A cloudless cobalt sky drapes Keystone Resort as I exit the area's boundary gate and head up the boot trail to the wide-open bowls that cascade down from the 12,200-foot peak of The Outback. The North Bowl circles to my left and drains into the trees of The Black Forest, Victory Chutes and Conquest far below. To the right, the South Bowl's shimmering slopes beckon like a cupped hand of virgin white. After 15 minutes of hiking, I can wait no longer. I click into my boards and drop over the lip into Puma Bowl. Snow sloughs away and skitters downhill as I sweep over the steep face. Just before entering the trees at the bottom of the bowl, I stop, look back uphill at my languid line and smile. So this is the resort I have ignored all these years.
Long dismissed as a bland family ski area dominated by blue cruisers, Keystone merits another look from skiers driving by on their way to Copper or Breckenridge. This isn't the same place you remember from that icy nightskiing experience a decade ago. Thanks to more than $10 million in upgrades and the addition of snowcat tours, the resort has undergone an extreme makeover-dubbed "The Evolution"-over the past two years. "It's a new era at Keystone," enthuses ski patroller Rex Lint.
Nothing epitomizes this bold era more than Keystone's newest terrain: 861 acres of above-treeline bowls previously skied only by hardcore locals and patrollers able to make the trudge. When the U.S. Forest Service approved Keystone's bid to ferry skiers via snowcat into Bergman and Erickson bowls last February, the oft-overlooked resort stepped up. Overnight, Keystone shot to 2,722 acres, with 3,128 feet of vertical. The cat trips drop skiers at the top of Bergman, where lower-angle terrain offers a taste of the backcountry for never-evers. Erickson serves expert-only steeps, chutes and rock outcroppings. A four-hour jaunt costs $65 in addition to a lift pass, though the views of 14,000-foot Grays and Torrey's peaks alone are worth the price. "There's a real wow factor when you get up here," says Chuck Tolton, director of mountain operations. "People just can't believe this is Keystone."
That's the reaction Chief Operating Officer Roger McCarthy was going for. When McCarthy took the reins in 2003, Keystone had been struggling to find its niche in the Vail Resorts portfolio: Skier visits were down and revenues were lagging. (Vail Resorts bought Keystone in 1997.) "We looked at our operations and said, 'How do we provide something for everybody, at every hour of the day?'"
The first step was to improve the snowmaking, long a skier gripe. McCarthy traveled to Europe to investigate cutting-edge technology and decided to install a $4.5 million snowmaking system. Its guns have thermostats that adjust the water and air mixture throughout the night to produce the lightest snow possible. Next came the terrain park. Once located above River Run, the new park was moved to the Mountain House area-the original base village-to separate kamikaze pipers from mellow cruisers. Called A-51 (for the secretive Nevada military base), the park has tripled in size to 66 acres and includes 51 rails and slides. It's lit for nightskiing, so parents can send the kids out while they soak in the hot tub or relax with a martini.
For those who choose the cocktail, the River Run base area has received a $1 million facelift. The once sleepy village now features new bars and restaurants, including Paisanos family Italian; Parrot Eyes, a Mexican and margarita joint; and Greenlight, a DJ-driven nightclub. Mountain House has also been torn up and rethought. Out went a frumpy cafeteria-style restaurant and in went Bite-Me Pizza, where skiers can chow quickly and get back on the slopes. Lakeside Village, fronting Keystone Lake, on which families paint a Rockwellian picture as they glide across a five-acre surface, is thriving as well. At Champeaux, white-linen ambience and Provençal cuisine adds to the resort's rosterr of fine-dining options.
Back atop Puma Bowl, I'm busy considering my own options. Should I set out for the hair-raising hike-to chutes of the North Peak? Or shall I take off into the pines of Southern Cross and Wasteland to explore another of Keystone's little-known treats-the glades? Before The Evolution, the tree runs were lemon-squeezer tight and filled with logs, so trail crews spent a few summers clearing deadfall from The Outback and The Windows-117 acres of glades. The tree work is now part of the crew's routine upkeep.
That's a good thing. Choosing option No. 2, I whip through the trees, spying untracked snow kept crisp by tree cover. I haven't seen another skier so far this run, though when I stop to rest, I hear the whoosh-whoosh of fellow pleasure-seekers zigzagging through the glades, enjoying the relative solitude. On second thought, maybe all those skiers bound for Copper or Breck should just keep on driving.