Sierra ski resorts mix snow with turkey for Thanksgiving weekend

Sugar Bowl Resort, which has already received more than 6 feet of snow, opened Friday with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Sugar Bowl Resort, which already has received more than 5 feet of snow, opened Friday with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

By Bob Goligoski

It took a last-minute flurry of minor snow bursts but many of the Sierra ski resorts got their big wish – a Thanksgiving weekend opening. And with long-range forecasts promising off-and-on snow for December, along with temperatures dropping enough to make snow, it looks like the resorts will enjoy a white Christmas.

Mt. Rose and Boreal actually opened a little earlier in mid-November. But turkey weekend was the season debut at Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, Northstar, Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood. As usual, Mammoth opened in early November.

Initially, skiers and riders will not find all of their favorite lifts and runs open on their first visit. But more terrain and lifts will be opening all the time so be sure to check with your target resort as to how much of the mountain is open.

Some resorts were luckier than others. Sugar Bowl, perched at the top of Donner Pass, opened with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. Mt. Rose, with the Tahoe region’s highest base elevation at 8,260 feet, had numerous runs open early.

Some later season openings include Homewood on Dec. 9, June Mountain on Dec. 10 and Diamond Peak on Dec. 15.

Thanks to the long drought the Sierra experienced in recent years, many resorts expanded snow-making networks. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, now under the same ownership, spent $8 million on snow-making equipment over the last six years and then paid out another million to beef up snow-making even more for this season.

Sam Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the two resorts, explained that “snowmaking can occur once air temperatures drop below 39 degrees. However, as relative humidity increases, the ambient temperatures required to make snow decrease.”

The California Ski Industry Association noted that “history suggests a snowy winter ahead. For example, when the Lake Tahoe region receives more than 8 inches of rain in October, the region has above-average snowfall more than 75 percent of the time. More than 19 inches of rain fell on Tahoe in October.”

Squaw Valley gets Placer County approval for billion-dollar expansion

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Placer County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a 25-year, $1 billion Squaw Valley development plan that calls for the construction of condos, shops and restaurants. While die-hard skiers and snowboarders welcomed the 4-1 vote, it also drew the objection of many local residents. (Photo courtesy Squaw Valley)

By Bob Goligoski

They were doing a major victory dance at Squaw Valley on Tuesday night. And why not? Earlier in the day, the Placer County Board of Supervisors had given final approval to the long-waited expansion of Squaw Valley, a project with an estimated cost of up to $1 billion.

Although some local residents and incoming Sen. Kamala Harris opposed the expansion, the board gave it the OK on a 4-1 vote. Harris and others had argued that the project would add to pollution, noise and traffic woes. The Placer County Planning Commission had earlier signed off on the project.

Squaw’s Valley’s approved master plan would in effect turn Squaw into a four-season resort. It is already a prime winter ski resort with more than 170 trails and runs spread out across 3,600 skiable acres.

Under the plan, nearly 1,500 motel rooms, condos, timeshares and retail space in Squaw’s Olympic Valley would be built over the next 25 years. A 90,000-square-foot indoor adventure center and water park will be built.

Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Holdings, said that 90 percent of the development will happen on existing asphalt parking lots at the base of the mountain that are already zoned for such development.

He stressed that the expansion “will position the resort as a true four-season destination, provide more year-round jobs, off-site affordable workforce housing, tens of million of dollars in other benefits to our local community and assist in stabilizing the North Lake Tahoe economy.”

There is no pending litigation at this time that would potentially block the project.

How soon will construction start? “With the project passed, we will initiate the detailed design work necessary to refine the plan and create buildable plans and begin the search for developers to work within the project design guidelines,” said Liesl Kenney, public relations director at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.

It is estimated that $22 million in annual tax revenue will be generated by the project. The money will help fund public services including schools, road improvements, transit services and public safety.

The resort also issued a statement: “In response to community feedback, the Village at Squaw Valley redevelopment plan has been reduced by 50 percent and is now only 38 percent of what is allowable per the Squaw Valley General Plan and land use ordinance.”

Tahoe Donner cross country resort launches major expansion effort

By Bob Goligoski

Tahoe Donner, one of the largest cross country ski areas in the West, has embarked on a major expansion program.

Earlier this year, already boasting some 100 kilometers of Nordic trails in the Sierra just outside Truckee, the resort bought Crabtree Canyon, an adjacent 640-acre tract of land. Another 16 kilometers of cross country terrain will open in the canyon for visitors this winter.

Steve Miller, board president at the Tahoe Donner Association, said, “There is some spectacular terrain in the canyon with double black diamond, blue and green-rated trails so skiers of different abilities can enjoy Crabtree.

“In the future,” he added, “there is even more terrain in the canyon that can be developed into Nordic trails.”

Tahoe Donner purchased the site from the Truckee Donner Land Trust for $500,000. The trust had originally bought the property from private interests for $2.4 million.

The Tahoe Donner Association purchased Crabtree Canyon from The Truckee Donner Land Trust in April. For next year, the Land Trust is in contract to purchase nearby Carpenter Valley. It will manage the property for year-round recreational enthusiasts. There is a long-term plan to extend the linked trail systems from the Alder Gulch Adventure Center through Euer Valley, Crabtree Canyon and Carpenter Valley to the Independence Lake Nature Preserve.

Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, said, “Carpenter Valley is one of the most spectacular – and little known – valleys in the entire Northern Sierra. Preserving the pristine natural beauty of our surroundings and ensuring continued recreational access is of utmost importance to us, especially that its less than 10 miles from downtown Truckee.

Once acquired in July 2017, the property will be open to the public for the first time in over a century.

Tahoe Donner is one of the largest homeowner associations in the country with nearly 25,000 members and 6,500 homes and condos spread across more than 7,000 acres. The Nordic and downhill ski areas, along with the golf course and several other Tahoe Donner attractions, are open to the general public.

The cross country area has been surging in popularity. Last season, USA Today took a national poll of skiers, checked out numerous resorts and concluded that Tahoe Donner is one of the top three Nordic resorts in the country.

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Brinn Talbot, director of marketing and member services at Tahoe Donner, said that frequent snow storms last season helped propel both the alpine and cross country areas to record years.

Cross country visitors were up 33 percent over the previous record year and downhill skier traffic increased 17 percent over the earlier record year. The association does not releases visitor numbers. The resort’s popularity also is tied to the fact that nearly all of the trails are groomed.

Tahoe Donner also opened the Alder Creek Adventure Center last year. The large structure serves as the home base for Nordic buffs with a cafe, rental services, wax rooms, a retail store and other amenities.

“The center,” Talbot said, “really put us on the international map. We now have a world-class facility that can accommodate national and international events.”

During the summer, the building houses Tahoe Donner’s Equestrian Center and Bikeworks operation. Many of the Nordic trails are used in the summer by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

It’s been a blockbuster ski, snowboard season for Sierra resorts

Abundant snowfall this winter at Mt. Rose resulted in lots of scenes like this, which was taken on Jan. 15. The resort reported one of its best winters for skier visits in several years. (Photo by Billy Jesberg for Mt. Rose)

Abundant snowfall this winter at Mt. Rose resulted in lots of scenes like this, which was taken on Jan. 15. The resort reported a record year for visitors. (Photo by Billy Jesberg for Mt. Rose)

Bob Goligoski

Frequent snowfalls, early and late snow, well-timed storms, few highway shutdowns and pent-up demand from skiers and snowboarders added up to a blockbuster season for Sierra resorts in California and Nevada.

“We had a fantastic winter,” said Ashley Quadros, marketing content coordinator at Tahoe Donner. “This was the best season in history for both our cross country and alpine areas. Mother Nature was very good to us.”

Most Sierra resorts do not reveal visitor numbers but the California Ski Industry Association predicts that this season will far surpass the long-term average of 6.5 million visits a year at the Sierra resorts.

Association president Michael Reitzell said that the number so far this season is well past the 4.6 million visits recorded last year.

“With a number of resorts open into May, we have a chance at a record year,” he said.

