Ski Areas: Lost and Found

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Several years ago I read an article about all the little mom-and-pop ski areas now out of business. The article was written with a nod towards nostalgia, a sigh of whimsy and a little bit of angst. Is our sport dying, I wondered at the time.

Not according to the recent NSAA report on growth. Not according to recent record numbers of skier visits. But is skiing going the way of the local hardware store, getting swallowed by Home Depot and Lowes? Are all the small areas located near big population centers giving up the ghost? If so, what does that mean for the future of sliding on snow? Will it merely become one yearly trip to a big resort where all our needs are met, whether they be perfectly groomed pistes, pedicures or prime rib dinners? I think we need small ski areas–ones with slow chairs, low ticket prices and plenty of learn-t0-ski terrain.

While John and I spent that dark time in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, we decided one sunny July day, when he was feeling pretty good, to drove out to Steeplechase, a little mom-and-pop ski area in the middle of corn fields. The corn ended at the top of the ski area. The now-rusting bullwheels of four decent lifts sat motionless. Below that the slopes dove into a pretty steep ravine creating the 240 feet of vertical claimed on the now-defunct trail map. The ski area was bankrupt and wouldn’t be opening the following winter. It was a real shame.

With the surge in backcountry skiers, I imagine that some of the angst felt over lost ski areas might be dwindling. Free the old areas to those willing to earn their turns, they might say. While I love to backcountry ski as much as the next patroller, I also love ski areas. Real ones. With lifts and bathrooms, fireplaces and cool bars with shotskis hanging from the rafters.

Facilities are good for bc enthusiasts as well. Who doesn’t want a cold draft beer after skinning all day? After all, a warm Snorting Elk fire beats a warm beer pulled from the back of a Toyota pickup any day. Many ski areas in the West (Crystal Mountain most notably) offer the best of both worlds–nearby skinning opportunities starting from the plowed parking lot and close to the bathrooms.

Much to my recent pleasure, several almost-lost ski areas are being resurrected. I recently wrote about Manitoba, but that area doesn’t really count as almost-lost. It’s been closed for 40 years. I’m talking here about less than ten-year closed areas that almost died but didn’t. I’m talking about close calls and miraculous recoveries. I’m talking about Cinderella stories here.

Here are a few recent ones:

  • Maple Valley Ski Resort, Vermont: New Englanders are nostalgic for lost ski areas. In fact the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (click here for website) is a treasure trove of

    Maple Valley Ski Resort Trailmap

    information about bygone areas, small areas still in operation, and their crowning glory: lost areas now found. Maple Valley has been found. You can almost hear the hallelujahs being sung from the top of the 1017 foot vertical drop. With two double chairlifts and a T-Bar, as well as a base lodge and night lighting, this ski area is poised to open as a four-season resort. For more information, check out First Tracks!! online’s story here.

  • Little Switzerland, Wisconsin: Closed since 2007, this 200 foot vertical ski area plans to reopen next winter. Details are sketchy on this one, and the website isn’t live yet. But First Tracks!! broke the story last week. More details here.
  • Eagle Point Ski Resort, Beaver, Utah: What was once the defunct Elk Meadows Ski Area re-opened last year as Eagle Point Ski

    Eagle Point Trailmap

    Resort. When new investors first bought the closed ski area, they put forth a controversial plan to build a private resort with a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course. It didn’t go over well with the locals. So the investors changed course and built the more modest Eagle Point instead. Located in Southern Utah, the area has 4 lifts and 1,400 feet of vertical.  Check out there website here.

  • Hickory Ski Area, NY opened under new ownership last year, with 12o4 feet of vertical and surface-only lifts. Click here for the website.

These aren’t the only resurrections and close calls. And for every one listed here, dozens continue to rust and grow over, ashes to ashes. What do you think of the fate of mom-and-pops? Not just in skiing, but hardware stores, local grocers, butchers, coffee shops (don’t get me started on that one)? Should we let these aging oldies die off or join the chorus of cheers when they re-open, limp along and continue to offer that small, family-owned vibe that existed where most of us learned to ski?

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16 responses »

  1. Kim, this is one of your best blog entries I’ve read yet!! And it is sooo true! Energy Costs are the one thing though that is killing the little area!! Efficient new equipment (LED LIGHTING, LOW AIR SNOWMAKING, MAGIC CARPET LIFTS, NEW GROOMERS etc) are very very expensive and if small areas are shoe string operations, these expenses are tremendous! I ski patrol at a County Park Ski Area, perhaps one of the best little learn to ski areas at Allegheny County Pennsylvania’s Boyce Park Ski Area. This area is just outside the URBAN CENTER of downtown Pittsburgh. The area is small and expnsive to operate, and the county does not do a good job of marketing/selling/inviting groups on week nights etc. The one thing these small ski areas need is a collective marketing campaign initiative to help them put programs in place to increase off peak (weekday) visits to cover operating expenses during those times!!

    • Aaron,
      I hear you about trying to get customers during non-peak days. Unfortunately, one of the great truisms in life (including the fact that it’s impossible to get a waiter to look at you until he’s good and ready) is that people ski and ride on their days off. For most people that’s Sat. and Sun. and there’s not much you can do to change that. Around our house, we say “people ski when they can”. It’s short for weekends are busy, weekdays rule.

