Blame it on El Nino. Warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean apparently have caused lighter-than-normal snowfalls in the Inland Northwest during December. But this week, winter is finally hitting with full force. Over the past week, local ski hills have been reporting inches of new snow in the double digits, and a super-chilly snap is soon to arrive. But while you're scraping your driveway for the umpteenth time and worrying about the status of the pipes in your basement, you're missing the party which is finally starting at the ski resorts of the Inland Northwest.
"It's just a winter wonderland up here right now, with snow in the trees and everything," says Mike Hayden of 49 Degrees North. "It's been so cold and dry that the snow's powdery and perfect."
Hayden says 49 -- which faces north and often gets different weather as a result -- has had pretty good snow since opening on Dec. 10, but it hasn't been as busy as they'd like. Local resorts haven't been totally snookered by the weather -- everybody was open by Dec. 18 -- but anytime the Christmas season is sketchy, management gets nervous about the kind of year they might be in for. That's why the recent snowfalls have been so well-timed. (All those snow dances worked, so you can stop now.)
"We've had some big crowds, but it certainly wasn't what we had last year," says Silver Mountain's Marketing Director Stephen Lane of the season so far. "But last weekend was our busiest weekend of the season, and it'll probably be even busier this weekend," which is the three-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
"We can get a lot of snow in the month of January, and over Christmas we had some good numbers of visits -- some real good days," says Ron Nova, general manager at Schweitzer. "Now there aren't any more excuses to get out and ski and snowboard. We've got good coverage, and all our lifts are open."
As of Tuesday, here's what the snowpacks looked like for the five closest Inland Northwest resorts: 49 Degrees had 76 inches at the summit; Lookout Pass had 75 inches on top; Mt. Spokane had 54 inches; Schweitzer had 66; and Silver had 50. In case you've been wondering when it would be a good time to start skiing this year, how 'bout now? (Duh!)
49 Degrees North
Like all resorts, 49 is expecting big crowds this weekend for MLK Day. There are special deals on lift tickets through 24-Hour Fitness, and special ski school sessions are being held on Friday.
"We're all open," says Hayden of the condition of the mountain. "We've extended Chair Two [this season] -- we're just wide open."
Throughout the season, 49 is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Hayden says Fridays are the least crowded days, because of the popularity of the hill's two-for-one deals. Shell and Texaco gas stations are offering two-for-one coupons for Mondays with a gas purchase, and if you buy a taco at Taco Time, you can get a two-fer coupon for Tuesdays. Weekends are big, too, of course, and 49 has scheduled bands to play in the lodge on many Saturdays through the rest of the season. Call (866) 376-4949, or check ski49n.com
This new and improved (and always affordable) resort is reporting massive powder off the beaten paths and through the trees. Lookout has a bigger network of buses running to the resort, too; for 10 bucks, you can hop a ride every Saturday from Liberty Lake, Post Falls or Coeur d'Alene. (Check their Web site for details; buses run for other resorts, too.)
Lookout, which is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, is appealing to baby boomers this year; if you're 40 or older, you can get a $13 lift ticket every Friday. Call (208) 744-1301, or check skilookout.com
The recent snows have really been boosting the totals on the slopes of Spokane's namesake resort; they got more than a foot over the past weekend alone. Toyota has a sweet deal for its customers: If you show up to ski at Mount Spokane driving a Toyota this Friday (Jan. 14), you ski for free. (Don't worry, the offer is going on the road and will be in effect at Schweitzer on Jan. 21, at Lookout on Jan. 28, at Silver on Feb. 4 and at 49 on Feb. 11.)
Night skiing is a big deal at Mount Spokane, and the beauty is you can be up there not long after work and still get in enough runs to earn that perfect leg-burn. Night skiing runs Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4-9:30 pm. Call 443-1397, or check mtspokane.com
Of all the local resorts, Schweitzer has the most amenities right at the lifts, with the village and White Pine Lodge. The village is fully occupied these days, and the next 10 days are among the best to visit. Not only do you get to ski, but it's also Sandpoint's annual Winter Festival, which runs Jan. 15-22. To get into the spirit, Schweitzer is going to have torchlight parades and snow sculptures, and there are lots of ski-and-stay deals to be had.
"The village just comes alive," says Sandy Chio, marketing director at Schweitzer.
Down in town is no different, as the Taste of Sandpoint moves into the Coldwater Creek building on Jan. 20, and there's a parade through town on Jan. 21. On Jan. 22-23, it's College Daze at the mountain, with lift ticket specials (for those with college ID) and live music and deejays. Call (208) 263-9555, or check Schweitzer.com
With an easy, all-on-I-90 commute, Silver is known for taking care of its many visitors. Every Saturday, for example, there's live music at Terrible Edith's at the bottom of the Gondola. Too Slim and the Taildraggers play on Jan. 29.
Lane, Silver's marketing director, says just about the entire mountain is open, and the gondola is ready to haul you up at 8 am on weekends and 8:30 on weekdays. "The snow is superb right now," Lane adds.
Like Schweitzer, Silver is open daily throughout the season. Lane says that there are new deals on lift tickets just about every week of the season; stay tuned to their Web site or local radio stations for details and you can whittle that lift ticket price down closer to the $10 level if you're lucky. There are also specials at the ticket window and coupons at Rosauers. And most Thursdays are Ladies Days, with clinics and other events aimed at women skiers and snowboarders. Call (800) 204-6428, or check silvermt.com