The old record was set during the 2004-05 season when about 8.5 million visits were recorded by the resorts.

“We had great snow all over California,” Reitzell added. “From Shasta and Dodge Ridge to China Peak, Mammoth and the Tahoe resorts, it was a phenomenal season.”

Most of the resorts are closing around mid-April, but Mammoth, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mt. Rose will be open into May.

“Mammoth hasn’t closed before Memorial Day in 28 years and that streak won’t end this year,” said Tim LeRoy, a resort spokesman. “With a healthy base of 200 inches (at the summit), Mammoth will remain open through at least Memorial Day and likely later. In years with similar snowfall totals, Mammoth has remained open all the way to July 4.”

I was at Northstar in March and noticed that the coverage was amazing. By that time, it had snowed more than 400 inches; as of earlier today, the total exceeded 455 inches.

Communications manager Marcie Bradley noted that “with all this snow, we are having a great season.”

So many riders and skiers had come to Mt. Rose by early April, officials there said that the resort had broken its visitor records.

“We are still enjoying mid-winter conditions on the mountain,” said Mike Pierce, Mt. Rose director of marketing. “The skiing and riding is so great, we’ve decided to extend the season into May (closing May 8), pushing the ski season to over six months and making this the longest season in Mt. Rose’s history.”

Similar comments came from Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, now under the same ownership.

“We will be Tahoe’s longest-running resort this season,” said Liesl Kenney, public relations manager for the two resorts. “And with Squaw’s High Camp hot tub and parties across the mountain, the spring skiing capital will be in full swing. With the closing date scheduled for May 30, conditions permitting, this will be the longest season we have had in the last 10 years.”

While much improved compared with recent years, Sierra resorts did not enjoy a huge snow season. Totals were pretty much close to what was average before 2010, when a multi-year span of skimpy snow seasons started.

Kevin Cooper, senior communications manager for Heavenly and Kirkwood, explained that snow fell in perfect increments, arriving at a rate of 4 to 9 inches at a time. No storm dropped several feet at once, shutting everything down.

“At Tahoe, we had the best snow in the country this season,” he added. “On Christmas Day, we had 24 inches of powder. A lot of people did not get up to the mountains in the last two or three years, so many people were quite excited to get out and ski or snowboard again.”

Sugar Bowl Resort presented a scenic winterscape in mid-January. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Sugar Bowl Resort offered a scenic winterscape in mid-January. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Kevin Mitchell, general manager at Homewood, said that “the snow continued to pile up all season long and gave us the ability to launch new initiatives including our snow-cat skiing operation and on-mountain drone photography program.”

Peter Avedschmidt, the marketing and sales manager at Sugar Bowl, said that the resort, which is high atop the Donner Pass, “had more powder days than we have had in years. We had high skier counts and this was our best season in the last five years or so.”

The resort caught some of the state’s best snow this winter. As of April 1, some 547 inches had fallen, exceeding the annual average of 500 inches.

Paul Raymore, marketing manager at Diamond Peak, said there is “actually a chance that we’ll break our all-time record of 163,000 skier visits by the time the resort closes.”

Marc Gendron, a spokesman for Bear Valley, noted that “it is the timing of snowfall that is most important, and this season could not have been better. We hit every holiday and most weekends perfectly.”

It was difficult to determine if this winter’s profitable season will result in capital improvements this summer. Most resorts reported that any plans about more lifts or runs had not been finalized.

One spokesperson noted that a big source of spending at many resorts is making snow, but thanks to the generosity of Mother Nature, snow-making equipment was silent much of the season, which added to the bottom line at many resorts.

Planned gondola linking Alpine, Squaw resorts moving closer to reality

There's plenty to love about the skiing at Alpine Meadows, and once the gondola between the resort and Squaw Valley is operating it will open new opportunities for skiers and snowboarders at both resorts. (Photo courtesy Alpine Meadows)

There’s plenty to love about the skiing at Alpine Meadows, and once the gondola between the resort and neighboring Squaw Valley is operating it will open new opportunities for skiers and snowboarders at both resorts. (Photo courtesy Alpine Meadows)

By Bob Goligoski

The long-awaited gondola between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows has been put on a fast track to completion, with resort officials saying that once construction starts it will take only about 10 months to finish the job.

