Tahoe ski resorts transitioning into year-round recreation destinations
August 10, 2018
Once dormant for most of the calendar year, Lake Tahoe ski resorts are transitioning into year-round recreation destinations.
With flat lift ticket sales across the ski industry, climate change and the historic knowledge not every winter is epic, resorts are looking to summer activities as an additional revenue stream and a solution to employee retention issues.
Heavenly Mountain Resort and Northstar California, owned by Vail Resorts, and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, owned by Alterra, already have extensive summer operations.
Diamond Peak Ski Resort, owned by the Incline Village General Improvement District, has major summer expansion in its Master Plan. Sierra-at-Tahoe, owned by Booth Creek, changes into a wedding venue during summer and Kirkwood Mountain Resort, also owned by Vail, is a little off the beaten path and keeps close to its brand with adventure-style summer options.
"It's happening and it's only going to continue to grow, hopefully beyond the bigger resorts," said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association (CSIA). "I think every resort in some way or shape is heading in that direction."
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The conversion to four-season fun at U.S. resorts was years in the making and took approval from Congress.
Passed in 2011, the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act amended the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986, which limited recreation to Nordic and alpine skiing.
"There are millions of acres of undisturbed land in the country but a lot of it is challenging to get to and some people don't have the capability or it just takes a lot of effort," Reitzell said. "But when you have these beautiful mountains and built in access, many people may have not been up Heavenly's gondola to 9,000 feet, it opens up more people to recreation they otherwise might never go up."
The Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and ski resorts, in partnership with CSIA, got together after the act was passed and came up with ideas and suggestions, along with public input, for how best to use the land.
Reitzell said one of the major benefits of the new policy for ski resorts was, of course, the possible revenue. Keeping staff was another significant benefit. Year-round operations should help resorts with employee retention — a noteworthy issue for a historically seasonal industry that relies on a transient work force.
In April 2014, the Forest Service finalized policy to promote year-round recreation at ski areas on its land, which includes 122 ski areas on about 180,000 acres.
The Forest Service estimated expanding operations would increase the number of annual visits to national forests by 600,000 and add 500 to 600 full- or part-time jobs, with about $40 million infused in local mountain communities.
The Sierra Club opposed Heavenly's summer expansion plans, not for the activity on the mountain, but for the extra cars and exhaust it was expected to bring into the Tahoe Basin during the busiest time of the year for tourism.
"We don't have a universal policy on ski resorts expanding into summer operations, that was sort of a one-off, where there were traffic problems in an already crowded area and pollution problems," said Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton. "I'm sure there are some resorts where the expansion is perfectly appropriate. Nothing like the Squaw Valley expansion we are against."
For Heavenly, the summer expansion allowed the resort to retain some of its winter staff despite closing for nearly two months after ski season ended in late April. That time was used to prepare for summer.
The staff is significantly less during summer, according to Kevin Cooper, senior communications manager for Heavenly and Kirkwood, but the resort still employs hundreds where four years ago the winter staff would have to find something else to pay the bills while waiting for the snow to fall.
"The South Shore is so much more than it was just five years ago. There's so much more to do," Cooper said. "In the winter time, you're lucky to see people walking by the lake. In the summer time, right when the sun starts coming up there is a constant line of people. Lakeview Commons is amazing and it's the families that are down there, it's not a 'bro' hang out."
Heavenly rolled out "Epic Discovery" three years ago. At the top of the gondola, not visible from down below, there are more than just ski runs and restaurants. There are zip lines, climbing walls, tubing, ropes courses for all ages, a mountain coaster and guided hiking tours, including an informative hike with a forest service ranger.
It's not an amusement park in the mold of Six Flags, but more of a learning center about the outdoors through recreation activities that are natural resource-based.
"There's a lot of stuff up there, it's based on team and family building," Cooper said. "We've got some exciting stuff and it's great for family learning."
Heavenly's main focus, according to Cooper, is getting families outdoors, on their mountains and into the local communities.
Kirkwood offers lift-assisted downhill mountain biking on weekends, has seemingly endless miles of trails to explore and offers a blend of events that reflect the resort and brand identity, which is more about the adventure family, Cooper said.
Sierra-at-Tahoe, home to all current South Shore Olympians, and situated on U.S. Forest Service land about 15 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe, is open for hiking, but don't get caught with your car inside the gate after 5 p.m., said Thea Hardy, communications manager. Summers at Sierra are ideal for getting hitched.
"We transform the base area into a wedding venue for those who want to tie the knot," Hardy said. "It is a beautiful, serene, unique venue."
Diamond Peak in Incline Village doesn't currently offer any activities during summer, as the resort is only permitted for skiing by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, according to Jaclyn Ream, marketing coordinator for IVGID.
But the resort's master plan includes a multi-phase, multi-million dollar plunge into developing summer offerings to "stay competitive and economically viable."
"There are some proposed summer activities … but we're still several years out for anything at this point," Ream said.
A few miles up the road from Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe has miles of hiking trails and the resort also hosts weddings and various other special events at Winters Creek Lodge.
Soda Springs, a North Shore resort comparable in size to Diamond Peak, closes for the summer.
Granlibakken, near Tahoe City, has a year-round conference center. Summer offerings in the area include hiking, mountain bike rentals, ropes courses and zip lines.
Homewood is on the West Shore, near bicycle rentals, paddleboard and kayak rentals, dining, outdoor yoga programs, weddings and special events during summer.