Featured Image above: Kyra Hunsicker / Sunday River Resort
With ski areas starting to open all across North America, early season is upon us. We all hope as skiers and snowboarders that cold storms hit our home resort but that’s more the exception than the norm. If you have the cash, a trip to one of the resorts we talked about in our best bets for Thanksgiving skiing is a great option. For many of us though, that isn’t possible… so what should you do? Instead of staying home twiddling your thumbs and missing out on all the snowy fun, head to a resort that is endowed in the snowmaking variety. Ever wonder how the largest snowmaking systems in North America compare?
The Basics Of Snowmaking
Before we go through the list of the biggest and baddest snowmaking systems, let’s give the basics of how snowmakers create this magic stuff. The key factors on when a ski area can make snow is based on temperature, humidity, and altitude. These are combined into a single factor known in the science world as the “Wet Bulb Temperature.”
What Is Wet Bulb Temperature
In the simplest terms, “wet bulb” tells you how easy it is for water to evaporate. It takes into account the humidity AND the air temperature in one reading letting you know if the water being shot out of the snow guns can freeze before touching the ground. And the magic number needed for snowmaking is 27.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that you can technically start shooting snow at 40 degrees if the humidity and altitude are low enough. Negatively, it could also be below freezing and yet they can’t make snow because the humidity is too high. This also affects the quality of the snow being made too. The next important thing is the guns themselves, which fall into two basic categories: air/water and airless.
This type is where compressed air and water come in via two different hoses into the gun itself. The stream of water is internally interrupted by compressed air creating fine droplets. These droplets are then launched high enough to allow for the droplets to freeze. In the mid 1970’s when manufacturing snow became more prevalent, this was the gun style used. At that time, these variations were built from stock plumbing fixtures. This type of gun is still used by large scale manufacturers, and they continue to improve exponentially. For example, even today’s guns perform and produce higher quality product than those ten years older.
Resembling a giant oil drum as their name dictates, they don’t need compressed air shot into them. Instead, they spray water out of very small nozzles similar to those you use on garden hoses. These nozzles line a large powered fan that disrupts the jets of water into small droplets and propels them into the air. Compared to the air/water guns where they can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500 a pop, these bad boys can run you almost $10K, and they’re difficult to move.
Early Season Snowmaking
Just like a chef, no matter how good the ingredients, you still need to have a practiced hand. In addition, depending on the time of year you visit, the type of snow they’re going to make is going to be different. Think of it like a layered cake. The first layer near the ground will typically be dense i.e. wetter snow. From a skiing perspective, it’ll be icy and firm. This is when snowmakers produce snow that has a higher volume of water content. The advantage is that it is durable against ski traffic AND trails can be covered more quickly.
If you’ve ever heard someone say “oh, it’s crappy because it’s man made” that’s not necessarily true. What we’ve personally witnessed is that’s due to a ski area only making snow once or twice a season and then letting mother nature and snowcats do the rest. Although grooming can create a soft layer, typically this gets scraped off VERY fast. If a ski area continues to make snow throughout the season though, the conditions are WAY better. Unfortunately, 90% of resorts don’t invest in a high quality product.
Largest Snowmaking Systems In North America
Now that you have the basic understanding of how it’s made, let’s delve into the ski resorts with the biggest systems on the continent.
Snow gun Arsenal: 2,000+
Miles of Pipe: 80
Source: Sunday River
In addition to an enormous arsenal at the ready, they’re blessed to be located near the bottom of a huge watershed with nearly 43 square miles of drainage. This gives them access to a water source that naturally gets replenished: The Sunday River. And Sunday River isn’t sitting on their laurels either. They continue to invest in their snowmaking abilities and taken the first steps toward doubling their snowmaking capacity. Last summer, they replaced two miles of pipe from their water source to the mountain and installed a new 600 horsepower pump, which has increased the capacity for making snow by 15%. This season, they’re planning on installing 4 new 500 horsepower pumps to get yet another 10% increase in water capacity. With last year’s investments, their system can now pump 10,000 gallons per minute directly from the river to their snow guns at the resort.
Snow gun Arsenal: 1,700 (500 low energy guns)
Miles of Pipe: 88
A list of the largest snowmaking systems wouldn’t be complete without the Beast of the East. When conditions are at their best, in ONLY an hours’ time, Killington can pump more than 720,000 gallons of water to 240 snow guns. This can cover 80 acres with 12 inches of fresh snow!
Snow gun Arsenal: 1,100
Mile of Pipe: 60
Source: On the Snow
Another big player in the game is Hunter Mountain in upstate New York. The Catskill resort became the first ski area in the world to have 100 percent snowmaking coverage on its trails in 1980. They continue to invest not just in snow guns but their entire infrastructure. By replacing their original 60+ year old air compressor, they now have enough air and water available to run half of the snowmaking guns at once under marginal weather conditions. In fact, they can pump 43 gallons per minute per acre… that translates to covering 1 acre with 1 foot of snow per hour!
Blue Mountain Resort
Snow gun Arsenal: 1,382
Miles of Pipe: 40 miles
Source: Blue Mountain Resort
Another resort in PA that won’t let Ma’ Nature ruin the fun is Blue Mountain Resort. Located in the northern part of the Lehigh Valley, they boast the highest vertical in the state with a whopping 1,082′ vertical drop. To make sure all their terrain is open as quickly as possible, they have a big arsenal of snow guns. While 1,382+ guns might not seem like a lot, combine that with covering their 171 acres of terrain and that’s BIG! Their wintry weaponry consists of:
- 1,000 pole mounted guns
- 40 full auto fans
- 328 full auto stick guns
- 14 movable fan guns
Snow gun arsenal: 1000+
Miles of Pipe: At least 50
Source: Charleston Gazette, Ski Southeast
When it comes to the southeast, snowmaking is the backbone of EVERY major ski area south of the Mason Dixon line including Snowshoe. Home to the most snow (180 inches), largest vertical drop (1,500 feet), and most skiable terrain (265 acres) in the region, it also has a big snowmaking system to go with it. When conditions are right, Snowshoe can produce 2,500 TONS of snow per hour. If that wasn’t enough, in 2018, Snowshoe invested another $4 MILLION dollars into their snowmaking by installing automation hardware / software and picking up another 165 snow guns to their already hulking arsenal. This includes 90 low-energy “stick” guns and 75 fixed position, low-energy, high-production DemacLenko Titan 2.0 snow guns — the most powerful currently on the market.
