DENVER — Last winter, La Nina brought so much snow to northern Colorado that Arapahoe Basin ski area stayed open until July 4. A snow gauge near Steamboat Springs had to be extended because it kept getting buried, with total accumulation over the season topping 200 inches.
It was a skier's bonanza. Colorado resorts recorded more than 12 million skier visits last winter for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, according to figures from Vail Resorts Inc. and the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.
In short, Colorado hosted roughly one in every five skier visits in the nation last winter.
While there's been enough snow for several Colorado resorts to open this fall, forecasters say skiers shouldn't expect another record winter.
"The odds are decent for at least a normal season, but people shouldn't have expectations we'll have a repeat," said climatologist Klaus Wolter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado.
As the economy slowly recovers, there also appear to be fewer flash sales that resorts have used to hook last-minute vacationers during the recession. But there are still plenty of discounts, and resorts say they have more to offer after spending millions of dollars on faster lifts, new terrain park features and better trail grooming.
"We're coming off a big season last year," said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. "We're going into this year with some momentum."
The group's 22 member resorts have invested more than $50 million for this season, including a remodel of the Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands and heated pavers in Steamboat's base area so skiers don't have to walk through as much snow and ice.
That doesn't include spending by Vail Resort Inc.'s Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail resorts, which together invested almost double what other Colorado resorts have, CEO Rob Katz said. New this year are a fine-dining restaurant at Vail and a high-speed lift to replace a slow two-seater at Beaver Creek.
Here's just a handful of things to look for this season:
— FREE SKIING: Crested Butte is sharing the wealth to celebrate its 50th birthday. Skiing is free on opening day, Nov. 23, and on your birthday if you're an adult (and it falls during the season). Just be sure to bring a valid photo ID with your birthdate. Lift tickets for visitors 75 and older are always free at tiny Echo Mountain outside Denver, and they're free at Wolf Creek past your 80th birthday.
— SKI PASS PLUS: Resorts big and small are selling passes that offer access to more than one ski area, and sometimes pass holders can get other discounts. Telluride pass holders can get three days of skiing at Taos in New Mexico. This year, holders of Telluride adult, senior and college passes can get 20 percent off non-holiday group lessons, with some restrictions.
For the first time in recent memory, Aspen is teaming with Steamboat and Winter Park on the Colorado Triple Play — http://www.coloradotripleplay.com — which offers two days of skiing at Steamboat, two days at Winter Park, and two at Aspen Skiing Co.'s four mountains of Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass for $299, for teens and adults. It's designed to offer a more affordable, sample platter of mountains, considering Aspen's peak single-day lift ticket price last season was $102. The nontransferable passes must be bought seven days before the first day of use and can't be used Dec. 27-31.
Meanwhile, Vail Resorts is expanding what its EpicMix application can do. EpicMix uses chips embedded on nearly all season passes and lift tickets and scanners mounted on lifts so visitors can track their vertical feet and earn digital "pins" for their feats. A new feature lets on-mountain photographers scan a customer's ticket so that when they snap a photo, the customer can access an image that he or she can share on Facebook or other online sites free. Visitors can purchase high-resolution versions suitable for printing.
— BEYOND THE SLOPES: To entice families that sometimes travel with three generations in tow, resorts have been paying more attention to ski schools and beginner areas in recent years. They've also been offering something for people who don't want to hurtle full speed down a mountain. For instance, Copper Mountain regularly offers free snowshoe tours. New this year, Crested Butte and Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort added zip-lines for those who'd rather get their thrills by gliding from a wire. Keystone has a brand-new ice skating rink in its base village.Comment on this story
— MUSIC ON THE MOUNTAIN: Several resorts have free concerts toward the end of the season. Vail plans to host four free concerts for its annual Vail Snow Daze, with scheduled acts including Guster Dec. 8, Jakob Dylan Dec. 9. and The Polish Ambassador Dec. 11. Aspen is hosting a free concert by Cowboy Mouth on Nov. 26.
— LA NINA: La Nina tends to concentrate snow in the winter months, when most out-of-state skiers come to Colorado, Wolter said. Resorts in southwest Colorado aren't expected to get as much snow, but that doesn't mean a freak storm can't happen. An autumn storm that dumped 3 feet of snow at Wolf Creek let the ski area open for weekend skiing Oct. 8 — its earliest opening ever.