weddings.