Taken together, a bundle of modifications being considered on Snow King Mountain are the most monumental changes in the ski area’s nearly 80-year history, its management says.
The plans are far from a done deal.
Approved conceptually in the master plan that governs the federally-owned portions of the Town Hill, the long list of additions and renovations must navigate an environmental planning process that will assess the impacts of each proposal and allow the public to share concerns. This process is now in its earliest phase, called “scoping,” which precedes a lengthy environmental impact statement. The statement will be cooperatively prepared by a Snow King-contracted consultant and the Bridger-Teton National Forest beginning next year.
Public interest in the future of the King is keen. The Bridger-Teton has already twice granted more time for people to chime in on the plans, most recently at the request of the Teton County Board of County Commissioners.
Snow King’s “phase 2” renovations follow an initial round of changes made to the 7,808-foot-tall, in-town ski hill in 2014 and 2015, following businessman Max Chapman’s acquisition of the struggling ski area. The first phase of work included a new base lodge, swapping out and extending the Rafferty Lift, and adding ski runs, snowmaking infrastructure, the mountain coaster and a ropes course.
This next stage of the planned work is even more sweeping.
The eastern and western boundaries would be expanded, and significant development on the south-facing backside would take place for the first time. A gondola, new ski runs, a mountain bike park and more are also planned. An impetus for the changes is to make Snow King a successful wintertime business.
“We’ve got a lot of catch-up to do,” Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley said. “We are essentially failing as a ski area. When you look at these things together, the package, it’s what we think will make it viable.”
But some Snow King neighbors and a watchdog group have been steady critics of some renovations, worrying that features like a top-to-bottom zip line over a popular bootpack, where skiers hike up the mountain, would strip the hill of its laid-back character and drown out natural sounds with the screams of zip liners.
See details below, including some historical context, of the plan now on the table.
Comments are due by Oct. 4 and may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Snow King Mountain Resort On-mountain Improvements” in the subject line.
East side expansion
East of where the Grizzly cut-off and Flying Squirrel runs are today, Snow King is proposing to push its boundary by 67 acres. The enlargement would allow for a lower-grade access road to Snow King’s summit (see related story 38A) and the space between a switchback on the road would feature three new short runs interspersed with gladed tree skiing. Most of the east side expansion, which would extend as far as Rancher Street, would remain treed and undeveloped.
Four years ago Snow King sought more elaborate changes to the conifer forest bordering the eastern boundary. The master plan Bridger-Teton planners initially received called for a ski lift that would have ascended just upslope of the Hagen trail in the area above Upper Cache Creek Drive. The new boundary also would have extended farther to the east, but the adjustment was reeled back and the proposed lift moved from the south side of Snow King in response to criticism from neighbors.
West side expansion
Past where the Summit run and Exhibition lift climb Snow King today, an 89-acre boundary expansion is being pursued. The same access road — which would double as beginner ski terrain — would climb through this added terrain, which reaches as far west as Rodeo Drive. Tree glading near this road would create new expert ski terrain, and along the summit in the west expansion area there would be two new “magic carpet”-style conveyor lifts hugged by new beginner terrain.
Similar to the east side, Snow King originally sought a larger expansion and a new ski run in the Scotty’s Ridge area. The run was eliminated to provide a buffer to private property to appease neighbors, Stanley said. Most of the treed downhill reaches of the westside boundary expansion would be left untouched, but the acreage is still being proposed for addition.
“It’s included, essentially, to make sure we can mitigate the avalanche hazard in that area,” Stanley said.
All told, the boundary adjustments would grow Snow King’s permit area from 338 to 495 acres — a 46 percent increase. The proposal is scaled down from an earlier master plan submitted to the Bridger-Teton that sought a permit area totaling 614 acres.
More than 140 acres that’s already included in Snow King’s lease area would be developed on the south-facing, Leeks Canyon side of the Town Hill. The sunnier, more open slopes would be used for summer and winter commercial operations and would feature a new ski lift that would climb approximately 1,000 feet to the higher of Snow King’s two summits. There would also be new ski runs and a mountain bike park.
The backside skiing would include beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain and would be augmented by snowmaking infrastructure being proposed throughout the Leeks Canyon bowl.
Some glading and one cleared run are proposed on the backside, but most of the added ski terrain would fall on unaltered slopes.
A year-round, nine-building yurt camp would be added to the most downslope portion of the new lift-serviced terrain on Snow King’s south side. The structures would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and would include six yurts for sleeping and three for cooking and gathering. The buildings would span 20 to 30 feet across and would be used by backcountry skiers, hikers and bikers, according to the forest’s planning document.
Snow King’s vision for the summit includes adding a new restaurant, guest services, ski patrol facilities, restrooms, a planetarium, a gondola landing station and more in a 20,000- to 25,000-square-foot building. The forest scoping document describes the structure as a single story, set away from the skyline and built to energy-efficient LEED-certified standards.
A 500-square-foot observatory would be located near the new building to supplement the planetarium. Farther west along the summit ridge, Snow King would add an open-air wedding venue.
Taken as a whole, the plans would boost Snow King’s named ski terrain by 100 acres — in addition to the 135 acres that exist today. The 25 proposed new runs are scattered around the mountain, and include at least 10 new cleared routes through the timber within the existing north-facing permit area. Runs would also be added to the backside, and to the eastern and western boundary expansions.
Snowmaking infrastructure is also in line for a major expansion. Today, artificial snow coverage amounts to 90 acres in the Rafferty and Cougar lift areas, and also the top of the Elk run. Another 147 acres of snowmaking is being proposed to reach both expansions, the backside and most of the upper mountain in the existing ski area.
Lighting allowing night skiing, similarly, would increase. Today, 73 acres of terrain are lit in the evenings, but plans call for adding another 27 acres. This would illuminate the entirety of the Elk and Rafferty-area runs and beginner terrain along the summit.
Plans include a new gondola to replace the Summit lift, though where it would land at Snow King’s base is still an open question.
Snow King has proposed a 1,500-vertical-foot, top-to-bottom zip line to parallel the new gondola. It would descend the Town Hill at a 48 percent grade, covering 3,900 linear feet.
New mountain biking trails would be built throughout the mountain, including the addition of a 110-acre park-like biking zone on the backside.
Front-side trails called for in the plans total 6.5 miles, including 1.9 miles of advanced trail, 2.6 miles of intermediate trail and 2 miles of beginner trail.
The Bridger-Teton prohibited lift-accessed mountain biking on the Skyline Trail when it approved the 5.5-mile route along the Game Creek-Cache Creek divide in 2015. Because of this stipulation, the forest and Snow King will have to find a way to police bikers who pay for a gondola ride uphill or they’ll violate their earlier agreement.
“We’ll have a policy where if you get lift-accessed summit access on Snow King, you can’t leave the permit boundary,” Stanley said.
The Snow King plans soon to be studied by the Bridger-Teton also call for more than 2 miles of new hiking trails, including a heavily switchbacked route that would cut through the trees just west of the present day “staircase” trail, which itself would see improvements.