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A skier enters a choke on the East Wall at Arapahoe Basin ski area Thursday, March 31, 2022, near Dillon. The ski area has 94 percent of average snowpack as of April 19, according to OpenSnow. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In the shadow of battling behemoths, smaller, independent ski areas are thriving. 

“It’s not just that the big areas are crowded and skiers want to escape crowds,” said Bob Nicolls, the owner of Monarch ski area, which saw record visitation in 2021-22, with income for the ski area climbing 20% above the previous season. “I think it’s more about value. I think skiers are seeing our value versus the high prices of large ski areas. All boats are rising as people want to be outdoors.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

As major resorts owned by the largest ski area operators in North America — Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. — price daily lift tickets well north of $200 as part of a strategy to push skiers toward early-purchased season passes, independent resorts are finding traction.  

Every smaller, independent ski area in Colorado has reported record numbers of visitors in recent seasons. Even with a warm November delaying openings and a late December impacted by COVID, Colorado’s independent ski areas are counting 2021-22 among their best seasons ever, with record visitation and spending by guests. 

It’s a trend that began before the pandemic, with skiers “appreciating smaller, old-school experiences where you park for free and avoid I-70 traffic,” said Troy Hawks with Ski Sunlight in Glenwood Springs. 

“The pandemic acted as a catalyst, with even more people seeking out smaller ski areas with fewer capacity restrictions,” Hawks said, noting that Ski Sunlight has seen season pass sales increase 50% since the 2019-20 season.

And Sunlight guests are spending more on food and lessons. Revenue for the ski area climbed 21% in 2021-22 over the previous season, setting a record. Many independent operators report similar spikes in visits and revenue, which is enabling new investment in facilities, snowmaking and lifts. (Sunlight, for example, will install a new triple chairlift — actually not quite new, it’s Arapahoe Basin’s fixed-grip Lenawee, which is being replaced with a high-speed quad — to replace an aging double chair.) 

“For many, this has provided much needed capital to improve what we have before expanding,” Hawks said. “Our East Ridge project was more rooted in attracting more advanced local skiers than an interest in expanding our overall resort.”

Sunlight is not alone with its growth in visitors and investment. Arapahoe Basin, Echo Mountain, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Granby, Silverton Mountain and Wolf Creek all reported record performance in 2021-22, with visits and spending coming in at or near all-time highs. 

Visitation in 2021-22 was up 15% at Mesa County’s Powderhorn and up 42% over the 2019-20 season. The resort installed a gravity-fed snowmaking system in 2020, enabling it to open in early December that year despite minimal snowfall. Powderhorn also plans to begin restricting the sale of day tickets on its busiest days.

“As visitation grows, it’s very important we continue to preserve Powderhorn’s unique culture and resort character,” resort spokesman Ryan Robinson said. 

Ski Granby Ranch keeps its day ticket prices low, including springtime three-packs for $99 and kids’ tickets for $20. The Grand County resort’s new owners have invested $4.5 million in improvements including snowmaking upgrades that enabled the resort to open for Christmas and extend the season into April. Ski Granby Ranch saw slightly fewer visitors in 2021-22 than the previous season, when reservations at nearby Winter Park spiked. 

“The resort is in a good spot and will continue to improve while we maintain the reason people want to come here,” resort manager Jace Wirth said. “People like the friendly, intimate and approachable vibe of this place.”

Wolf Creek visitation was close to 275,000 in 2021-22, the all-time high set the previous season. 

“We managed to have a big year and we did not have any days with overcrowding. Our lifts and team handled it very well,” Wolf Creek owner Davey Pitcher said. 

Wolf Creek ski area owner Davey Pitcher on the site of a new chairlift under construction at the southwest Colorado resort on July 2, 2018. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Echo Mountain, above Idaho Springs in Clear Creek County, saw skier numbers settle to pre-pandemic levels, with busier weekends and quieter weekdays. But visits are up in the past two years, following a trend of steadily increasing visitation at the closest-to-Denver ski area that reopened five seasons ago.

“We believe there’s a big opportunity for smaller operations like ours to differentiate the experience we offer and thrive in years to come, and our growing customer base seems to prove that,” Echo Mountain manager Fred Klaas said in an email. 

Resorts have priced walk-up, daily lift tickets above $200 a day for the last several seasons as a way to push skiers toward purchasing season passes and lift tickets in advance. These prices do not include early-purchase or online discounts.

Loveland ski area, up I-70 highway from Echo Mountain, counted the pandemic 2020-21 season among its busiest and this season is pacing a little bit behind, but guests are spending more, resort spokesman John Sellers said.

Arapahoe Basin has led the way for independent resorts flourishing as behemoths grapple in an increasingly consolidated market. In 2019, the ski area left a 10-year partnership with Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass — which offered unlimited access and stressed the ski area’s parking lots — and joined Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass, offering only five days or seven days access. 

A skier hikes up towards Lenawee Peak for descents on the East Wall at Arapahoe Basin ski area on Mar. 31, 2022. The ski area has 94 percent of average snowpack as of Tuesday according to OpenSnow. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It’s worked well, with the resort capping the number of season passes and day tickets it sells for additional crowd control. 

Arapahoe Basin boss Al Henceroth said his ski area exceeded its comfortable carrying capacity of 4,140 skiers — which is the number of skiers the hill’s lifts can ferry without crowding on the slopes or long lines — only once so far in 2021-22. Under the Epic Pass, the resort surpassed that number often. 

So far this season, visits at Arapahoe Basin are tracking about 40% below 2019, the resort’s last year with the Epic Pass. (And with a 69-inch base in mid-April – its deepest of the season – Henceroth expects he will be turning lifts deep into June.)

Yet in terms of revenue, Arapahoe Basin is pacing toward its best year ever, Henceroth said.

“We transformed our model to have fewer skiers for a better experience on the mountain and a better bottom line and it’s doing all the things we wanted it to do,” he said. 

Silverton Mountain also had a busy season despite less-than-usual snow in January and early February. The ski area’s steadily increasing numbers support owner Aaron Brill’s longtime assertion that consolidation “and the mega-model don’t work long-term for skiing.”

“And we are now beginning to see that facade crack,” Brill said. “Perhaps it’s like the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ and people have begun to realize that cheap, high-volume skiing isn’t all glamor and high-fives.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins