Fall storms bring winter look to Serene Lakes landscape in the Sierra
Four years of moaning about California’s truncated menu of winter recreation treats ended last ski season, when a deluge fueled by an El Niño weather pattern beat back the drought. It slathered the hills with white stuff and delivered joy to the hearts of skiers, snowboarders – and resort managers.
Yet even that flood of happiness didn’t void a big follow-up question: What’s next?
Usually, an El Niño year is chased by a La Niña pattern, in which precipitation drops below norms. However, current oceanic conditions suggest that if a La Niña does occur, it will be feeble. October brought us a good amount of rain, but not yet much snow.
Uncertainty about our future on a steadily warming globe did not prevent the winter recreation industry from making a few optimistic moves. Most stunning of these was an acquisition of the 8,000-acre Whistler-Blackcomb slopes in Canada for a price north of a billion bucks by the Vail Resorts chain (owners of Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in California). Vail’s multiresort Epic Pass won’t be good at Whistler this season, but next.
Also, Squaw Valley hails the return of World Cup alpine ski racing to its fabled Red Dog run (home of the 1960 Olympics) for the first time in five decades. A women’s giant slalom event will be mounted on March 10, with a women’s slalom taking place the following day. Club and Grandstand tickets to the races were sold out by early October, with only VIP chits ($450 for two days) remaining. However, guests with lift tickets can ski up and watch from the run’s west side, and a free big-screen viewing will be held at the KT Base Bar sundeck, and the Rocker restaurant in the village.
Meanwhile, resorts large and small are gearing up with a refreshed roster of programs, deals and events, as well as – in a few cases – improved infrastructure. Gains in snowmaking help ensure early openings, provided nature cooperates with cold temperatures and a boost from natural snowfall. However, bear in mind that each announced date comes pinned with an asterisk to indicate “conditions permitting.”
Here’s what’s happening at Northern California resorts.
In a rural setting on Highway 4, roughly midway between Yosemite and Tahoe, Bear Valley (1,680 acres, 1,900 feet of vertical) is one of a handful of resorts reachable without driving over a pass – a useful feature amid winter storms.
It’s the second season with local Bear Valley veteran Andrea Young at the helm as general manager. Young says $300,000 in revamped summit-to-base snowmaking is in place, although an opening date hasn’t been determined yet. In addition, three new intermediate runs will open on the east side, finishing up with a ski trail down to the village, where shuttles will bring skiers back to the lodge. Other improvements include a new carpet lift and remodeled Cub Club children’s center.
Redevelopment plans for the village and a gondola from village to summit are still pending. Season passes have two tracks.
New Peaks passes reward pass holders from last year, and range from $718 (adults) to $414 (children 6-12) to $94 (seniors 70 and up), and include discounts on almost every recreational product in the Bear Valley arsenal. For all others, Polar passes range from $674 (adults) to $389 (children) to $89 (seniors 70 and up).
Boreal and Soda Springs
Boreal, a small (380 acres, 500 feet of vertical) resort with lofty goals, enjoys a prime spot on Donner Summit with eight terrain parks and pipes, a robust snow-play area, extensive night-skiing capability, and snowmaking gear to cover most of its slopes. As temps hit freezing, those guns were set to roar and bolster the resort’s as yet unscheduled opener. That’s the final day for preseason pass deals, like the All-Access for $499 (for both the mountain and the 32,000-square-foot Woodward indoor training facility) and an Unlimited for $259 (mountain only).
Two new park groomers will push that snow into shape for pirate-themed features. Resort guests score a new fresh food bar and outdoor waffle shack, as well as a spring music series. All the resort’s night-skiing lights have been switched to LEDs, for better illumination and reduced energy burn. A green theme is furthered at the sister resort in Norden, Soda Springs (200 acres, 652 feet of vertical) with extensive snow play designed for kids.
Soda Springs just won an Environmental Excellence award from the National Ski Areas Association as the first resort in California to use recycled water for snow-making. The resort is scheduled to open Dec. 4. www.themaxpass.com/.
Close to Lake Tahoe’s east shore, Diamond Peak is mid-size (655 acres, 1,840 feet of vertical) yet excels in providing sublime views of this sapphire alpine lake. There are no new infrastructure changes to report, but the resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary with parties and events, such as a vintage ski film series slated to kick off in the main lodge Dec. 30. Planned opening date is Dec. 15.
One of this resort’s principal charms is that it’s on the Sierra’s west slope, so you don’t need to drive over a pass to reach it. That can make a big difference in stormy weather; plus, the mid-size resort (862 acres, 1,600 feet of vertical) is at its best during and right after storms.
Masters Clinics to improve skill and comfort for skiers age 50 and up began last season and will be expanded this season. A special “progression” pass with discounts on lessons and equipment is also available. Season passes now are $479 (adults, 20-64), $429 (teens), $149 (youths), or $349 (seniors). Visitors can take advantage of a 50 percent discount on full equipment tune-ups until Nov. 11, or score a 40 percent credit toward new equipment if you turn in your children’s skis, boots and bindings.
Donner Ski Ranch
Across the street from Sugar Bowl near Donner Summit, the small resort (460 acres, 750 feet of vertical) competes with its famous neighbor on price point, while championing its own rather rustic milieu. Season passes are $299 (adult), $249 (youths), $150 (senior), $99 (child, 7-12), and just $30 (toddlers). A tubing-run season pass is $99 – pretty good, since a two-hour day pass costs $20. Even better deals crop up on Tuesdays through Thursdays, when an adult ticket goes for just $35.
Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood
The trio of Vail resorts in California each boast their own special character. Heavenly, on Tahoe’s south shore, offers a giant sprawl of terrain (4,800 acres, with 3,500 feet of vertical off a 10,067-foot summit), more than two dozen lifts, a tram and a gondola. At the top of the gondola, the Tamarack mid-mountain lodge will host live music shows Monday-Wednesdays late afternoons, and early Saturday afternoon concerts starting in January, as well as DJ Cat pop-up parties during a Winter Ignite festival Dec. 2-10.
Closer to Truckee, Northstar (3,170 acres, 2,280 feet of vertical) emphasizes services, with near-slope lodging, a Ritz-Carlton, a Zephyr mid-mountain lodge and a base area village for fine dining options. Zephyr hosts Mountain Table five-course gourmet dinners on select dates starting in January ($142).
Kirkwood (2,300 acres, 2,000 feet of vertical) is famed as a “skiers’ hill” and locals’ favorite, with abundant, steep, off-piste (ungroomed) runs.
The Epic Pass allows unrestricted access at the three Vail resorts in California, nine more in the United States and one in Australia, $849 (adults), $439 (children 5-12). The Tahoe Value pass covers the California resorts, with some blackout dates, $479 (adults). Opening date for all three resorts is Nov. 18.
Another resort at its best during or just after storms, Homewood (1,260 acres, 1,650 feet of vertical), on Tahoe’s west shore, also owns splendid lake views. If wind scours powder off ridges further west, it tends to land on Homewood’s sheltered slopes.
The resort opens terrain with guided snowcat tours to its Ellis Peak summit, adding 900 feet of vertical and 750 more acres of turf and includes lunch ($399 per person, $2,500 for a group of 10.) Season pass prices are $589 (adult), $389 (senior), $506 (youth). The resort is eyeing a Dec. 9 opening.
Homewood continues two special offers – a Family pass (two adults, two kids, $1,299); Heritage pass (same as family, plus two seniors, $1,939). Prices may change in December. This resort, and many others, offer discount advance tickets through www.liftopia.com/ski-resort-info/region/4/California-Lake-Tahoe-Northern-lift-tickets. Resort updates include a revamp of all food menus by a new chef, and entertainment from a new events director; check resort website calendar for adds.
California’s big dog of winter resorts (at 3,500 acres, and 3,100 feet of vertical off an 11,053-foot summit), Mammoth is further bolstered by its sister alpine resort, June Mountain (1,500 acres, 2,590 feet of vertical) and nearby cross-country facility, Tamarack. All lie on the Sierra’s east side, between Lee Vining and Bishop.
Mammoth aims for a Nov. 9 opening day that will include free coffee and cocoa, a $50 lift ticket and a late morning beer toast. Book advance lodging at any of five facilities by Dec. 12, and score your fourth night free.
A treat for expert skiers and ‘boarders: enhanced terrain features at the hike-in park of Hemlocks on the backside. All others can get their non-slope thrills at four revamped restaurants in the village (Mama’s, Liberty, and the Monkey and Black Velvet bars). The U.S. Freeski and Snowboard Grand Prix lands here Feb. 1-4, as the first qualifier for the 2018 Olympics.
The “Cali4nia” pass provides unlimited access at Mammoth, June, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit for $849 (adult) to $259 (child 5-12). Or get the Cali4nia Premium and add unlimited half-price skiing at the Mountain Collective resorts, $949 (adult), $359 (child).
This gem is on the road to Reno, over on Tahoe’s east side (1,200 acres, 1,800 feet of vertical, rising up from a relatively high, 8,260-foot base). The Buser family, majority owner, put Mount Rose on the block in January; as yet there are no definitive suitors.
Meanwhile, the resort will perform as always, boosted by a doubling of snowmaking capacity over last season, frosting a quarter of its runs. Creative mid-week deals include: Two ‘Fer Tuesdays (two all-day tickets), $109; Ladies’ Day Thursdays, $29; Military Chits (active duty), $59; and Ski-the-Day-You-Fly (just show boarding pass), $59. Season passes are $529 (adult premier) and $429 (midweek). Prices will go up by a nominal amount when the slopes are fully open.
Mount Shasta Ski Park
This resort on the south slopes of Northern California’s most picturesque peak calls its last season the best in 30 years, and put revenue into revamping its lodges. The Ski Park (425 acres, 1,435 feet of vertical) offers season passes for $499 (adults), $249 (youths), $169 (seniors or children 8-12) and $79 (seniors 70 and up); a $1,699 family pass accommodates four people, added charge for more. First-time skiers and ‘boarders can get three lessons for $180, then score a free pass for the rest of the season. Night skiing offered on Fridays and Saturdays only. The resort is scheduled to open in mid-December, with no set date.
