Sometime in June, when lingering snow has vanished, customers at Vail will have new opportunities for both warm-weather thrills and mountain contemplation.
A small area of Vail Mountain will have zip lines, rope courses, and a gravity coaster called the Forest Flyer. It's off the forest floor, but you get to control the speed. Thrill-seekers will be able to survey the landscape high over the forest floor and, here and there, pause to contemplate the natural world.
Vail Resorts is packing its summertime amusements under the brand of Epic Discovery and is at work on something similar at Breckenridge. So are many other ski areas that operate on national forest land.
Some of these activities have been available on private land elsewhere. Ski areas in the East have had summer-centric attractions for years, and so has Utah's Park City, as it is located almost entirely on former mining property. But Vail and most ski areas in Colorado are located largely or entirely on public land. A 1985 law granting operators 40-year special-use permits addressed only skiing and snow sports. There was no express authority for use of the mountains during summer and fall.
Despite the lack of clear authority, the Forest Service OK'd some activities. Most ski areas offered summer lift or gondola rides. Many tried to cash in on the mountain bike boom beginning in the 1980s. Most ski areas cobbled together attractions on the margins. Both Breckenridge and Winter Park, for example, installed concrete troughs called alpine slides in the late 1970s. At Vail, you could--and still can--take the gondola ride to a mountain-top venue--located on private land--where you can buy a meal, admire the views of Mount of the Holy Cross, and partake of a few activities like tubing at Adventure Ridge.
About a decade ago, at the instigation of Vail Resorts, the ski industry began lobbying Congress for clear authority for summer use of ski mountains. The industry's trade organization, the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, began working with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, on legislation. The law was passed in 2011. It specifically says that amusement parks, golf courses and water parks are not allowed on the ski mountains. But the law left the U.S. Forest Service leeway in determining what exactly would be allowed.
Vail Mountain was first to go through the process. The company was careful to embrace the idea...