A slowly but steadily shrinking winter ski season — down by an average of 34 days from prior decades — has beloved ski resort towns on edge. As increasingly unpredictable climate conditions and little snow make planning a ski trip harder than it used to be, life in ski resort towns which are reliant on the perfect wintry conditions feels more challenging than ever.
As many winter destinations scramble to find ways to extend their seasons, a renewed interest in adventure travel offers a possible solution. Recent data from the Hilton 2024 Trends Report found that 52% of millennial and Gen Z travelers identify exploration and “adventure” as their top priorities for travel. For many ski destinations, that’s the lifeline they need.
After last year's historically challenging season, towns are feeling uncertain at the start of a new ski season. Despite what seems to be a strong forecast for the upcoming winter, decades of downward-trending data show decreasing season lengths and scant snow. Data from The New York Times shows that in recent years in the United States, many ski resort destinations now rely almost entirely on artificial snow as more than half the U.S. experiences drought-like conditions.
For many towns reliant on the tourism dollars that come with visiting ski enthusiasts, sustaining livelihoods despite less-than-impressive ski seasons is more critical than ever.
From famous U.S. ski slopes like Aspen to tiny Swiss mountain towns like Grindelwald, extending the travel high season and drawing visitors for reasons other than skiing is a must.
“Grindelwald generates nearly 90% of its income from tourism, explains Bruno Hauswirth, who has served as the director of Grindelwald Tourism for over a decade. “To diversify where that 90% of income comes from has been extremely important. We're impressed that there are now more U.S. visitors enjoying Grindelwald in the summer than in the winter.”
Ski towns looking for a masterclass in expanding their offerings should look no further than Grindelwald, Switzerland. Nestled among the snowcapped peaks and green pastures of a particularly picturesque region of Switzerland known as the Jungfrau, it's a destination that seems straight out of The Sound of Music. While Grindelwald has long been famous in Switzerland as a ski town, its growth as a popular summer destination in recent years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
A crop of adventurous things to do in Grindelwald has placed the town at the heart of a new adventure travel boom in Switzerland. On any given day, visitors will notice skies dotted with colorful sails from paragliders and mountain bikers zipping down panoramic trails that cut through mountain slopes.
The nearby summit of Grindelwald First boasts everything from zip lines and mountain gliders to motorless mountain carts that send visitors flying down the slopes at impressive speeds, powered by nothing but gravity. Months before the season's first snow, the mountains are already alive, and the town is bustling. It's all part of the town’s new, winning strategy to rebrand itself as a year-round adventure travel hotspot.
This beefing up of year-round mountainous offerings has been a boon even for those looking for a bit more of a relaxed way to explore. Hikers can choose from family-friendly panoramic trails to the challenging six-hour trek from First to Schynige Platte. This iconic journey is an increasingly popular local favorite, with panoramic views of snow-capped mountains and glacier-fed lakes close to the nearby town of Interlaken. A restored vintage train takes passengers down the mountaintop from there. It’s another way to enjoy the mountains before the snow arrives.
Grindelwald has a friendly mountain village feel, independent of the snow. “Grindelwald has 40 different hotels, of which 37 are family-owned operations,” says Hauswirth. “It gives Grindelwald the welcoming small town feel that makes it such a special destination for travelers year-round.”
The Future of Skiing
Skiing vacations will continue to be a significant draw for Alpine towns like Grindelwald. With 42 ski lifts in the Jungfrau ski region surrounding Grindelwald, and over 132 miles of snowy ski runs to choose from, it will take much more convincing to keep dedicated skiers away from these slopes. Non-skiers have options, too. Other winter activities include snowshoeing, sledding, and winter walking for an even more attractive winter wonderland.
The year-round adventure travel rebrand has been a boon to the entire region. The area's growth has allowed even more investment in trains to connect mountain towns with the rest of the country.
The new state-of-the-art Eiger Express cable car, which opened in late 2020, now ferries visitors from the Grindelwald Terminal to the highest railway station in Europe, Jungfraujoch. It's now one of the most popular places to visit in Switzerland, offering expansive views of Europe's longest glacier.
Whether the 2023-2024 ski season offers better conditions than skiers have enjoyed in recent years remains to be seen. Still, winter wonderlands can see the writing on the wall: it's time to extend their season. Adventurous activities might be just the way to do it.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.