What Makes a Great Spring Ski Area
In past years we have analyzed late season skiing with the focus on optimal conditions for spring break / Easter vacation visitors. Here we concentrate upon a select few resorts, which remain in full operation through the end of April, and usually offer quality skiing through May or later. We’ll evaluate these areas by the following criteria:
Mammoth Mt., California
Mammoth is now the best spring area in North America. Its altitude range of 8,000 to 11,000 feet is unique to the Pacific states and ensures excellent preservation of the average 133-inch March snowpack. Numerous steep alpine bowls and chutes drop north from a 2-mile long ridge at the top of the mountain. Most of these runs, plus much of Chairs 3 and 5, will remain packed powder well into April, and only Snowbird would likely offer as much terrain with winter conditions as far into the spring. Despite California’s snowfall volatility, Mammoth is open until Memorial Day 90% of seasons, and until 4th of July about 1/3 of the time.
From a meteorological view, the southern Sierra has the world’s best spring climate for corn snow: consistent clear weather on a deep snowpack with warm days and freezing nights over 9,000 ft. There are many backcountry ski routes within a couple of hours drive of Mammoth. The lift-serviced area gets more visitors than Mt. Bachelor (see bleow), and thus there is less undisturbed terrain for corn snow to develop. The most promising areas are east and southeast facing Chair 9 and west and southwest facing Chair 14.
After the 3rd or 4th weekend in April, Mammoth cuts back its lift operation and closes its Canyon Lodge and Eagle Lodge (Chair 15) base areas. However, all of the upper mountain expert terrain remains accessible from the Panorama Gondola. While chairs 9 and 14 are usually closed, the upper half of chair 14’s corn snow is still skiable if you catch a long cat track back around to the front of the mountain. Do this first with a guide to avoid a long hike out. Mammoth does not cut back on its excellent grooming, and also salts the groomed runs when necessary to maintain an enjoyable snow surface.
Around Memorial Day the Tioga Pass road opens, allowing Mammoth visitors easy access to Yosemite National Park. The road opening can be delayed in the heaviest snow years.
The Lake Tahoe areas can offer good spring skiing also, but they are lower in altitude. Kirkwood in April is next best to Mammoth, with steep runs dropping off a long north-facing ridge at 9,600 ft., but it closes in early May. Alpine Meadows usually runs to Memorial Day, and under optimal conditions skiers can follow the sun around the varied exposures (Sherwood in morning, Summit or Lakeview midday, Scott in afternoon) for the best corn snow. Since the top of Alpine is lower than Mammoth’s Main Lodge, overnight freezing is less reliable.
Mt. Bachelor, Oregon
Mt. Bachelor's average lower mountain March base depth of 146 inches historically ensured 3,200 vertical of skiing until the 4th of July before new management assumed control in 2003. Even with low snowfall or a hot spring, Bachelor's coverage will still last until the now usually scheduled Memorial Day closing. Mt. Bachelor now ranks second to Mammoth as a spring destination due to its recently decreased commitment to spring skiing. The cutback was strictly due to economic rather than snow reasons, and the quality of spring skiing that remains is unsurpassed.
In terms of snow preservation, Mt. Bachelor is higher and farther away from coastal clouds, rain and mild night temperatures than any area in the Northwest. The steep north-facing Cirque Bowl at the Summit should hold winter conditions into April. Spring conditions arrive earlier on the intermediate pitched lower slopes and the other Summit exposures. With 360-degree exposures and low skier density, Mt. Bachelor’s real claim to fame in spring is consistent and reliable corn snow. Corn first develops on the east face of the Summit, and the similarly exposed groomed runs of the Sunrise chair. The longer and steeper groomed runs of Outback (1,600 vertical) and Northwest Territory (2,400 vertical) are usually best midday or early afternoon.
The piece de resistance, not obvious from a casual view of the trail map, is the vast area on the south and southwest side of the Summit: a massive expanse of corn snow, ending at a well-graded cat track which goes for 3 miles around to the Northwest Territory lift. This area is big: 1,900 vertical fall lines of upper intermediate pitch, about the size of Vail's original back bowl with about 5% of the skier traffic. As the cat track is hidden from view about 500 feet below tree line, there is a real backcountry ambience with panoramic views of the Cascade Lakes Wilderness. The backside of Summit has a lot of wind crust and variable snow in the winter, but for spring it is magnificent.
Mt Bachelor’ lifts (nearly all high speed) are in full operation through mid-April, with Northwest Territory sometimes staying open another weekend or two. In May the front 180-degree exposure of the Summit is still accessible. While you can no longer ski the back of Summit, the northwest face above Pine Marten Lodge is excellent for late spring corn. In winter and early spring, this exposure is usually windswept hardpack. The lower groomed runs to the Main Lodge are salted to maintain a pleasant surface in May.
Mt. Bachelor is arguably a better destination in spring than in winter, when the Summit is closed for weather at least 30% of the time. Down in Bend or Sunriver (where you’ll be staying), spring daytime temperatures are often in the 70’s, and summer activities like golf, fishing, river rafting and rock climbing are already in full swing.
