Indy Pass Breaks into Colorado with Addition of Sunlight Mountain
Passholders can access Sunlight immediately with no blackout dates
Indy Pass today added Sunlight, Colorado to its roster, giving the coalition its first member in the spiritual heart of American ski country. Current Indy Pass holders can access the ski area immediately, with no blackout dates through the end of the 2021-22 ski season and all of the 2022-23 season.
The addition gives Indy Pass holders two days each at 82 ski areas in the United States, Canada, and Japan for $329. Sunlight season passholders are also immediately eligible to purchase an Indy Pass add-on for $229, granting them the rambler’s power of the Epic or Ikon passes – 162 days of skiing – for less than the cost of a peak-day ticket at Vail Mountain ($239). No-blackout versions are available for another $100. Wait a few weeks, and the deal may get even better: Indy has already stated that its spring pass, which last year started at just $149 and included the same resort access as the full Indy Pass, would be back on sale this spring at a yet-to-be-determined price.
The importance of Indy adding a Colorado partner cannot be overstated. The state accounts for approximately one-fifth of all U.S. skier visits, houses the headquarters of the world’s two largest ski-area conglomerates, and is synonymous with skiing in the popular imagination and culture. Until today, Indy remained the only national ski pass without an anchor in the state, an outsized omission that dogged the product even as its partner coalition accelerated toward triple digits.
No more. Here are some initial thoughts on what this partnership means for the Indy Pass and its passholders, as well as skiing in general.
What is Sunlight?
Seated just 13 miles off Interstate 70, Sunlight is the second-to-last ski area positioned along skiing’s most-hated road, and is among the least likely to be blamed for its tidal wave of traffic. It sits past Loveland and A-basin and Keystone and Breck and Copper and Vail and Beaver Creek, and if you get to Glenwood Springs, you’re probably exiting to go ski Aspen’s four big mountains, another 50 miles down the road. We’ve all seen the signs, said, “Oh, what’s Sunlight?” and kept driving.
But why? At 730 acres, Sunlight is larger than Aspen Mountain (673 acres). Seventy-two trails spiderweb down a 2,000-foot vertical drop. The trailmap looks rad:
Yes, the lift system, a trio of Riblet lifts forged in the cauldrons of Medieval Europe, was carried over on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. No, no one you know has ever skied here. Sunlight may have Ajax’s acreage, but it will never have its cultural cache.
But who cares? This is real Colorado skiing, 250 inches of average annual snowfall at a base elevation of 7,885 feet. And without the over-the-meadow-and-through-the-woods commute-after-the-commute of parking in a remote lot and taking a hot-air balloon, a shuttlebus, and a submarine to the distant ticket window.
“Sunlight gives you a full day of skiing for about half the cost of the mega resorts,” the resort’s website reads. “You’ll park for free, walk to the lifts, and never stand in line.”
That sounds pretty good, but the joint is underselling themselves. Sunlight’s peak-day walkup lift ticket price is $75. That’s roughly a third of the price of peak days at Beaver Creek, Vail, Winter Park, or Breckenridge. A six-pack of transferrable spring tickets, valid from March 15 to April 3, is $199. Its season pass is $489 and includes the rest of this ski season and all of next, plus free days at 31 partner ski areas.
In other words, its affordable skiing where you’d least expect it. And now it’s on the Indy Pass.
The importance of Colorado
Colorado does not have the most ski areas – it sits in third place with 31, behind Michigan’s 39 and New York’s 49. It does not have the most large ski areas – only three of North America’s 20 largest resorts are in the state. Other than the magnificent Wolf Creek, the state’s ski areas rarely post the monster season-long snowfall totals common in the Wasatch, around Lake Tahoe, or in Washington’s Cascades.
So what makes Colorado the unofficial ski capital of the United States? I don’t know, really. Some combination of mythos, accessibility, good marketing, and a lack of other meta-identifiers. Look at our other great ski states, and it’s easy to spot the misdirection. What’s the first thing that comes to mind for the average American when you say “Utah?” Probably some dumb joke about Mormons. Skiing might be the 40th thing most Americans associate with “California.” It lurks somewhere between vineyards and cucumbers – I would be shocked if one in 10 U.S. Americans outside of California knew it snowed there at all. But Colorado? Colorado is skiing. And for many people, that’s all that it is.
So what’s a ski pass without Colorado? I don’t know, man. It’s kinda like a grocery store that doesn’t sell beer*. It does the job, but it feels incomplete. Like, did you just forget about it, or is this merely an attraction in your version of Hell: The Amusement Park?
By launching with no Colorado presence, Indy Pass bucked a lonstanding rule of the national ski pass. The Epic Pass rose from the brawling season pass wars off the Colorado Front Range. The Mountain Collective and the Ikon passes followed with the same template. For a while, it seemed there may be no room for Indy, as the big boys vacuumed up every Colorado resort of substantial size and the rest banded together in reciprocal pass coalitions.
Now, Indy has a toehold. Geographically, it’s not a great fit in the Indy system – the next-closest partner resorts are White Pine (349 miles), Beaver Mountain (389 miles), Powder Mountain (399 miles), and Eagle Point (401 miles). How many Colorado-based skiers are going to bother buying a pass whose value lies beyond the state’s borders, when the state is rich with cheap passes accessing some of the country’s best skiing? On that level, the Sunlight addition hardly seems like a business breakthrough.
But it could be a bellwether. Ski areas tend to follow what works at other ski areas. Sunlight has long been tight with Ski Cooper, Loveland, Powderhorn, and Monarch, similar-sized ski areas with which it formed reciprocal ticket agreements to fend off cheap Epic Passes raining into the arena stands from Vail’s schwag cannon. If Indy can demonstrate that this coupon-skiing strategy can work alongside its pay-per-visit model, it could build a nice little collection of Colorado partners within the year.
