Sugar Loaf Ski Resort is an apricot-colored megaresort in the Canadian Rockies, about an hour north of Calgary. This year will mark its 75th anniversary, yet it has lost its charm. One would assume the lure of winter sports, or the desire to upgrade to a bigger and better resort, would attract new visitors. But that has not happened. Here’s why.
Sugar Loaf draws a relatively young crowd compared to other resort towns, with a median age of 38.7 in 2016. But people are getting older and having fewer kids, which means less snowboarding and more leisure activities.
Ski resorts that attract a larger, more mature audience – typically found in the Northern and Southern hemispheres – are more stable and financially viable. Younger people may prefer the excitement of a big city winter and the chance to socialize on social media rather than hit the slopes. The birth rate in Alberta is also at an all-time low, so it’s less likely that the next generation will take up skiing.
Lack Of Snowfall.
It’s not just the older generation that is flocking to the mountain towns in greater numbers. International students on winter campuses, looking for some winter fun before they head back to school, are also helping fuel the ski-in/ski-out trend. The problem is, even with all of these college students, Sugar Loaf still has one of the lowest snowfall totals in the entire country. In fact, the resort gets less snow than other nearby ones, such as Canmore and Banff.
Ski season at other Alberta ski resorts starts in October and ends in April. At Sugar Loaf, it is one of the shortest on the Canadian Rockies – from early January until late March, you will probably not see or feel snow on the ground. In 2016, just 9.4 inches of snow fell at the resort – that’s compared to 27.8 inches at Banff, 24.3 inches at Cypress Mountain, and 22 inches at Calgary.
When the snow does fall, the mountain really does catch the imagination, especially given its extraordinary height (1,873 meters). The skiing, however, is not breathtaking – there are endless flat stretches interrupted by steep pitches and narrow lanes. Even the expert skiers can’t help but feel a little bit of deja vu when they visit the resort. After all, it’s been a while since they last snowboarded.
A day at the resort costs $80, which buys you a full-day badge for the gondola, the high-speed quad chairlift (which whisks you to the top of the mountain in three minutes), and the beginner’s snow park.
For $110, you can add the mid-range chairlift (ten minutes slower than the gondola) and the magic carpet (for kids), which whizzes them down the mountain.
Lack Of Attractiveness.
Sugar Loaf, while popular, is not a pretty town. The Canadian Rockies are famous for their beautiful golden aspen groves and scenic vistas. But aside from a few buildings in a specific area of the town, theres not much to look at. It’s not that the location is bad – the hiking, fishing, and mountain biking are still outstanding – it’s that the entire resort, from top to bottom, is comprised of concrete and asphalt. There is no vegetation and very little wildlife. The mountain is surrounded by oil and gas wells, and there is a strong stench in the air. If one is used to the Canadian Rockies’ majestic vistas, the resort’s lack of natural beauty may come as a bit of a shock.
No History Of Growth.
Even the name Sugar Loaf is somewhat of a misnomer. The mountain’s original moniker, according to locals, is “Brown’s Mountain” after Jack Brown, who homesteaded the area in the early 1900s. While it was originally a part of the Brown’s Mountain Ranch, the area quickly became its own entity when, in 1924, Brown sold off a large chunk of his land (including the mountain) to a group of Pennsylvania resort developers.
The first season was an absolute disaster. The resort’s first chairlift, the Travail, broke down almost immediately, forcing the resort’s first winter residents to resort to tobogganing and snowshoeing to get around. In fact, a full day of skiing might consist of skiing, followed by a hike up the mountain, followed by more skiing. But despite the initial difficulties, this would become one of the country’s first true ski resorts.
Decline In Attractivity.
After years of being Canada’s favorite getaway destination for schoolchildren, families, and retirees, Sugar Loaf has seen a major decline in interest. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s and early 2000s, Sugar Loaf was going through a boom, with the resort expanding its infrastructure and opening up new slopes. Then came the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, and, as in other parts of the country, visitors dwindled. What’s more, Calgary, Alberta’s biggest city, is only 45 minutes from the resort. In summer, the air is hot and humid, while in winter, it can get cold and damp. Perhaps the most significant factor behind the decline in interest is that, even after a few major renovations, the resort still lacks the iconic resort feel that attracted visitors in the first place.
Numerous renovations and expansions at Sugar Loaf have failed to capture the imagination of today’s skiers and snowboarders. Perhaps the biggest problem is that younger generations have grown up playing video games, watching movies, and listening to music on their phones, tablets, and laptops. Today’s kids have no desire to go to a cold mountain and go for a hike or ski. They want to stay inside, play video games, and enjoy the cold in a different way – either at home or in a hot spring pool.
Sugar Loaf needs to find a way to reverse this trend and attract visitors back. While the developers who purchased the resort in the early 1920s foresaw a future for skiing, they probably did not foresee the changing cultural landscape of the 20th century. The Canadian Rockies’ first and second homes, in other words, may be losing their allure because of technology and the way we consume today’s entertainment.