Work cannot start until the owner of the two resorts – Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, LLC – wins approval from Placer County and the U.S. Forest Service. Applications were submitted to the county and agency, but it is unclear how quickly they will act on the proposed gondola.

I don’t know of any major opposition to the project. It does not appear to be controversial, so I suspect approvals may come quite quickly.

The gondola, which would run between the base areas of both resorts, would entail putting up about 37 lift towers and be some 13,000 feet in length. The land on the Alpine side is covered by a use permit on the Tahoe National Forest while the Squaw part of the ride would glide across lands owned or leased by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.

No skiing, snowboarding or other on-the-snow activity would be permitted along the gondola route. Standing at the top of Squaw and gazing down into the Alpine base area, one is impressed by the steepness of the terrain going down to the Alpine lifts.

Resort officials pledged to take many steps to reduce the environmental impact of the gondola. The eight-passenger gondola will be operated at a relatively low speed; skiers and riders will have about a 13-minute trip to get from one resort to the other.

A typical high-speed lift transports at least 2,000 people per hour, while initial plans call for the gondola to move 1,400 people an hour. This is being done to minimize the number and height of the lift towers.

The gondola cabins will be removed from the gondola cable each summer to “reduce impacts on the surrounding view shed.”

A Q&A document released recently by the project builders would be of interest to many who frequent the slopes of Alpine and Squaw.

That document states that there are no plans under which the gondola cost would result in any increase in lift ticket prices or season passes. The gondola, it states, “would simply make it easy for skiers and riders to explore both mountains with a single lift ticket or season pass, without needing to travel between the two by car.”

It also notes that guests will be able to disembark at the Saddle mid-station on the Squaw side and then ski or snowboard down to the bottom of Squaw Valley.

Some skiers and riders like the slower pace on the slopes at Alpine Meadows but bemoan the fact that the resort has limited commercial activity. Once it starts operating, they will be able to ride the gondola to the Squaw Valley village and enjoy the 50 to 60 restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries located there.

When the link-up is completed, visitors will have access to 42 lifts and 270 trails spread across more than 6,000 skiable acres.

North Lake Tahoe resorts primed for MLK weekend skiing, snowboarding

Mother Nature helped set up Lake Tahoe resorts perfectly for skiers and snowboarders before the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Northstar, for example, received 18 inches of fresh powder. (Photo courtesy Northstar)

Mother Nature helped set up Lake Tahoe resorts perfectly for skiers and snowboarders before the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Northstar, for example, received 18 inches of fresh powder. (Photo courtesy Northstar California)

Conditions couldn’t be better for skiers and snowboarders in anticipation of the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. North Lake Tahoe ski resorts are reporting more than a foot of new snow in the last 24 hours, while a storm system is headed toward the region late Friday into Saturday morning followed by yet another possible system moving in Sunday.

All resorts are reporting 100 percent open terrain, weather conditions permitting. So far this season the region has received about 19 feet of total snowfall at the upper elevations, sitting at 142 percent above normal according to the Nevada Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Here are the latest 24-hour snow totals at North Lake Tahoe resorts:
Alpine Meadows: 13”
Boreal Mountain Resort: 16”
Diamond Peak: 12”
Donner Ski Ranch: 12”
Granlibakken: 11”
Homewood Mountain Resort: 14” at the summit
Mt. Rose: 13” at the summit
Northstar California: 18”
Soda Springs: 11”
Squaw Valley: 11”
Sugar Bowl / Royal Gorge: 13” at the summit
Tahoe Donner: 12″

Out of the bindings, children and kids at heart have access to sledding hills at North Tahoe Regional Park, Soda Springs Snow Park and also have tubing opportunities at many ski resorts. Information: www.GoTahoeNorth.com/sledding

For last-minute deals at North Lake Tahoe resorts during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, visit www.GoTahoeNorth.com/deals.

