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Sometimes the best skiing starts when winter ends

ALTA, Wyo.  — The most enlightened alpine skiers have some of the most tanned faces.

They know the best time of year to hit the slopes isn’t in the dead of winter, but rather when most Americans are turning their attention toward baseball and spring break beaches. There are more than a few resorts where spring skiing means good powder, sunny skies, no lines and reduced prices.

Take the first week of April in northwest Wyoming, for example. Last year, nearly 70 inches of snow fell at Grand Targhee between March 31 and April 7, including 21 inches from one storm on April 2. The late-season lift lines were thin, the cost of skiing and lodging relatively low, and the powder was deep — more than waist-deep in some spots.

These were the types of days ski instructor and Minnesota native Mark Hanson dreamed of when he left behind a traditional office job and headed for the Rockies with his wife some two decades ago.

“The days are longer, brighter, warmer, and there’s generally more accumulation than any point in the season,” Hanson said. “The snow is still adding until sometime in April, so chances are very good you’ll have either powder or sunshine and maybe both, and who doesn’t love that?”

On the other side of the Teton Range at expansive Jackson Hole ski resort, it was more of the same. The hard-core skiers made sure they caught an early tram ride to the summit so they could drop into a bed of fresh powder lining the famous Corbetz Couloir.

By most accounts, the last week of last season at Jackson Hole was arguably the best. An unusual dry spell left conditions below average for much of the heart of the season, leaving those who jammed the resort at peak times often skiing on manmade hard-pack and watching out for rocks and stumps in higher-difficulty areas.

Those who trickled into the historic fur-trading post turned world-famous destination in late March and through last Easter weekend got the bigger bank for their buck. Just about the whole mountain was open and covered with fresh snow, leaving skiers to choose their own ways down through wide open bowls or to snake fresh tracks between the trees.

Short lift lines meant enough runs to wear out even well-conditioned skiers. But those who had enough energy left to dine out were rewarded with easy reservations at the various fine-dining establishments in the area, from the Cadillac Grille in the heart of Jackson to the scenic Couloir at top of the gondola, which runs at night for diners desiring an expansive view of the Rockies at sunset.

Meanwhile, those who took a day off from the slopes to cruise the shops found enormous discounts, particularly on clearance items such as parkas or other ski apparel and accessories that were bound to get good use for many ski seasons to come.

This year, the last weekend in March at Jackson Hole will be highlighted by the three-day Mountain Festival, which will include a free concert and the Marmot Coombs Classic, an event in which participants earn raffle tickets for each time they ski designated parts of the mountain. The event is named for the late renowned backcountry skiing enthusiast Doug Coombs.

At higher elevations in spring, it’s common for temperatures to get cold enough overnight to bring fresh snow, and for days to warm up comfortably when the sun comes out. The heaviest outer layers of ski clothes often are no longer required. Sunglasses might replace goggles and sunscreen is pretty much mandatory, particularly with the intensity of the sun at high altitude, combined with the reflection of sun rays off the snow.

“My kids are after the raccoon look,” Hanson said of his 16- and 14-year-old daughters. “It’s like a status symbol among teenagers here to have a goggle tan.”

At places like Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, or other higher altitude ski areas across the Rockies, it’s not uncommon to see skiers end their afternoons by stripping down to a T-shirt and sitting on outdoor patio with a cold drink at the base of the slopes, tilting their heads back to gaze through their shades at the terrain they’ve just conquered.

“The spring means long days, pleasant weather and lots of events,” said Zahan Billimoria, a backcountry enthusiast who serves as a spokesman for Jackson Hole. “There’s people just hanging out in the sunshine and enjoying live music after a day of skiing. There’s just a lot of social outdoor mountain culture going on that’s pretty special.”

Because Jackson Hole is a large destination resort, it usually closes to skiing in early April — April 3 this season — because there isn’t enough business to justify operating, even though there’s still plenty of snow. Grand Targhee, which is smaller, with fewer lifts and a base elevation above 7,000 feet (about 1,400 feet higher than Jackson Hole), stays open a few weeks later, sometimes through mid-May.

The two areas are a little more than an hour’s drive apart over the stunning Teton Pass, so it would be easy, for example, to fly into Jackson at the end of March, ski at Jackson Hole a few days, and then head by car to Grand Targhee to get plenty more skiing in.

Some of the spring deals at Targhee include a “Spring Ski and Stay” package for $69 per person, which has a double occupancy minimum and includes both the hotel and lift pass. A lift pass normally costs $69, so it’s almost like getting the room for free. In addition, there tend to be fewer weather-related air travel delays at that time of year, and the prices of flight and car rentals tend to drop.

There are similar deals to be found all across the Rockies from Montana to Colorado, Utah and Idaho. It’s enough to leave people like Hanson shaking their heads at how the typical person’s perception of the seasons, rather than the reality of snow on the slopes, drives the ski industry.

Ski areas fight to get a few ribbons of manmade snow down in time for Thanksgiving, when people start thinking about winter sports, but those same resorts have trouble justifying staying open into April when snow coverage is often superb.

“It doesn’t really match up with the quality of our experience or our product,” Hanson said. “It seems like once March is ending, people get out of winter mode, start riding bikes, playing golf and watching baseball.”

The true ski enthusiasts, however, know that the best days of the season might be still be ahead.