It’s Summer in the Ski Towns, 2.0
Last year, mountain resorts were overrun by travelers in search of space and fresh air. The visitors are expected back, but now the towns have expanded activities and plans in place to deal with the crowds.
For their vacation this summer, Susan Tyler and her husband have booked a house in the small ski resort town of Red Lodge, Mont., with a group of friends. As they message daily about the trip, the anticipation grows, said Ms. Tyler, a performing arts administrator in Texarkana, Texas. “Being outside with friends is smart and renewing, and it feeds your soul,” she said.
True, but not when the trailhead is so packed you can’t find a place to park. Last summer, pandemic travelers, remote workers and an unprecedented number of new full-time residents descended on mountain towns in search of space and fresh air, prompting longtime locals to complain about overcrowding and quality-of-life concerns. This year promises more of the same.
The difference? Resort towns are prepared, with on-mountain activities back to operating at full capacity, programs in place to educate visitors on outdoors etiquette, plans to address overcrowding and new attractions that highlight the alpine environment.
A mid-May report from DestiMetrics, which tracks lodging in mountain resort destinations, describes bookings as “surging” for this summer, with July, August and September already well ahead of the same time period two years ago, which was itself a record-setting summer for resort visitation and revenue. At the same time, average daily hotel rates were 32 percent higher than they were in summer 2019.
“We’re seeing earlier demand than we’ve ever seen before and at higher levels,” said Anna Olson, the president and chief executive of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, who noted that lodges in nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks that had closed for most of last summer have reopened, increasing the number of rooms available near the Wyoming resort town; additionally, the Cloudveil, a new Autograph Collection hotel, has opened.
Not just for skiing
Of course, summering near ski resorts is nothing new. Some towns, like Jackson and Whitefish, Mont., have historically attracted warm-weather visitors because of their proximity to national parks. Others, like Colorado’s Aspen and Telluride, have drawn vacationers with longstanding cultural events, like the eight-week-long Aspen Music Festival and School and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And many ski areas have long offered scenic chairlift rides to hiking and biking trails. But now resorts are increasingly promoting themselves as warm-weather destinations and adding more outdoors-oriented activities like purpose-built bike parks, forest canopy tours, mountain coasters and via ferratas, a European-derived system that consists of permanent steps and ladders bolted into a rock face; users attach themselves with carabiners to steel cables to prevent big falls.
For one, there’s the desire to create more of a year-round — and less snow-dependent — economy. Additionally, passage of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act in 2011, and subsequent policy guidelines issued by the U.S. Forest Service in 2014, eliminated cumbersome aspects of the permitting processes on federal land, making it easier for many mountains to develop summer recreation.
Vail Resorts was one of the first to capitalize on the new legislation with its Epic Discovery summer program, introduced at Vail Mountain and Breckenridge in Colorado, and Heavenly in California, starting in 2016. Zip lines, alpine slides, ropes courses and more, along with educational components, aim to let visitors immerse themselves in the mountain environment. Since then, many other resorts have followed suit. This June, for example, Telluride, in southwestern Colorado, introduced its first canopy tour, with zip lines, aerial bridges and rappels.
The approach has been working. Some would even say too well. “Now at most mountain destinations in the West, and at many in the Northeast, the summer occupancy is as high or higher than during the winter months,” said Tom Foley, the senior vice president for business operations and analytics for Inntopia, a resort marketing and e-commerce firm. (He adds that lodging prices, however, still lag behind winter’s peak rates.)
Even resorts that long had infrastructure in place have benefited. Vermont’s Killington introduced its bike park (which sits on a combination of state and private land) 30 years ago. But from 2016 to 2018, visits surged to 30,000 from 12,000, said the resort spokeswoman, Courtney DiFiore. She attributed the growth to new beginner and intermediate trails, more programming for children and an all-season pass option.
This year, resorts expect summer visitation to ramp up several notches, in reaction to the pandemic. “It’s unreal how much demand there is for Jackson right now,” said the ski area spokeswoman, Anna Cole. “Jackson by nature is outdoors and pretty distanced, and people want to get in their cars and drive,” she said. “We fit the bill on all fronts.”
The ski area continues to expand its offerings. The Sweetwater gondola is running for the first time in summer, hauling riders and their bikes to new routes within a growing trail network, and last summer the mountain added to its guided via ferrata routes.
Other resorts, like California’s Mammoth Mountain, have also built via ferratas. For some ski areas with rugged winter reputations (including Jackson Hole), offering hikers the challenge and reward of safely ascending rock features is a fitting alternative to more passive experiences. “We’re not looking for zip lines or mountain coasters,” said David Norden, the chief executive of Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which added a via ferrata last August. “We want people to engage with the mountain and get that sense of accomplishment.” Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin delves into summer operations for the first time this year with its own via ferrata — topping out at 13,000 feet in elevation, it’s North America’s highest — along with an aerial adventure course.
Taos also introduced lift-served mountain biking last year, tapping into another summer growth area, as resorts across the country have introduced or expanded existing bike parks. Though these projects have taken at least a couple of years to plan and construct, they coincide fortuitously with the pandemic-inspired surge in cycling.
For instance, New Hampshire’s Cranmore Mountain Resort, near North Conway, opened a family-friendly bike park last year, while nearby Loon Mountain opened its version in fall 2019. In Idaho, lift-accessed mountain biking returns to Sun Valley’s extensive trail network after a year’s hiatus and Snowmass, Colo., continues to add trails to its park. Even Mammoth, which was the world’s first resort to offer lift-served mountain biking back in 1986 and now hosts California’s largest park, is still expanding, adding some e-bike-specific on-mountain trails last summer.
Goodbye to the slow season
But the increase in visitors has come at a cost, especially in summer, when recreation takes place across more outdoor venues with greater impact. The upsurge of people vying for space on trails and in restaurants in the summer months means resort towns never get a break. “Discussions about overtourism in mountain towns have been going on for a long time,” said Inntopia’s Mr. Foley, who also noted the scarcity of affordable housing for workers, especially given the recent run up in prices as new home buyers have sought refuge from the pandemic in the mountains. “Every problem that existed before the pandemic is still there and probably worse.”
Many longtime locals say the growing number of visitors, especially those who may not be familiar with low-impact outdoors practices is having a negative effect — and they are taking their objections public. Perhaps the most notorious instance took place in Lake Tahoe last August, as groups of residents, fed up by the onslaught of tourists and an avalanche of litter, staged protests at several busy intersections.
As a result, mountain towns are planning to greet this summer’s visitors with messages about how to encounter wildlife and engage with other people, especially given the ever-changing Covid regulations and staffing shortages in the hospitality industry. “We need the summer of courtesy and kindness,” said Rose Abello, the director of Snowmass Tourism.
Remember to be nice
Whitefish, home to a large ski area and a gateway to Glacier National Park, encourages visitors to Be a Friend of the Fish by limiting social media tagging on popular trails, staying calm in lines or traffic, packing out trash and keeping a safe distance from wildlife. Similarly, Sun Valley’s Mindfulness in the Mountains campaign asks visitors and newer residents to practice good environmental stewardship and adjust their pace and expectations to the area’s “modest, unpretentious, down-to-earth feel.” Jackson Hole’s Wild Rules tool kit provides expectation-managing emails and social media posts for businesses to share with guests, ideally before they arrive. And Breckenridge touts its new B Like Breckenridge program, which emphasizes respect for wildlife, using good trail etiquette, consuming less and walking more.
The town of Mammoth Lakes, home of Mammoth ski area, opted to fund a community host program, with both paid and volunteer ambassadors answering questions and handing out maps that show where dispersed camping is allowed and list important backcountry basics, like how to douse a campfire and bury or pack out human waste. At many resorts, hikers will be encouraged to cut down on trailhead crowding by going midweek or earlier or later in the day or by choosing less-frequented but still rewardingly scenic trails.
How travelers will respond and whether or not this new outreach will have a positive effect could go a long way toward decreasing friction between residents and tourists. “We’re a resort town but also a tight-knit community,” said Laura Soard, the marketing director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber, in Colorado. “It’s newer for us to be giving visitors behavior expectations, saying we want you to come visit us, but we want you to follow our rules and respect our community.”
The return of signature summer events, from outdoor concerts to food festivals, may mean fewer people all heading to the trail at the same time. Last summer, “we saw trailheads being stacked with cars, camping sites full and recreation stores sold out of gear,” said Ray Gadd of Visit Sun Valley. “This summer will have much more of a feeling of normalcy,” he said, mentioning annual gatherings like a multiday wellness festival and well-known writers’ conference that are once again on the schedule.
As for traffic, road trips will likely still be a popular form of travel this summer, but resorts hope to alleviate congestion by encouraging visitors to return to public buses and shuttles or to bike around town. New transportation options that make a rental car unnecessary have special appeal this summer, when cars are in short supply. Taos Ski Valley’s airline, Taos Air, offers new direct flights from Texas and California to a small nearby airport, and then shuttle service to the resort. Travelers to Breckenridge can book a United Airlines package that offers seamless transfer to the resort: They’ll board a 35-seat motor coach directly on the tarmac at Denver International Airport, along with their luggage, for the drive to their final destination.
Among the most important messages mountain towns hope to convey this summer: Plan and book well in advance, whether for lodging, restaurant reservations or guided outdoor activities. “Booking early helps us prepare and makes for a more relaxed experience for guests,” said Abe Pacharz, the owner of Colorado Adventure Guides in Breckenridge. You’ll get a spot on a trip, and perhaps advice on acclimating to the altitude, what gear you’ll need and what activities are the most appropriate.
“You have to have a reservation,” said Ms. Olson from the Jackson Hole Chamber. “The idea that you can come to national parks or ski area destinations and find somewhere to stay or camp is very limited. It may not be their vision of being on the open road and making last-minute decisions, but the reality of coming to these beautiful places with limited resources is that people have to be planners.”
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