Bob Roberts, longtime ‘voice’ of California skiing, calls it a career

In his roles as manager of the Mt. Shasta Ski Area and, later, leading the California Ski Industry Association, Bob Roberts Here, he meets with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984, the same year Schwarzenegger starred in "The Terminator."

In his roles as manager of the Mt. Shasta Ski Area and, later, leading the California Ski Industry Association, Bob Roberts, left, has met with many movers and shakers. Here, he visits with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984, the same year the actor starred in “The Terminator.” Nineteen years later, Schwarzenegger would become California governor. (Courtesy photo)

By Bob Goligoski

After 40 years as the “voice” of California skiing and snowboarding, this is the first winter in decades without Bob Roberts as president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association.

As chief strategist and lobbyist for the organization’s 29 California and Nevada winter resorts, the 78-year-old Roberts has played a major role in the development and success of resorts across the Sierra Nevada.

In a long-ranging interview, Roberts reflected on his many years at the helm and talked about what he sees in the future for the winter resorts.

“The drought,” he said, “is the biggest problem facing the resorts. People who own resorts tend to think that the glass is half full, not half empty. They are usually very creative and inventive in solving problems. But if the drought continues, we could lose a few resorts. There will be a shakeout, I suspect.”

In recent years, two Colorado-based corporations – Vail Resorts and KSL – have acquired major California ski resorts, including Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar and Kirkwood. He does not see that trend continuing and does not expect other out-of-state corporations to acquire and consolidate resorts in California or Nevada.

California ski resorts are a key component in the state’s tourism boom. Some 7 million skier visits to the resorts are recorded every winter. It’s a $1.5 billion business that generates more than $100 million per year in state and local taxes. Some 16,000 people work full-time and seasonal jobs at the resorts every year.

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Lake Tahoe ski and snowboard resorts get a fresh coat of white

It's beginning to look a lot like winter at Heavenly Mountain Resort, where Comet Express was covered in snow this morning. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

It’s beginning to look a lot like winter at Heavenly Mountain Resort, where the Comet Express lift area was covered in snow this morning. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

Ski and snowboard resorts in the Lake Tahoe area were greeted this morning by several inches of snow — with more on the way — thanks to the first winter storm of the 2015-16 season.

Up to 7 inches of snow were forecast at the 7,000-foot level, which includes Echo and Donner summits, with a foot or more of fresh powder expected to blanket the mountains at 8,500 feet, according to the National Weather Service in Reno.

Resort operators are noticeably upbeat.

“It’s snowing in Tahoe and the temperatures are dropping so we are putting our legendary snowmaking system to work as we prepare to kick off an extraordinary 2015-16 season,” said Pete Sonntag, chief operating officer at Heavenly Mountain Resort.  “Signs of El Niño are popping up across the Sierra and we’re pulling out all the stops to provide our guests with the best early season snow conditions.”

Several California resorts have announced opening days for the upcoming season, including Mammoth Mountain (Nov. 11), Heavenly and Northstar (Nov. 20), Kirkwood (Nov. 21) and Squaw Valley (Nov. 25).

In addition, resorts are enticing skiers and snowboarders with lift and lodging deals. Among those is the Tahoe Local Pass, which offers access to the runs at Heavely, Northstar and Kirkwood for $519, a discounted price available through Nov. 22. Click here for information.

Diamond Peak bundles new perks with 2015-16 season passes

By the time snow returns to the slopes at Diamond Peak, the resort's season pass holders will have lots of new benefits. (Diamond Peak photo)

By the time snow returns to the slopes at Diamond Peak this winter, the resort’s season pass holders will have lots of new benefits to enjoy. (Diamond Peak photo)

Diamond Peak season pass-holders this winter will enjoy great skiing, incredible lake views and some new perks, including a bonus resort credit, coupon books, bring-a-friend tickets and additional bonus lift tickets.

The bonus resort credit, $25 for adult full passes or $15 for other paid full passes, will be loaded onto Diamond Peak season passes purchased during the sale, which ends Oct. 31. This credit is similar to a gift card and can be used for buying food, lessons, rentals or other items at Diamond Peak. Skiers and snowboarders who buy their pass during the sale also get a resort coupon book valid for extra discounts on lessons, rentals, repairs and more. Every pass-holder qualifies for four $50 bring-a-friend tickets.

