Afton Alps celebrates 50 years


Afton Alps co-founder Paul Augustine blows snow from a snow gun on a slope at Afton in the mid-1960s. (submitted photo)

Skiers line up to ride one of Afton Alps’ first chairlifts.

An upslope view of Afton Alps’ main chalet a couple of decades ago. (submitted photo)

Afton Alps has a flashy new Guest Services Facility, which houses a new ski school center, ticketing and pass sales office and customer service center. (submitted photo)

An artist’s rendering of the newly renovated Paul’s Pub on the second floor of the Alps Chalet.

Vail Resorts sinks $10 million on makeover

Following a change in ownership and months of renovations and new construction, Afton Alps is inviting the public to check out its improved resort and to celebrate 50 years of skiing.

The ski facility is no longer the rustic, mom-and-pop operation that attracted skiers for decades. The redesigned resort now features high-tech snowmaking machines, a new guest-services building, with a  stainless steel look, and improved terrain park.

A history in the making

It’s been half a century since three local farmers with a love of skiing converted 300 acres of hillsides in the lower St. Croix River Valley into a ski area.

Afton Alps opened a few days before Christmas in 1963 and featured a chalet, one chairlift and a few towropes to move the 37 skiers who showed up on opening day to the top of the bluff.

Since then, Afton Alps has morphed into one of the largest ski facilities in the Twin Cities area, with five chalets, 18 chairlifts, four terrain parks and 50 trails.

In December 2012, Vail Resorts purchased Afton Alps, which is surrounded on three sides by Afton State Park and located in Denmark Township in southern Washington County. 

The Colorado-based company worth $1 billion purchased both Afton Alps and Mount Brighton, located just outside of Detroit, for an estimated $20 million. Vail Resorts then invested an additional $10 million to upgrade the Afton facility.

In a written statement issued just after the purchase, Vail Resorts chairman and CEO Rob Katz said the acquisitions of the two Midwestern ski resorts are part of a new strategy for Vail Resorts to “drive season pass sales and build broader guest loyalty by looking at premier smaller ski areas located near large cities.” Season pass holders at Afton Alps and Mount Brighton are eligible for discounted rates at several Vail resorts in Colorado and California.

Afton Alps was family-owned for 49 years. Brothers Paul and Robert Augustine, along with friend Tom Furlong were the resort’s founders. Paul Augustine bought Furlong’s share in the 1990s and the Augustine family continued to run the resort until a year ago.

“It was an extremely tough decision,” Paul’s daughter Amy Augustine Reents says. “Afton Alps is our family. It’s brought the most pride in who we are.”

Augustine Reents, her three brothers and husband are still key staff members. She and her husband, John Reents, head up the marketing department. Augustine Reents says although the decision to sell the family business was difficult, she believes the outcome will be beneficial for both Afton Alps customers and employees.

“There was the opportunity to update the facility and make it better for the future,” she says. Things will continue to get better for us. All of the capital improvements were a big undertaking that was done in a short period of time. We will continue to fine tune things as we go along.”

To mark the passing of 50 years and the completion of the capital improvements, Afton Alps is throwing a 50th anniversary party.

50th anniversary celebration

To celebrate 50 years of skiing at Afton Alps, staff are throwing an anniversary party on Friday, Jan. 10, from 5 to 10 p.m.

The event will include a photo slideshow of the ski facility through the years, celebratory banner break, torchlight parade, “Jibbin in the LZ” Rail Jam, cookies and hot chocolate, music, games and prizes courtesy of Red Bull.

The open house celebration is free and open to the public. To ski that evening, visitors will need to purchase a lift ticket.

Afton Alps is located at 6600 Peller Ave. S. Perched on a steep bluff along the St. Croix River, the ski resort is adjacent to Afton State Park and just off St. Croix Trail (County Road 21).
 

Resort improvements

Perhaps the most notable change at Afton Alps for younger thrill-seekers is its new, state-of-the-art terrain park built by Snow Park Technologies, the company in charge of designing and building courses at the Winter X Games in Colorado.

The new park offers snowboarders and skiers more opportunities than ever before to catch some air. It’s filled with large-scale jumps, boxes, rails and other features to challenge even the more experienced riders and skiers. Two new rope tows have also been installed so skiers can get more runs in.

Additionally, there is a terrain park village at the park’s base that includes a yurt with oversized beanbag chairs, plenty of seating and a café that serves local craft brews. Outside there is a large bonfire pit and seating area adjacent to a food truck.

John Reents says snowmaking capabilities were greatly improved during the renovation. A bigger holding pond was dug, larger water pipes were installed and 72 new snowmaking machines were purchased to increase snowmaking capacity. This, Reents says, will provide better coverage throughout the season and allow Afton Alps to open earlier and close later in the year.

Afton Alps also got rid of the little ticket booths, which had long lines of vehicles at the entrance area on busy weekends. Skiers and snowboarders can now purchase lift tickets at multiple locations without waiting at the entrance gate. Season pass holders can go directly from their cars to the chairlift.

The main chalet and Highlands Chalet got a facelift this year as well. The lower, main chalet and new guest services facility have a modern design that is surprisingly urban looking, especially when compared to the old northwoods façade that blended with the forest setting.

The dining facilities throughout the resort have a more open and comfortable feel, and new kitchen equipment. Vail Resorts introduced a new menu with an emphasis on increased quality and more choices than previously offered.

For a full list of upgrades visit www.aftonalps.com.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824.

 

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