People lounging on patio chairs soaking in the sun. Children on people-movers receiving their first lessons. Music filling the air during lunch hour.
There wasn't a better place to be than Bear Valley.
Presidents Weekend, with the weather all but perfect, figured to be an optimum day at any ski resort. But Sunday at Bear, the winter playground off Highway 4 east of Murphys, was touched favorably by the snow gods.
More than 4,500 customers, the highest single-day turnout this season, tested all portions of the 40-year-old facility. Undaunted, Bear officials shot fireworks into the air Saturday night and beamed like a proud father in Sunday's brilliance.
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"You're seeing more and more families," said Martin Wegenstein, the first-year CEO of Bear Valley Resort Group. "Large groups came and not all of them were skiers or snowboarders. There were a lot of people who were just hanging out. It was a great day."
It felt more like March or April, prime-time spring skiing, as the temperature flirted with 60 degrees. The snow turned a bit slushy in the afternoon, especially on the Back Side on runs such as Grouse Connection and Shady Grove, but no one was shortchanged by the long lift lines. Bear kept its chairs open until 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes later than normal, to accommodate the huge crowd.
Polar Express, Bear's first high-speed quad dedicated last season — it replaced the Hibernation Chair — underlined the major upgrade taking place. Another example was the parade of buses, one every 30 minutes, shuttling guests and making the 3½-mile trip from Bear Valley Village to the mid-mountain lodge.
About the "Town Lift," the long-awaited chair connecting the resort to the village: If all political hurdles are cleared, work may begin by mid-2009.
"It has to be done correctly and right," Wegenstein said. "That addition will diversify all our options and change everything at Bear for the better."
Snow-wise, the series of January storms assures a long spring for Bear and all other properties in the Sierra. Wegenstein promises everyday operation at Bear through April 13, followed by weekends-only hours until the projected closing on Sunday, April 27.
Beginning skiers and riders can take advantage of Bear Valley's "learn to ski" month in April, when attractive combination packages will be available.
"We had a very slow start but our fantastic snowmaking was the key," Wegenstein said. "December ended with a run and now our product is terrific."
HEAVENLY — The prognosis also is good at Heavenly, the sprawling South Lake Tahoe resort that spans two states. It received an incredible 167 inches last month, the deepest snowfall in a single month since Heavenly began to chart data 32 years ago. It beat the next most bountiful month by 20 inches.
"The best conditions we've had in years," spokeswoman Aimi Xistra-Rich said. "It's been great for the last two months."
Heavenly's snow pack is 23 percent higher than average, thanks to its 300-inch total this season. With that, Heavenly has extended its season into May. It planned to close on April 20, but that date has been jumped forward to May 4.
"We want to reward our pass holders and other loyal guests with an extra two weeks of skiing," said Blaise Craig, Heavenly's CEO. "Heavenly already offers the best views, best surface conditions, best grooming and best tree skiing. Now our guests can enjoy it all into May."
Heavenly offers an affordable family spring-break package. Get the fifth-night lodging and fourth day of skiing for mom and dad for free, plus free skiing for children 12 and younger for the entire trip. Prices start at just $244 per person for a family of four. For more information, visit skiheavenly.com, vailresorts.com or snow.com.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.