Early snows have gifted Western ski resorts, including in California, with their best start-of-season conditions in years, triggering snow sliders' recurring fever dreams of an epic winter.
"Odds are stacked in favor of a wetter, stormier and snowier winter for the southern half of California," OntheSnow.com reports. "The Sierra in general should do much better than the last couple winters, with snowfall amounts normal to above normal.... Most of the Tahoe resorts should get close to normal snowfall, which is still a huge improvement."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the peak for the anticipated monster El Niño will occur this winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The last mega-Niño — 1997-98 — left 451 inches of snow at Mammoth, far better than the paltry 176 the mountain recorded in 2014-15.
With signs pointing to an upward trend for the downward bound, here's some of what's new with resorts in California and the rest of the West.
Bear Mountain in the San Bernardino Mountains and Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra, both owned by Mammoth Resorts, finished first and second, respectively, in TransWorld Snowboarding's 2015 resort poll rankings.
The magazine collected data about features, halfpipes and acreage from resorts across North America and, aided by consultancy Snow Park Technologies, synthesized it with more than 3,300 responses about park quality to determine the best parks in North America.
By late last week, the base depth at Bear Peak was 24 inches; the base depth at the summit at Mammoth was 48 inches, aided by about 15 inches of new snow during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Meanwhile, Mammoth will again partner with Stand Up to Cancer this year to support the organization's research programs. Skiers' and snowboarders' photos and videos shared to social media through April 30 with the hashtag #MammothBeanie will trigger a $1 donation to the organization. And Mammoth's #MammothBeanie is much more than just a winter hat and hashtag — beanies purchased at any Mammoth Resorts retail shop will trigger another $1 donation, up to $20,000.
At June Mountain, Mammoth's neighbor in the Eastern Sierra, kids 12 and younger ski free at a resort where 80% of the terrain is rated for beginners. Opening day is set for Saturday; adult lift tickets will run $79, youth (13-22) $52 and seniors (65-79) $52. Naturally, the more you ski, the more you save.
El Niño notwithstanding, Mountain High in Wrightwood is offering Powder Alliance pass holders a "Winter Guarantee" that credits them up to 50% of the cost of next year's pass if this year's is used four times or less — whether or not weather plays a role.
Among the 14 Powder Alliance resorts are Sierra-at-Tahoe, Crested Butte, Colo., Utah's Snowbasin and British Columbia's Whitewater.
Mt. Baldy, a 10,064-foot summit sometimes visible from downtown Los Angeles, had hoped to have a new zip line up and running this season. That has been pushed to next year. Meanwhile, it's pretty much business as usual at the beautiful little resort an hour's drive from Los Angeles. The good runs depend on real snow, so the resort is still awaiting the promised winter deluge. A beginner run and the tubing park are open for now, with plans of adding two more soon. One plus for Baldy: You can camp overnight in the parking lot for $5.
Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake is featuring a new snow tube park and expanded eating options this season. Most notable: A new restaurant at Summit will feature an open-pit rotisserie barbecue, with plans to cook a whole pig every day. It is at the top of lifts 2, 3 and 9. A full bar specializing in local craft brews will overlook the lake.
At the base, coffee and smoothie operations have also been upgraded.
Now in its second year, the The Cali4nia Pass ($799) provides season-long access to Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain. Bear and Summit-only passes ($599 for adults) are also available.
Mountain High also is teaming with Snow Valley, in Running Springs, to offer season passholders at both resorts up to three free days (nonholiday) of reciprocal skiing or snowboarding this season, a $207 value, according to the resorts.
Lake Tahoe resorts are the first to benefit from the powerful Pacific storms typical of an El Niño year. And rugged, usually snow-choked Kirkwood Mountain Resort is first among those equals. The resort is debuting Discover the Steeps and Navigating Chutes programs for intermediate and expert skiers. Classes include lunch and use of GoPro cameras.
