Snowmaking upgrades pay off at Afton Alps

What can millions of dollars do for a ski area? A lot, especially if it’s put into the snowmaking system.

When Vail Resorts purchased Afton Alps a few years ago, it quickly put in $10 million in improvements, much of it for the snowmaking system. And if the quality and coverage of the snow yesterday was any indication, the money was well spent.

Consider that the Twin Cities has had a very bad winter for natural snowfall. Warm temperatures. Rain. Few days with a major snowfall.

Yet yesterday afternoon, when the temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 60s,  saw some fine corn snow all around, with few brown spots in the snow, and only a few more spots of darker, “grippy” snow. Oh, and almost the entire area was open for skiing and riding, even most trails in the Highlands area.

 

Belindas Bowl.JPG

Belinda’s Bowl at Afton Alps: A fine day for corn snow

 

Yes, it was a bit odd to see the greens and tee boxes from the golf course here and there. But the snow that was on the trails was still rideable. While there was some standing water near the Alps lodge, the snow on the top of the lifts was merely slushy, not “puddly,” which is to say, not standing water. The lifties working the exit ramps were busy moving around snow to give customers a smooth ride off, which perhaps also prevented puddles from forming.

 

Chair 14 green.JPG

A golf course green (or teebox)  visible while riding chair #14

 

There were lots of events during the day, including a pond skim. Surprisingly, three-quarters of the first 30 attempts across the pond were successfull. Of the snowboards, 10 out of 16 made it, while 12 out of 14 skiers made it.

Compared to some other ski areas I’ve visited in late season, Afton Alps didn’t have a tired feel at all. Unfortunately, though, the season around here was just too short and bereft of natural snow.  Maybe next year.

 

Pond8.JPG

Snowboarder at the Afton Alps pond skim

 

Afton Alps: The first Christmas break under Vail ownership

Vail Resorts made news earlier this year when it purchased two resorts in the Midwest, including Afton Alps. It stated its intention to spend $10 million renovating Afton, and over the summer, announced various changes, including a new fleet of snowguns, expansions to the largest terrain park, and upgrades to some buildings.

So now that we’re well into the season, what has changed? First up, you’ll see new signs throughout the property, including those announcing your arrival as you drive past the golf course that serves as the entry point. A few old signs remain throughout the property, but expect them to be phased out. So expect more orange and brown in the months to come.

Highland sign

The other difference you’ll see when you first arrive is that there are no ticket booths. That pushes the queues out of cars and into buildings, though in some cases new technology will eliminate the need to stop anywhere for a ticket.

Freestyle terrain: More is more

Given the reputation that Vail has for its terrain parks at Breckenridge, it’s no surprise that parks have gotten a boost under the new management. The company has made Dee’s Dive, a small but steeper slope near what was already the largest park at Afton (Carol’s Crib), into the home of three enormous jumps. (There are still two lanes on either side of the jumps, but non-jumpers would do just fine to ignore Dee’s.)

There used to be a tubing hill nestled between a beginner area (Meadows) and Carol’s. Over the summer, though, the tubing hill was bulldozed and incorporated into an enlarged park. In addition to getting bigger, the park gained two rope tows. In addition to this park, by the way, you’ll find man-made features scattered Afton. The Highlands, for example, continues to have a beginning park between chair 14 and 15.

While the tubing lanes and conveyor belt are gone, the tubing chalet remains, though modified. It has been given a covered entrance and incorporated into a mini-base area called the Landing Zone, or LZ. The old tables have been replaced by more modern ones, as well as six oversized stuffed pillows. Think: bean bag chairs for jibbers. A new menu adds beer and wine, and a flat-screen TV in the chalet shows action sports, even as music booms over a new sound system. Unfortunately, the water in the pitcher of free water has a strong iron taste.

Near the chalet is a yurt, new for this season. It is the first yurt at Twin Cities ski areas, though the concept has been used by ski resorts in other parts of the country. It’s hard to tell at this point what the yurt will be used for–will it be simply for sitting, or will it be used to sell drinks, for example–as Vail is still rolling out changes.

Also by the chalet was a food truck, selling burritos. At least that’s what the signs on it said. It was closed when I visited, though it was a very busy day.

Restrooms

In the past, I’ve nicked Afton for the fact that the Highlands chalet had cotton-roll towels. Those are no more; they have been replaced by paper-towel dispensers. The restroom could stand some partitions between the urinals (standard practice these days), but moving to paper towels is a big improvement.

The restroom in the Meadows chalet, which houses a ski/ride school, was also improved. It had been primitive, with rough concrete floors and walls, and decrepit wood. But the restroom has been given an overhaul, with a new ceramic tile floor and walls, not to mention a granite (or faux granite) countertop.

The other restrooms on the property appear to be unchanged, including those at the former tubing chalet. If the LZ concept takes off, the existing men’s restroom–one stall, one urinal, one sink–may become too small. Curiously, as of this writing, the web page about the LZ says “The LZ building is open for lift tickets, and food/beverage service. No restrooms, please use the restrooms in the Alps or Meadows.”

Music

Satellite music channels are now piped into the large room of the Highlands chalet. It was fairly loud when I was there, but it may get drowned out later in the day as the room fills up. The large terrain park has speakers playing music, though I could barely hear it when outside it, even while riding in Mickey’s Meadow, a slope that is on the skier’s left of the park.

Music also plays in the entire LZ, including the chalet, the yurt, and the space between and in front of them. Curiously, the bar at the Highlands chalet was music-free. Whether the addition of music is a bug or a feature is a personal preference.

Food and drink

Afton says that it has upgraded the food service. Since I usually bring my own lunch, it’s hard for me to evaluate this claim. But the space at the Highlands chalet has been spiffed up a bit. Pasta will be added to the usual burger fare, but not yet. The bar area of the Highlands chalet–now “The Crest Mountain Grill”–has been changed, too, and for the better. The dark tables have been replaced by tables with a lighter tone. There are new chairs with a brushed metal design, to match the new bar. The small loft has been removed entirely, and the two-story windows give the room a more open feel. If you don’t see the familiar water pitcher on the bar, don’t fret: It’s been replaced by a fancier water dispenser that is on the condiment table. As for the rest of the Highlands chalet, the old bank of rental lockers, which were showing their age, are gone, replaced by a ticket cart. A smaller number of lockers now sit just outside the restrooms. The side of the building that faces the parking lot has been given a new, wooden exterior.

The Alpine chalet, meanwhile, awaits the construction of a food service area. The parts in this infrequently used building were scattered apart when I was there.  The Meadows chalet, meanwhile, has had a few new items added to its menu, but the dining area has received no noteworthy changes. It’s still a sea of concrete.

The food service area of the Alps chalet received a major overhaul a few years ago, though the dining area remains as it was: Concrete floors downstairs and carpeted floors upstairs. Paul’s Pub, the bar in the Alps Chalet, was spiffed up a few years ago, and upgraded some more over the summer. An interior wall has been removed, which opens up the pub. A new gas fireplace invites patrons to snatch up one of the nearby lounge chairs. And if you belly up to the bar, you’ll find a more shiny, metallic, and open space.

Ticketing

Ticketing has been a sore point for Afton, particularly on very busy days. There was no way to separate season pass holders from day-ticket buyers; all cars would line up at ticket booths, either at the base (near the Alps chalet) or the top (near the Highlands chalet). New technologies promise a quicker experience. During the Christmas week, when I visited, the performance sometimes fell short of the promise, with comments on Afton’s Facebook page reporting waits of 45 minutes to one hour (!) to obtain lift tickets.

On the other hand, I drove into the parking lot of the Highlands chalet, walked into the building, and found a new, portable ticketing cart. I had to wait behind all of three people, at 10:00 a.m. A man behind me, though, said he had come from the Alps chalet, where the queue was 45 minutes.

What was the problem? It could be the crush of traffic, a snafu in the new system, or something else. I will say this: I have never seen Afton as busy as it was that day. There was not a table to be found when I took my lunch (late) in the Alps chalet, and when I left at 3:00 p.m., there were perhaps a dozen free parking places on the whole property. It’s possible that getting people signed up for the preferred program–a loyalty program–helped to gum up the works. The preferred program, by the way, may save people time as the season goes on. People who don’t have a season pass can have electronic scanners on the slopes automatically debit a credit card, letting them bypass the ticket office.

Paper tickets are a thing of the pass. I used an Epic Day pass, a piece of plastic that resembles a debit or credit card. It lets skiers and riders use Vail’s in-house version of Alpine Replay or Map My Ride. It uses the new RFID scanners that are installed at each lift. Occasionally, I saw an employee checking people for lift cards by using a hand-held scanner. This technology has been used by western resorts for decades, but Afton is the first resort to use it within the Twin Cities.

Ski and ride school

The retail counter of the ski and ride school at the Meadows chalet has been improved with some new counters, and a coat of the new corporate orange/yellow paint. As is the case with other changes on site, the effect is to brighten up the space. On the other hand, the equipment rental space appears to be unchanged.

There are more changes in store for Afton Alps and its customers, and it will be fascinating to see how they pan out. Stay here for more updates, and leave a comment if you have any thoughts to share on Afton in the age of Vail.

(See the Afton Alps December 2013 photo gallery for more.)

Rating the restrooms of Twin Cities ski areas

The ski areas within the Twin Cities share many similarities. But that doesn’t mean they’re identical. One small way in which they distinguish themselves is the quality of their restrooms. Which ones are clean and well lit, and which ones are cramped and dingy? We reviewed them over the course of the 2012-2013 season, and published them on Examiner.com, in seven installments. All the information is assembled in this article, which is printed below. The original series included photos, which are not included here. (We may eventually post them.) As with any business, the ski areas may update their offerings from time to time, so the ratings may change over time.

* * *

Skiers and snowboarders in the Twin Cities have six lift-served facilities to enjoy. There’s not much to set one apart from the other, at least in terms of terrain. But they do have different vibes, programs, and base facilities. Here’s a ranking of them by the quality of their restrooms. Is this a silly way of comparing ski areas? Perhaps, though restroom quality is part of the overall customer experience.

The rankings below consider a number of factors, including the quality of the lighting, the amount of usable space, the presence or absence of partitions between urinals, the materials used on the walls and floors, and quality of the sinks.

#1: Trollhaugen

Quick take: Trollhaugen stands out from the others in its pleasant use of materials, including brushed metal partitions and stone tiles for floors and walls.

Full review:

Sometimes it’s the little things that set one business apart from the others. In the case of ski areas within the Twin Cities region, one such little thing is the quality of the restrooms.

Trollhaugen, in Dresser, Wisconsin, features two restrooms in its main building. They’re on two different levels, though they have similar designs.

If a restroom at a Midwestern ski area can be considered visually pleasing, the ones at Trollhaugen can be. There is a men’s room on both the ground level and the parking lot level.

They have dividers between the urinals, which you’ll find at some though not all ski areas in the region. But what’s different is that the dividers, as well as the stalls, have a brushed-metal surface that is a step up from the standard four coat of paint that you may find elsewhere. The sinks have the same material.

In addition, the walls and the floors are stone tile more reminiscent of a decent restaurant than a day lodge. For drying your hands, there are paper towel dispensers.

Troll also earns points for not making customers who come off the slopes walk down a set of stairs to reach the restrooms.

The downstairs restroom has three urinals, three stalls, two sinks, two mirrors, two soap dispensers, and two paper-towel dispensers. The upstairs restroom is smaller, with only two urinals and two stalls.

#2: Hyland Ski & Snowboard Area

Quick take: The restrooms are on the main floor, with several urinals, stalls, and partitions. Hyland is unique among the ski areas in offering a shower. Other than that, there’s nothing exceptionally good about the men’s room. But Hyland ranks high because avoids some of the problems that plague other areas.

#3: Welch Village

Quick take: Welch Village has a very uneven approach to its restrooms. The main lodge restroom (pictured) is pleasant, with ceramic tile and adequate lighting and plenty of space. The restrooms in the ski school have an “unfinished basement in a new suburban development” feel. The restrooms in the basement of the rental shop, well, let’s just say the plumbing works. Finally, the restroom at the Madd Jaxx bar & grill, heavily used, is extremely cramped–to the point that Welch scatters portable toilets outside the building. Deer camp, anyone?

Full review:

There are many things that a ski area has no control over, such as the amount of natural snow it receives. But there are elements of the guest experience that it does have control over, such as the number and quality of its restrooms. Today it’s time to look at Welch Village, which is about 12 miles west of Red Wing, Minnesota. Welch has public restrooms in four buildings: the ski school, the rental equipment building, the main chalet, and a bar.

The SkiLink Learning Center (ski school) is a fairly new building. While it’s nice the main floor, the basement has that “unfinished basement” feel. The plumbing and heating ducts in the men’s room are exposed, and the framing of the stall for the ADA toilet, where it meets the outside wall, is shoddy. The floor is concrete, and the walls are a combination of cinder block and poured concrete. On the positive side, it’s large, and opaque windows allow in plenty of natural light. The restroom has one urinal and two toilets, two sinks, two soap dispensers, and two paper towel dispensers.

While the SkiLink men’s room has the feel of an unfinished basement in a new suburban development, the men’s room in the ski-rental building has the feel of a root cellar. It’s dark and dingy. Dingy, faded red bricks make up the floor; the walls are cinder block and poured concrete. The inadequate lighting was made moreso this day by the fact that the lights near the two urinals was flickering on and off. The urinals, by the way, have a divider between them, and auto-flushers, which helps control smells. One oddity of this room is that the urinals/toilets and sinks are back to back, so after you’ve done your business, you have to walk to a separate room to wash up. There are two sinks, each with a mirror, and two paper towel dispensers. There’s one bottle of hand soap on a shelf above the sinks. Just outside the restrooms is a long hallway lined with lockers, used by ski racers and others. If you need to put on crash pads before hitting the slopes, or simply want a warm place to put on your boots, the hallway is a decent location, as it’s close to the parking lot.

The main chalet has the nicest restrooms, one on the main floor and one on the second. They are mirrors of each other. The “civilized” touch starts with the fact that there are no outside doors, so if you’re a germophobe, rejoice. It has five urinals (with dividers between all of them) and three stalls. (One stall is ADA compliant.) There are three sinks, two soap dispensers, and two paper towel dispensers. Even better, there are two large garbage cans to receive the spent paper towels. The floor and the walls are pleasant; the floor is ceramic tile, and the wall is finished. While there is no natural light, the overhead lights are more than adequate to the task. Bonus: The main-floor restroom doesn’t require navigating any steps.Clearly, this is the “top loo” at Welch.

The men’s room at Madd Jaxx, the bar at the eastern end of the property, is not as dingy as that of the rental building, but it’s probably the worst of all the facilities at Welch, for this simple reason: The bar has a rated capacity of 150 people, but there are only two urinals (no dividers) and no stall. There are three soap dispensers and two paper towel dispensers, but oddly, only one sink for all that. Worse yet, the placement of the sink, garbage can, and stall conspire to make the entrance/exit strictly a one-person affair. That is, if one person is leaving and the other is entering, someone’s going to have to wait.

#4: Afton Alps

Quick take: Afton is, by Midwestern standards, a sprawling place, with two entrances, 18 lifts, and six chalets.

The men’s room at the Alps, the main lodge, is pleasant enough, with ceramic tiles, a shelf above the urinal to store your gloves, and bright lighting. The restroom in the Highland Chalet, is similar, though both suffer from the “gross out” factor of relying on cloth towels, which evoke the feeling of old-school gas station restrooms. In addition, the men’s rooms in the other chalets have concrete walls and floors (not always in good shape), and require lengthy trips down stairs.

Riders and skiers may wonder what Afton Alps will look like after Vail Resorts pumps $10 million into it. One result may be some spiffed-up restrooms.

Full review:

Afton has the most chalets (five) of any ski area in the Twin Cities, reflecting its status as the largest by size and customer base. The “premier” chalets are Alps, in the northeast part of the property, and the Highlands, in the southwest. In between the two are three other chalets. The tubing chalet is open only during tubing hours (more restricted that skiing hours). Near that tubing chalet is the Meadows chalet, which is by one of the two rental shops on the property, and serves the ski school. Finally, the Alpine chalet is, like the Highlands, on the top rather than the bottom of the river bluff. It’s seldom open.

The other day I visited Afton, and while there, stopped in at the Alps and Highlands chalets. Both are heavily used, with the Highland frequently used on weekends for traveling ski and snowboard schools.

Both chalets are far and away nicer facilities than the three others, which feature concrete hallways, long sets of stairs, and shabby-to-basic restrooms.

The restrooms at the Alps and Highlands chalets are easily accessible. Once you enter the Alps chalet, you do have to climb a short (three or four) set of steps to the first-floor restrooms. Better yet, at the Highlands chalet, there’s no steps at all. Skiers, especially, will cheer.

Both chalets also get credit for having modern tile on both the floors and on the walls, which gives the restrooms a pleasant appearance. On the downside, both chalets use old-school cloth towels on a roll.

The Alps restrooms (there is one upstairs near the bar, as well as on the first floor) are the nicest. They’re bigger, and both upstairs and downstairs restrooms have cushioned chairs that you can sit on to adjust your boots or even change change into your ski/ride clothes, something you won’t find elsewhere.

On the lower level, you’ll find three stalls, each with a hook for hanging up a coat or helmet. There are also seven urinals, in two banks, but no dividers. This is the practice at Afton, and it’s a slight demerit when it comes to a men’s room. On the other hand, the two banks of urinals in the lower level each have a long shelf, for placing gloves. For some reason, they’re not upstairs or (as I recall) at Highlands.

The lower level restroom has three sinks with a common countertop, three mirrors, and two soap dispensers. There are also three cloth towel dispensers.

The upstairs men’s room has a much lower capacity, with two stalls (only one with a coat hook), and only three urinals. But as with downstairs, there are three sinks, two soap dispensers, and three cloth towel dispensers.

The upstairs restroom has an outside door reminiscent of a a “nice” gas station, while the downstairs restroom uses design to avoid the need for an outside door.

The men’s room at the Highland chalet has a similar design, and no outside door. It has only two stalls and three urinals. As with the Alps chalet, it has three sinks and two soap dispensers. It has three mirrors and two cloth-towel dispensers. For some reason, the tile floor is more likely to be slippery than the floor of either restroom in the Alps chalet.

#5: Wild Mountain

Quick take: Wild Mountain is a great family place, and its restrooms on the main floor of the chalet are easy to get to. They have baskets, so you can rest your gloves while you’re going about your business. The restroom in the bar is pleasant enough, but the other set of second-floor facilities has a ceiling that will bother anyone approaching 6 foot tall.

Wild gets nicked in the rankings because the ground-floor men’s room is so basic. Too basic, in fact. It’s the only one among the six ski areas that has a urinal trough, giving the most heavily used men’s room the “drunken football fan” look.

Full review:

Wild Mountain regularly makes national news as the first ski area in the country to open for the season. It’s noteworthy for another, less glamorous fact: You never have to walk down a flight of stairs to use the restroom. And if you’re a germophobe, you’re in luck: All restrooms are configured in a way that don’t require you to open a door.

There are three public restrooms at Wild Mountain, all in the chalet. One is on the main level, and two are upstairs. Let’s start on the main level. The men’s room has one long urinal trough, and three stalls. In the stalls you’ll find wire baskets hanging on the wall above the toilet water tank. This is a nice touch; it lets you put down your gloves or mittens while doing your business. The restroom has two sinks, two soap dispensers, and two automatic paper dispensers. The floor, as it is in the other restrooms, resembles what you’d find in a Burger King or McDonalds restaurant.

Now to the upstairs. The party room has its own set of restrooms. The men’s room has three urinals (no partitions between them) and three stalls. The stalls don’t have baskets, a curious omission. If you’re on the tall side, be careful: You may knock your head on the angled ceiling.

The restroom has two sinks, two soap dispensers, and two automatic paper towel dispensers. There’s also roughly a six-inch step down into the restroom from the party room, so watch your step!

The bar has the best restroom in the building. There are two chairs near the entrance, which you can sit on to adjust your boots. Though the restroom is attached to the bar, it’s also the most child-friendly facility of the three. One of the two automatic towel dispensers is set at a lower height, as is one of the three soap dispensers. There are two sinks.

There are no partitions near the two urinals, though one is lower than the other. Both of the stalls have baskets above the toilet water tank, and the handicapped-accessible stall also has a chair and diaper-changing deck.

#6: Buck Hill

Quick take: Buck Hill has four restrooms for public use, including one in the lower level of the building that houses the ski school (pictured). But this ranking is based on the restrooms in the main lodge.

It’s not that those are the worst of the bunch–the one in the basement of Welch’s rental building holds that distinction–it’s the hassle factor of getting there. They’re down a narrow set of stairs.

Snowboarders, thanks to their soft boots, have an easier time of it than skiers, but even they can’t avoid the fact that the frequently has traffic jams.

Full review:

For members of the general public, Buck has four restrooms: One in building that houses the main lodge, and three more in the one that houses the ski school and bar.

The Main Chalet hosts the food service area, and is the obvious place to head to when you need to go. Unfortunately, its restrooms are “ski area classic,” which means they are downstairs. Snowboarders can more easily navigate the 16 steps up and down, though skiers will have a more difficult time of it. The stairway itself is narrow, so you may have to wait for it to clear before heading up or down.

The men’s room was reasonably clean on the day I visited. It’s a nice version of what you might find in an unfinished basement: Concrete walls with some sort of treatment on the floor to make it look slightly less industrial. There are four urinals (no partitions) and two stalls, with heavy, wooden doors. The washing area features two sinks and two soap dispensers, plus an automatic paper-towel dispenser.

The other three sets of restrooms are housed in a second building.

Since the ski school is the means by which Buck Hill hopes to entice people to say with the sport, it’s no surprise that it has the nicest restrooms on the property. It has one handicapped-sized stall. The partition between the two urinals shows the first step up to a “higher class” restroom.

After you’ve done your business, don’t forget to wash your hands! There are three soap dispensers. In a nice touch, one of them is closer to the counter level, to accommodate young skiers and riders.

It has two means of drying your hands: an automatic paper towel dispenser, and a hot-air machine. The room was reasonably well lit, and clean when I visited.

The party room, to the south of the ski school but in the same building, has its own set of restrooms. It has one stall (small) and one urinal. The counter showed evidence of water damage and needed to be clean. The room has an automatic towel dispenser, and one soap dispenser. The walls have the look of having been painted over and over and over, and the floor is perhaps the most unpleasant-looking one on the property.

If you’re in the mood for a brew, head upstairs to Tucker Bar, which has its own set of restrooms. They’re on par with the restrooms near the ski school, though not quite as nice. One stall, two urinals.

Obviously, nobody heads to a ski area simply to use the loo. But using the facilities is, for good or bad, part of the experience.

Vail Resorts to buy Afton Alps

In news that is NOT from the Onion, Vail Resorts has announced that it will purchase two ski areas in the Midwest: Afton Alps, outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Mt. Brighton, outside Detroit.

Honestly, I’m stunned. Vail Resorts holds a number of big-name properties, including Breckenridge, Heavenly, and of course, Vail. It has certainly bought ski areas before, including Northstar-at-Tahoe (2010) and early this year, Kirkwood, another Tahoe-area resort.

But there’s a big difference between, say, Beaver Creek, and Mt. Brighton, and it isn’t just the vertical drop or acreage. For the most part, Vail Resort properties have been destination areas, with a heavy emphasis (Vail, Beaver Creek) on expensive real estate development. By contrast, Afton (where I have held a pass for several years) and Brighton are commuter businesses. In other words, think of beer leagues and fried hamburgers, not spas and menus fit for foodies.

It will all be interesting to watch. Customers of Afton and Brighton will benefit from ugprades Vail Resorts will make to the snowmaking systems, and perhaps they’ll see spiffed-up day lodges as well. (Nicer restroom facilities and parking lots would be a great start, at least at Afton.)

Both Afton and Brighton operate in highly competitive local markets. For example, in Afton’s market, Welch Village has likely been stealing customers since it introduced a no-blackout season pass of $99 in 2008. (The price of an early-purchase season pass has gone up to $149, but that still undercuts Afton as well as the four other ski areas in the region.) To help build an advantage for the Midwestern areas, Vail Resorts has announced that season pass holders of both Afton and Brighton will receive a 25 percent discount on the window price of tickets at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood.

There are many interesting questions going forward. Why did Afton and Brighton sell out, aside from the opportunity to make a bundle of cash? Did they see competitive pressures making a big dent into revenues in the coming years? Did pending changes in health care laws and regulations, as well as tax rates, play a role? (Deep-pocketed Vail Resorts, like any large business, is better situated to respond to increasing government regulations and tax rates.) What will happen to Afton and Brighton’s competitors? Will they attempt to step up their game? Can they? Or will they hope that VR will boost ticket prices such that they can claim the low-budget market?

Your thoughts?

Wild Mountain, Trollhaugen, Afton, make snow

With colder temperatures descending onTwin Cities lately, snowboarders and skiers will be able to get on the snow, if only on plots about the size of a football field or two.

Today had long been scheduled as the last day that Wild Mountain offered the summer activities of alpine sliding and go-kart riding, as well as the last day of its fall festival. But in an email released early this morning, Amy Frischmon, vice president of Wild, gave the good news. “Keeping with our 35+ year tradition,” Frischmon said, “we will be the first area to open in the Midwest. In fact, this season we will be the first area to open in the Nation!”

According to the email, “we are going to make snow until we have to shut down. Once we shut down we will groom and string a rope tow. The plan is to have Front Stage & Dandy open with at least one rope, possibly two. We will get various rails and boxes out on the hill as soon as we can.”

As the email suggests, you shouldn’t plan to ride or ski all 100 acres. Only a small portion of Wild will be covered with snow, but for snow lovers, at least it will be a start. A lift ticket today is $18, but if it’s your birthday, show a photo ID and you’ll get one free of charge. Snowboarding and skiing hours today are until 5 p.m.

Today is by far the earliest that Wild Mountain has been open for winter business, says Frischmon. The previous record was October 18, set in 1992.

Just a few miles down the road, Trollhaugen ski area plans to be open for a rail jam. On its Facebook page, the area says, “compete, and/or hike Tomte for FREE!” Afton Alps laid down some snow last night, too, but is not planning to open for business today.