Picking a ski and snowboarding area

What’s acceptable in a ski area depends on a number of factors: your skill level, your budget, the amount of time you have to travel, who will be going with you, and what kind of experience you like on and near the slope. Sometimes you get on an airplane; sometimes you pack up the car for an extended stay, and sometimes you leave home in the morning and return to sleep in your own bed.

If you live near a mountain that offers a lot of vertical drop and skiable area at affordable prices, be grateful. If you don’t, make the best of the situation, by planning extended trips. Progressing in snowboarding is another way to extend the attractiveness of a limited area.

Though GraysOnTrays.com is a site for snowboarders, it’s much easier to say “ski area.” We’re all for economy of effort.

You can ride your snowboard in a lot of places, from a tiny hill in your own backyard to a glacier in Alaska. In fact, the variety is so large that it’s sometimes hard to refer to them all with the same name. We keep things simple here and use the word “resort” and “mountain” to refer, generically, to where people ride. Any differences will be made clear in the text below. There is, of course, snowcat riding in the back country. But that will be the subject of another page.

NUMBER OF RESORTS

Over time, the number of resorts is declining. The New England Lost Ski Area Project, for example, counts over 550 closed areas. Many closed because they could not compete against larger, better-financed resorts that had high speed lifts and snowmaking. The evolution of the industry can be seen in the declining number of ski areas. In the 1984-1984 season, for example, there were 727 areas. That number declined to 524 in 1994-1995, and then 494 in 2003-2004. (Source: National Ski Areas Association).

GEOLOGICAL FEATURES OF THE RESORT

The physical makeup of the mountain you ride on makes a big difference.

Vertical drop

Is more vertical drop better? It depends.

Yes, more vertical drop allows you to spend more time on each run. But remember, you might not be able to use all the vertical. If you’re a novice on the board, consistently staying on the board for a 30 foot drop is your goal, not taking in 3,000 feet. And even if you have mastered the basics, you might not have the stamina to make a continuous run of 3,000 feet. Since resorts with more vertical usually charge more, you’re probably going to be buying more drop than you can handle.

Your level of conditioning also matters. More drop usually means a higher altitude to begin with–and that can mean altitude sickness. Again, if you can’t handle the terrain, you’re probably wasting your money.

Remember also that the highest peaks are often the steepest ones. You might not be able to handle that extra 500 feet up on top.

But if you have the endurance and can handle the terrain, go for it! But remember that some resorts fudge their drop number numbers. They might do this by making the calculation from the base to the very top of the highest peak–even if the highest lift stops hundreds of feet below. Unless you’re willing and able to do some hiking, the stated vertical number may be exaggerated.

MountainVertical.com is a good resource if you would like to look up the vertical of a ski area.

Base Altitude

While riding in the mountains is a great activity, the higher up you go, the more difficult the experience may be, especially if you are out of shape. You might also suffer from altitude sickness.

The altitude of both the summit and the base matter. If you are spending the nights at an altitude that makes it hard for you to sleep, you’re going to have a hard time riding the next day. If you’re making your first trip to the mountains, you may just have to guess at how much altitude you can handle.

Fortunately, you don’t always have to head to the highest base elevation to get in some riding that fits your style, fitness level, and desires. You can have two mountains, each with a similar vertical drop, but one with a much lower base elevation. For example, Copper Mountain, Colorado, has a skiable vertical drop is 2,601 feet. That’s the good news. But it also has a base elevation of 9,712. That may give some people altitude sickness.

You can get nearly the same vertical drop (2,610) at Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont, at a much lower base altitude of 1,030 feet.

Should you avoid Copper? It depends on a variety of factors, many involving your own preferences and riding ability, as well as your health. In general, eastern resorts have more ice than western ones, so you will want to take that into consideration as well.

Skiable area

When it comes to skiable area, more is better. Part of the joy of all-mountain riding is experiencing new areas of the mountain. But like vertical drop, the raw number for skiable area must be considered in light of several other factors. Does the number given refer to lift-served terrain only, or does it also include bowls you must hike to? If you are unwilling or unable to ride in bowls, you will find the skiable area statistic exaggerated. The same thing may also if the statistic includes acres that are available only by snowcat. The acreage page gives an idea of some of the biggest areas for riding.

THE SNOW

There’s snow, and then there is the variety of snow. The location of the resort as well as the management of the resort makes a big difference in what kind of snow you will face. Choose accordingly.

Flat, or Fluffy?

Powder, “Sierra Cement,” groomed snow, or ice, conditions can change a lot. Powder drops much more frequently in Colorado than it does in the Midwest, while the East is known for often having icy conditions. These differences should influence what kind of board you buy, and they will definitely effect what kind of riding you do.

