Soldier Mountain's lodge, lifts and slopes may look the same, and you may see a familiar face selling you a lift ticket or serving you lunch, but things have changed.
Former owner Bruce Willis donated the ski area last year to a Fairfield-based nonprofit operated by several families with longtime ties to the mountain.
Soldier Mountain president Will Varin, a Fairfield native and Boise attorney, praised Willis for his stewardship of the ski area, which he bought in the late 1990s.
Willis operated Soldier Mountain at a loss for several years, Varin said, but kept it operating because he believed in affordable skiing and understood Soldier's value to the community of Fairfield.
Under new management, the ski area shifted from an out-of-state company to a band of locals, many of whom are working unpaid to keep things moving ahead.
"There's a renewed level of interest and people are excited to check it out," Varin said.
Despite a mediocre snow year and a late December opener, Soldier is seeing improved business this season.
"We're ahead of projections," Varin said. "There's a very good, positive energy. Skier numbers are up, and it's picking up momentum."
A HYBRID MOUNTAIN
Soldier Mountain often gets pigeonholed with the "community ski hill" label because it's near the small town of Fairfield and in the shadow of Sun Valley.
Soldier's core users come from a fairly small geographic footprint roughly between Fairfield, Twin Falls and Mountain Home.
It caters to schools that load up buses and head to the mountain to give kids an inexpensive day of skiing and snowboarding. It also draws service members from Mountain Home Air Force Base.
But Soldier Mountain also has respectable stats comparable to larger ski areas that draw destination visitors throughout the Northwest and beyond.
For example, Soldier's skiable terrain is actually larger than that of Tamarack, with 1,150 acres vs. about 900 acres.
Soldier's 1,425-vertical feet is a couple dozen ski turns less than Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall.
Soldier's chairlifts top out at 7,200 feet, which is midway in elevation between Deer Point and Shafer Butte at Bogus Basin.
Soldier is one of a handful of ski areas in the state offering guided cat skiing on its backcountry slopes.
But at Soldier, you won't find high-speed quads and big, spacious lodges.
A pair of lifts with double chairs take you up the mountain at a leisurely pace, and a newly installed "magic carpet" conveyor on the bunny hill helps "groms" - young skiers and boarders - and beginners get their first turns on skis or a snowboard.
Soldier's 4,500 square-foot lodge is about the size of a trophy home in Boise. It holds a ticket office, cafeteria, ski rental shop and bar.
COMPLEMENT VS. COMPETE
Soldier's offerings are good enough to attract skiers such as Kirk Hall of Boise.
He said it's a fairly easy drive from the Treasure Valley on mostly straight roads, and nearly half of the trip is on the freeway.
"It's quicker and cheaper than Brundage," Hall said. "It's a great family ski area, but it also has some good, challenging terrain on a powder day."
Soldier has challenges drawing people from Treasure Valley, since Bogus Basin is in their backyard and they might have a Bogus season pass.
Skiers and boarders used to being whisked up a mountain on a high-speed lift and bombing down runs may be disappointed. It takes two rides to get to the top of the ski runs at Soldier.
But from there, skiers and boarders will find 36 runs on the mountain, and because much of the mountain is wide-open, it's almost all skiable terrain.
If you're persistent, you will get enough turns and runs to wear out your legs, but you might spend more time on chairlifts than you're used to.
Because Soldier is only open Thursday through Sunday, the powder piles up, and with a fraction of the visitors of larger ski areas, the snow quality can stay good between storms.
Varin doesn't expect Soldier to compete with larger ski areas, but he hopes people from the Treasure Valley will visit to see what the mountain has to offer, if only once or twice during the ski season.
He said he's seeing more Treasure Valley license plates in the parking lot than in the past, and people are stopping by for a day on the slopes after spending a day at Sun Valley.
"People have been pretty happy with the experience," he said.
That's a description you hear a lot when people talk about their Soldier Mountain experience.
It starts with the lift tickets. A family of four can ski for a day for $108.
The price for lunch at the lodge is comparable to the prices at a family-style restaurant in Boise, and no one will give you a dirty look if you brown bag it.
If you need to rent skis or take a lesson, they're available, too.
A LONG TRADITION
Soldier Mountain started in 1949. Doran Cluer of Gooding helped start the area and served as a ski patroller and instructor. The 81-year-old is still an avid skier there.
He said it started with a short rope tow "and we kept looking higher."
Cluer's family skied Soldier Mountain for decades, and he's pleased to see the next generation taking over its operations.
Varin and fellow board members Jamon Frostenson, Russell Schiermeier, William Vardwell and Robert Thomas all have longtime ties to the area, and several have family ties dating back to its beginning.
"These kids were raised here and learned to ski here, and they know the area and have a lot of enthusiasm," Cluer said.
He's pleased to see young skiers and boarders following in his tracks at Soldier.
"It's fantastic to see these young families with their young kids. Those are the future skiers," he said.
CAT SKIING RETURNS
Soldier Mountain plans to resume its cat skiing starting Saturday, Feb. 16.
Cat skiing and snowboarding trips will cost $275 per person and take place on the peaks above the top chairlift at the resort.
Trips will start at 8 a.m. and run until 4 p.m. The first ride up the mountain will take about a half-hour, and runs will be up to 3,000 vertical feet, according to Schiermeier.
Skiers and boarders can expect around 15 runs during a trip. The snowcat holds up to 13 skiers and boarders, plus guides.
The cost includes guides, safety equipment and lunch.
To book a trip, call 764-2526.
Soldier will also offer scenic snowcat rides for people who just want to see the mountains during winter. The two-hour ride costs $35 per person and will start and end at the lodge.
The tour will include information about the habitat and wildlife in the area.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors