Farmers and ski area operators have a lot in common. Despite their best planning, ski areas are, ultimately, at the mercy of the weather.
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Last winter, the weather wasn’t kind to California’s ski areas. Snow needed in November and December didn’t fall until March. By then, skiers and riders had committed to other sports.
Things are looking up, this year. Heading into the Thanksgiving Day weekend, El Dorado County ski areas were reporting up to a 3-foot base and all were open for business. To be skiing on the Thanksgiving Day Weekend is unusual and not usually critical to the success of the ski season, though it helps. However, an early start gets skiers and riders out on the snow and planning trips all winter long.
El Dorado County’s ski areas, Sierra at Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain Resort and Kirkwood Mountain Resort, are offering a number of incentives to sustain this positive start. A push to secure customer loyalty began last spring when the Vail Resorts (Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood) announced sale of All Tahoe Passes, good at all three areas, and “Epic” versions additionally valid at Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapaho Basin for less than the cost of a week’s lift tickets.
Sierra at Tahoe countered, adding early and late-season access at Squaw Valley USA and Alpine Meadows to its season passes at no additional cost, plus 10 additional days of skiing at both Mountain High in the San Bernardino Mountains and Stevens Pass near Seattle on its Unlimited Pass and three additional days at Monarch Mountain in Colorado on its All Sierra Resort season pass.
These season passes vary in price from $99 for a children’s season pass at Sierra to $699 for the Epic pass good at eight ski areas. Sale of Vail Resorts season passes has been extended to Dec. 2 and Sierra at Tahoe season passes have no deadline, making them prized holiday gifts for skiers and boarders who plan to slide all winter long.
The PEAKS 3-Day Advance Ticket, good at Kirkwood, Heavenly and Northstar provides a lowest-price guarantee – up to 25 percent off the walk-up price -—when purchased online at least three days in advance at snow.com/lifttickets or through Vail Resorts Central Reservations.
Buy a 3-Pak of adult tickets before Dec. 14 at Sierra at Tahoe and get their best deal of $54 for each ticket. Sierra will also be offering midweek discounted ticket and rental and ticket and lunch tickets with advance online purchase. Advance purchase tickets at REI are also deeply discounted, or ski for $57 by picking up a free voucher at partner shops or presenting a college ID during college weeks. Police officers and firefighters get all-day midweek skiing at Sierra, excluding blackout dates, for the afternoon price and active duty military get the best deal — free skiing on valid Sundays with presentation of a military ID.
Several area mountain resorts are encouraging locals to take staycations. Sierra’s Stay, Ski and Soar package combines two lift tickets, two helicopter tours over the ski area and the Desolation Wilderness or Emerald Bay with a two-night stay at the Forest Suites Resort or Inn By the Lake, beginning at $265 a night. That’s just one of several packages for couples and families found at sierraatahoe.com.
Needless to say, Heavenly and Kirkwood — renowned as destination ski areas — offer a wide variety of lodging packages. The best deals are available to those with flexible travel plans and that applies particularly to locals.
Now that significant snow has fallen early, go online to skiheavenly.com and select “vacation deals” under the “Plan A Trip” tab, then choose dates that offer the best value. Or, visit kirkwood.com and reserve a four nights for three getaway or book a room before Jan. 31 to secure advance rates and a $75 resort credit good for on-mountain dining, lessons and other options.
Snow and deals aren’t the only reasons to head to the hills this winter. The hip après-ski party, Unbuckle, has “as many people in street clothes as ski boots,” riding Heavenly’s gondola to Tamarack Lodge, says Senior Director of Marketing John Wagnon. Heavenly has also reimagined Gunbarrel Grille into a man cave serving burgers and beer, while on Heavenly’s slopes the terrain park crew is building an 18-foot-tall, 500-foot-long, competition half pipe.
The Force is with Sierra, too, with the ski area being named by TransWorld SNOWboarding as one of North America’s top 10 overall resorts, ranking as the nation’s fifth-best terrain park. Sierra at Tahoe “Younglings” and “Padawans” will again get started snowboarding this winter at the area’s first-of-a-kind Burton Star Wars Experience, an innovative combination of Star Wars imagery and lessons.
Kirkwood has invested in better managing a problem other ski areas would like to have — too much snow. The area averages 600 inches of snow annually. To control it, Kirkwood has added a snow blower to clear lots and a howitzer to fire shells at its infamously steep bowls to get them open earlier. In keeping with its reputation for deep and steep powder, Kirkwood will offer avalanche certification courses on its Class A avalanche terrain, women’s programs, beacon training, powder cat tours and progression sessions on some of the most extreme in-bounds terrain in North America.
With these packages, deals and investments, El Dorado County’s ski areas — like good farmers — have planted a harvest of bountiful fun that skiers and riders have just begun to enjoy.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.