Snowmaking

Some resorts have the ability to augment natural snow with snowmaking. This gives them an advantage over those resorts of similar elevation that cannot. But if you know when and where the resort makes snow, you will be ahead of the game. Riding through the spray of a snowgun may be unavoidable, and it’s not necessarily a good experience.

Grooming

Some resorts groom all the time, other do so less often. The smallest may not have grooming machines at all. Grooming makes for more a predictable surface, but may some people may find groomed slopes boring.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

How long does it take for you to get to the resort? If you live within a short drive of a mountain with a couple thousand feet in drop and a few hundred acres of skiable area, good for you! But many riders have to face a trade-off: take a short drive to a small hill, or take a longer drive (or airplane flight) to a destination resort.

The definition of a “destination resort” varies from state to state. In Michigan, for example, riders in the metropolitan Detroit area can choose from several nearby small day areas of a few hundred feet. Or they can drive four or five hours northwest across the state, to a place like Boyne Highlands, which despite its still geographic limits (vertical drop of well under 700 feet), is considered a destination resort. Longer trips (and larger budgets) may be reserved for Colorado, Utah, or other states outside the Midwest.

ON-THE-MOUNTAIN FEATURES AND PROGRAMS

Different areas emphasize different features. The differences depend on a resort’s place in the market, business plan, and natural facilities.

Night Moves: Riding Under the Lights

Does the ski and snowboard area offer night skiing? While a big resort like Keystone offers night skiing, this option is particularly useful for those of us who frequent small hills near metropolitan areas. (After all, a full day on a big mountain may be all that some people are willing and able to enjoy.) Night skiing and riding is a different experience. It’s usually not as good as daytime riding, but if you’ve got a day job and there are some nearby slopes, what else are you going to do? Sit home and watch reruns on the TV? Roughly one-third of all ski and snowboard areas offer night riding.

Cross-Country, Skating, and Tubing

In an attempt to market themselves as a place for people who don’t engage in downhill skiing or riding, a resort may spend money and effort to build and advertise other winter activities. These include riding down gentle slopes on inner tubes, ice skating, cross-country skiing, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Resorts that cater to families with young children may operate extensive water parks, enclosed and attached to hotels. A few resorts allow nontraditional equipment, such as snow skates, on the slopes.

Snowboard or Skiing

In the 1970s, snowboards were allowed on only a handful of mountains. Now, they are welcomed nearly everywhere. Only three resorts–Alta and Deer Valley (both in Utah), and Mad River Glen, Vermont, ban snowboards.

Even among the areas that allow boards (which includes almost everyone), the role of snowboards varies. Some are dominated by riders; others, by skiers.

Quick or Slow: Aerial or Surface Lifts

The original skiers earned their slides by hiking up hills. Advancements in the sport saw the development of surface lifts, followed by overhead lifts. Surface lifts are still found in nearly every resort, especially on the bunny hills. Some older and smaller resorts use them more extensively. Some, in fact, have only surface lifts. Surface lifts are slower than aerial lifts, and while they may work well enough for beginning skiers, can be hard for beginning and even seasoned snowboarders to use. (By the way, the Poma Group is the world’s largest manufacturer of lifts. They sell a variety of products, which you can see on their web site.)

Terrain Parks and Halfpipes

If you’re a rider of the halfpipe and love to hit rails and other manmade objects, you’ll want to see if your resort has a halfpipe and terrain park–and if so, what condition they are in. Thanks to the surge of young riders, most ski and snowboard areas will have these. But they will differ on how large a role the freestyle terrain plays: does freestyle take up most of the mountain, or is it only a small part?

Glades and Trees

If you’re fearless and skilled, you might try riding in glades of trees. Note that some resorts prohibit riding in the trees.

Adult Lessons

Taking a lesson is a good thing, especially if you are a novice. There are a range of educational programs for adults. Some offer beginner’s lessons that are deeply discounted or even free. These lessons often offer a lift ticket, instruction, and rental equipment for one low price. You may also find adults-only group lessons, but be sure to ask first. Some resorts offer women’s-only lessons. A few even offer adults-only freestyle lessons, so parents can learn to do tricks, just like their kids. Here’s an obvious tip: if you’re learning at a commuter resort, take a lesson during the day if you can. That should minimize the possibility of getting kids in the class–or one as an instructor. But call ahead to be sure.

Adaptive Skiing

Roughly one-third of ski and snowboard areas offer programs to help disabled people ski/ride.

