Colorado resorts open ski season with momentum

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— Last winter, La Niña brought so much snow to northern Colorado that Arapahoe Basin ski area stayed open until July 4. A snow gauge near Steamboat Springs had to be extended because it kept getting buried, with total accumulation during the season topping 200 inches.

It was a skier’s bonanza. Colorado resorts recorded more than 12 million skier visits last winter for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, according to figures from Vail Resorts Inc. and the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.

In short, Colorado hosted roughly one in every five skier visits in the nation last winter.

While there’s been enough snow for several Colorado resorts to open this fall, forecasters say skiers shouldn’t expect another record winter.

“The odds are decent for at least a normal season, but people shouldn’t have expectations we’ll have a repeat,” said climatologist Klaus Wolter, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado.

As the economy slowly recovers, there also appear to be fewer flash sales that resorts have used to hook last-minute vacationers during the recession. But there still are plenty of discounts, and resorts said they have more to offer after spending millions of dollars on faster lifts, new terrain park features and better trail grooming.

“We’re coming off a big season last year,” said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. “We’re going into this year with some momentum.”

The group’s 22 member resorts have invested more than $50 million for this season, including a remodel of the Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands and heated pavers in Steamboat’s base area so skiers don’t have to walk through as much snow and ice.

Here’s just a handful of things to look for this season:

■ Free skiing: Crested Butte is sharing the wealth to celebrate its 50th birthday. Skiing is free on opening day, Nov. 23, and on your birthday if you’re an adult (and it falls during the season). Just be sure to bring a valid photo ID with your birthdate. Lift tickets for visitors 75 and older are always free at tiny Echo Mountain outside Denver, and they’re free at Wolf Creek past your 80th birthday.

■ Ski pass plus: Resorts big and small are selling passes that offer access to more than one ski area, and sometimes pass holders can get other discounts. Telluride pass holders can get three days of skiing at Taos in New Mexico. This year, holders of Telluride adult, senior and college passes can get 20 percent off non-holiday group lessons, with some restrictions.

For the first time in recent memory, Aspen is teaming with Steamboat and Winter Park on the Colorado Triple Play — www.coloradotripleplay.com — which offers two days of skiing at Steamboat, two days at Winter Park and two at Aspen Skiing Co.’s four mountains of Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass for $299, for teens and adults. The nontransferable passes must be bought seven days before the first day of use and can’t be used Dec. 27 to31.

■ Beyond the slopes: To entice families that sometimes travel with three generations in tow, resorts have been paying more attention to ski schools and beginner areas in recent years. They’ve also been offering something for people who don’t want to hurtle full speed down a mountain. New this year, Crested Butte and Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort added zip-lines for those who’d rather get their thrills by gliding from a wire. Keystone has a brand-new ice skating rink in its base village.

■ Music on the mountain: Several resorts have free concerts toward the end of the season. Vail plans to host four free concerts for its annual Vail Snow Daze, with scheduled acts including Guster Dec. 8, Jakob Dylan Dec. 9. and The Polish Ambassador Dec. 11. Aspen is hosting a free concert by Cowboy Mouth on Nov. 26.

■ La Niña: La Niña tends to concentrate snow in the winter months, when most out-of-state skiers come to Colorado, Wolter said. Resorts in southwest Colorado aren’t expected to get as much snow, but that doesn’t mean a freak storm can’t happen. An autumn storm that dumped 3 feet of snow at Wolf Creek let the ski area open for weekend skiing Oct. 8 — its earliest opening ever.

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