Heavenly Mountain Resort marks its 60th season with free concerts, pop-up mobile DJ snowcats and Unbuckle at Tamarack après parties throughout the season. This winter marks the first full season of operation for the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the opening of the Chateau shopping center featuring retail stores, restaurants and bars adjacent to the gondola.
At Squaw Valley Ski Resort, the Siberia Express quad chair has been replaced by a high-speed six-seater, a $7-million upgrade. Squaw has announced plans (timing not yet disclosed) to install a gondola linking it to neighboring Alpine Meadows; the two corporate siblings are now connected by a free 15-minute shuttle bus ride. With 6,000 acres of terrain, the joined resorts would eventually be the second largest in the United States, trailing Utah's new Park City (see sidebar), the merged former Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons.
Northstar California Resort will showcase locally sourced, farm-to-mountaintop menus as part of its Mountain Table culinary experience in the Zephyr Lodge on select dates throughout the season.
Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe has invested nearly $1.2 million in on-mountain improvements, significantly expanding its snowmaking system and creating the new Enchanted Forest Family Zone.
Sugar Bowl Ski Resort adds a new terrain park and a new Village Station to serve as a portal to access the more than 125 miles of groomed cross-country trails at recently acquired Royal Gorge, North America's largest cross-country skiing center.
Homewood Mountain Resort expands its skiable terrain to the top of Ellis Peak, adding 750 acres of glades and runs of nearly 2,000 vertical feet. The terrain will be accessed by enclosed snowcat for groups of no more than 10 skiers and riders as part of a fully guided experience.
Traveling from Southern California to Lake Tahoe resorts will soon be easier, just in time for spring skiing. Starting March 16, Alaska Airlines is introducing new nonstop service from John Wayne Airport to Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
Improvements at Vail Resorts' Colorado properties include upgrading Vail's Avanti Express lift to a high-speed six-seater, which will more quickly swallow the thousands of skiers and riders who start their days at the popular Lionshead base area; expanding the snowmaking system at Beaver Creek; adding new snowmaking to the recently opened Peak 6 at Breckenridge; and unveiling EpicMix Time, a new crowd-sourced, real-time technology for communicating lift-line wait times at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.
Aspen Skiing Co. has upgraded the High Alpine lift at Snowmass to a high-speed quad, reducing ride time nearly in half to just more than 5 1/2 minutes. At Aspen Highlands, the mid-mountain Cloud Nine restaurant, known for its fondue and raclette, has undergone a $1.1-million remodeling.
From Dec. 16 to March 26, Crested Butte will offer SoCal skiers and riders easy access to Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport from LAX with new Wednesday and Saturday nonstop flights on Alaska Airlines.
Purgatory, most recently known as Durango Mountain Resort, is named Purgatory once again just in time for its 50th anniversary season, which features a new high-speed quad lift and three new trails off it.
Steamboat is incorporating radio frequency identification (RFID) technology into its lift tickets, multiday passes and season passes using the QuickTrax card, which will be reusable over multiple seasons and can be reloaded online or over the phone, allowing guests to bypass the ticket office. The RFID system will be installed at the gondola, Christie Peak Express, Preview and Thunderhead Express lifts.
Telluride Ski Resort gets a new American Airlines route from LAX to Telluride/Montrose Airport, and its namesake town gets its first distillery, Telluride Distilling Co., offering whiskey, vodka and two types of rum.
Like Steamboat, Winter Park is introducing RFID technology into its lift tickets, multiday and season passes using the QuickTrax card, with the same convenience features. RFID installation at Winter Park includes the Zephyr Express, Arrow, Gemini Express, Challenger and Super Gauge Express lifts.
Snowbird has invested $35 million to modernize all 350 rooms and suites of the 1970s-era Cliff Lodge and construct a new Summit Lodge on Hidden Peak (11,000-foot elevation) at the top of the resort's iconic tram. The two-story glass structure sports 360-degree views, a 190-seat cafeteria, a coffee shop, a 10,000-square-foot deck and new digs for the ski patrol.
