Last winter's strong recovery from a woeful 2011-12 ski and snowboard season has spurred much capital improvement and many new programs and promotions at mountain resorts. Here are highlights of what's new this ski and snowboard season in California and across the West.
Mountain High's more than $1 million in improvements include a new Rossignol Experience Center with high-performance rental equipment, an expanded Children's Sports Center, new snowcat grooming vehicles and terrain features, and more than $300,000 in snowmaking enhancements.
June Mountain, the modest family-friendly destination that Mammoth Mountain management closed last winter to save money, reopens Dec. 13 (conditions permitting) with this unique pricing plan: Kids 12 and younger can ski and snowboard free this season, with no restrictions or blackout dates. The reopening is good news for business owners in June Lake, the tiny town just north of Mammoth Lakes, with 17 lodges, eight restaurants, four nearby lakes and views of Carson Peak.
Mammoth Mountain debuts a terrain park for beginners and children, daycare for infants, a $30 lift ticket for children 7-12 (kids 6 and younger are always free) and several new dining options.
The new Unbound Playground Progression Park allows newbies of all ages to learn how to perform tricks and master rails and box slides. Campo Mammoth restaurant opens in the Village at Mammoth with a menu inspired by chef Mark Estee's travels through Italy's rural villages. At the Main Lodge, the new Green V (formerly Broadway Bakery) is Mammoth's first and only "wellness" concept restaurant, featuring a vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu for breakfast and lunch.
Partner resorts Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are in the middle of a five-year, $70-million improvement project. For this season, they've expanded their grooming fleet and snowmaking capabilities, added new terrain park features, new kids' ski school programs and two roaming food trucks. Alpine's mid-mountain Chalet lodge has been reborn as the Sierra Beer Garden, a taste of Bavaria serving sausage dishes, sandwiches and brews.
Sugar Bowl unveils $20 million in improvements, including the new Crow's Peak chairlift, providing access to two new groomed runs and the previously hike-to glades of the Strawberry Fields area.
Northstar has added new terrain in its Promised Land section and refurbished the Big Springs Gondola's cabins. The luxe mid-mountain Ritz-Carlton at Northstar unveils the Backyard Bar & BBQ, a slope-side restaurant serving ribs, wood-fired pizzas, beer and specialty cocktails.
Diamond Peak is expanding its Last Tracks beer- and wine-tasting events to all Saturdays, February through April, and select Fridays, and has new gladed terrain.
Sierra-at-Tahoe's new base mountain plaza includes a restaurant, rental shop, retail outlets and a deck, with fire pits that will feature live musical performances.
Heavenly introduces a roving snowcat with a DJ platform, amping up musical options in its terrain parks, and outdoor go-go dancers and an additional bar at the on-mountain Tamarack Lodge.
Homewood unveils a backcountry skiing and luxury lodging package in partnership with Pacific Crest Snowcats and the West Shore Lodge.
Arguably the biggest on-mountain news in the West is at Breckenridge, where the long-awaited Peak 6 expansion increases the resort's skiable acreage by 23%, including 400 acres of high-alpine, intermediate bowl terrain served by two new lifts and an additional 143 acres of hike-to terrain. One of the lifts is a high-speed six-seater that climbs to a 12,300-foot summit.
Arapahoe Basin's 6th Alley Bar in the A-frame base lodge has undergone a $1-million remodeling, adding a horseshoe-shaped bar and expanded table seating, and been renamed the 6th Alley Bar & Grill.
Aspen's only five-star, five-diamond and ski-in/ski-out property, the luxe Little Nell hotel, has renovated two of its VIP suites.
Beaver Creek unveils 17 acres of new terrain that includes a women's downhill and super G course in preparation for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Beaver Creek and Vail.
Copper Mountain invested nearly $7 million in capital improvements, renovating the Woodward Barn, a 19,400-square-foot indoor playground, and adding two new surface lifts. The lifts provide access to Copper's high-alpine terrain in Spaulding Bowl, Upper Enchanted Forest, Copper Bowl, Union Peak, Union Meadows and West Ridge.
