DENVER — In the old days, after the snow melted at ski resorts, all that remained was grass, a gondola and the occasional alpine slide.
But check out Vail Resorts' docket this summer: four zip lines, three ropes courses, 18 holes of disc golf, a climbing wall, a trampoline, bag toss, horseshoes, guided hikes, a science school and, yes, a functional gondola.
"The summer isn't really considered the off-season anymore," says Loryn Kasten, a spokesman for the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. in Colorado. "There's a big push to take advantage of the terrain and make communities four-season resorts."
The U.S. Forest Service, which authorizes permits to 122 ski areas, from Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire to Snowbird in Utah, has encouraged resorts in recent years to expand summer activities. Four years ago, Congress passed a law insisting that resorts "encourage outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature" outside skiing.
The Forest Service took this to mean "summer activities," and last year it predicted that zip lines, bike parks, disc golf and Segway tours would boost summer visits to national forests by 600,000 people.
Resorts across the country are working on elaborate expansions of their summer hiking, cycling and off-road touring resources. There are adventure parks, like the elaborate ropes course full of ladders, cargo nets and zip lines at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Massachusetts. In California, Mammoth, in Mammoth Lakes, has added hiking and biking trials and zip lines to make up for lower ski-season traffic during the state's four-year drought.
"(Summer activity) drives people to the resort. It drives lodging, food and beverage sales and parking revenue," says Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association. "It brings people to your brand that may not have thought about it when planning winter activities."
Plus, many of these activities are cheaper than skiing.
Some off-season activities at Colorado resorts:
Many ski areas allow summer cyclists to attach bikes to a gondola car, and then glide down to bike parks along routes that loosely zigzag on and off ski trails. Telluride's top-of-the-gondola park, topping out at 10,335 feet, contains extreme trails such as No-Brainer and Cocoa Loco (and a few easier ones); Vail's ski-mountain trails include the scenic, easygoing Eagle's Loop and the killer, free-ride trail Magic Forest, which contains several steep drop-offs and requires special equipment.
Some ski towns are marketing their off-the-mountain cycling trails — Steamboat Springs calls itself Bike Town USA, and Winter Park is Mountain Bike Capital USA. Both are surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest trails. And Steamboat Springs' historic ski jump Howelsen Hill allows mountain-bikers to fly through the air as easily as skiers do.
In Telluride, tourists can ride a scenic gondola between downtown and the Mountain Village. Other excellent gondola rides (with cool names): Aspen's Silver Queen, Snowmass' Elk Camp, Vail's Eagle Bahn and Breckenridge's BreckConnect. Many take you to a resort's adventure park, where there might be ropes courses and other activities.
Just about every resort offers some version of this newish sport. Winter Park's 20-hole course intersects with ski trails and overlooks the Continental Divide; Crested Butte's Ten-Three @ CB is especially scenic, stretching from the top of the Red Lady Express lift to the base area. The courses rent discs and equipment.
Colorado is lousy with death-defying flights in harnesses attached to thick overhead wires; one stretches over the Royal Gorge, near Colorado Springs, some 1,700 feet in the air. The most exciting ski-area zipline might be Crested Butte's 4-year-old guided tour, a series of short trips between wooden platforms, 120 to 400 feet high.
Here's how a Rocky Mountain News reporter described a Colorado alpine slide in 1990: "Take the chairlift to the top, squat into a sled with a control level and descend a curving fiberglass track at rates of speed and safety that are up to you. No special skills required." That's still accurate for the classic slides in Winter Park (at 3,000 feet, the state's longest such ride), Durango and Breckenridge.
Crossing from one side of Vail's High Mountain Ropes Course to the other involves stepping onto logs suspended in the air and grabbing onto ropes hanging from wooden beams. Telluride's course, at the base of the Mountain Village gondola, is all cables, barrels, platforms and climbing-wall fragments. These are usually safe for kids; those looking for more intense adventure can detour to Steamboat's mechanical bull.
To properly plan a summer weekend at a Colorado ski resort, check the festival schedule. Those preferring yoga, meditation and a "celebration of mindful living" might consider Snowmass Village's Wanderlust Aspen Snowmass (July 2-5), while those with higher-volume tastes might choose Beaver Creek's Soul Mountain Music Festival (Aug. 21-23). If you have no idea what weekend you'll be traveling, Telluride is the safest destination. The festivals in the park at the end of Colorado Avenue celebrate balloons (June 5-7), bluegrass (June 15-18), wine (June 25-28), yoga (July 9-12), Shakespeare (July 18-25), mushrooms (August 13-16) and movies (Sept. 4-7).