They say visitors come to the Colorado Rockies and California's Sierras for the winter, but that they stay for the rest of the year. That's what we did.
We were drawn to the mountains by Breckenridge's irresistibly fluffy white powder, by Beaver Creek's family-friendly slopes and tasty chocolate chip cookies served to hungry skiers at 3:30 p.m. sharp, and by the stunning views of the lake from Heavenly's runs. Those are all usually consumed while clutching your ski poles as you survey the terrain below for the perfect line to carve, more or less.
But skiing is only half the story. Less than half, actually.
As the snow melts, and the skiers and snowboarders depart, as they are now doing, the rest of the year unfolds in the mountains, and it's a must-see experience. Spring, which is often derisively called "mud" season at some ski resorts; a temperate and inviting summer, and a breathtaking fall full of leaves in colors you couldn't imagine existed in nature.
It might be a small overstatement to say you haven't seen a ski resort until you've seen it without snow, but it wouldn't be much of one. Curiously, the best time of the year to see the potential of the off-season, is right now, in the final weeks of ski season.
It's 50 degrees in Keystone!
We started a three-week tour of Colorado and California's ski resorts for our family travel blog in mid-March, with winter's chill long forgotten. When we drove our Hertz SUV up to Keystone, the temperature was a late-spring-like 50 degrees at the base of the mountain. Fortunately, a cold snap brought six inches of snow to the mountain the next day, affording us the best runs in a decade.
In order to get an idea for the potential of a resort like Keystone in April, May and beyond, you have to go snowshoeing over at the Keystone Nordic Center. The center's manager, Jana Hlavaty, guided us to the top of a hill, where she pointed to a large metal Elk with a number "1" on it. Turns out the snowshoeing trail doubles as a first-rate golf course the rest of the year.
Back to Breck -- and Beaver Creek
By the time we arrived at our next stop in Beaver Creek, winter had returned in full force. It set the mood for that night's sled ride up to Beano's Cabin, one of the signature on-mountain dining experiences. But as with so many things in snow country, it is the journey and not only the destination that makes it so special. On a clear night, you can see the spectacular Colorado sky and once the lights of the nearby faux Alpine village disappear behind the sleigh, you can see a galaxy full of stars.
Those same stars are equally stunning during the fall, which is the last time we were in Breckenridge, the last Colorado resort on our grand tour. The highlight of our trip was an easy hike around Rainbow Lake, though the neon foliage that was just beginning to hit its peak. Off in the distance, tops of the mountains already had a light dusting of snow. As we concluded our latest trip to Colorado, the resort was up to its gills in the white stuff.
A friend took Chris to the top of the highest chairlift in North America at a blood-boiling 12,998 feet and then invited him on a gruelling 15 minute hike. Then they plunged down a chute called Zoot, which looks nearly vertical when you're standing at the top of it. Next year, he says, he's taking the kids.
Maybe too much California sunshine?
We caught a Southwest flight out to Reno, Nev., and rented another SUV to take us up to the mountains. Seems we're always coming to the Lake Tahoe area in the in-between season, when winter reluctantly gives way to spring, and this time was no different. But some things were. The last time we were in town, we stayed at one of the large, cigarette-smoke saturated casino hotels on the Nevada side of the lake.
This time, we bunked down at the Basecamp Hotel, a 1950s-era motel that's been refurbished to be really ... cool. Everything from the whimsical decor to the espresso bar exudes the kind of outdoorsy attitude you'd expect from a 20something backpacker with a Ph.D.
Unfortunately, many of the choice runs at Heavenly were closed for lack of snow. But our thoughts drifted to a time only a few months ago when we were driving through California and we checked into a vacation rental on the north side of the lake. It was the tail end of summer, and most of the visitors were gone. For few brief moments, Lake Tahoe had been returned to the year-round residents, and they seemed truly happy. The days were still long and warm, and the hiking trails were ours alone. There's something about the fragrant, ancient pine trees on a hot autumn day that leaves a lifelong impression.
The situation at Kirkwood, our final stop, was much the same. Even though this legendary mountain resort typically gets the most snow, it's all relative during the spring. Still, this isolated valley with some of the steepest and most challenging runs in North America, offered a glimpse of what you can expect during the summer, when hikers, horseback riders and campers descend on this high-altitude playground.
We were most impressed by a young group of skiers called the Jets -- that's shorthand for the Junior Expeditions team. These young men and women, some of them no older than 8, were traversing mindblowingly steep slopes that no sane person would ski on. It was a thing to watch, and our 10-year-old son, Aren, already wants to join them next season.
Although we love to ski and can't wait for the next season to begin, we don't want to wait as long to come back to America's mountain resorts. One of its best-kept secrets is that when the snow disappears, the fun doesn't.