With Royal Gorge XC revitalized and Sugar Bowl celebrating its 75th season and a new lift, good times are piling up on Donner Summit
By Pete Gauvin
A few years ago, the Donner Summit area was suffering a terrible hangover. The recession and real estate melt down had sunk the future of the nation’s largest cross country ski area into doubt, property values were skidding toward septic tanks and controversial plans for a massive housing development had gone belly up. Uncertainty and shoestring management ruled. Neglect and dismay were creeping in.
Today, despite three lean snow years in a row, hope is riding high on the summit. The historic winter playground is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, with new amenities, new draws such as snow biking and snow kiting, and most importantly new stewardship focused on enhancing what’s already there rather than large-scale, profit-driven development.
Since Sugar Bowl took over management of Royal Gorge Cross Country, its troubled next-door neighbor, after the Truckee Donner Land Trust and a coalition of others managed to rescue it from bankruptcy in 2012-13, the turnaround has been gaining steam.
“It’s exciting to be on the leading edge of bringing new energy back to the summit and giving people a reason to discover this spectacular area once again,” said JoJo Toeppner, now entering her third season as general manager of Royal Gorge.
Toeppner, a respected veteran of the Tahoe cross-country community, was hired by Sugar Bowl from Tahoe Donner Cross Country to re-establish Royal Gorge as one of the preeminent cross-country resorts in North America, a reputation it enjoyed for much of its 40-year history, until recently. Under her guidance, the resort is focusing on once again providing top-notch grooming, instruction and customer service.
Toeppner, who learned to cross-country ski at Royal Gorge, said the resort’s potential lies in its natural features – its high elevation, expansive terrain and easy access from Interstate 80. The resort includes six distinct trail systems covering over 6000 acres – from Van Norden Meadow to Devil’s Peak, and from Highway 80 to the rim of the North Fork of the American River (“The Royal Gorge”) – with most of the terrain above 7000 feet.
When we spoke in November, her team had just completed sprucing up a dozen out buildings, including warming huts, ticket booths and the ski patrol building. The main lodge at Summit Station was renovated last year, and Sugar Bowl had already purchased two new state-of-the-art grooming machines and improved trail signage.
They will open three new trails this year, Toeppner said, closing in on the goal of having over 200km of trails available. One of the new trails is a dog-accessible trail (Rover’s Run), which will expand the network of dog trails to 10 km.
The acquisition of Royal Gorge will have year-round recreation benefits, too. A new trail, the “Royal Gorge Rim Trail,” a 12-15 mile loop including nine miles of singletrack, will be added to the existing trail network next summer, according to John Svahn, stewardship director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust. Together with the Donner Lake Rim Trail, the Hole in the Ground Trail, and other nearby trails, the mountain biking options will be epic and extensive.
Downhill Slide Arrested
Royal Gorge was founded by John Slouber in 1971. Over the years he slowly expanded it to several thousand acres, adding several lodges and surface lifts. It grew to become North America’s largest cross-country ski area and gained worldwide recognition.
In 2005, Bay Area developers purchased the ski area from Slouber near the peak of the real estate market for a reported $35 million. They had designs on adding 950 new homes and condos, plus hotels and stores to the 3000-acre property. But their plans were met with fierce opposition from the local community, as well as infrastructure concerns over water, sewage capacity, and road access.
Then the market collapsed and the recession hit. While Royal Gorge continued to operate, its trajectory didn’t inspire optimism or skier visits. In 2011, its owners defaulted and the lender put the property on the market, originally at $24 million.
In late 2012, thanks to the united, quick-footed efforts of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the Trust for Public Land, the Northern Sierra Partnership, local homeowners, public agencies, and more than a thousand donors, $11.25 million was raised in a matter of a few short months in order meet a deadline to secure the property from bankruptcy.
Last year, the California Wildlife Conservation Board kicked in an additional $3 million grant to the Truckee Donner Land Trust to support the acquisition and permanently protect Royal Gorge as intact open space. Overall, $15.5 million was raised to buy the property and provide for future stewardship.
Now, protected by the Land Trust and operating in winter under the wing of its longtime neighbor, Sugar Bowl, things are looking up.
Its integration with Sugar Bowl has been a natural partnership, like two long-term neighbors hooking up and joining forces. Cross-country trails connect all the way to the village of Sugar Bowl, creating visibility and stimulating crossover interest among nordic and alpine skiers.
“There’s definitely some new momentum in the air,” said Tyler Brown, director of the Sierra Snowkite Center, back for its third season in Van Norden Meadow. “Even though we’ve had a couple bad seasons everybody’s pretty pumped. The Land Trust stepping in to save Royal Gorge was a huge boost. And Sugar Bowl has done a good job of keeping the small mountain experience while improving facilities and differentiating itself.”
Still Handsome at 75
In addition to the successful potluck partnership spearheaded by the Land Trust to preserve Royal Gorge, much of the good mojo on the summit can be traced to Sugar Bowl, which is celebrating its 75th season this year.
Hans Schroll, an eccentric Austrian ski racer and instructor famed for his yodeling, founded Sugar Bowl in 1939 two years after he first laid eyes on Mt. Lincoln during a visit in July, finding a prolific snowpack still 30 feet deep. He envisioned a ski resort reminiscent of the Tyrolean ski villages he grew up near in Austria.
Early investors included Walt Disney, a student of Schroll’s at Yosemite’s Badger Pass. In return, the peak that would become home to California’s first chairlift was named Mt. Disney. Fun fact: Not long after, Walt Disney recorded Schroll’s yodeling for the animated Disney cartoon, “The Art of Skiing,” (1941) in which Goofy goes to Sugar Bowl to learn how to ski.
In its early years, Sugar Bowl was known for attracting Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn and Claudette Colbert. Today, it’s better known for catering to backcountry-minded skiers and riders, who find the perfect training ground in bounds and out of bounds, encouraged by the resort’s open-boundary policies, allowance of uphill skiing and the professional training and guiding provided through the Backcountry Adventure Center run by Alpine Skills International.
Sugar Bowl is still a mid-sized resort with four peaks, 13 lifts and a documented reputation as a snow magnet with over 500 inches annually. But it’s not content to simply rest on its laurels.
Last season, as part of $20 million of improvements, Sugar Bowl added a new lift up Crow’s Peak to provide direct lift access to the area known as Strawberry Fields. Positioned on the far west side of the resort, the Crow’s Peak chairlift begins just above the cross-country trails of Van Norden Meadow. The triple chair adds nearly 1,000 vertical feet of prime advanced and expert tree skiing, two new top-to-bottom groomed runs, and a northeast exposure that offers great wind protection on storm days.
The resort also opened the Sporthaus Fitness & Aquatics Center ($4.5 million) last year and the new ski-in, ski-out Sugar Bowl Academy campus ($12 million) below the Judah Lodge parking lot, which will provide classrooms, dormitories and training space for 75 student-athletes.
Read on about the Donner Summit revival at Fat Tires and Wind Power: Snowbiking & Snowkiting at Royal Gorge and Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge aren’t the only attractions on Donner Summit by Pete Gauvin.