Terrain parks: Small section of Tahoe resorts is hard work, big fun

Laney Griffo
A woman hits the rail at Diamond Peak.


For some skiers and snowboarders, riding the rails or getting big air in the terrain park is one of the biggest draws to the resorts. While the parks only account for a small section of the whole mountain, the amount of time spent planning, designing, building and maintaining the parks is enormous.

“Terrain parks are enhanced snow features or steel features that provide an added value to the resorts,” said Mike Bettera, owner of Effective Edge, an advisory company that consults with resorts on all things terrain parks including building, maintaining and staffing.

Although parks use similar features, jumps, rails, boxes, etc., the layout of the park is really determined by the natural features of the resort and trends in the industry.

In the summer, long before the snow flies, terrain park design is already underway.

When designing parks, two things Bettera, who works with several local mountains including Sierra-At-Tahoe, recommends resorts consider who they are trying to cater to and runs and pitches of the mountain for park placement.

Brendan McGraw, terrain park manager at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, said his team will start with hand drawings or computer designs of the potential park.

At Diamond Peak Ski Resort, Matt Melilli, slope maintenance manager, said they’ll start building the features and will sometimes start moving dirt to build up the base of jumps.

“A big part of the planning is before you even take the snow cat out, before you make the snow, is kind of having a mental idea of what kind of features you want in the park and where they’ll go,” Melilli said. He added that some features have to be placed in certain places, like people need enough speed built up before hitting big jumps.

Melilli has a lot of experience in park building. Before joining Diamond Peak, he worked at the parks at Keystone and Boreal and has designed parks for Burton U.S. Open and Dew Tour.

There are some components all parks have. The National Ski Areas Association and Burton Snowboards have created the Park SMART standard. SMART stands for start small, make a plan, always look, respect, and take is easy. features a SMART video for users and resorts to view as well as safety signs the resorts can use to play at their parks.

Parks are also separated, usually with orange fencing so no one can accidentally end up there. There are also “slow” signs at the end so park users can safely merge back into the slopes.

Once winter comes, the building starts. Melilli said they will use man made snow but McGraw said they like to wait for some natural snow. However, both say it takes a lot of effort and coordination between the day crews and the night crews to get the park built.

McGraw said, it’s a lot of trial and error. The staff will run through the parks multiple times, which is the fun part of their job. They’ll also watch how guests react to the park.

For example, the Tribune was present on the opening day of one of the parks. McGraw watched many guests go around a large rail feature that didn’t flow well with the rest of the park. He directed staff to remove the rail that night and do a little reconfiguring.

A snow cat building the terrain park at Kirkwood.

Melilli said it’s a similar process at Diamond Peak.

“A lot of times, I’d love to say a terrain park is blue printed out … but when you go to build it, sometimes you find that the speeds are not right for a feature,” Melilli said. “So, you have to change up what you’re doing kind of on the fly to assess safety, ride-ability, all those things can factor in when you’re actually going to put a park together.”

Staff at Diamond Peak do daily maintenance on the park.

Kirkwood has two terrain parks. Buckaroo has extra small features and is used for terrain park introduction and teaching. For example, it has boxes flush with the snow so that people can practice going from snow to box or bumps that are used to prepare people for jumps.

The Bandit park has small and medium features, while everyone drops in at the same place, it splits into two lines for the different ability levels.

Bandit, is one of two parks at Kirkwood.

McGraw said they are planning to open a third park next year, Outlaw, with large features.

Kirkwood’s director of skier services, Justin Hartwell, said he often uses the terrain park to teach new skiers basic skills.

“Kirkwood has a good, solid progression and the terrain park adds features from the low end to the high end,” Hartwell said.

Kirkwood is unique in that it has so many natural, technical features such as drops, off piste and chutes. So McGraw said he wants the terrain park to set people up to ride the whole mountain.

“Every feature in the terrain park will help you elsewhere on the mountain,” Hartwell added. “The park can help you learn spacial awareness, balance and how to move.”

Bettera, McGraw and Melilli all say they’ve seen a shift in who is using the park. While parks used to be about going big and were catered to thrill seekers and risk takers, there is now a focus on being more accessible and having better skill progression.

“Terrain parks used to be scary and had a bad name,” Bettera said. “Now, we’re trying to make them more welcoming.”

Bettera said he’s seen more families and more women than ever enjoying the parks.

“Families don’t want to go to the mountain and separate,” Bettera said, so now he recommends parks have features for all skill levels.

“We want everyone to be comfortable in the terrain parks,” McGraw said. “The key word is park.”

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