A WISE GUY once said, “Nostalgia ain’t the same as it used to be.” However, at Badger Pass — California’s very first ski resort — nostalgia appears to have arrived this year in tip-top shape. Under Yosemite National Park’s current administration and the park’s concessionaire, Aramark, this classic old resort has been boosted back to its full, amiable potential.
For downhill skiers, this means modest but beautifully groomed slopes and highly affordable lift tickets, plus excellent beginner lessons for kids and adults at bargain basement rates. For nordic (cross-country) skiers and snowshoers, it means groomed trails winding through pristine, snow-draped forests. Access to these trails comes at a still more impressive price: completely free!
The skiers and snowboarders who jam the Tahoe resorts may see Badger as the Rodney Dangerfield of ski hills, giving it scant respect. Yet it’s precisely because hotdoggers keep away that Badger slopes stay so uncrowded, so uncarved, and such a pleasant place to learn — or polish skills up, if you wish to return to the sport.
“Our place is the cure for the frenzy of Tahoe,” says ski school director Harry Vanderberg. “You don’t need a big mountain to learn to ski. In fact, you might prefer a quieter place where you can just relax and ski around with your family, or watch right from the lodge deck as your kids learn. That’s us.”
“Our place is the cure for the frenzy of Tahoe. You don’t need a big mountain to learn to ski. …”Harry Vanderberg, Badger Pass ski school director
With its base elevation of 7,200 feet and lifts that top out at 8,000, Badger is in a class with a handful of other small, relatively low-elevation Northern California resorts, like Dodge Ridge, 6,600-8,200 feet; Soda Springs, 6,700-7,325; Homewood, 6,230-7,881; Tahoe-Donner, 6,750-7,350; and Mt. Shasta Ski Park, 5,476-6,866. High snowpack seasons like this one help them prosper, due to an appealing combo of uncrowded slopes, low prices, and family-friendly programs.
As of March 1, Badger Pass boasted a summit snow depth of some 14 feet, and the resort will operate until at least April 2. That means you have a solid month to get up there and enjoy this place, along with its ultimate amenity: a winter wonderland that features 1,169 square miles of Yosemite grandeur, starring mist-wreathed, ice-draped massifs like Half Dome and El Capitan.
My heart holds a huge soft spot for Badger. I came to California from Florida; at Badger I learned a grand time could be had sliding around on boards other than water skis. The Yosemite Mountaineering School director, Bruce Brossman, then ran the Nordic Center, and he coaxed me onto cross-country skis — challenging me two days later to enter his Nordic Holiday race. Under his tutelage, I learned to telemark turn, became a ski mountaineer, and wound up doing a winter traverse of the whole Sierra range, followed by a winter ascent of Buena Vista Crest (9,880 feet). Later, I even climbed and skied off the summits of mounts Shasta (14,179 feet) and Lassen (10,457 feet) a few times.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Downhill Area: 5 lifts serve 90 groomed acres; the slopes are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily until at least April 2 of this year. Tickets: all lifts, $62 (adults), $35 (children); lower lifts, $30 and $15. Lessons: $115 (adults), $105 (children ages 7-12), including full gear, lift tickets, and morning and afternoon group lessons. Snow phone: 209-372-1000. More information can be found online.
Nordic/Cross-country Center: More than 90 miles of marked trails, with nearly 15 miles groomed. The Center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily until at least April 2 of this year. Use of trails is free. The classic Nordic Holiday Race resumed this year and will return next January. Nordic full gear rentals: all day, $31 (adults), $25.50 (children 12 and under); half day, $25.50. Lessons and guided tours available, as well as telemark and skate packages. Snowshoe rentals, all day $28.50, half day $24. Center phone: 209-372-4996. More information is available online.
General Information: Yosemite National Park requires all vehicles moving in a snow chain control area to carry snow chains, whether or not the vehicle is 4WD or AWD. Check online for current conditions, or call 209-372-0200 (press 1 then 1). Lodging accommodations inside the park as well as outside are both available.
Such feats are past me now — I’m in my early 70s. But they illustrate the peak experiences a solid foundation in skiing can award. A start at a humble spot like Badger may lead to much bigger things.
Nowadays, I’m content to return to Badger for calmer endeavors, such as cross-country skiing the 10.5 miles of groomed track out to Glacier Point. This mild victory remains available to me because the place retains a staff that’s still devoted to providing guests with quality experiences.
