As far as classic California ski trips go, Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain are the two big ones – but nestled among towering red firs and twisted pines above the Yosemite Valley floor, Badger Pass is a place local “unknown” for generations. Opened in 1935, it is one of the oldest ski resorts in the United States – and one of only three ski areas served by a ski lift system in a national park (Hurricane Ridge in Olympic, Washington, and Boston Mills/Brandywine in the Cuyahoga Valley of Ohio, being the other two).
Badger is a reassuring place for moms and dads. It’s small (there are five lifts, ten runs, and a terrain park) and sits 7,200 feet above sea level, with only natural snow, and all-day adult lift tickets cost $62. quite reasonable.
Visitor numbers to the national park have increased during the pandemic, and with its majestic granite monoliths and groves of giant redwoods, Yosemite continues to receive more than its fair share. Sure, most head straight for the valley floor to see El Capitán and Yosemite Falls during the summer, but being in the park when it’s not crowded and dusted with a blanket of powder bright white? Enchanting. Skiing or snowboarding in this winter wonderland? Nothing magical.
California saw record snowfall in December, when more than 12 feet of the fluffy good stuff blanketed Yosemite Valley thanks to a series of major Pacific storms that tore through the Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not feel inclined to repeat this performance, leading to another new record: January 2022, with the fourth lowest snowfall since 1971. Despite (unanswered) prayers to the snow gods, Badger has retained a 33-inch base at its peak, with a dedicated team of sno-cat track operators who maintain the downhill and cross-country ski trails every night.
“Conditions are spring-like right now,” says Sean Costello, who has skied Badger Pass for decades and knows the 90-acre area intimately. “It’s a little freezing when the lifts open at nine but mellows out quite nicely within an hour.” Responsible for the resort’s rental operations for two decades, he began working in Yosemite in 1983 as the park’s transportation manager. A highly regarded character, many consider him the unofficial “Mayor of Badger”. Costello retired in 2018 and runs the Snow Phone, which residents of towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills hopefully call every week for his take on current conditions before hitting ski tricks, honing their technique or venture into the hinterland. The weather has been appalling, he says, alluding to the undesirable hot temperatures underway.
Closed for the 2020-2021 winter season due to Covid, Badger reopened to a blizzard and large crowds on December 15 last year, but since a storm dropped several feet between Christmas and New Year, that’s all. “The last major season was in 2018, when Yosemite’s high country received more snow in four days during the ‘Miracle March’ than all of December, January and February combined,” he says. Adding that nature doesn’t always bless them with the kind of “glory winters of the 1980s and 90s”, there is a love for Badger among the locals that will never die.
“It’s so laid back here. Hardcore skiers may turn up their noses, but we can ski them anytime,” adds Chandy, a long-time Bass Lake season pass holder and good friend of Costello. “You can take a quick ride because there are no queues – well, except sometimes on weekends, and then, of course, there’s no better place for first-timers.”
Badger has always been family and learner friendly. Since 1961, the Mountain Area Ski School has been bussing K-12 students from nearby towns like Oakhurst and El Portal for weekly lessons. says Costello, “but what’s cool here is there’s only one top and one bottom, so parents can show off on the patio knowing their kids won’t get lost.” . We don’t have the rowdy crowds, there’s no fancy lodge or apres ski, but it’s a treasure. My kids learned to ski here, and now my three year old grandson is on skis here and he loved it.
Learning to ski in Yosemite predates Badger Pass somewhat. After the Ahwahnee Hotel opened in 1927, Swiss ski expert Jules Fritsch established the Yosemite Ski School the following year. This caught the eye of Yosemite Park & Curry Company President Donald Tresidder (the park’s main concessionaire), who formed the Yosemite Winter Club by building a small ski slope and ski jump near Tenaya Creek Bridge. After attending the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics, Tresidder was inspired to develop winter sports in Yosemite (he wanted it to become the “Switzerland of the West”) and submitted a bid Olympic for the Valley in 1932. Along with Tahoe, they sadly lost to Lake Placid.
Undeterred, after the opening of the Wawona Road and Tunnel in late 1933 and the opening of the road from Glacier Point to Badger Pass two years later, Yosemite’s first ski lodge was built. at Monroe Meadow and by the end of its first season had hosted over 25,000 skiers. The resort’s first drag lift, the ‘Upski’, was installed in 1936. Nicknamed the ‘Queen Mary’, it looked like a large sled and carried six skiers to the top at a time.
Alongside Fritsch and Tresidder, another central name in Yosemite skiing history is Nic Fiore. Legendary figure nicknamed “the ski master of Badger Pass”, he is said to have taught more than 100,000 people to ski during his 50-year career. A great resource and local guide, Fiore was knowledgeable about the Sierra: “its geology, its vegetation, and what it was like to hike there.”
An equally influential figure in Badger is Josh Helling, director of the Cross-Country Center – who knows Yosemite Valley intimately, thanks to his 20 years as a mountaineering school guide and more than 26 mountaineering ascents. ‘El Captain. Helling also knows the 90-mile network of Nordic and snowshoe trails that start at Badger like, well, the back of his skis. “We have some of the best northern trails in California, a world-class cross-country ski area that’s somewhat unknown,” says Helling, whose personal favorite is the 22-mile round trip to Glacier Point. He shares that snowshoers and Nordic skiers can also enjoy another scenic view of the valley from Dewey Point, which is a bit closer.
“Some years we have heavy winters with 200% snowfall, others extreme drought, so the current climate makes it difficult to predict. I don’t know what the future holds, but right now, we’re focused on keeping Ski Days alive and passing them on to the next generation.Helling, whose daughter learned to ski at Badger (her first run was six months ago, riding Eagle on her shoulders), already has big plans for the 2022-2023 winter season.
Last January, he reinstated the Yosemite Nordic Holiday run with the help of his Nordic Center and Badger Pass staff, community group volunteers, the Far West Nordic organization, and support from Yosemite Hospitality and the National Park Service. “The last time the Holiday Run was held was in 2013, but we had 65 people entered which was amazing.e. So we’re going to work on that again next year, and I’d like to have the guided night excursions to Glacier Point back up again, too. Another unique Yosemite winter experience for Helling? Snowshoeing in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias after a storm. “The contrast of that red bark against the white is something else.”
For Costello, it’s all about making graceful turns up the hill with friends. “I’ve been telemark skiing here almost since day one. It fits the laid-back atmosphere perfectly: free your heel, free your mind and the rest will follow,” he says with a smile, before hopping on the Eagle chair for one final descent from the top. “Badger Pass is truly Yosemite’s best kept secret!”
After at the Ahwahnee
With the exception of a small cafe and the Snowflake Room (unfortunately closed this season), dining options at Badger Pass are limited. However, the “crown jewel of national park lodges” is 40 minutes away in Yosemite Valley, and the après-ski spots don’t get any more old-fashioned glamor than Ahwahnee. Fun fact: the interiors there inspired those of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, the brilliant. Filled with Badger Pass memorabilia, the Winter Club Room is worth a visit before cozying up with cocktails by the fire in the Great Room. Better yet, make dinner reservations at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, which is an experience in itself. Suites and rooms at the historic hotel often book out months in advance, but in the winter it’s always worth checking for last-minute cancellations, when you might get lucky.
Call Snow Phone (209) 372-1000 to check conditions and get ski area updates from Sean before you travel. Badger Pass ski area closes April 2, 2022.
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