*I didn’t think that this was a real thing, until I encountered such an establishment in Pennsylvania a few weeks back. I wandered around this building the size of an ocean liner for about 15 minutes before asking a clerk where the beer was. “We don’t sell beer,” he said, and I was like, “Oh yes I needed another reason to hate Wal-Mart**.”
**I actually didn’t. I will always hate Wal-Mart.
It’s worth surveying the rest of Colorado to see where Indy could expand. Fourteen of the state’s ski areas are already on the Epic or Ikon passes. Scratch those. We’ll also overlook the ropetow joints such as Lake City and Frisco Adventure Park. The four Sunlight partners I mentioned above seem like the most likely candidates to join Indy, but I could also make an argument for Echo Mountain, a resurgent night-skiing mecca seated at the front of the Front Range, looking down over Denver. Southwest Colorado is rich with options, and either Purgatory or Wolf Creek would be the biggest prizes Indy has a chance of pulling from the state. The former is a flagship of Mountain Capital Partners, who seem committed to their Power Pass, while the latter doesn’t seem to have any interest in the outside world whatsoever – it may be the largest ski area in the country with no reciprocal pass partnerships or mulitpass membership. Silverton is amazing, but the capacity is not likely there to support anything more than an extremely limited number of Indy Pass redemptions, and only during the resort’s very short unguided season. Granby Ranch, a thousand-footer between Winter Park and Steamboat, is another candidate.
With Colorado ignited, Indy’s largest remaining holes are Lake Tahoe and New Mexico. Both have plenty of partner candidates. Tahoe could check in with Mount Rose, Diamond Peak, Sugar Bowl, Sierra-at-Tahoe, or Homewood. New Mexico offers Red River, Ski Santa Fe, Angel Fire, Sandia Peak, Ski Apache, or Cloudcroft.
Whichever direction it goes in, I think Indy is nearly tapped out in the United States. There may be room for a dozen more ski areas before the thing begins to cannibalize itself. As Vail has demonstrated this year, skiers will ski in large numbers if you make it easy enough for them. Indy’s trick is to craft a product that’s appealing enough for anybody, without making it irresistible to everybody.
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Sunlight is an awesome mountain and a perfect fit for the Indy ethos. I'm familiar with a number of the northeast Indy mountains and anyone who skis there would be very comfortable at Sunlight. While its a bit of a hike out of Denver, for not only the price to ski Sunlight, but the prices in Glenwood, someone looking to go west from the East Coast gets a pretty good deal, even if you have to buy some additional ski days beyond the Indy's two days + 25% off the 3rd. Not to mention you can easily stop at Loveland for a day (as long as you can deal with the elevation!)
One ski area that continually surprises me by not being on the Indy Pass, is Willamette Pass in Oregon. They've been struggling for years and have even been looking to sell their Eagle Peak Accelerator high speed six pack lift and replace it with a cheap fixed grip quad. They also mothballed their Midway chairlift a number of years back (it's also for sale) and stopped providing Snow Tubing. They also run the Eagle Peak Accelerator at nearly fixed grip lift speeds despite an incredible design speed of 6 M/S (1,200fpm) to save power, and it seems to have an unusually bad rusting problem for a lift that isn't terribly old, having been constructed in 2002. And whenever I've gone to Willamette Pass, they never seem to have anything remotely close to a crowding problem, otherwise they wouldn't have mothballed Midway which runs parallel with Twilight, and they'd have lift queue management. The mountain is known for being super uncrowded, just read local news articles or reviews about Willamette Pass - a couple extra Indy Pass visits would have absolutely zero effects on the lift lines, snow and parking. I've been there three times over the years, once in the summer and twice in the winter and the resort was absolutely empty. It honestly felt busiest in the summer!
Willamette Pass would not be an isolated Indy Pass option either - it's not far off the Interstate 5 corridor which provides access to Mt. Ashland in southern Oregon, Mt. Shasta Ski Park in Northern California, plus Hoodoo Ski Area on US 20 is also not far away at all... if anything, Hoodoo and Willamette Pass split the Eugene area skier and snowboarder population. Oregon also borders Washington and Idaho, which are Indy Pass paradises!
Willamette Pass might be struggling but they're by no means an abysmal ski area. 1,563 foot vertical drop, annual snowfall average of 430 inches, 555 acres of terrain, affordable lift tickets, and 80 years of history!
It would also be bad if they got rid of their Eagle Peak Accelerator because not only would it significantly negatively impact the winter experience, but it would negatively impact summer operations as well. They put eight person gondola cabins on the lift in the summer and it is used by mountain bikers, sightseers and hikers. But a fixed grip chairlift is just way less ideal for mountain bikers and pedestrian riders than a gondola...
Willamette Pass strangely is the only ski area in Oregon to have a six pack chairlift, although Mt. Hood Meadows will be getting one later this year. There was a time when Willamette Pass had tons of visits, hence the sparkling brand new, super fast high speed six pack/8 person gondola in 2002 and the Twilight lift having Midway running right next to it, plus tubing. I attribute a lot of Willamette Pass's coming and going of popularity to when Powdr Corp took over Mt. Bachelor in 2001 and absolutely ruined it for over a decade, causing a huge diversion of Central Oregon skiers & snowboarders to Hoodoo, Willamette Pass and Mt. Hood ski resorts.
But Mt. Bachelor being treated a lot better by Powdr Corp after they lost Park City UT (there's still a lot of room for improvement though), and Willamette Pass failing to keep up with its competitors (they don't even have a single reciprocal on their season pass!) has sent it into some unfortunate times. But they're a great little area, they fit the Indy Pass bill perfectly and they'd only gain from it!