New for 2015-16, Diamond Peak Ski Resort season pass-holders receive 20 complimentary non-holiday bonus days, four each at Boreal Mountain Resort, June Mountain Ski Area, Homewood Mountain Resort, Red Lodge Mountain and Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort. As part of this partnership, Diamond Peak season pass-holders also receive $150 off 2015 and 2016 Woodward Tahoe Summer Camps, 50 percent off Woodward Tahoe CORE Memberships, and a complimentary hourlong Woodward Tahoe Bunker Session.

Special discounts and privileges on the mountain also are available to Diamond Peak season pass-holders, including 10 percent off food and nonalcoholic beverages in the Base Lodge, 10 percent off equipment tuning at the Diamond Peak Rental and Repair Shop, and $5 off Last Tracks event tickets. Diamond Peak also has pass-holder appreciation events like the annual opening day barbecue and toast, parties, raffles and more. For information, visit DiamondPeak.com/events.

Diamond Peak season passes are on sale at early bird rates starting at $249 for adult midweek passes (ages 24-64) or $349 for unrestricted full passes. Kids 6 and younger and 80-plus always ski free. Season passes are available for purchase at DiamondPeak.com, at the Diamond Peak Skier Services Building or the Incline Village Recreation Center.

Heavenly Mountain Resort zips into summer

Riders speed down a four-line zip line at Breckenridge, Colo. When a similar attraction opens this month at Heavenly, riders will be able to race down the four parallel lines at top speeds of 40 mph. (Vail Resorts photo)

Riders race down a zip line at Breckenridge, Colo. When a similar attraction opens at Heavenly, riders will be able to take the four parallel lines at top speeds of 40 mph. (Vail Resorts photo)

By Bob Goligoski

Heavenly Mountain Resort has started construction on a major expansion of its summer attractions that will include a new alpine coaster ride, an extensive zip line network, mountain bike park, multi-use trails and tree canopy tours.

The project, which has been in the works for many years, has steadily been gaining the approval of various governmental agencies. Last month, the final OK came when the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board voted “yes” on the venture, which is dubbed Epic Discovery.

“This is going to revolutionize the summer guest experience at Heavenly,” said Pete Sonntag, Heavenly COO and vice president. “It is about more than the individual activities; it is a cohesive plan that brings together all components under the unified theme of learning about and engaging with the National Forest.”

Construction on the alpine coaster, similar to those at Park City and Breckenridge, starts this month. It will operate year-round after opening late this year at the South Lake Tahoe resort.

Guests ride individual sleds down an elevated track that winds down amid the pines and rock formations. Gravity takes care of the descent while riders maintain control of how fast they want to go.

Also this month, the resort debuts a new four-line zip line called the Hot Shot Zip Line. An existing zip line, dubbed Blue Streak, is slated to re-open late this month.

Some of the zip lines at Heavenly will incorporate tree canopy tours.

Bikers have long eyed the vast slopes of Heavenly, which stretch for miles across California and Nevada, as a place where they might some day peddle to their heart’s content. They likely will have to wait another couple years as the new mountain bike park will take time to develop before it opens.

Work crews currently are busy toiling on a new permanent 35-foot-tall rock climbing wall, which is slated to open in August. It will feature 18 climbing routes with automatic belay systems and a quick-jump 35-foot rapid descent that emulates free-falling.

Another lane has been added to the tubing hill and will be open late this month.

In September, Heavenly will offer mountain excursion tours via 4×4 vehicles. These guided tours will feature narrations on the mountain with information about the history, culture and environment of the region.

And children will have a crack at the zip line experience when a smaller kid-specific 150-foot long zip line opens later this summer.

Information: www.skiheavenly.com

Bob Goligoski, a former newspaper reporter, has been writing about the ski industry for various newspapers and magazines for 45 years. He has skied at more than 125 resorts around the world.