Elsewhere in Washington and Oregon, winter base depths are as deep as at Bachelor, but the lower altitude and coastal weather make the spring snow surface much less reliable. Timberline usually offers summer skiing despite a south exposure due to near-permanent snowpack and intensive salting of the maintained ski runs.
Spring skiing at Mammoth and Mt. Bachelor is so reliable that skiers can be confident of the conditions we have described long in advance. At most other areas, the quality of the spring ski experience will be much more dependent upon recent and current weather at the time of one’s visit.
Arapahoe Basin is the most well known spring ski area in the Rockies. The maximum base depth is only 81 inches, which means that coverage may be lost prematurely if spring weather (as in 2000) is warm and dry. Fortunately A-Basin is subject to a unique Continental Divide weather pattern and averages 56 inches snowfall in April and 32 in May (vs. 36 and 9 at Bachelor and 28 and 8 at Mammoth). The steep Palivaccini terrain pod (10,800-12,200ft.) is perhaps the ultimate in North America for preserving winter snow at late as possible in spring. Skiers with strong lungs can climb to 13,000 ft. for several steep shots along the East Wall.
A-Basin is not that likely to develop corn snow as it has a fair amount of skier traffic over only 700 acres. Mammoth and Mt. Bachelor have 3,500 acres open in April and usually at least 2,000 acres in May. There is no salting of groomed runs, so the window of optimal conditions for intermediates in warm weather is likely to be brief. Due to weather, high altitude and north exposure, the entire area will usually retain winter conditions through most of April. The steeps and moguls of Palivaccini will be attractive to experts as long as coverage holds out (worst case early May, best case sometime in July).
Nearby Loveland shares A-Basin’s weather and altitude, but not its predominant north exposure, and closes in early May. The larger Front Range areas of Colorado are open through mid-April, and of these Copper Mt. has the best exposure and terrain for spring skiing. Many other Colorado areas have excellent snow preservation, but close at Easter or mid-April due to remote locations.
Under Intrawest’s unified ownership, Whistler, B.C. has become an attractive spring ski destination. The average maximum base is 106 inches, and Whistler’s alpine bowls are bigger than Mammoth’s with similar steepness and north exposure. What’s different is Whistler’s coastal and frequently overcast weather. In early spring, the clouds help to preserve winter conditions in the alpine. Later, conditions will be more variable and dependent upon daily weather.
In the right weather, Whistler’s Symphony Bowl and Burnt Stew Basin will develop corn snow, along with some of the Blackcomb Glacier and Seventh Heaven. Blackcomb is less favorably exposed than Whistler, except for the Horstman and Blackcomb Glaciers. The latter’s runout goes down to 3,500 ft. and can be a tedious slog in slushy snow. Groomed runs are not salted, so the upper mountain north facing groomers (Emerald on Whistler, Jersey Cream on Blackcomb) will have the best conditions. Lower mountain runs can be like glue in spring, but there is plenty of lift capacity to download at the end of the day.
Blackcomb is open through the mid-April World Ski and Snowboard Festival (highly recommended for lively entertainment). Whistler is open through the first weekend in June.
Sunshine Village, Alberta is known for excellent snow preservation. Its upper terrain retains winter conditions into the spring due to cool April temperatures that are similar to Colorado in February/March. The maximum snow depth is probably similar to A-Basin’s 81 inches, but the predominantly intermediate terrain usually holds up until the Victoria Day closing. Most of Sunshine’s advanced terrain is on Goat’s Eye and faces southwest. Goat’s Eye often has corn snow in early spring but gets rocky by the end of April. In high snow years, experts will prefer nearby Lake Louise’s north facing back bowls. Sunshine does offer limited access (transceivers and/or a guide required) to the north facing and extremely steep Delirium Dive. Unlike most spring ski resorts, Sunshine is better for intermediates than experts.
Other areas in Western Canada are off the beaten track and all close by mid-April.
Snowbird is Utah’s highest resort (11,000 ft.) and has an abundance of north facing steeps that preserve winter conditions well: most of the upper terrain on the Peruvian side of the tram, plus Little Cloud Bowl and the expert Gad 2 runs. Average maximum base is 109 inches. Although Utah is the warmest region of the Rockies, Snowbird averages 66 inches of April snow to refresh the surface. Snowbird’s avid powderhounds are eager to slice and dice the new snow, so not much of it remains undisturbed to develop corn. The new south-facing Mineral Basin may be an exception in early spring.
Snowbird does not salt its groomers, and the lower Gad Valley can get slushy in warm weather. The Peruvian chair mogul runs are best in spring afternoons. Snowbird is in full operation through the last weekend in April, but very restricted thereafter. Just the Little Cloud Chair is open for skiing in May, with the tram for access only.
The other Cottonwood areas (Alta, Brighton and Solitude) are open through most of April, but have lower peak elevation and more varied exposures. Other Northern Rockies areas close by mid-April.