This post was originally scheduled for mid-March, but I delayed it after the shut-downs began.
The leading paragraphs may seem a bit quaint at this moment, but when “normal” returns, I still believe that small resorts, like Sunlight, are reinvigorating our favorite winter sports.
Please check at the bottom of this post for specific updates on COVID-19 policies and changes at Sunlight Mountain Resort for this winter.
Sunlight’s East Ridge Expansion: Visionary New Terrain
It’s been an interesting year in skiing.
Yes, the big, multi-mountain passes, and the resorts they serve, continue to dominate the conversation. But it’s the smaller, independent resorts that are changing the tone and subtly reinvigorating snowsports.
Whether these changes involve expanding the partner resorts available on local season passes, offering incredibly low-cost, or even free, lesson/rental/ticket packages, or new terrain and lift expansions, independent ski resorts are holding their own and thriving.
Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs is among the examples of this in Colorado.
Blessed with an enviable location, including stunning views of Mount Sopris and close proximity to world-class hot springs, Sunlight is often overshadowed by the world-famous four mountain playground of Aspen Snowmass, just an hour away.
And yet, Sunlight has found a way to carve out a loyal following, appealing to local families and visitors alike, with a combination of events, unique, well-priced Slope and Soak packages, free parking, and varied terrain.
In 2019, Sunlight kicked off an eight-year plan to develop the East Ridge, adding 120 skiable acres (mostly advanced and expert runs), that will be served by a new, fixed-grip lift.
Home to most of Sunlight’s double black terrain, East Ridge is known for steep, narrow chutes like Deception and Defiance, as well as three new runs — the Alligator Alleys — named for local Olympian and US Ski Team member Alice McKennis. It’s here that you’ll also find one of Colorado’s steepest lift-served runs, The Heathen, which falls at a breathtaking 52 degrees.
The 2019-2020 season saw a permanent rope drop with the opening of Lower Defiance, an extension of an existing run. The extension requires a short walk-out, but when we were there in mid-February, two days after an unexpected powder dump, the conditions warranted a little extra effort.
Prior to opening for the 2019-2020 season, Sunlight began brush-cutting to prep the run and get it as “close to smooth as possible,” according to Mike Baumli, Sunlight’s Mountain Manager.
The goal for the current season was to give visitors a taste of the future and to build excitement for the East Ridge expansion.
Next season, Sunlight plans to open additional lower reaches of existing trails. Widening an access road will provide an intermediate run to a new lift planned for the summer of 2021, pending US Forest Service approval.
Plans beyond 2021 include additional trail development, with small amounts being done each year.
An Underlying Ethos of Stewardship
If you’re wondering why Sunlight’s expansion will take up to eight years, it’s a good question.
However, the timeline stems from the path chosen by Sunlight’s leadership and a decision they made to choose stewardship — of both natural and financial resources — over speed.
For example, before any trail work began, the trail crew read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Published in 1949, A Sand County Almanac was among the first books to promote the idea of environmentalism.
Leopold himself was a forester who advocated for people to develop a responsible relationship between themselves and their environment. He called this a “land ethic.”
In planning for the East Ridge expansion, Sunlight Mountain Resort’s leadership took Leopold’s guidance to heart.
For example, by identifying components of the local forest, which at Sunlight includes cedar, blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, aspen, cottonwood, willows, and serviceberry, ski area management recognized that every species serves a specific ecological role and provides benefits to wildlife.
And with this recognition, it became obvious that clear cutting would not be an option.
Instead, the trail crews will selectively thin the forest, taking a bit from each generation, while maintaining diversity and wildlife habitat.
If this takes more time, so be it.
“We’re not trying to bite it all off and do it in one summer,” explains Baumli, adding “we’re trying to do it right.”
(East Ridge Terrain update: Sunlight was forced to cut their trail maintenance crew by 70% this summer for social distancing, slowing expansion. The remaining crew focused on widening Vortex. Sunlight is pleased to announce that the US Forest Service has issued additional expansion approvals. The expansion, while delayed, is still on!)
COVID-19 Updates and Policies
Here are the COVID-19 policies for Sunlight Mountain.
If you’re planning to “Slope and Soak”, this popular package has been modified, allowing guests to reserve and purchase skiing and soaking tickets separately. They are calling this the “two-step.”
Sunlight Mountain Resort is 15 minutes from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Sunlight currently has 680 skiable acres, divided into 20% easiest, 55% intermediate, 20% most difficult and 5% very difficult. Sunlight has a vertical drop of 2,010’ and 250” average annual snowfall.
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