  2. We visited Mount Baldy – just over the US/Canada boarder north of Omak this winter. What a delight! 2 lifts, tons of powder and no crowds. Only open Friday through Monday and tickets were only $45 for an adult. As we bought our tickets we watched a bus full of kids unload for their ski lessons — nearly all of whom were Native kids from the reservation school we passed through on the way up. The staff was great, the lodge and food was amazing and the gladed deep powder skiing was perfect. But as we sat drinking beer with the Manager that night, we heard tales of how it is barely hanging on and development dreams that have remain just that. On the way home we stopped to visit Loup Loup – another small resort in the Winthrop Valley that took us by surprise. Full of families skiing in the sun on a weekend it was small but no less fun – and as a parent what a treat to be able to park yourself at a picnic table and watch your kids no matter where they were on the mountain. We all need to get out and explore the small places that don’t spend big dollars on fancy lifts and hotels….you will be surprised at the excellent terrain and hospitality that is offered!

  3. Aaron, I left Pittsburgh at 11 and discovered skiing at 30. Making up for lost time. Couldn’t agree with you more in regard to your points made in response to Kim’s tremendous blog. Perhaps you’ve visited the MRA site written here previously, but this “movement” shares your concerns and is doing something about it.

  4. Great article. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all the Mom and Pop’s are located out of reliable snowbelts and have fairly lackluster terrain. I believe the corporations are smart, and bought up the most of the desirable areas.

    I think that the viable future of many of these Mom and Pop’s is to convert to a co-op model. Instead of one owner trying to shoulder the burden, many of the areas could sell investment/membership shares to their clients. Magic Mountain, VT has been selling $3,000 shares to keep their mountain open.

    Also, investing in clean energy creation can not only reduce utility bills, but taking advantage of numerous grants and tax incentives, can help the bottom line.

    • Re: Jamie Schectman a Co-Op model is an excellent idea for smaller areas with the idea that a group could operate more efficiently than individuals when it comes to capital purchases and things. However this would be a tricky arraingment since no one wants to be told how to operate, what model of truck to buy, or what kind of food to serve!

      A far as “CLEAN ENERGY CREATION and TAX CREDITS/GRANTS” This is totally a scam! This is simply a democratic form of redistribution of wealth… and trust me, earning those “CLEAN ENERGY TAX CREDITS” is all about some one buying and selling the CREDITS for profit, eventually driving up the costs of things that actually produce us energy like COAL/NUCLEAR/NATURAL GAS. The whole reason our energy is so expensive is that it is bought and sold 150 times before you and I burn it in our furnace, or use it for a light in our kitchen to read the morning paper. I’m a fan of Clean Energy! but I’m also a fan of the public demanding that the wheelers and dealers stop ripping the lay person off! Ski Areas consume a ton of ENERGY!! Those of us who ski at industrialized ski resorts in moderate climate, are basically forced to pay the bill for the energy supporting the rich energy traders getting richer! (Since I love to ski, for me it’s a no brainer that no matter what the cost I’m still going to pay, I dont want clean energy tax credits driving up the cost of the COAL/GAS/NUCLEAR power that is used for Snowmaking and Lift Service)

      • I forgot to mention, with the co-op model, management can stay the same, it’s only a transfer of ownership from Mom and Pop to the customers.

        In the months to come, you will be hearing more about Clean Energy creation and how it the numbers can work. For one, the depreciation of the project can be used, greatly reducing the tax liability. It wouldn’t call that a scam, but more intelligent tax strategies.

      • Aaron,
        It’s true that ski areas use energy. I always raise an eyebrow at the green-washing that sometimes goes on “This chair lift is powered by wind energy!!!” when really it’s purchased with carbon offsets. I also wonder about buying carbon offsets at all. Not that its a bad policy. Yes! Help subsidize clean energy! But not just to assuage guilt. And not so you can drive your Hummer to the ski area.

  5. Maple Valley – the place that persuaded me never to go night skiing again – a rare contra tot he trend of small-area failures, mainly driven by drastic hikes in insurance-policy premium rates.

  6. Yea, great post and great topic! I love the mom-and-pop mountains – grew up skiing that way at Multorpor-Ski Bowl on Hood, still sorta feels that way. We’d just jump out of our skis, leave them next to each other in the snow, go in for lunch in the old lodge, and come back. The first time I did that at Crystal my skis weren’t there when I came back! Loved those skis, big bummer. Anyway, I had a great time skiing at Blacktail in March this year above Flathead Valley in Montana, it’s family run and pretty inexpensive, $25 Thursdays, etc. Definitely a local spot, not a destination. And one of their lifts is an old recycled Crystal chair. You can read about it here:
    http://pacificnwseasons.blogspot.com/2011/03/skiing-montana-havin-blast-at-blacktail.html
    Thanks again for your great ski-focused blog, which of course is much more than just about skiing.

    • Jill,
      Sorry to hear about the lost skis at Crystal. It’s odd because so many skiers just leave their skis on the ground at the lodge. I’m always picking up skis and putting them on the racks at the top so we can get our toboggans out. I wonder if they just got put away, not stolen. Wishful thinking, I suppose. Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

  7. Skied at steeplechase in Minnesota many times. Still closed and up for sale?? Chalet is a cool old updated church..now an event center I think. Lifts and slope lighting still in place. Drove out there today. So sad…remembered all the Teddy bears tossed in the trees going up one chairlift. I’m 65…hopefully can ski many more years…but sad and nostalgic to see the place again…

    • Bob,

      Thanks for the update on Steeplechase. I’ve been wondering what came of it. Sad to hear that it’s still not operating. With snowmaking that place could be great! The small resorts are the true heart of the ski industry.

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