Image: Spring skiing
A skier glides on the slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village, Wyo., last March.
updated 2/1/2011 4:11:13 PM ET 2011-02-01T21:11:13

The most enlightened alpine skiers have some of the most tanned faces.

They know the best time of year to hit the slopes isn't in the dead of winter, but rather when most Americans are turning their attention toward baseball and spring break beaches. There are more than a few resorts where spring skiing means good powder, sunny skies, no lines and reduced prices.

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Take the first week of April in northwest Wyoming, for example. Last year, nearly 70 inches of snow fell at Grand Targhee between March 31 and April 7, including 21 inches from one storm on April 2. The late-season lift lines were thin, the cost of skiing and lodging relatively low, and the powder was deep — more than waist-deep in some spots.

These were the types of days ski instructor and Minnesota native Mark Hanson dreamed of when he left behind a traditional office job and headed for the Rockies with his wife some two decades ago.

"The days are longer, brighter, warmer, and there's generally more accumulation than any point in the season," Hanson said. "The snow is still adding until sometime in April, so chances are very good you'll have either powder or sunshine and maybe both, and who doesn't love that?"

On the other side of the Teton Range at expansive Jackson Hole ski resort, it was more of the same. The hard-core skiers made sure they caught an early tram ride to the summit so they could drop into a bed of fresh power lining the famous Corbetz Couloir.

By most accounts, the last week of last season at Jackson Hole was arguably the best. An unusual dry spell left conditions below average for much of the heart of the season, leaving those who jammed the resort at peak times often skiing on manmade hard-pack and watching out for rocks and stumps in higher-difficulty areas.

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Those who trickled into the historic fur-trading post turned world-famous destination in late March and through last Easter weekend got the bigger bank for their buck. Just about the whole mountain was open and covered with fresh snow, leaving skiers to choose their own ways down through wide open bowls or to snake fresh tracks between the trees.

Short lift lines meant enough runs to wear out even well-conditioned skiers. But those who had enough energy left to dine out were rewarded with easy reservations at the various fine-dining establishments in the area, from the Cadillac Grille in the heart of Jackson to the scenic Couloir at top of the gondola, which runs at night for diners desiring an expansive view of the Rockies at sunset.

Meanwhile, those who took a day off from the slopes to cruise the shops found enormous discounts, particularly on clearance items such as parkas or other ski apparel and accessories that were bound to get good use for many ski seasons to come.

This year, the last weekend in March at Jackson Hole will be highlighted by the three-day Mountain Festival, which will include a free concert and the Marmot Coombs Classic, an event in which participants earn raffle tickets for each time they ski designated parts of the mountain. The event is named for the late renowned backcountry skiing enthusiast Doug Coombs.

At higher elevations in spring, it's common for temperatures to get cold enough overnight to bring fresh snow, and for days to warm up comfortably when the sun comes out. The heaviest outer layers of ski clothes often are no longer required. Sunglasses might replace goggles and sunscreen is pretty much mandatory, particularly with the intensity of the sun at high altitude, combined with the reflection of sun rays off the snow.

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"My kids are after the raccoon look," Hanson said of his 16- and 14-year-old daughters. "It's like a status symbol among teenagers here to have a goggle tan."

At places like Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, or other higher altitude ski areas across the Rockies, it's not uncommon to see skiers end their afternoons by stripping down to a T-shirt and sitting on outdoor patio with a cold drink at the base of the slopes, tilting their heads back to gaze through their shades at the terrain they've just conquered.

"The spring means long days, pleasant weather and lots of events," said Zahan Billimoria, a backcountry enthusiast who serves as a spokesman for Jackson Hole. "There's people just hanging out in the sunshine and enjoying live music after a day of skiing. There's just a lot of social outdoor mountain culture going on that's pretty special."

Because Jackson Hole is a large destination resort, it usually closes to skiing in early April — April 3 this season — because there isn't enough business to justify operating, even though there's still plenty of snow. Grand Targhee, which is smaller, with fewer lifts and a base elevation above 7,000 feet (about 1,400 feet higher than Jackson Hole), stays open a few weeks later, sometimes through mid-May.

The two areas are a little more than an hour's drive apart over the stunning Teton Pass, so it would be easy, for example, to fly into Jackson at the end of March, ski at Jackson Hole a few days, and then head by car to Grand Targhee to get plenty more skiing in.

Some of the spring deals at Targhee include a "Spring Ski and Stay" package for $69 per person, which has a double occupancy minimum and includes both the hotel and lift pass. A lift pass normally costs $69, so it's almost like getting the room for free. In addition, there tend to be fewer weather-related air travel delays at that time of year, and the prices of flight and car rentals tend to drop.

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There are similar deals to be found all across the Rockies from Montana to Colorado, Utah and Idaho. It's enough to leave people like Hanson shaking their heads at how the typical person's perception of the seasons, rather than the reality of snow on the slopes, drives the ski industry.

Ski areas fight to get a few ribbons of manmade snow down in time for Thanksgiving, when people start thinking about winter sports, but those same resorts have trouble justifying staying open into April when snow coverage is often superb.

"It doesn't really match up with the quality of our experience or our product," Hanson said. "It seems like once March is ending, people get out of winter mode, start riding bikes, playing golf and watching baseball."

The true ski enthusiasts, however, know that the best days of the season might be still be ahead.


If You Go...

GRAND TARGHEE: or 307-353-2300.

JACKSON HOLE: or 307-733-2292.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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