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What You Need to Know About This Winter's Ski Season

California's resorts ask skiers and riders to plan ahead before hitting the slopes

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As communities begin to reopen with the lifting of the December 3 regional stay-at-home order, keep in mind that some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have protocols in place. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit and check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

With ski season here, it’s time to embrace yet another new normal. Carving perfect turns on fresh snow will be as thrilling as ever, but you'll have to follow COVID-19 caveats: Buy your tickets online and in advance, wear a mask, and don't expect to have lunch in the lodge.

"All of the resorts want to have a long, safe season starting on November 14 with Mammoth's planned opening and going all the way to May or June," says Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California. "They've all bought in to a set of shared guidelines."

The resorts' protocols are based on the National Ski Areas Association's 2020–21 Ski Well, Be Well playbook. Although there's some policy variation between resorts, their unified goal is to keep people skiing and riding while protecting everyone's health.

Check out these know-before-you-go pointers, and be prepared for potential changes and updates. Before you hit the slopes, visit your resort's website or social media channels for the most up-to-date information.

Buy Tickets Online Before You Go

Forget the typical last-minute rush for fresh powder—at most resorts, you won't be able to walk up to the ticket window at 9 a.m. and buy a lift ticket. Season pass holders get top priority for spots on the mountain, and skiers looking to buy daily tickets must purchase them online in advance.

"You don't want to be that person who shows up to a resort without a reservation," Reitzell says. He recommends that skiers who insist on spontaneity should scour the web to see which resorts have tickets remaining. "Tuesday to Thursday is when you're likely to have the most flexibility in terms of ticket availability."

At Vail Resorts' properties, including Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood, even season passholders need to make ski reservations; they can book their dates right now before daily tickets go on sale December 8.

Alterra Resorts, which owns Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain, and Big Bear Mountain Resort, won't require passholders to make reservations but will require daily ticket buyers to purchase online in advance.

Wear a Proper Face Covering

At all California resorts, face coverings over the mouth and nose are mandatory indoors and outdoors whenever social distancing isn't possible, which means almost all the time except for when you're bombing down the slopes. "The resorts are taking face coverings very seriously. That's one protocol that everyone is going to have to comply with," Reitzell says.

Make sure you understand your resort's mask rules. Some require face coverings with at least two layers; others are even more specific. Mammoth Mountain states that "perforated, ventilated, and thin, single-layer neck gaiter face coverings will not be allowed." At Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, guests are required to wear double-layer face masks in lift lines, on all chair lifts, while walking through the Village, and in all indoor areas.

Embrace Outdoor Dining

Another big change for this winter is limited indoor access. "People need to be prepared for the fact that there will be restrictions on being indoors, and that includes dining," Reitzell says.

Although you'll still be able to purchase food on the mountain, the focus is on al fresco. Along with several other ski areas, Sugarbowl Resort will not offer any indoor dining, and skiers can access the resort's "warming zones" for only 15 minutes at a time.

Homewood Mountain Resort has a digital solution for on-mountain dining. Marketing manager Lisa Nigon says, "You can order food from your phone on the chairlift. Go ski a few laps, then when you get a text saying your burrito is ready, ski over to the lodge to pick it up."

Off the resort, many restaurants have added takeout to their offerings to help with pre- and post-mountain meals. Tahoe North has even created a Takeout Tahoe Guide to help visiting skiers navigate the ordering options for local eateries.

Expect New Chairlift and Lift-Line Protocols

Skiers will ride the chairlifts only with their ski buddies, not with strangers. Lift lines will be engineered to eliminate "pinch points"—places where skiers get bunched together.

"The skis attached to your feet naturally give you six feet of distance from other skiers," Reitzell says. "But some resorts are also creating ghost lanes—a lane that's six feet wide and roped off—so you're not standing right next to people in another lane."

Reserve Rentals and Lessons Online

Several resorts are offering only private lessons, which must be booked in advance online or over the phone. Others, like Big Bear Mountain Resort, will offer group lessons, but with shorter time frames and fewer students.

Homewood, like most other resorts, will offer "pre-teched" rentals, which means you reserve your gear in advance online. Nigon says that only a few people will be permitted inside the rental shop at one time.

Celebrate This Winter's Upside

Skiing may look a little different this winter, but most snow lovers won't be fazed by masks and limited dining options. Instead, they'll be high-fiving. With resorts limiting the number of guests each day, skiers and riders will have more space on the mountain.

"Homewood has always been known for fewer crowds, and we're really embracing that this season," Nigon says. "We're calling it 'fewer skiers per acre.' It's going to create a great experience."

That silver lining applies across the state, Reitzell says. "This year more than ever, the California ski industry is focused on offering great skiing and riding, and that's what really matters to people who love snow."

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