If you’re thinking of hitting the slopes this season, there’s good news, bad news, and news you can use.
The good news is the ski industry is going gangbusters. Last year, total visits to U.S. ski resorts hit 58.9 million, setting a new all-time record.
The bad news is, well, 58.9 million skier visits means more people in the liftlines, on the slopes, and in the daylodge.
And the news you can use? In light of the sport’s popularity — and to lure potential guests away from the competition — resorts are unveiling dozens of major improvements for the 2006/2007 season. From easier access to expanded terrain, here’s the latest dope on the slopes:
This year, the most buzz-worthy development in ski country isn’t on the slopes — it’s under them. At Snowbird, skiers and snowboarders can ride a conveyor belt through a 600-foot-long tunnel near the top of the mountain. Coupled with the new Peruvian Express quad chair, the tunnel will provide easier access to Mineral Basin while relieving pressure on the resort’s oft-crowded tram.
Other Utah resorts are also upping their offerings. At The Canyons, snow riders will be able to explore 200 acres of powder-filled glades courtesy of the just-built DreamCatcher high-speed quad. They’ll also enjoy faster access to the trails in Paradise Bowl via the Tombstone Express, which has been upgraded from a quad to a six-seater.
A few ridges over, Park City Mountain will unveil the Silver Star triple chair and three new intermediate runs. Neighboring Deer Valley has opened new glades off the Sultan Chair and replaced the Sterling triple chair with a high-speed quad.
Long known for their groomed cruisers, several Colorado resorts hope to draw more expert skiers and snowboarders this year. Keystone is opening Independence Bowl, a 300-acre expanse of expert-only terrain east of Dercum Mountain. Wide open and all natural, it will be accessible via hiking and guided snowcat tour.
For backcountry-like turns without the extra effort or added cost, Winter Park will debut the Eagle Wind triple chair and seven gladed runs on the backside of Parsenn Bowl. Along similar lines, Beaver Creek has opened Stone Creek Chutes, a 180-acre tangle of short, steep plunges just off the Cinch Express lift.
Look for more expert terrain at Breckenridge, too, where steep-seekers can take the plunge in the new SnowWhite area, high atop Peak 8. Less vertically driven visitors will appreciate the Breck Connect gondola, a new eight-seater that will link downtown and the resort’s Peak 8 base area, eliminating the need to take the bus.
Elsewhere in the West
With the first phase of its new village now complete, Northstar-at-Tahoe continues to reinvent itself. The new Tahoe Zephyr Express expands the beginner-friendly Northwest Territory area, while the village now features a skating rink, slopeside lodging, and more than a dozen shops and restaurants.
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Meanwhile, up in Montana, Big Sky will open the Dakota Territories, a 200-acre expanse of open-bowl intermediate terrain directly west of Liberty Bowl. Further north, Big Mountain has a new daylodge and quad beginner chair, along with more nightskiing and added features in the Fish Bowl terrain park.
After several false starts, Sugarbush will debut the first stage of its new base village this season. Known as Lincoln Peak Village, the $45-million development will feature a 23,000-square-foot, post-and-beam daylodge; a one-stop Guest Services Center; and Clay Brook, a luxury slopeside lodge with 61 units and heated outdoor pool.
Up the road at Stowe, visitors will be pleasantly surprised to find the Easy Over transfer lift, a new 10-person gondola that links the resort’s long-separated base areas at Mt. Mansfield and Spruce Peak. It doesn’t access any new terrain, but the two-minute trip is a welcome improvement over the old, stop-and-go shuttle bus.
Lesser known to many skiers, but blessed with dry snow and small crowds, several resorts in the B.C. Interior are also touting new amenities this year. Among the upgrades: a fixed-grip quad and slopeside hotel at Silver Star, a fixed-grip quad and four more runs at Sun Peaks, and a six-seat high-speed chair and expanded beginner facilities at Big White.
Finally, there’s Whistler Blackcomb, which has expanded yet again by opening Symphony Amphitheatre, a 1,000-acre, high-alpine bowl on the northeast flank of Whistler Mountain. Served by its own high-speed quad, the new bowl boosts the B.C. behemoth’s skiable terrain to 8,100 acres.
And if that’s not enough for you, consider this: The resort has also bought Whistler Heli-Skiing, a longtime local outfit with a permit area of 494,000 acres. That means the resort now offers nearly 785 square miles of terrain. If you’ve got the money, getting first tracks shouldn’t be a problem.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. If you have feedback for Rob, send him an e-mail.
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