Sugar Bowl has long history
“This is very nice here,” Debbie Williams said as she gazed out the huge windows reflecting the powdery slopes of Sugar Bowl. Swallowing one last gulp of her coffee, Williams gathered her gloves and goggles and eagerly opened the spacious doors of the new day lodge anticipatory of the clear blue powder day ahead of her.
Although this was Williams’ first day at Sugar Bowl, many skiers have regularly been coming to this locally owned resort since its beginning in 1939.
“I’ve been coming here since 1968,” said Fran Frates. “I like the terrain and the people – it’s just like home. Overall, it’s the best resort in the Sierra.”
Located off Interstate 80, Sugar Bowl is celebrating its 60th anniversary. As the first ski area in California to offer a chair lift and gondola, it promotes 84 trails and three high-speed detachable quads, allowing access to four peaks and 1,500 acres of terrain.
Despite advancing with the ever-changing technology in skiing, the resort has retained its classic style and family-owned appeal. It may not be as large as the resorts in Tahoe, but the area has done well under some stiff competition.
“Sugar Bowl has always been about skiing – there’s not a lot of fluff,” said Bill Hudson, sales manager. “We have big mountain skiing with an atmosphere that’s family oriented. People don’t feel like they’re lost in the shuffle here.”
Sugar Bowl has maintained its local feel with the help of a board of directors, made up of 50 members, who have run the ski area since its inception.
“The board has been passed on from generation to generation,” Hudson said. “These people really know this area and have a deep love of the sport. They want to make sure it remains family oriented and give people an enjoyable time.”
With 50 cabins scattered throughout the tree-laden property, no vehicles are allowed near the base of the mountain. Rather a gondola transports skiers and homeowners to the original lodge where snowmobiles are available to take residents to their homes. The exception is the new Day Lodge, which is accessible via automobile.
The Main Lodge itself is representative of an era gone by. A large, spacious dining room connecting to a generous sitting area epitomizes apres ski that was so popular in the ’40s. Stars like Claudette Colbert and Errol Flynn would be seen mingling with the staff and locals alike as they sat on the sunny deck laughing, dancing and drinking. Walt Disney also visited the resort with his family, as he was one of the first investors. The Disney lift is named after him.
For one girl, Sugar Bowl helped launch her career in film. Her father was the lodge receptionist and had a picture of his teen-age daughter, Jeanette, on his desk. When actress Norma Shearer came to stay, she noticed the attractive girl and asked for a copy to take back with her to Hollywood. MGM soon signed on the teen-ager and the film star Janet Leigh was born.
Sugar Bowl’s inspiration came from Austrian Hannes Schroll, who always envisioned creating a European-style resort. Hearing of an ideal location in the Sierra from fellow Austrians who had formed a ski school in the area, Schroll teamed up with some investors to form Sugar Bowl in 1938.
After securing the backing of Southern Pacific, who agreed to build a track adjacent to the Norden telegraph office giving access to skiers in the valley, construction began on the lodge and the Disney lift. Sugar Bowl officially opened on December 15, 1939.
Now, 60 years later, Sugar Bowl still possesses the basic ingredients for a successful resort: terrific skiing and customer service. Plans for more improvements are under way, but will be implemented slowly.
“We want to be a 21st century resort but we will never be a valley full of condos and sky-rise hotels,” Hudson said. “There’s a fine line – we want to be financially stable, but we want to grow at a pace where the mountain can handle the people.”
Indeed, Sugar Bowl will continue to grow, but nothing can replace its old-style charm and rustic appeal of its past.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about privately owned ski resorts.
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