Josh Helling came here in 1990, learned his chops from Brossman, and is the current Yosemite Mountaineering School director.
“We might not have the height of Mammoth, or all those heavily marketed services, but what we do offer is hassle-free opportunity,” Helling says. “People who want to stand in a massive line at a major resort are welcome to go to Tahoe. People who want an easy introduction to the backcountry are welcome to come here.”
During the three days I spent downhill and nordic skiing and snowshoeing in January, I saw that the free nordic trails were kept impeccably groomed, as were the 90 acres of downhill slopes. This is your best evidence that the Badger Pass people take pride in what they do. Maybe because, up here, “tradition” is far from an empty word.
Just as Helling learned from Brossman, Vanderburg learned from Chris “Cowboy” Moore, who himself learned from ski instruction icon Nic Fiore. That means he gets to set a tone and ring the brass ski school bell to launch a lesson the same way Nic Fiore did after he arrived in 1947. A French Canadian pro, Fiore is reckoned to have taught at least 137,000 skiers before he retired in 2004 — far more than any other instructor in North America.
I learned my own downhill skills from Nic Fiore. The essence of his approach was a focus on minute elements of technique, but this discipline came coupled with a warm assurance that — sooner rather than later — you’d “get it.”
Perhaps that’s why Vanderburg’s current policy is that when a child arrives for a $105 lesson package, there’s a guarantee at the end of the day: if that kid cannot ski down the Bruin bunny run on his or her own, they get a free voucher to try, try again on any subsequent day.
To some, the wooden 1935 lodge at Badger Pass might seem dated and cramped. But to me, it charmingly resembles classic European ski huts, looking like an eternal wellspring of winter delight. I own a crystal commemorative glass from the resort’s 50th anniversary celebration back in 1986. It occurs to me that if I ski here for only 13 more years, I’ll be able to get a 100th anniversary glass to put on a shelf right next to it.
If any resort can encourage and provoke me to keep up on my boards for that much longer, it’ll be Badger Pass, high on Yosemite’s crest.
A SWISS CHALET IN THE CALIFORNIA ALPS
An Olympic-sized dream unrealized
The origin of Badger Pass Ski Resort lies in a love story.
A student from Indiana named Don Tressider arrived in Yosemite in 1916, where he was drawn to a young woman named Mary Curry. She was a daughter of the founders of Curry Company, an early park concessioner, and had scampered on outdoor adventures throughout the park since childhood. Soon, Mary and Don embarked on new adventures together.
After Curry Company merged with a rival, Tressider became president of the firm. He and Mary took off for the 1928 Olympics in Switzerland, and they returned determined to bring winter games to Yosemite. Over the next few years, they managed to get toboggan and ski runs open at modest slopes on the valley floor, as well as a skating rink.
They were disappointed when the 1932 Winter Olympics went to Lake Placid, New York, but the Tressiders didn’t lose hope. A literal breakthrough came for them in 1933, when the Wawona Tunnel was bored 4,233 feet through granite (it’s still the longest road tunnel in the state) to connect with Highway 41 and the park’s south entrance.
This enabled building a winter sports center at Chinquapin, at 6,000 feet; then a route was added to Badger Pass, a location five miles away and 1,200 feet higher. Skiers were transported up to Badger by stage-car, and in 1934 some 10,000 recreationists took that ride.
A lodge at Badger was built in the sturdy style of European alpine huts and opened in 1935. The structure radiates an old-world atmosphere; the only comparable ski place in California is a Bavarian-style lodge built at Sugar Bowl four years later. Forested slopes around Badger were cleared for ski runs. A motor-hauled sled called an “up-ski” that carried eight people and their gear was its first lift. The sled was nicknamed Queen Mary, after Mrs. Tressider.
By 1939, there were four up-ski sleds linked in parallel lines, plus rope-tows, and some 60,000 visitors used them. It looked like Badger was almost ready to fulfill its marketing slogan as a “Little Switzerland of the West.” However, by the 1950s, many newer, larger and more sumptuous resorts had stolen the U.S. winter sports limelight. Badger chose to brand itself as a few-frills, family-friendly operation, devoted to a reliable and relatable supply of the basics — but in one of the world’s most splendid natural settings.
— Paul McHugh