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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Snowboarder at the Afton Alps pond skim

 

Pond skimming weekend

The fat lady is warming up to sing, with pond skimming events on tap for Saturday, March 12.

At Welch Village, skiers and riders will descend Dan’s Dive onto the pond. Registration will start at 11:30 a.m. at Madd Jaxx. There will be an outdoor grill and live music afterwards.

Buck Hill has events throughout the day Saturday. Its pond skim will take place from 4:30- 5 p.m.

Hyland Hills hosts a pond skim, 1-3 p.m. Wear a costume and be eligible to win a prize.

Afton Alps has a number of events, including a pond skim that starts at 3 p.m.

The pond skim at Wild Mountain starts at 3 p.m. Registration begins at 1:30 p.m.

Trollhaugen has not yet announced plans for a pond skim.

 

 

Season tickets on sale

The 2015-16 winter has been a disappointing one in many ways, but there’s always next year. Ski areas around the Twin Cities are now selling season passes for next winter, and as always, you’ll save money if you buy earlier rather than later.

Buck Hill is selling unrestricted adult passes for $390. Prices go up on May 1. Seniors (62 and over) and children (under 13) save, with rates of $225 and $290. Family passes are $1,190, good for up to four people. Buy now and use the pass for what is left of this season.

Wild Mountain has a variety of options depending on age and when you plan to use the pass. The lowest-price adult pass is the adult seven-day-a-week pass (age 13 and up) for $240. The least expensive adult pass is the college pass ($109), good every day of the week. Its family plan is the “build you own” variety, as there is no single price. Instead, you add a specified charge for each person. A four-person pass comes out to $685. If you have a large family, take heart: Adding more people after that costs only $25 per person. There are also passes for weekdays only and for weekends only.

Trollhaugen‘s unrestricted season pass for adults is $235, if purchased by April 4. If you wait until the snow is flying in the fall, you’ll have to pay $425, so buying early can save you a lot of money. There are also passes for college students and older adults. Children under 5 ski or ride without charge. Family passes (two adults, unlimited number of children) are on sale for $645. In the fall, the price will be $1,029.

Older adults pay $99 for a pass at Hyland Hills Ski Area, while the standard adult pass is $349. There is no family pass. Two children’s passes are two adult passes would add up to $1,196.

At Welch Village, an adult pass is currently selling for $279, and less if you already have a pass. A pass for children ages 5-12 is now going for $259, as are passes for adults 62 and older. A family pass is currently selling for $839.

Afton Alps has not yet announced its plans for next winter’s season pass.

UPDATE: March 8, 2 p.m.

Afton Alps has announced its pricing for next season. There are a variety of passes that let customers ski/ride both at Afton and at other Vail Resort properties. For a strictly-local Afton pass, the price for an adult is $429. The senior rate is $289 and the college rate is $269. Passes for children are $309, but they also include skiing or riding at Vail’s western resorts as well — though again, only for children.

 

 

 

 

Late season conditions: Hit or miss

Sunday was a great day to be at Buck Hill for some spring skiing and snowboarding. The sun was shining, the snow was soft (but not too much so), and the crowds were minimal.

59 degrees

First of all, forget about bulky warm clothes when the temperature approaches 60 in the mid-afternoon. Ever think of skiing in shorts? Now’s your chance, though you may wish to wear some waterproof pants in case someone leaves some snow on the lift chairs.

In most places, the snow was holding up well.

March bluebird

But in some places, you could tell that spring had arrived. But even this puddle at the top of the quad chair was not insurmountable.

Quad chair runout

The best snow may have been on Redtail Ridge, a small, thin slope to the north (and slightly below) of the main slope. In the mid-afternoon, it was largely sheltered from the sun by the adjacent slope.

Sunday, though, was not a bluebird day. The overcast skies did not let the main slope (Milk Run and Crossroads) soften up. Consequently, it was a soft version of boilerplate, a bit like pea gravel. But again, Redtail Ridge and some other areas, including Teacher’s Pet, had better snow.

Surprisingly, snow tubing was still going on; the staff say they hope to keep it running through next weekend, but of course at this time of year, the weather could intervene and change those plans.

Tubing

New food option at Buck Hill: Waffles

Food offerings at ski areas, especially in the Twin Cities, tend to be the same. You’ll see a lot of hamburgers and other sandwiches, plus the occasional dish of chili. Buck Hill has introduced something new this season: The waffle bar.

Malcoms

It’s in the back side of the chalet, which has been something of a forgotten zone. The new tables, repurposed cable spools, provide  visual change of pace from the low cafeteria-style tables that dominate the chalet, and the colored plastic chairs add some visual interest.

More importantly, though, are the food and beverage choices. A new service, dubbed Malcom’s, offers upgraded coffee. And waffles. Yes, hot, sugary, yummy waffles.

You can get a plain waffle (“Buck Naked”), one with apples (“Teacher’s Pet,” a nod to one of the slopes on the hill), and other options. There are also a number of toppings (extra fees apply) such as berries.

The service came online during the season, so if your visit to Buck was early on, you may have missed out. So put this on your list of things to try out on your next visit.

New Year’s Eve Activities at Twin Cities Ski Areas

Looking for a fun, snowy way to ring in the New Year? Ski areas around the Twin Cities have you covered.

At Afton Alps, you can ski or ride until midnight, and take in a fireworks show at 9:00 p.m. The Highlands area will open for the season at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, with chair 13 put into service.

Buck Hill will be open until midnight for skiing and riding, and its snow tubing chutes will be open as well. Be prepared to bring some extra cash, as your lift ticket isn’t valid for the tubing area. But sliding down out of control on a tube is a fun diversion.

Wild Mountain has a party, with a dinner included, at its snow tubing area. (Register here). Skiing and riding is available until 10 p.m.

Trollhaugen keeps the fun going until 3:00 a.m. Saturday. As a bonus, its glade area is now open.There will also be a free concert in the lounge.

Welch Village has a torchlight parade at 6:30 p.m., with fireworks at 7:00 p.m. The wheels will keep turning until 10:00 p.m.

 

Hyland Hills parking lots overview

Part of the recent $14 million in renovations to Hyland Hills Ski Area is a reconfiguration of the parking lots, including a controversial $20 daily fee for parking near the new chalet during peak hours. The fee may end up not making a lot of difference: If you were deterred from parking in the chalet lot before by a lack of space, not you’ll be deterred from parking there because of the fee.

During peak times, most people will park at the “remote” lots, just north on chalet road, and take one of the shuttle buses.

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Shuttle buses take people to and from the Normandale lot

Compared with a few years ago, it’s now easier to find the location of the shuttle pickup in the remote lot. Two flags denote stopping points.

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Shuttle stop for Hyland Hills

If you park in the far northern reaches of the Normandale (remote) lot, it may seem like a long walk to the shuttle stop. Then again, it’s probably in the range of what you’d walk at the far reaches of lots at Buck Hill, Afton, or one of the other ski areas.

Near the entrance to the remote lot, you’ll find a sign that tells you if you can proceed to the chalet lot free of charge, or if you might wish to consider saving the money and pulling into the free-at-all-times lot.

Free Parking

Sign by remote lot tells you the status of the chalet lot

The renovation has not removed one chokepoint for the ski area, and that is the railroad track that crosses the two-lane entry road to the chalet. Once you get past that, though, you’ll find a new roundabout.

Fork to the right of the roundabout, and you’ll find a lot for loading and unloading. You’ll have 10 minutes, at most.

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Drop-offs and pick-ups only

The lot has some repurposed snowboards for anyone who is awaiting a ride.

Drop-off area

Sitting area

 

There’s also a special place for a ride that most people would prefer not to take.

Patient Pickup

Injured at Hyland Hills? This is where you’ll get a ride.

If, instead of forking off to the right on the roundabout you keep going, you’ll get to a gate at which you must collect a ticket for the parking lot. This is true even if you are parking during off-peak (free) hours. Just be sure to get the ticket stamped at the guest services desk before you leave.

 

Parking ticket

Parking lot ticket

 

The lot near the chalet features roughly nine parking lots that float between handicapped use and general-parking purposes, depending on events. When the Courage Center has an outing, for example, the extra handicap-accessible spaces come out. Otherwise, they’re covered with bags and available for anyone’s use.

Flexible parking

Some parking spaces alternate between general parking and handicap parking, depending on need

And there’s your quick tour of the parking lots at Hyland Hills Ski Area.