At Solitude, now owned by Deer Valley, a new high-speed quad replaces the slow Summit double chairlift, providing faster access to the backcountry-feeling terrain of Honeycomb Canyon.
Cherry Peak, the state's newest (and 15th) ski resort, opens this season with three triple chairlifts, snowmaking, ice skating, tubing and night skiing. Cherry Peak is 15 miles from Logan and a few miles south of the Idaho line.
Elsewhere in the West and Canada
Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort marks its 50th anniversary with events throughout the season and the new Teton Lift, a high-speed quad serving three new trails, intermediate terrain and a formerly hike-to expert area known as the Crags. The lift's grand opening party, with fireworks and live music, is set for Dec. 19. Also new this season: the Piste Mountain Bistro in the Rendezvous Lodge at the top of the Bridger Gondola.
Also on the calendar: the return of the Jackson Hole Powder 8s competition, Feb. 5-7. The Teton lift is the ninth the Kemmerer family has added since buying the resort in 1992 and brings its total investment (in lifts, lodges, restaurants, grooming vehicles and a new "big red" tram) to $140 million.
Idaho's Sun Valley is also celebrating a milestone anniversary: its 80th. At America's oldest destination ski resort, this will be the first winter season for the extensively remodeled, historic Sun Valley Lodge, which reopened in June with a new 20,000-square-foot spa, fitness center and yoga studio. In Ski magazine's annual readers' poll, Sun Valley recently was named North America's No. 2 overall resort, trailing British Columbia's Whistler Blackcomb and supplanting Deer Valley, which dropped to No. 3. Sun Valley was ranked No. 1 in lifts, grooming, character and kid-friendliness; No. 2 in service, on-mountain food, dining, off-hill activities and terrain parks; and No. 3 in lodging.
In southwestern Montana, Big Sky Resort has added three new terrain parks and as many new runs, pushing its total acreage to more than 5,800. Also new and perhaps a first in ski country: Tesla Connector charging stations, in the Summit Hotel garage.
Whitefish Mountain Resort, in Montana's northwestern corner, has invested more than $1.5 million, most of it to remodel its Summit House mountaintop lodge and add a 135-seat mezzanine level.
In New Mexico, Sipapu has a new fixed-grip quad chair.
At Taos Ski Valley, in New Mexico, construction has begun on a 65-room, full-service hotel that's expected to open by November 2016. Beginning with last year's new Kachina Peak lift, Taos plans to invest $350 million in capital improvements over the next five years.
For the second consecutive year, and the third time in the last four, British Columbia's Whistler Blackcomb is the No. 1 overall resort in Ski magazine's readers' poll. In this 50th anniversary season, the resort is unveiling a $5.4-million remodeling of Blackcomb's mid-mountain Rendezvous Lodge, now with sushi, Mexican and wok stations in a new food court. With 8,171 acres, Whistler Blackcomb remains North America's biggest ski resort.
Colorado's Vail Resorts expands into Utah with nation's largest ski facility, Park City
Vail Resorts — Colorado's 800-pound Yeti, er, gorilla, owner of Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood — has muscled its way into neighboring Utah, spending $50 million to link Park City Mountain Resort and adjacent Canyons and make capital improvements at both.
The two resorts have been transformed into one, renamed simply Park City. The project, one of the more ambitious capital programs in U.S. ski industry history, creates the largest resort in the United States, with more than 7,300 acres of skiable terrain, 300-plus trails and 41 lifts.
The new Park City debuts the high-speed, eight-passenger Quicksilver gondola (opening at least by Christmas week), running in both directions from the base of the existing Silverlode lift at Park City to the Flatiron lift at Canyons.
Miners Camp, a new restaurant at the base of the Silverlode lift, has 500 indoor seats. The King Con quad lift now is a new six-seater, and the Motherlode chair has been upgraded to a high-speed quad.