Snow gun Arsenal: 1,000
Miles of Pipe: 60
Source: Pittsburgh Post- Gazette
Over the past few seasons, Seven Springs has been very fortunate on the amount of real snow they received. In fact, the 2014-15 season was so good they actually were the FIRST ski resort in the East to host the Snowboarder’s Superpark. As most of us know in a normal winter, the East can have some “challenging” weather, and as such, you better have great snowmaking. Under ideal conditions, Seven Springs’ patented system can pump 30,120 gallons of water per minute through its 856 snow towers, and within five hours, cover 54 acres with one foot of snow. They don’t sit back on their snowmaking strengths either. For example, in 2010 they replaced the diesel compressors which used over 100,000 gallons of fuel with energy efficient electric compressors. Bottom line… if the the weather cooperates and the temps drop, they can open A LOT of their terrain quickly & efficiently.
Snow gun Arsenal: 600
Miles of Pipe: 38
Source: Idaho Mountain Express , Snowmaking Teams
America’s first ski resort has amazing terrain, but sometimes the snow just doesn’t want to fall. Being in the high desert and on the southern edge of Idaho’s mountainous interior, this makes them on average receive only 220 inches of the good stuff. That means you better be good at making it too, and Sun Valley is one of the best out there. It’s not just about the size of the arsenal though, but how new the equipment is. The older the snow gun, the smaller the snow crystal. It’s like the difference between a bucket of sand and a bucket of gravel. Translation: Newer guns equals better quality snow. And since 2014, Sun Valley replaced over 282 of their guns.
Blue Mountain (Canada)
Snow guns: 600+
Miles of Pipe: 32+ miles
Source: Blue Mountain Canada , Simcoe
What this resort lacks in snowfall, it more than makes up with its massive snowmaking system. Just 90 minutes northwest of Toronto, Blue Mountain is Ontario’s largest mountain resort. Nestled on the shores of Georgian Bay, it has become THE four-season destination of the North, visited by more than 1.5 million guests a year. So, it makes sense that they’ve invested over $12 million in their snowmaking abilities since they started shooting snow in 1973. Even though their ski area has only 365 acres to cover, they’ve got some serious power behind it. In fact, they corner the market & can pull water directly from their reservoir via 14 pumps. It’s sent up the hill through the 53 kilometers of pipe at a maximum rate of 14,000 gallons per minute – enough to fill an average swimming pool in 2.5 minutes. The air sent to the guns is compressed by three-stage compressors, at a rate of 5,000 cubic feet per minute. Talk about some serious snow-power.
Snow gun Arsenal: 540
Miles of Pipe: 15
Source: On the Snow
Of course, the East Coast is home to the largest snowmaking systems, but the ones out West are nothing to sneeze at. Snowbasin is a great example. With the Salt Lake City Olympics, they needed to ensure there was white stuff on the ground to ski on. So, they installed one of the largest networks west of the Mississippi AND made it 100% computer automated. This means they can take advantage of the weather at the push of a button.
Snow gun Arsenal: 380
Miles of Pipe: It’s a secret… but they can cover 540 acres of terrain
Source: Vail Resorts Blog, Ultimate-Ski.com
Ensuring that the quality of conditions is up to snuff at one of the busiest ski destinations in North America, the key is happy return customers. Vail Resorts continues to do this by investing in their system and installing over a mile of new pipe on Lost Horizon and Barton Breezeway trails on Peak 6. This is critical to get the popular area open in the early season regardless of natural snowfall.
Snow gun Arsenal: 280
Miles of Pipe: Who knows… but they can cover up to 900 acres
Source: Whistler Insider
For anyone that’s been to Whistler, you know that their 5,280 vertical feet can sometimes have crazy weather. It can be snowing up top while raining at the bottom, so having snowmaking is key. Similar to Snowbasin, Whistler invested over $20 million out of the company’s $60 million investment in snowmaking for their Olympic Games. Their fleet gives them the capability to make snow from the glacier summits right to the valley floor. In fact, they can cover up to 900 acres of their terrain with up to a foot of snow.
Heavenly Mountain Resort
Snow gun Arsenal: 200+
Miles of Pipe: Take a guess… but they can blow snow on 70% of the marked trails
Source: Roots Rated
What is dubbed the largest snowmaking system on the West Coast, they typically make on average over 120 inches of snow each season. At peak capacity, Heavenly can cover a football field with 2 feet of snow in a ten hour shift. This is another resort that can fully automate over 65 of their fan guns so when conditions are perfect, it will run itself. Talk about a great combination!
It’s understandable that ski resorts out West, focused more on the natural pow, aren’t as big about touting their arsenals as the ones out East. Is there a ski area we missed that should be on the list?
Let’s hope for a big winter, but if it’s a slow start to the season, at least you now know which ones have a large system as a backup plan.
If you’re a curious person that asks questions like what is the biggest snowstorm ever? Or which ski resorts are the most favored to have a big winter in an El Nińo or La Nińa then you’ll love our Ski Weather Facts & Phenomenon homepage. We delve into these things and much, much more.