With a vertical drop of just 1,500 feet and total acreage of 680, Eldora Mountain Resort-local hill for Boulder, Colorado-usually isn't the talk of North America's ski operators. Another Eldora statistic, however, has them abuzz: In an era of stagnant skiing participation nationwide, skier visits to the resort have grown nearly 75 percent over the past nine winters.
Eldora isn't alone. Many smaller and independent players are surviving-even thriving-in a landscape dominated by the 800-pound yetis of Vail Resorts, Intrawest, and American Skiing Co. Though firm numbers are elusive, information suggests that many skiers are rediscovering hills close to home.
In Colorado, Eldora is joined by diminutive destinations such as Ski Cooper, Howelsen Hill, Powderhorn, Monarch, and Sunlight as resorts that have experienced increased visits over the past three years-while the majority of the large resorts have not. Price lures them, but so does accessibility. Interstate 70, the pipeline that takes skiers from Denver to major ski resorts like Breckenridge, Vail, and Copper, can be gridlocked on weekends. Eldora, by contrast, is the closest ski hill to Denver and doesn't require getting on I-70. The less tangible draw: a renewed emphasis at small ski areas on the simple romance of the sport.
At Mad River Glen, Vermont, season pass sales have increased more than 30 percent in the past three years, and marketing director Eric Friedman says this is partly due to an intentionally noncommercial atmosphere. "We don't allow banners on the mountain, and we don't have an 'official car,'" Friedman says. "Some parents thank me for that, saying their kids are hit with that stuff all day long." Mad River doesn't even use the term "ski resort." "We're a ski area," Friedman says. "We provide skiing. Resorts provide other things."
Ironically, the renaissance among smaller areas may owe a debt to the very behemoths that nearly quashed them. "What's the mom-and-pop hardware store to do when Wal-Mart comes to North Platte, Nebraska?" says Rob Linde, marketing director at Eldora. "They either throw up their hands and say, 'I quit' or they reinvent themselves. We've capitalized on people coming here because they get to know the runs, the conditions, and the employees. They take pride and ownership in that because they feel they have a stake in the ski area."
Other little-guy strengths are as basic as free parking at Monarch, a kid's arcade at Eldora, or combining ski passes with a dip in the local hot springs, like they do at Sunlight resort, near Aspen. And sometimes it's just the smallness itself. "People always tell us that they just like our more intimate feel; they like knowing that they won't lose their friends all day," says Sunlight's Turi Nevin. "Spend a weekend here and the lift ops could know your name."