There's good news on two fronts for Sierra skiers and snowboarders: The consensus of several long-range weather forecasts is for more snow than the region had either of the past two seasons. And the 2014 Winter Olympics a world away in Russia should have a positive effect here.
"Ski resorts typically get busier during Winter Olympic years," says Pete Sonntag, vice president and general manager of Heavenly Mountain Resort. "The Olympics generate lots of excitement about winter sports that translates into more people heading for the mountains to ski and ride."
After two dismal winters with little snow, Sierra winter resorts -- and the region's businesses that support them -- could use a boost. The amount of snow and rain that fell in the northern Sierra from January to the beginning of April this year was the smallest since records were first kept in 1920.
The Sierra resorts recorded 7 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2012-13 season -- down slightly from 7.3 million visits the previous season, according to Bob Roberts, CEO of the California Ski Industry Association.
Still, Roberts is hopeful that a new diversity trend and aging snowboarders will help turn those numbers around. More Asians and Latinos are taking to the slopes, he says. And while snowboarding growth continues to tail off, many snowboarders who quit that sport have now taken up skiing.
Here's a look at new programs, facilities and slope improvements that you will find in the Sierra this season.
Now under the strong financial wing of the firm that owns next-door Squaw Valley, Alpine has expanded its snow-making system and grooming fleet. And the terrain parks will look different this winter, as the landscape has been changed to add several creative new challenges. (www.skialpine.com; 800-441-4423)
Most people come to Yosemite for the scenery, but in the winter a few head right for the park's Badger Pass Ski Area. Park employees have done some major work on the day lodge, including a brand new deck, to improve the experience for guests. Yosemite lodging offers a range of very low cost tent-cabin packages in the winter. (www.yosemitepark.com; 209-372-8430)
The aging lodges (Bear Valley and Red Dog) have been remodeled and upgraded. The learning center for young skiers and riders has been doubled in size to handle the rapid growth of Bear's instructional programs. And this winter, all fifth-graders who maintain at least a "C" average can ski free every weekend. (www.bearvalley.com; 209-753-2301)
Take three lessons in any snowboard instruction program, and Boreal will give you a free season pass for this winter. And for the first time, the resort is offering prepurchase lift tickets. The discount lift tickets are available on Liftopia.com. (www.rideboreal.com; 530-426-3666)
Tree trimming has opened up new off-piste skiable terrain just off Crystal Ridge. The popular Last Tracks ski-party program has been expanded, so check the resort for new dates. And Diamond Peak and Homewood have announced a combo deal: Buy a season pass at either resort and you get four free nonholiday lift tickets at the other resort. (www.diamondpeak.com; 775-832-1177)
A new T-bar surface lift goes to the top of Dodge's "second summit." The lift opens up more skiable terrain in bounds and give visitors access to 1,000 vertical feet of black-diamond runs. The resort also now offers children's programs, teaching children as young as 2 to ski and as young as 3 to snowboard. (www.dodgeridge.com; 209-965-3474)
Donner Ski Ranch
The new expansive day lodge on the back side that was promised for last season did not quite make opening day. But the work has been completed, and it is now open. The Donner Pass area also has acquired the Tahoe Vista Inn and several homes and cabins in Tahoe Vista. Book lodging there and you get a free lift ticket. (www.donnerskiranch.com; 530-426-3635)
Known best as a conference and lodging center, Granlibakken also boasts a novice-intermediate hill for riders and skiers, along with a slick sledding and tubing slope. This is a nice low-budget choice as a family of four can ski, ride, sled and tube for $60 for the day. Granlibakken also started making snow a year or two ago. (www.granlibakken.com; 877-552-6301)
Forbes magazine rated Unbuckle at Heavenly's Tamarack Lodge as the No. 1 aprés-ski party in North America. A new bar opens at Tamarack, and the party expands out onto the patio. The Heavenly Flyer zip line, closed for several seasons, is expected to reopen this winter. The Gunbarrel Tavern and Eatery just opened at the base of the gondola. Heavenly will host the U.S. Freestyle Championships from March 28-30. (www.skiheavenly.com; 800-432-8365)