Children’s Services

Depending on the resort, your destination may offer child care, a children’s learn-to-ski (or ride) program, and a child-specific halfpipe or terrain park.

Competition

Some ski and snowboard resorts conduct or host competitions of various sorts, including freestyle (jumping, tricks, that sort of thing) and racing.

Music, Sweet Music

Do you have to have music with you, or are you someone who prefers the subtle sounds of the mountain? Some resorts are on the quiet side, while others play music outside chalets, in terrain parks, and in lift lines.

SLEEP AND OTHER NON-SNOW ACTIVITIES

Ski-in, or Drive in?

So where is your head going to hit the pillow? At a ski-in, ski-out slopeside lodge, or at the Motel 6? Or perhaps at home? Riders use all sorts of accommodations, from the Ritz to sleeping in sleeping bags curled up inside autos in the parking lot. The very existence of slopeside lodging helps define what is a “destination” resort and what is not. In general, bigger mountains will have both on and off the slopes lodging, while small hills will be served by more modest (cheaper) motels. But that’s a generalization. Some small hills do quite well renting and selling on-site lodging, while it is possible to stay in a modest hotel and still get big-mountain thrills (e.g., some places in Utah).

On a related note, if your interests and wallet permits, you may wish to purchase nearby lodging. Any number of resorts, as well as private parties, are willing to make a deal.

In-Town Amenities

Some resorts are like bowling alleys: people go there for a specific activity, and nothing else. Others are more like megamalls, with lots of choices in entertainment. Aspen, Colorado, for example, has very upscale shopping, high cuisine, and activities in the arts. Other towns have a more rugged feel, with dining choices relying heavily on meat and potatoes. In some places, people can dance until dawn and then stagger out to the mountain in the morning. In other locations, it’s an early night. Again, it all comes down to what you want, and how much you want to spend.

PRICING

Price Range

You can pay $30 per day (or less) for a lift ticket, or $90 (or more) a day. As you can see, there’s a large variation in price. In general, you get what you pay for. Higher prices usually mean bigger mountains, more recent rental equipment, and better facilities. But not always. Ask around.

Multi-day Tickets and Season Passes

Volume matters. You can usually get a discounted price by purchasing a multi-day ticket or a season pass.

Discounts

It pays to be old–or young. It’s common for a resort to offer discounted prices for children. Some even let them ride or ski for free. Roughly one quarter of resorts let seniors ski free of charge. But note that the age at which free tickets are available has been increased at some places (from 65 to 70, for example), and at other places, the programs has been discontinued. Many still offer discounted tickets, however.

Go to the Matinee

Movie tickets are cheaper in the afternoon. So are lift tickets.

Multi-resort passes

Some resorts–often but not always owned by the same company–offer multi-resort lift tickets or season passes. Purchase at one, ride at another.

OWNERSHIP

There’s a wide variety of ownership among ski areas, and that will make a difference in your mountain experience. In general, the larger the organization running the resort, the more extensive the services and more commercial (non-riding, non-skiing) the operation. Is that good or bad? It’s all up to what kind of experience you want to have.

Publicly traded companies

After the giant company known as Intrawest went private in 2006, and the American Ski Company collapsed, the only publicly trade company with mountain operations is Vail Resorts, which trades under the symbol MTN. It operates several well-known resorts, including, of course, Vail. The company had $940 million in revenue during 2007. That’s still a far cry from a mom and pop business.

Private Companies With Multiple Locations

Some areas started out as small, family-owned businesses, and remain in private hands to this day. These include Boyne USA, which operates resorts in Michigan, New Hampshire, Utah, Washington, and British Columbia. The Aspen Skiing Company runs some of the most glitzy skiing on four mountains, in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Peak Resorts, a company out of Missouri, picked up some areas from the old American Ski Company.

Family Businesses With a Single Location

A large number of ski areas are owned by one or two families. These tend to be day resorts with fewer acres of skiable terrain and less vertical drop.

The Ph.D. of Snowboarding?

Some ski areas are owned by colleges, such as Gogebic Community College, at the edge of Michigan and Wisconsin, which operates Mt. Zion as part of a ski area management program. It also operates a ski area within the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

I’m from the Government

A few state and local governments have gotten into the act, as well, including Duluth, Minnesota’s Spirit Mountain, and three resorts in New York state: Belleayre Mountain; Gore Mountain; and Whiteface Mountain.

Ambitious Amateurs

A handful of ski areas are community-run organizations, relying heavily on volunteers for financial support and labor. Cedar Pass Snow Park of California, for example, actively recruits volunteer lift operators on its home page. Bogus Basin, outside Boise, Idaho, is a non-profit organization that actively recruits financial support

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