The thing about Royal Gorge is, nobody really knows how big it is.
Trail reports have varied since the cross-country ski resort went up on Donner Summit in 1971, suggesting the nearly 3,000-acre property offers anywhere between 195 to 320 kilometers of groomed terrain.
Back in the early stages of the Royal Gorge’s rapid development in Soda Springs, Calif., founder John Slouber claimed it was the largest nordic ski area in North America. Forty years later, one would be hard-pressed to refute that.
“I don’t know of anyone that grooms more kilometers than them,” said Mark Nadell, the former head of Far West Nordic who designs the area’s trail maps. “Whether they were 300 or 150 it didn’t matter, it was always more than you could eat.”
A local skier from nearby Truckee, Calif., Nadell tried to ski Royal Gorge’s perimeter with friends. Six or seven hours later, he figured they had only scratched the surface.
The obscurity that surrounds the resort’s total kilometers matches its current financial situation. Simply put, it’s a tough one to pin down and could be harder to sort out.
Six years ago when California developers Kirk Syme and Todd and Mark Foster bought the business for a reported $35 million, they had big plans in mind. Their vision, which included some 900 condominiums and two manmade lakes, never panned out for a myriad of reasons. To name a few, the economy turned sour in a saturated market, Donner Summit’s environment was both fragile and historical, and the community rallied to conserve it.
In June, news broke that Royal Gorge’s owners defaulted on a $16.7 million loan. Their continued inaction on the nonpayment put the resort under court-appointed receivership in August. The owners were given 45 days to resolve the situation with the receiver, Douglas Wilson Companies of San Diego.
Time expired without resolution in mid-September, delegating the resort’s operations to the receiver for the upcoming winter and leaving its future undecided.
For Royal Gorge and its influx of skiers, that arrangement won’t affect much, said the area’s marketing and sales coordinator Lauren Birtwhistle. General manager David Achey remains at the helm and the rest of the resort’s usual staff is in place, ready to offer lessons, rentals and the deluxe nordic ski experience unique to Royal Gorge.
“Royal Gorge will be open this season,” Birtwhistle said. “There isn’t any reason to be hesitant to make plans to come up here. … There aren’t any big dramatic changes going on.”
As part of an ongoing marketing effort, Royal Gorge reduced its season-pass price from $425 to $375 per adult and extended the early-season discount to Oct. 31.
Operating hours would most likely be similar, Birtwhistle said, from Thursday to Monday (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Tuesday (9-1:30), except for holidays when the resort was open seven days a week. She didn’t anticipate major alterations to grooming, especially not at Ice Lakes Lodge, which is under separate ownership.
“The lodge is the lodge; we have the trail systems and the land,” Birtwhistle said. “Everyone has their rumors and this and that, but you wouldn’t be able to see anything different from day-to-day operations. … We’re really expecting one of our biggest years.”
The Royal Gorge Experience
The ski area’s original visionary, John Slouber reportedly chose the property when he discovered a hunting lodge on Donner Summit, according to Moonshine Ink of Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
Born in Auburn, Calif., he ski raced and guided in Europe, picking up influences from Scandinavian resorts. Starting with four trails on about 10 kilometers, Slouber quickly expanded Royal Gorge with the help of Donner Summit landowner Rancho Monterey. The resort soon encompassed some 3,000 acres, from Van Norden Meadows near the Sugar Bowl alpine resort to the edge of the 4,417-foot-deep Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American River.
“Creation of this thing is the fun part,” Slouber once said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I want to see how far it can go.”
He initially wanted an Olympic Village – a multisport playground in the heart of Royal Gorge, complete with luge runs, ski jumps, ice rinks, a biathlon stadium, five lodges, two lifts and 510 “condotel” rooms, Moonshine Ink reported.
That idea hit a snag in the early ’90s when the economy took a dive, but Slouber kept thinking. He proposed a lodge and 18 residential units on Van Norden Meadows, but Donner Summit homeowners and conservationists strongly objected.
In the end, Slouber left Royal Gorge in 2005 with plenty of developmental marks, including four lifts, two overnight lodges and a day lodge, and eight warming huts scattered among 90 trails.
Six years later, the resort stands as one of the nation’s largest. Development, however, has stalled and one surface lift remains.
“John Slouber was brilliant,” said Nadell, who worked with Royal Gorge since 1977. “He got out at just the right time, buy low, sell high.”
The Master Plan
When Syme and the Foster cousins took over in 2005, they neither anticipated the economic recession that hit the nation less than three years later nor the regulatory problems of developing Donner Summit.
The real-estate investors reportedly discovered the property in a Wall Street Journal advertisement while living in the San Francisco Bay area. Considering the building boom that was taking place in Truckee – with nearly 10 new golf courses in a few years – they figured they couldn’t lose.
Before submitting their proposals to Placer County, the new owners took the time to meet the Donner Summit locals. In January 2006, they held a public meeting and noted the community’s concerns, which mostly involved public access. Syme and Todd Foster touched upon their development plans without too much detail, and encouraged people to submit comments and stay updated on their website: royalgorgefuture.com.
Five years later, that web address did not work.
In March 2007, the developers held another meeting with Donner Summit residents, this time with concrete plans. Among them, Syme and Foster proposed 600 residential units (for a total of 900), two hotels, two artificial lakes, several ski lifts and trails and a series of retail stores and restaurants.
The community and several conservationist groups wouldn’t have it.
“We have felt that the development does not match our community, that it would be very harmful to the environment,” said Serene Lakes Property Owners Association President Ken Hall, specifically pointing out the area’s small lakes and surrounding mountains.
“We were very opposed to Mr. Syme’s plan,” Hall added. “There were just so many problems with his proposal.”
Finding an adequate water supply was a major issue. The developers suggested pulling from a lake, which would have caused a significant drop in water level, Hall said. Their expansion would have doubled the population on Donner Summit, which posed septic problems and would have required the construction of a second road in case of emergency.
According to Hall, the plans did not evolve past the talking stages and were never submitted to the county. While conservationist groups like Sierra Watch stepped in and argued their case, the developers’ lack of progress most likely came down to finances.
Perry Norris, president of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, said the market was developmentally saturated by 2007, and Donner Summit wasn’t exactly conducive to year-round activities.
“Literally, there are two or three months where there’s not snow,” Norris said.
While the business didn’t work out as Syme and Foster had planned, skiers can plan on recreating Royal Gorge in the future.
Conservationists and homeowners agree: it’s a must for the area.
“We really do value the Royal Gorge cross-country ski area,” Hall said. “We don’t want to lose the resort.”
With the recent merger of the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows alpine resorts, the Tahoe area could be approaching an era of increased tourism, he said. The continued operation of Royal Gorge would add to that.
“When people come to visit Tahoe for say a week, they’ll typically visit different areas,” said Kevin Murnane, general manager of Tahoe Cross Country and a member of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association board of directors.
Besides Tahoe Cross Country and Royal Gorge, nordic skiers can also visit Tahoe Donner.
“In terms of a joint marketing of the area, it shows how much terrain there is,” Murnane added. “From the association side, Royal Gorge was traditionally pretty influential. John Slouber brought about this great revolution. It was creating this presence in cross country … because he had this larger approach. At the same time, the sustainability of that becomes the greater challenge.”
If all goes according to the plans of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the property will go up for sale by November and Norris will move toward purchasing it. The land trust’s president for 11 years, he first considered Royal Gorge’s conservation potential in the early 1990s. Back then, the trust tried to buy the 1,000-acre Van Norden Meadows.
The pending acquisition, which would include more than 3,000 acres in and around the resort, would not be the land trust’s biggest deal in terms of size, Norris said.
“We’ve done larger acreages and we’ve done more expensive properties,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever done one that’s so important to the community.”
Devoting some 60 hours a week to the project, Norris has met and spoke with several stakeholders regarding the transition. Foreclosure was an initial concern, but Norris said the owners cooperated with the bank, and the resort would mostly likely not go to auction.
In the meantime, the Truckee Donner Land Trust was pooling its resources, reaching out to national land trusts and calling for outside help.
“Our long term goal is to protect the property, keep the nordic center running and most likely, running it better,” Norris said. “We’re going to be looking 100 percent to the private sector to finance this opportunity, and we’re going to be looking to the nordic ski community to step up as well.”
According to Sugar Bowl Ski Resort President Rob Kautz, his alpine area — with trails that connect to Royal Gorge — was interested in purchasing the land and expanding into the nordic market. If a partnership played out, the land trust wouldn’t run the area, Sugar Bowl would.
“Royal Gorge is a great brand; it’s a wonderful cross-country resort,” Kautz said. “We would ultimately like to take over the operation. I think the community is supportive of that concept.”
“The investors in Sugar Bowl are a kind of who’s who in San Francisco,” Norris said of the downhill resort, which opened in 1939. “So they’ll be able to make the investment that the resort needs.”
As for other potential buyers, Norris said not to expect any.
In order for the Truckee Donner Land Trust to reach a deal, a long negotiating process was likely, he said. For starters, they would need to convince the Missouri lender, Armed Forces Bank, that Royal Gorge’s price tag shouldn’t be based on sheer acreage.
“In some ways, a very capable developer looked at this property for six years and wasn’t able to move the property one inch,” Norris said. “I don’t think there’s any developer that is going to come out of the woodwork and buy this property.”
If there were, the “Save Donner Summit” bumper stickers still clinging to the backs of local vehicles could dissuade them.
“A reasonable appraiser would probably conclude that the property would best be used as an open space,” Norris said. “And nordic ski area.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.