JACKSON — Snow King Mountain Resort is Wyoming’s oldest ski resort, but more recently, it’s been struggling.
“When I came along in 2012, it was seriously failing, they were trying to give it away,” Snow King Mountain Resort President and CEO Ryan Stanley told Cowboy State Daily. “We have since put a lot of money into improvements.”
Those improvements are finally starting to pay off with higher visitor counts, but even more improvements are on the way.
In addition to a faster gondola, expanded boundaries and new ski trails, new snowmaking equipment, and a new base lodge, Snow King Mountain Resort is placing a $5 million observatory and planetarium on top of the mountain. That’s slated for completion this fall. It will dovetail with a restaurant at the top of the mountain that will be completed in fall 2024.
A concert venue has also been created at the top of the mountain, which is intended to host up to 2,500 people.
“Last summer we did kind of a small stage, to kind of test the idea, see if we could make it work,” Stanley said.
That went well, so this summer they bought a bigger stage and have already hosted some sold-out shows at the top of the mountain.
“It’s been a long push over the past 10 years, I’d say, to transform Snow King Mountain into something sustainable and successful that can live on into the future,” Stanley said. “And all of these things are part of what comes together to make that finally happen, and be viable to attract tourists and skiers.”
Wyoming’s Oldest Resort
Snow King is Wyoming’s oldest ski resort, and it helped pave the way for all the others that came later. But it wasn’t always known as Snow King.
For a long time, it was known simply as the Town Hill, and it was a five-minute walk from the heart of downtown Jackson. Even then, with no official trails or ski lift devices, it was a magnet.
Skiers would hike on foot to its top to enjoy what is one of the steepest downhill runs in the lower 48. In fact, it’s still the one favored most by those training to ski in the Olympics.
In 1932, Town Hill was renamed to Ruth Hanna Simms Ski Hill in honor of a local resident who donated money to build a ski jump. The Civilian Conservation Corps, meanwhile, built a hiking and horse trail for the Forest Service that led to the top at about the same time.
But it wasn’t until the Jackson Hole Ski Association formed a year later that things really began to roll. It renamed the hill Snow King and awarded a contract in 1939 to Neil Rafferty to build a lift device.
That first lift was concocted with a 4,000-foot used cable purchased from a Casper oil field company and an old Ford tractor engine. Skiers would grasp the tow rope to be pulled up the mountain on their skis. The trip took about eight minutes.
Rafferty later added lights to the slopes so that people could ski past dark. He also cleared trails, built roads and prepared the ski slopes. His success was considered a model at the time, and it cleared the way for later development of other, much larger and more ambitious Forest Service ski areas.
In 1946, Snow King got its first chairlift, after the Jackson Hole Winter Sports Association raised $40,000 to buy a used tramway from a gold mining operation California.
The chairlift was an instant hit. More than 8,500 people rode it 1,600 feet up the mountainside.
While Snow King helped cement Jackson’s reputation as a ski town, and remains its longest running ski resort, it has since been eclipsed by other ski resorts, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which hosts upward of 700,000 ski visits annually.
Snow King Has A Big Ship To Right
Snow King owners have told Jackson media outlets that the resort has been losing about $500,000 annually on winter operations, and that is the reason for all the proposed changes.
Many of the changes have focused on either attracting visitors outside of skiing season or attracting year-round visitors. The new zipline, which is being promoted as the steepest in North America, is in the latter category, and is a special attraction all its own.
It has three sections, including a beginner span for learning. On the steepest span, zipliners will reach speeds of up to 60 mph, traveling on a 36% grade.
Visitor numbers have been improving thanks to all of the changes, Stanley said, but are still not where they need to be.
“For a time, we were about 40,000 skier visits in the winter, and now, with these improvements, we have gotten to like 70,000,” he said. “But healthy in the ski industry is over 150,000. If you’re under that, you can’t survive.”
Part of the battle with these new attractions is just getting the word out that things at Snow King have dramatically changed, Stanley said.
“We’d love to let the rest of the people in Wyoming know that they need to check out Snow King,” he said. “Even if they’ve been here in the past, because it’s changed so much in the past five years, or even two years.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.