Despite 'miracle March,' Meager early snowfall this winter led to smaller crowds at Inland Northwest ski resorts

Apr. 10—In the four years he's spent as general manager of the Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park, Jim van Loben Sels said this winter may have been the toughest for him to navigate .

He points to the holiday break, when families typically come out in droves while school's out for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's, as the marker for just how lackluster the ski season was this year.

Mt. Spokane only had enough snow to open a third of the mountain, and van Loben Sels said they only saw about a third of the visitors they have in past seasons.

"It was a pretty tough reality, to be there in one of the really critical weeks for operational revenue coming in and have it mostly closed off," van Loben Sels said.

A slow start to the season, and spotty snow coverage as it dragged on, led to one of the worst seasons for area resorts in more than a decade. Attendance and profits dropped significantly this year as the resorts scrambled to make up for lost time.

Despite some larger storm systems that blanketed the Inland Northwest in March, snowpack statewide is still only at 69% of a normal year as of April 1, generally regarded as the peak of winter snowpack accumulation. Snowpack at several areas in northern Washington and the Cascades is at or near record lows, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

North Idaho also had a lackluster season. The region has one of the lowest snowpacks on record for this time of year, with every basin from the Canadian border to just north of Boise coming in 20% to 30% below average.

"It was a unique season, one we haven't seen in a very long time — or ever," said Taylor Prather, spokeswoman for Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

Significant snowfall didn't reach Inland Northwest ski resorts until late in the season, and by then, the damage was done. Prather said Schweitzer received more than 80 inches in March, which helped draw larger crowds than the resort saw at the start of the winter.

"March made way for a lot of good skiing," Prather said. "We keep calling it miracle March."

Prather said the resort will host its closing day celebration this weekend, with a slate of live music performances, giveaways, scavenger hunts, costume contests and other events planned for Saturday and Sunday. Schweitzer will reopen for summer operations on June 14.

"All in all, it ended on a high note," Prather said. "That's how we're looking at it. We've been extremely patient with Mother Nature, and it's paid off at the end here."

Mt. Spokane held its final day Sunday, a bit earlier than in past years, van Loben Sels said. The mountain also started the season later than normal.

As the only nonprofit ski area in the state, Mt. Spokane's bottom line wasn't as adversely affected as other resorts. Every bit of profit goes back into the mountain, ski lifts and amenities, and Van Loben Sels said they made enough this year to cover operational costs.

The drop in visitors even after more snow arrived in February may be attributed to folks not seeing snow near their homes at lower elevations.

"When there's no snow in town, people just aren't thinking about it. There were great ski days this year, too; my daughter got 50 days in. There were some rough ones in there, but there were a lot of good ones, too. When it snows in town, you get the uptick in guests."

Rick Brown, director of skier and rider services at 49 Degrees North, echoed van Loben Sels' theory.

"When there's no snowfall down in the valleys, that alone can have an effect on perception of what it's like in the mountains," Brown said.

He said several ski resorts in the West were affected by the El Niño weather cycle this winter, which tends to bring warmer temperatures to the upper United States and more precipitation to the southern third.

While ridership was down at 49 Degrees North, it did not reach record lows, Brown said. The resort is one of few in the Northwest with snow-making machines on site and got started early to supplement meager snow accumulation in November and December.

"Snow-making is still not that common in the Northwest," Brown said. "Resorts for years and years and years have been able to rely on Mother Nature. We started putting it in a few years ago, and this year it really made a difference."

Brown estimates they turned roughly 8 to 10 million gallons of water into snow since they fired up the machines in October. That's quite a bit more than previous years, but Brown said it was needed to provide coverage while the weather oscillated between weeks of light to no snowfall, heavy rainfall and late winter storms.

"We kind of knew going into this season what the predictions were, and we prepared for that. The area we're in could move from feet of snow to several inches of rain over a week. We get those blower pow days," he said, using a ski term for fresh snow so light that it blows away as you ride across it, "what the West side affectionately refers to as 'Cascade concrete,' or 'Snoqualmie mashed potatoes.' We get a little bit of everything."

Brown said it's not too late for eager skiers and riders to get a few more runs in: 49 Degrees North will be open for weekend visits while the conditions provided by March's late snowfall last.

"We're planning to run as long as we can," Brown said. "Our coverage is still pretty good. Again, that supplementing with snow making has really helped out."

Over in Kellogg, Idaho, Silver Mountain Resort spokesman Gus Colburn said the resort's additional features like the tubing hill and water park helped lessen the impact of the dip in ski and snowboard traffic.

"The snowfall was a little bit below average, especially at the start of the season," Colburn said. "It didn't affect us as bad as it has in the past, because of our other amenities, and you can still make a really good family vacation out of it."

Colburn said the resort was able to open all of its trails, and keep them open, once the snow arrived in 2024.

The resort is gearing up for its 20th annual Leadman triathlon on April 20, which has teams and individuals ski, bike and then run to benefit local charities. The event has raised more than $182,000 dollars for the Kellogg Rotary Club over the past few decades.

Chairlifts are expected to run over the next few weekends, Colburn said, and then the resort will begin preparing to open for mountain biking over the summer.

"We actually have one of the best mountain biking parks in the region," Colburn said. "We have 40-plus trails and a 3,400 drop in elevation; it's an adventure."

Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area spokesman Matt Sawyer said not even the northwest Rocky Mountains were spared this year. Even with the late storms, the snowpack is down about 20% of normal.

"It's probably the worst season I think I've ever seen across the country for ski areas, collectively," Sawyer said. "Because there wasn't too many hotspots where it was good anywhere, across the country, until probably the middle of February and into March."

Sawyer said both daily and season pass sales were down as well, as was traffic on high volume weeks and weekends like Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President's Day.

"It is kind of a shame, because we have been open; we've had a great product for quite some time," Sawyer said. "But a lot of people do their initial visits in December and January, and all areas were struggling. We struggled with December and early November even having a lack of snow."

Lackluster snowfall gave way to frigid temperatures in February and March, presenting a new set of challenges for the resort, Sawyer said.

"We got into bitter cold, and we had temperatures that were 20 to 30 below," Sawyer said. "People don't want to go out in those kinds of temperatures, and you don't get a lot of snow in those temperatures either."

Lookout Pass will remain open seven days a week until Sunday, and then will reopen next Friday for the closing weekend. The recreation area will reopen for frisbee golf, mountain biking, hiking and huckleberry picking once the weather gets consistently warmer.