Mountain Creek Looks Ahead to Falling Temperatures

Jersey’s lone ski resort says winter hasn’t been bad, despite a warm and wet January.

Despite 48-degree temps, skiers and snowboarders recently headed to Mountain Creek. Photos by Laurie Gordon

The mercury in Vernon Township hit 48 degrees on Wednesday. That didn’t stop countless skiers, snowboarders and snow tubers from heading to Mountain Creek, New Jersey’s only full-fledged ski resort.

Ronnie Smith ventured from Paramus to “shred up the mountain with my boys,” he said. “The conditions may not be perfect, but I’m a loyal customer.”

Justin Russell and his son, Brayden, traveled from New York for a father/son ski lesson. While the warm air was nice, the ski conditions, Russell acknowledged, “weren’t so great.”

Justin Russell and his son, Brayden, traveled from New York to Mountain Creek for a father/son ski lesson. Photo by Laurie Gordon

All ski areas are subject to the vagaries of weather. Mountain Creek, in the Sussex County township of Vernon, is one of the southernmost ski mountains in the northeast. Thanks to its location, and New Jersey’s relatively mild climate, it is particularly susceptible to swings in temperature and precipitation.

As anyone who lives in New Jersey knows, this has been an unusually warm and wet winter. Since January 1, daytime temperatures have rarely dropped below freezing in Sussex County, and rose as high as 67 degrees on Saturday, January 11. That weekend, Mountain Creek sent an email to area schools that use the facility, advising them that conditions were not ideal and that they might want to reschedule any planned visits for the week.

Still, Mountain Creek is not sounding any alarms. The 2019–2020 season started in November—the area’s earliest start ever. So far this season, the mountain claims more than 100,000 guests. (Mountain Creek sees 60 percent skiers and 40 percent snowboarders. The separate tubing area gets 40,000 visits a year.)

Evan Kovach, Mountain Creek’s director of marketing and sales, is pleased to see the forecast of wintry weather ahead. “The weekend looks great,” he says, “with snow and cold temperatures.”

But apart from the forecast of snow, it’s snowmaking that keeps Mountain Creek’s downhill business looking up. Unlike some other ski areas, Mountain Creek is able to cover 100 percent of its trails (on four separate peaks) with man-made snow. Snowmaking requires equipment, expertise, cold weather and water—lots of water. 

“We draw 200 million gallons of water per year from seven lakes at the top of the mountain,” says Kovach. “Melt drains into rivers at the base, creating a natural form of recycling.

“It is absolutely real snow—not something fake, which is a misconception—and sometimes it’s even better than snow that falls from the sky. We make light, fluffy snow while people are on the mountain, and other times make wet snow, depending on what the weather throws at them. It’s all a balance of temperature and humidity. The key is grooming, which we do at night using machines that cost more than most people’s houses.”

Snowmaking is an expensive proposition, but Kovach says it’s worth it. “Mountain Creek,” he declares, “is definitely profitable.”

That’s especially good news for the 1,300–1,400 people who work for Mountain Creek in the winter and summer—as well as for neighboring businesses. 

“We help numerous businesses stay lively in the area, and are the largest employer in the county,” says Kovach. “Employees work year-round in different capacities. One of our biggest growing aspects is weddings. We now do over 100 per year.”

Kovach says getting skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing on people’s mind is often a matter of them simply seeing snow.

“An inch of snow in Central Park is more powerful than a foot here,” he declares.

Skiers have come to the resort that is now Mountain Creek since 1965, when Jack Kurlander and several partners opened Great Gorge Ski Resort. It merged with the neighboring Vernon Valley in 1974 and has changed hands multiple times since. Current owner Snow Operating took over in 2017.

New Jersey used to have a number of smaller ski areas, including Hidden Valley, a once thriving stepchild of Mountain Creek, which closed to the public in 2017.

Camp Arrowhead was a small ski area in Marlboro. When there was no snow, the mountain utilized mats made from a type of plastic.

Wendy Bonello of Oceanport has fond memories of learning to ski there in the 1980s.

“I think the mats were a great way to learn because you skied slower and weren’t as scared of flying down a mountain out of control,” she says.

Other defunct Jersey ski areas include Berthaiume’s High Point Ski Ways (Montague), Belle Mountain (Lambertville), Camp Midvale (Ringwood), Craigmeur (Newfoundland), Galloping Hill (Kenilworth), Jugtown Mountain (Bethlehem Township), Mount Bethel (Mansvield Township), Peapack Ski Area (Gladstone), Pine Needle Slope (Swartswood) and Snow Bowl (Milton).

In addition to Mountain Creek, there remain three other skiing options in the state, although none anywhere as extensive as Mountain Creek. Campgaw is a small, publicly owned slope in Mahwah; Winter 4 Kids operates a training program at the former Hidden Valley; and the indoor Big Snow American Dream is a key attraction at the new American Dream shopping and entertainment complex in East Rutherford.

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