Local areas literally feed the ski industry as “never-evers” gain skills and become snow-sport enthusiasts. Whether they boast big or small verticals, 50 or 600 acres, they also breed a surprising number of competitors, including national champions and Olympians.
Most local areas lack on-site accommodations and villages, but they are often successful because they fill a need and a particular market niche. With convenient locations and lower cost tickets, they can pack a wallop when it comes to teaching, coaching, and skier visit numbers.
That’s because they exude the spirit of Alpine – the spills and thrills of snow that hook us in the first place!
Here’s a sampling of successful Midwest and West areas that locals love to frequent.
Wild Mountain in Taylor’s Falls, Minn. has been a popular locals ski hill since 1972 when Amy Frischmon’s parents purchased the (then) small area. Frischmon, a second-generation area owner with her brother Dan Raedek, attributes the area’s success to the fact that “people love to slide on snow. We provide an activity for all ages and abilities and night skiing seven days a week. It’s a great place for families and friends to enjoy the outdoors,” she said.
Although the hill’s vertical is only 300 feet, Wild Mountain has grown to 26 trails, 100-plus acres, 4 terrain parks, and a novice discovery area. Rentals, lessons, snow tubing, snowmaking plus school and race league programs enable all comers to have fun.
“It’s still a fun sport, and we give the opportunity to learn and be active outdoors. We are usually the first area to open in the Midwest and typically operate from late October to late March,” Frischmon told SnoCountry.com. With the pride that comes with being small and successful, she added, “We were first in the nation to open in 2012 on Oct. 7.”
Buck Hill in Burnsville, Minn., also knows how to keep patrons happy. the area introduced a new training opportunity this winter. Launching off a 15-foot jump, skiers and snowboarders can land on a 50-foot inflatable airbag to learn how to land or perfect their tricks.
“We added the airbag so we can continually challenge our skiers and snowboarders while increasing their options and fun here at the hill. The airbag also provides a great training tool for our extreme teams, noted Jessica Stone.
A “family-fun place” since 1954, Buck Hill installed snowmaking in 1961 and became a reliable 4-month operation that has grown to 16 runs and 8 lifts with NASTAR, racing, school, night skiing, and snow tubing among its programs.
The area has also been a breeding ground for competitors, including Olympic Gold Medalist Lindsey Vonn who learned to ski and race at Buck Hill. Although the vertical is just 310 feet, Buck Hill’s ski racing program is nationally acclaimed with its ski racing team voted tops in the country by the U.S. Ski Team in 2008. Run by Head Coach and U.S. National Ski Hall of Famer Erich Sailer, the Buck Hill Ski Team has produced five Olympians, dozens of U.S. Ski Team members and hundreds of Junior champions. “The ski team is definitely a factor in our continued success and popularity,” Stone said.
Colorado ranks as the number one ski state by skier visits — doing approximately 20 percent of U.S. annual visits with 25 areas. But just who populates those numbers and makes that possible?
Colorado is known for its giants like Copper, Winter Park, and Breckenridge, which are very popular with nearbyDenverites as well as destination skiers. But the state’s numerous and less famous locals’ mountains provide great places to learn and get outdoors. They serve as important “feeders,” Patrick Byrne of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association representing 21 member areas told SnoCountry.com.
Howelsen Hill, owned by city of Steamboat Springs, offers a 440-foot vertical, 4 lifts, and 17 trails with 50 skiable acres covered by snowmaking. Certainly, as the state’s smallest local hill, it’s no match for the huge Steamboat Resort across the valley.
But Howelsen boasts the largest and most complete ski-jumping complex in North America and is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. The Howelson lift ticket is less expensive which makes families happy. Howelsen also provides training in Alpine, Nordic, freestyle, and snowboarding for beginners to Olympians and features night skiing.
Monarch Mountain, hardly small by anyone’s standards with its 8 lifts, 63 trails, 1,162-foot vertical, is an affordable and friendly area that attracts nearby residents as well as day trippers from Colorado’s Front Range towns. Located along Highway 50, Monarch is a throwback with convenient parking at the base, walking to the lifts, and abundant natural snowfall at 350 inches. There is no base village or trailside condos.
But its 800 acres and cat skiing on an adjacent 1000-plus acres of steep trees, chutes, and bowls extends its appeal from families to the adventurous, especially “with great natural snow this year for the area,” Byrne said.
Ski Cooper, outside of Leadville, is a locals area that also draws vacationers to its cat skiing and historic trails where World War II’s 10th Mountain Division troops trained. With 4 lifts, 26 trails, 1200-foot vertical, it is small by western standards but offers a great experience, especially for those who get to explore all 400 acres thanks to its high elevation, big-bowl cat skiing on Chicago Ridge.
Ski Granby Ranch (aka SolVista Basin) in Granby, northwest of Denver, prides itself “on learn-to-ski and ride programs and family-friendly prices that make it a family favorite,” Byrnes noted. The Ski School employs a direct-to-parallel approach that utilizes specific body movements in conjunction with shaped skis so beginners learn faster.
Snowboard lessons incorporate a gentle beginner hill with seven Progression Terrain Parks to facilitate connecting turns and learning jumps. With night skiing added, it’s “a good example of a family-friendly feeder area,” Byrnes said of the 400-acre, 6-lift area that offers 41 trails and 1,000-foot vertical.
Located near Boulder and Fort Collins, Eldora is another popular locals area -- 11 lifts, 53 trails, 1,600-foot vertical, 680 acres. For those in western towns near Grand Junction, Powderhorn’s 600 skiable acres (groomed, 1,600 permitted), 1,650-foot vertical, 5 lifts, 3 terrain parks and 63 trails keep the locals happy.
Sunlight Mountain is big, friendly, affordable with 3 chairlifts, 680 skiable acres, and a 2,010-foot vertical. It’s another gem where patrons park for free, walk to the lifts, and find all 67 trails lead back to the lodge. Visitors delight in discovering all the amenities of nearby Glenwood Springs, where the historic hotels and hot springs are the main attraction.
In contrast to the outsized locals’ areas in Colorado, Sipapu, NM is small at 200 acres. But it boasts a long season (November - April) and history as a family-friendly ski-and-summer resort (dating to 1952). Located in the Carson National Forest, Sipapu has 41 trails, 5 lifts, and 1,055-foot vertical. It offers childcare, family activities, terrain parks, and for first-timers, the first three lessons are free.
With its on-site lodgings and summer activities, it’s an example of how local areas carve out their niches and succeed even when existing in the shadow of nearby and famous destinations like Taos Ski Valley.
Photos: Top -- Wild Mountain, Minn. is family-friendly with a long season (Wild Mountain); Right: Howelsen Hill is Steamboat is a lower-cost alternative to the destination resort (Colorado Ski Country); Bottom left: Sipapu in Northern N.M. boasts a long ski season (Sipapu)