Located on Highway 50 below Echo Summit, this resort (2,000 acres, 2,212 feet of vertical) is another that skiers can get to without having to crest a pass. Besides the groomers, Sierra boasts extensive tree skiing and six terrain parks with some themed for toddlers, five gates to the off-piste and the double-diamond backcountry of Huckleberry Canyon (open when conditions permit). The Broadway run gets enhanced terrain for skier instruction.
New are cheap online packages for first-time skiers or ‘boarders; check on revamped website at season start. The resort will have improved Wi-Fi at the base and on mountain. Season passes range from $439 (adults) to $159 (children 5-12, and super-seniors 70 and up). A Sierra Value Pass, $289, provides Sunday-Friday access, with blackout dates. holders score free lift tickets at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows on selected days, and are automatically enrolled in the Powder Alliance, for discount access at 15 ski areas in the United States, Canada and Japan. www.powderalliance.com
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows
Less than a decade ago, Squaw Valley (3,600 acres, 2,850 feet of vertical) and Alpine Meadows (2,400 acres, 1,802 feet of vertical) competed over the most storied ski terrain on Tahoe’s west side. Operating now in tandem, they’re connected by a continuous shuttle; a 2-mile gondola remains envisioned as a future link. This new season will see more than $1 million in snowmaking advances at both resorts, a bolstered Kangaroo Run at Alpine and new guns and pipes at Squaw – with new PistenBully Winch Cats and a ParkPro to shape up the white stuff.
Squaw/Alpine visitors can buy a new smartphone app that’s also optimized for Apple Watch, Android Wear and Pebble smartwatches. It enhances slope navigation, records performance, allows pre-purchase of lift tickets and even helps track your group members and sends messages. Seven new ticketing locations will be physically installed around the base village, smoothing visitor flow. Holiday celebrations, “Merry Days and Holly Nights,” planned for Dec. 17-31, include free and ticketed events, many with live music.
Season passes range from an unlimited Gold ($899) to an unlimited College ($449); prices will rise again, on Nov. 15. Squaw aims for a Nov. 11 opener. Carpooling guests with four or more in the vehicle score free close-up parking. The resort also belongs to The Mountain Collective; current pass for 28 days at 14 other top resorts across North America costs $419 (children age 12 and under, $99). https://mountaincollective.com/
Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge
Sugar Bowl (1,650 acres, 1,500 feet of vertical) ranges from traditional character at its Bavarian-style Village Lodge (built in 1939) to a highly modern sensibility at the huge Mount Judah base lodge. There’s a broad array of downhill terrain off its four peaks, three of them north-facing.
Three years ago, the resort acquired the sprawling Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort (6,000 acres, 125 miles of trail), just to the west. Three new groomers (including a winch-cat) will enhance both places; especially at Royal Gorge where tight trails have been widened. Sugar Bowl’s Village Lodge kitchen also had a massive upgrade.
Season passes range from $799 (adult, Sugar Bowl only) to $979 (Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge) and $339 (Royal Gorge only). The scheduled opening date is Dec. 10.
This family-friendly enterprise north of Truckee, operated by a local homeowners association, also mixes downhill and cross-ski opportunities. The centerpiece of the cross-country area (7,000 acres, 62 miles of trail) is its new, $6 million lodge, the Alder Creek Adventure Center. New management launched a Winter Festival and a creative Tahoe-Donner challenge ski race; both recur this season.
For its early December opener (no set date), the cross-country area will expand trails onto the recently purchased 640 acres of Crabtree Canyon. The small downhill area (120 acres, 600 feet of vertical) specializes in youth instruction; it will hold a Customer Appreciation Day on Dec. 17 with $5 lift tickets for everyone. There’s also a snow play area with improved tubing, sledding, a food truck and daylong (not the usual two-hour) passes.
Season passes range from $319 (adult, unrestricted, cross-country) to $419 (unrestricted for both ski areas) to $79 (super-senior, age 70 and up, for both ski areas). New for this year are a snowshoe-only and a fat-tire-bike-only season pass, both $200. Prices good until Nov. 30.
Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (Badger Pass)
One of California’s oldest resorts, Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (88 acres, 800 feet of vertical) is also among its most atmospheric, thanks to a small, historic, Swiss-style lodge, and family-friendly ski school. Another plus is free shuttle transport from lodges on the valley floor in Yosemite National Park. Season passes go for $461 (adult, youth and senior) or $185 (child). The adjacent cross-country ski school has a prime asset in a 10.5-mile road groomed out to Glacier Point Hut; guided trips and overnight stays there are available. Opening day is set for Dec. 16.
Editor’s note: This article was changed Nov. 11 to correct the opening date for Sugar Bowl and update ticket prices at Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge.