Skiing in the springtime is an altered state. Down jackets and bulky bibs give way to vests, t-shirts and shorts. Mountaintop restaurant decks are packed with more sun soakers than a sandy Costa del Sol stretch. Skiers seem more playful and the mountains more inviting. Skiing becomes a pursuit of pleasure rather than a test of technique.
Ski and snowboard resorts have a different magic that reveals itself as the weather warms. Crisp snow softens into glistening mid-morning corn snow, goggles are swapped for sun glasses, temperatures are mild, no one has to dress for the cold, everyone can eat lunch outdoors and quitting early for sunny après-ski is part of the experience.
The best days start early, then it's a dance with the sun across the mountain, moving to a new section just as the snow begins to change. With spring skiing, nature's changing chemistry of fire and ice adds a new dimension to the man/mountain equation.
The award-winning contributors to SkiSnowboard.com Web site and the Ski Snowboard America and Ski Snowboard Europe guidebook have selected their best bets for great spring skiing. These are resorts where skiing and snowboarding can continue through late April and at some areas until Memorial Day and maybe July.
These resorts have high altitude, northern exposure, steep slopes and massive snow packs or glaciers that will last through the spring and sometimes into the summer months providing plenty of skiing and snowboarding. Some of these resorts actually record their snowiest months in March or April.
Here are five resorts for springtime fun in North America and another handful in Europe.
This is one of the kings of spring skiing. Mammoth has perfect weather for spring snow -- freezing at night and warm during the day. The altitude varies between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. Some of the lower lifts may close, but the upper mountain remains open. The new village that has grown at the base of the mountain by the town has changed the après-ski experience of this resort, creating much more to enjoy rather than purely skiing.
This is a better mountain for spring skiing and snowboarding than for mid-winter skiing. In the spring the entire mountain is almost always open. In the winter the summit can be closed around 30 to 40 percent of the time due to high winds. Because this mountain has so many exposures, the snow conditions change during the day. This means plenty of great skiing and riding without slush. Nearby, the town of Bend is filled with art galleries, shops and filling restaurants.
A handful of the Tahoe resorts offer wonderful spring skiing and snowboarding. Kirkwood is perhaps the best with the highest altitude, followed by Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows with excellent exposures. These areas allow visitors to combine sunny skiing and snowboarding with dramatic scenery and excellent nightlife, especially on the south shore of the lake. If one arrives while The Chutes at Mt. Rose are open, springtime is the best time to pack in plenty of steeps only 20 minutes from Reno.
Summit County, Colorado
This county claims the highest altitude resorts in the state. Of the three main resorts, has the best terrain and exposure for the late season. Nearby, is a spring legend. The steep Palivaccini hold snow well into the summer and some Aprils have four feet of snow and May sometimes adds another two to three feet of snow. The scene at the base area is fantastic with hundreds of skiers enjoying tailgate parties. Nearby is also a springtime contender.
This area, especially the upper slopes, normally makes it almost to Memorial Day, however, its coastal proximity means variable spring weather. Blackcomb's big bowls and the glacier make this a perfect place to enjoy skiing and riding in the sun. The slopes into the village can develop very deep slush. Downloading here is not for sissies-It allows a head start on the party that is about as good as it gets in April.
In Europe, France is the home of the most spring skiing and riding on the continent — especially this year with limited snowfall at lower altitudes.
/Les Menuires, France
These mountain enclaves will never win an award for the most picturesque, nor for the most nightlife. Val Thorens is a sportsman's resort and the most remote and highest station in the vast Trois Vallées area. Val Thorens also enjoys the only glacier skiing in the Trois Vallées with excellent summer skiing. From Les Menuires guides bring spring skiers up early in the morning then push off of Pointe de la Masse (2880 meters) sliding over the early morning crust towards Les Cretes then down to St. Martin de Belleville.
/Val d'Isere, France
For late-season skiing, Tignes clearly takes the honors. Here, skiing continues past spring throughout the summer and the ski instructors will take groups up each morning to dance across the softening snow and leave then to enjoy guaranteed warm afternoon skiing on La Grande Motte glacier. The altitude keeps even spring snow crisp. Just below La Grande Motte guides will take experts down long chutes or off-piste back down into the Val Claret section of Tignes.
Not one of the picturesque mountain villages in the Alps, Chamonix rates superlatives for its extreme skiing. Many French skiers claim Chamonix is really a spring and summer resort. In the dead of winter many of its most beautiful sections are closed and the wind and poor visibility combine to further limit the disjointed skiing. In the spring Chamonix to comes into its prime and the legendary Vallee Blanche route across the glaciers opens. Fortunately the best time to ski Chamonix is also the least crowded--late March and April.
Zermatt has something for everyone and skiing and riding throughout the year. If someone ever designed a traditional Swiss resort for the movies, this would be the prototype. In fact, Disney did stage a movie here about climbing the Matterhorn. It is the snowfields and the glacier that spreads beneath this craggy peak that makes Zermatt one of the top springtime and summer skiing experiences in Europe. After cruising through snow, the afternoons back in the chalet-studded village is downright romantic and balmy.
This valley shelters the most extensive glacier skiing area in Austria and the highest ski resort in the Austrian Alps. The combination is hard to beat for late spring skiing. As crocusses begin to bloom on lower alpine pastures the virgin glacier, closed for the winter, is opened for skiing.
At the far reaches of the Oetztal are the villages of Hochgurgl and Obergurgl. Hochgurgl, the highest ski resort in Austria, is a cluster of seven hotels at 2150 meters with excellent late spring skiing, while Obergurgl is a small dorf with an equal amount of wide-open skiing.