by Mitch Kaplan

Easter Sunday, Winter Park, Colorado. Like siblings, the sun and clouds squabble over who controls the sky. But, command of the snow-covered ski slopes is undisputed; they belong to the kids. Riding the chairlift, we pass over several dozen of them, all ages, gathered for the annual Easter fun slalom race.

A few look up and wave. By the time we finish our ascent, the sun has gained possession of the heavens and the air has begun to warm. Fourteen year-old Dan, twelve year-old Laina and I are anxious to take advantage of the sun's victory. It should be a terrific day for skiing.

Masses of monster moguls at Winter Park.


We ski quickly along Hughes, a wide run, bathed in sunlight, that connects to Bradley's Bash, which dips suddenly and steeply, and becomes littered with snowcone soft moguls. We reel up and down over the bumps like a roller coaster, pitching with the undulations, then suddenly stop to catch our breath and unzip our parkas.

Not for long. "Let's go," Danny shouts impatiently.

We race downhill. By the time we reach the bottom, we're all sweating. "Zip up," I tell them as we board the chairlift.

"But I'm so hot!" they each moan.

I repeat a "dad's maxim" for spring skiing: "Zip up going up, zip down skiing down, to keep your body temperature sound!"

Spring is skiing's best kept secret. Just when many people grow weary of winter's cold and dark, and head for warmer climes, the mountain air warms, the snow softens, the days grow longer and brighter -- and prices go down. A rarefied sense of freedom accompanies the rising temperatures. Everything seems easier. But, spring can be tricky. Weather varies radically, and any given day might resemble anything from mid-winter to early summer. Everyone must think like a boy scout and be prepared. Always wear eye protection against ultra-violet rays, use strong sun block and lip balm freely, and make dressing properly the number one priority.

"Oddly enough, we've found that the key to keeping the kids comfortable in the spring is the same as in the winter -- dress them in layers," says Mike Terrell, a realtor and skiing father of four from Traverse City, Michigan. "That way, they can remove clothing as the day warms up." In some areas -- like the northeastern and northwestern U.S. -- rain gear may be required. (Although it doesn't sound appealing, skiing in the rain can be terrific -- if you're properly dressed.)

Varying weather brings changeable snow conditions. Just yesterday, we'd skied on six inches of new powder. Today we start on hardpack that doesn't soften before mid-morning. But, we don't mind. Spring skiing should be relaxed -- and late starts satisfy Danny's teenage penchant for sleeping in. Generally, the "slush line," as I call it, moves up the mountain as the day wears on. By afternoon, the best skiing is found at higher elevations.

The warm temperatures, soft snow, need for fewer clothes, and better freedom of movement that create so much fun, also enhance learning. "Spring is a great time for ski school, or even to start your kids on skis," says Joan Christensen, a former kids' instructor who now works in the Winter Park marketing department. "They don't have to be all bundled up, and the soft snow cushions any falls."

Is that why Dan and Laina grab the opportunity to take snowboarding lessons? Or is it just to ditch Dad? Either way, now child-free, I join Joan and a pair of Chicagoans, Elizabeth Kaufmann and Ernie Tucker, on the lift line. Liz and Ernie just left their four year-old, Travis, at ski school. "Not having to deal with the cold factor is a real plus for Travis," says Liz, who also agrees with Joan about the snow. "Skiing on ice scares me; so I like knowing there isn't any for him."

Did I say lift line? Perhaps "at the lift" would be more apt. There is no line. Fewer people -- on the slopes, in the base lodge, in the ski shops, in the restaurants -- is among spring's best aspects. At Winter Park, the number of skiers declines from a high season average of about 12,000 per day to a mere 4,000. Low season also translates into significantly lower costs for lift tickets and lodging. Easter, according to Christensen, provides the key to scheduling a spring ski vacation. "An early Easter usually means that fewer people have an April week off," she says. "It pays, as well, to check on when schools have their spring break. Once that's past, prices and crowds are reduced."

We soon encounter a huge crowd, however, at the junctions of Gnome Forest and Upper Parkway. Hundreds of kids. They've completely blocked the way. Brightly colored candy eggs and other treats are scattered along the slope's edge, trailing off into the trees. Parents stand with camcorders and cameras at the ready. It's an on-slope Easter egg hunt. Suddenly, with a loud cheer, the swarm moves forward, skis thrashing, faces gleaming, and noisily stoops and scoops its way down the hill. I can't suppress a grin. Spring skiing is like a puppy -- warm, wet, wiggly, sometimes wild, but it always leaves you smiling.

Spring Skiing Guidelines

It's usually not necessary to book late season ski vacations very far in advance. Some resorts may even offer extra discounts if bookings are very slow. Some points to remember:

  • ask about projected closing dates; last season's good snow allowed many resorts to extend their seasons.
  • ask about snow accumulations and cover; resorts at higher elevations or in a so-called "snow belt" tend to keep snow longer.
  • ask about special events that may affect pricing, scheduling, or room availability; the third week of March is a national Canadian holiday, which can keep high season rates in effect at northern U.S. and Canadian resorts .
  • check on day care staffing; some resorts reduce staff, affecting the continuity of care; nurseries/day care centers that take reservations are more apt to be properly staffed, while drop-in centers might offer less complete services.

Editor's Note: If you start skiing in the spring, or ski with rental gear your first season as your skills improve, you can buy season-end ski gear at 30% to 50% savings.