The Golden State may be known for its stellar sunrays and unmatchable coastlines, but come winter, the West Coast gem is one of the best places to shred some powder.
California is not the place most snowbirds would think to flock to, which makes it all the better for skiing and snowboarding, particularly during peak season when nearby states can be swarming with visitors.
In addition to having a wide variety of resorts to choose from, California’s mountains keep on-brand with the state’s eco-conscious reputation, weaving sustainability and environmental stewardship into their everyday operations, while maintaining rank as some of the most visited ski destinations in America.
Three of California’s ski resorts are setting particularly high bars for the responsibilities the ski industry and its operators have to the environment to help ensure alpine sports are around for generations to come.
Heavenly Mountain Resort
Heavenly Mountain Resort boasts one of the most spectacular settings for alpine sports. Nestled along the border of California and Nevada and high above Lake Tahoe, Heavenly is truly divine and shows skiers the outstanding beauty that nature has to offer. Located due east of California’s state capital of Sacramento, roughly half of the sought-after ski destination lies in California and the other half in Nevada. The two separate locations may offer terrain differing in style, but they share the same goal: a sustainable future for ski resorts and the planet.
Heavenly is owned by Vail Resorts – one of the United States’ largest mountain management parent companies. Unlike many other large corporations, though, Heavenly’s owners have made a stern commitment to environmental stewardship through what they dub the “Epic Promise.” According to the company’s sustainability statement, its Epic Promise encapsulates the staff, company, and guests’ joint passions for environmental sustainability and community involvement.
While the Epic Promise has a variety of dimensions that make it one of the most comprehensive commitments of its kind in the ski industry, its hallmark goal is going for a net-zero footprint by 2030 – including both energy usage and waste production.
The corporate date is two full decades ahead of the United States’ federal deadline for a similar net-zero energy goal.
Epic Promise’s main tenets of net-zero, energy efficiency and reduction extends to all Vail Resorts properties across the country owned and operated by the parent company (40 in total across North America), but Heavenly has its own additional sustainability efforts and community involvement, too.
Most notably, the resort’s local work and partnerships focus heavily on conserving and improving the mountain’s natural environment, primarily through erosion protection, watershed conservation, and revegetation/reforestation.
Partnering with the USDA Forest Service, the resort works through their self-formed cooperative each summer since the 1990s to aid in water quality control and soil erosion.
In 2013, the Vail Resort property launched a uniquely creative endeavor: recycling pine needles to build wattles – rounds of natural material placed on mountainsides to prevent erosion and ecosystem destruction. Heavenly continued to aim for the clouds with its sustainability efforts.
Mammoth is one of California’s crown jewels in the ski industry, and just like Heavenly, it lives up to its name.
Boasting the highest lift-served peak in California at 11,053 feet, Mammoth is unparalleled in its panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains as well as the depth and quality of its snow across its 81 snowmaking trails (not to mention off-piste).
Among the alluring qualities of Mammoth, too, is its exceptionally long ski season, usually running from November all the way to June. Average snowfall per annum clocks in at 400 inches, paired with the region’s average 300 days of sunshine per year to produce bluebird conditions frequently.
In June 2021, the mountain resort’s parent organization, Alterra Mountain Company, joined three of North America’s other leading ski resort operators in forming and implementing the Climate Collaborative Charter. The collaboration, which finds common ground between four historically fierce competitors battling season after season in a finite market, puts sustainability at the forefront of their respective properties in an effort to mitigate climate change.
David Perry, executive vice president for Environmental, Social and Governance at Alterra Mountain Co. called the climate fighting collaborative an “incredible opportunity for industry leaders to engage in healthy competition while educating, sharing best practices and knowledge, and motivating each other to put our best efforts forth to help support the urgent and core issues of sustainability.”
The charter, which extends to 71 resorts across North America, including some of the country’s most sought-after mountains like Mammoth, Vail, and Park City, sets a list of commitments and initiatives that the companies will jointly adopt across their properties. Most notable include a commitment to “aggressively pursue renewable energy sources to be carbon neutral,” advocacy for climate action policy to help facilitate the transition to a renewable-based economy in America and substantial waste reduction.
The mountain also encourages visitors to review their sustainable travel tips, for ways to limit environmental impact both on the mountain and in the surrounding Eastern Sierra region.
Boreal Mountain Resort
Just miles from the shoreline of Lake Tahoe in Soda Springs, California, a lesser-known ski resort is making major strides in sustainability and renewable energy usage.
Owned by parent company POWDR and well-recognized for its terrain park and year-round outdoor recreation activities in addition to the mountain that is served by six chairlifts, Boreal operates in tandem with Woodward Tahoe at the same location. Woodward has made a name for itself as an indoor/outdoor adventure brand, offering winter activities like snow tubing, trampoline parks, and additional terrain areas for skiing and snowboarding.
In 2018, the property launched Tahoe Solar at Boreal Mountain – a 715 solar panel installation on-site, atop the Woodward Tahoe activity building. The project is an impressive 235,000 KW photovoltaic solar array, producing over 325,000 KW hours annually.
The amount of clean energy that the array is able to generate provides 65% of the base area’s energy usage annually (for both Woodward and Boreal Mountain) and over 100% of Woodward Tahoe’s annual energy usage.
While Boreal and Woodward are not the first outdoor activity resorts to source from solar, its on-site installation is notable. A handful of resorts in the American West have turned to renewable energy to power their resorts, but usually, the energy harnessed is from larger wind or solar farms elsewhere that are connected to the local power grid via a regional supplier, and the electricity used is in fact being generated from renewable sources, but not in the same form as having on-site, direct solar power. The project is the largest solar project in the state’s ski industry.
Boreal uses solar power throughout a variety of its operations on the grounds, including operations (such as cash registers and food production), logistics (like ski lifts and snowmaking), and basic electrical needs.
POWDR’s vice president of marketing and brand management, Matt Peterson, says it’s the smaller things that add up too, whether they be renewable energy credits, recycling, or integrating reusable and eco-friendly products into hospitality spaces.
Whether it’s a solar panel installation, a corporate collaboration, or net-zero goals, California’s ski industry is setting a gold standard in the Golden State.