Durango Mountain Resort's Durango Dog Ranch will offer scenic dog-sled rides at the resort's base village. Colorado's largest snowcat skiing and snowboarding operation, the former San Juan Ski Co., is under new management and has been renamed San Juan Untracked. It picks up and drops off skiers and riders at the base village for powder days in its 35,000-acre permit area in the San Juan National Forest.
Silverton, the only Colorado resort that offers helicopter skiing, is introducing overnight heli-touring trips. The trips include a helicopter drop with a guide onto a peak within the ski area's permit area in the San Juan Mountains, a full day of skiing or snowboarding and an overnight wilderness stay. Silverton's overnight helicopter-touring trips cost $429 per person per day.
Steamboat unveils its most significant on-mountain improvement in nearly a decade, the new multimillion-dollar Four Points Lodge. The roughly 13,000-square-foot, two-level building is in the resort's Storm Peak/Four Points area. The lodge's restaurant seats more than 200 in the main dining level and features an outdoor barbecue, indoor and outdoor gas fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and an indoor bar.
Winter Park's new Cirque Sled is a snowcat that will provide skiers and riders easier access to the Cirque, with its 1,332 acres of off-piste terrain. The $10 pass for the 48-passenger Cirque Sled is good for unlimited rides all season.
Little Cottonwood Canyon neighbors Alta and Snowbird are offering out-of-state visitors half-price lift tickets within 24 hours of arrival at Salt Lake City International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the resorts. The promotion, named the Boarding Pass, provides access to the resorts' combined 4,700 acres of inbound terrain within the day of arrival in Utah.
Here's how the promotion works: Visitors must book a flight to Salt Lake City, then register at https://www.alta.com/boardingpass or https://www.snowbird.com/boardingpass and bring their printed boarding passes (electronic boarding passes will not be accepted) and photo ID to any ticket window at Alta or Snowbird within 24 hours of arrival at Salt Lake City International Airport. The Boarding Pass is valid Mondays-Fridays during the 2013-14 winter season.
There's one catch: Alta is one of a very few U.S. resorts that still does not allow snowboarding. (Utah's luxe Deer Valley and Vermont throwback Mad River Glen also do not.) Visiting snowboarders may purchase the discount ticket and use it at Snowbird only, saving $39.50 on an adult all-day Snowbird ticket.
Alta's Rustler Lodge has undergone a major makeover: new guest rooms with gas fireplaces, new indoor and outdoor hot tubs, a new sauna and three new spa-treatment rooms.
Snowbird has installed Utah's only new chairlift this season, a high-speed detachable quad that replaces the original Gad 2 chairlift, circa 1971, and cuts Gad's riding time in half.
Deer Valley Resort has cut a new beginner run, Gnat's Eye, on Little Baldy Mountain. The resort has invested $4.5 million to enhance snowmaking operations, purchased 24 new Environmental Protection Agency-approved snowmobiles and three new snowcat grooming vehicles.
Snowbasin Resort is partnering with Burton Snowboards to build a dinosaur-themed Riglet Park and launch a learn-to-snowboard program for 3- to 6-years-olds.
Elsewhere in the West…
For the first time in its history, Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is ranked No. 1 overall resort in North America by the annual Ski magazine Reader's Poll. Readers ranked the top 50 resorts in North America in 20 categories, including snow, lifts, scenery, accessibility, lodging, dining and non-ski activities. Jackson Hole jumped to No. 1 from No. 6 in last year's Ski poll, the first time it had cracked the top 10. It marks the first time since the 2005 poll that a resort other than Deer Valley, Vail or Canada's Whistler Blackcomb captured the top spot.
In Montana, Big Sky, neighboring Club at Spanish Peaks (a luxury membership community) and Moonlight Basin all are now operating under the name Big Sky Resort. The entity claims to be the largest ski resort in the United States, with 5,750 acres of contiguous terrain, a 4,350-foot vertical drop and more than 30 chairlifts.