A lively outdoor winter beer garden opens at the resort's North Lodge. The bunny terrain in the instruction program incorporates new "sculpted" features such as berms and gullies to ease the learning curve for beginners. Check out the backcountry experience packages at the West Shore Cafe and Inn across the highway from the slopes. And see the earlier Diamond Peak summary for the Diamond-Homewood ticket deal. (www.skihomewood.com; 530-525-2992)
June Mountain, which was closed last winter for financial reasons, will reopen for this season on Dec. 14. The resort, some 20 miles from Mammoth, is offering free skiing and riding for children 12 and under, every day, all season long. June officials also are developing a long-term plan of improvements for this season and future winters. (www.junemountain.com; 888-586-3686)
Look for the K-bar, a new outdoor umbrella bar that opens on the Chair 6 side of the village. The Cornice Bar and Grill, the main center of activity in the village, has been extensively remodeled. And 60 of the best "big mountain" skiers and riders will arrive in Kirkwood this winter for the Swatch Freeride World Tour from Feb. 27-March 3. (www.kirkwood.com; 800-967-7500)
One of the largest winter resorts in the country, Mammoth is celebrating its 60th anniversary with several improvements. The terrain parks have been beefed up, the old Mammoth Mountain Inn is undergoing a major renovation, and the new Underground Lounge nightclub is set to open for the season. Check with United Airlines on the start date for direct flights from SFO to the Mammoth airport. The resort has been selected as an official training ground for top skiers and snowboarders who will compete in the Olympics. They will hone their skills at a Mammoth event Jan. 18-19 before heading to Russia. (www.mammothmountain.com; 800-626-6684)
The Mountain View Dining in the main lodge has been expanded, and Wi-Fi service has been improved at the Nevada resort. This is one of the best ski bargains in the Sierra because the resort and numerous hotels and motels in nearby Reno offer packages with low-cost rooms and a free lift ticket or two. (www.mtrose.com; 775-849-0704)
MT. Shasta Ski Park
For those who want to venture to Mt. Shasta in the Cascade mountains, the ski area just opened a 300-foot-long tubing hill with several lanes. There's no need to hike up to the top, as a new conveyor belt surface lift takes tubers up the peak. The lift also can be used by skiers and riders to access nearby slopes. (www.skipark.com; 530-926-8610)
Trails have been widened and trees removed in the Promised Land area to improve skiing and riding. The slopeside Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe will open an al fresco dining spot called the Backyard Bar & BBQ. Northstar's Adventure, Guiding and Learning Center has new offerings, including some high adventure journeys into the backcountry. Skiers and snowboarders heading to Russia and the Olympics will stop first at Northstar for a major competitive event Jan. 9-12. (www.northstarcalifornia.com; 800-466-6784)
Royal Gorge, the sprawling Donner Summit cross-country resort, is introducing fat-tire snow-biking this winter. The resort has a new fleet of bikes with very fat tires, and guests can rent them and peddle around 10 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails. Visitors with their own fat-tire bikes can use them on the trails after paying for a trail pass. (www.royalgorge.com; 530-426-3871)
The base area gets a major face lift with the opening of a new $4.5 million general purpose structure that will include, among other things, a new restaurant and a big plaza with fire pits and live music. In the spring, the resort will stage a series of music shows, including top regional touring bands. (www.sierraattahoe.com; 530-659-7453)
This mega-resort continues to invest and expand. Significant snow-making additions will guard against another low-snow year, and more grooming cats have arrived. The terrain parks have numerous new features. A large yoga studio will open, and a new entertainment amphitheater has been carved out at the base. Squaw Valley also has become the first ski resort in California to install charging stations for electric cars. The stations are free and are open daily. (www.squaw.com; 800-403-0206)
As the summer edged into fall, Sugar Bowl finished building a major new triple-chair lift dubbed the Crow's Peak lift. The $3 million lift will give new lift access to advanced and expert terrain. Previously, the only way to get on those slopes was to hike up. Terrain enhancements around the lift will include two new groomed runs and some nifty tree-skiing through glades, chutes and cliffs. (www.sugarbowl.com; 530-426-9000)
Tahoe Donner, with 14 runs spread over 120 acres, has built a 700-square-foot yurt on its slopes. The yurt, which also has a large sun deck, will be used mostly as a warming hut. The area's cross-country ski center also added an intermediate cross-country trail. (www.tahoedonner.com; 530-587-9444)
Contact Bob Goligoski at email@example.com.