LAS VEGAS — The best-kept secret here is not a dollar slot machine that coughs up more than its share of jackpots; nor is it that fool-proof system to beat the craps tables.
It's Lee Canyon Ski Area, and for years Lee has been a quiet retreat for locals who couldn't find time off to travel to the big-time slopes of California, Colorado and Utah.
But now the word is out about Ski Lee, and visitors who come here to hit the tables also hit the slopes just 45 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
With three double chairlifts, one installed last year, Lee has a combined capacity of more than 3,500 skiers an hour and provides access to at least 33 acres of prepared ski runs. Not bad for a ski resort practically in the heart of the desert.
Seven Runs, Three Chairs
If facts are what you like, you'll be interested to know that there are seven runs off the three chairs, which offer 1,000 feet of vertical drop and nearly a mile of length.
According to Ken and Maffy Highfield, the husband and wife who have operated Lee for 23 years, the area was originally a Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) project in the '30s.
In the early '50s, skiers discovered the terrain and many were pulled up the hill by horse-drawn carts. It wasn't groomed in those days, and often the fast run downhill was dangerous until enough skiers carved out their own runs.
In 1959 the Las Vegas Ski Club backed an enterprising skier who built a warming hut on the mountain, but it was so unprofitable that it lasted only one season.
First Rope Tow
In 1963 Ken Highfield was awarded a permit for a winter sports area by the forest service. He installed a rope tow and a trailer for a warming hut, and Lee Canyon Ski Area was born.
In late 1964 Highfield installed a T-bar that was 2,500 feet long, and the first lodge was built. This made Lee Canyon a full facility, even though it was pretty small. As the locals would say, "An Aspen it ain't, but it's better than nothing."
The first chair was installed in 1968. It ran up 3,000 feet and had a vertical drop of 1,000 feet.
Lee Canyon Expands
In 1970 Highfield built an 8,000-foot day lodge that included a cocktail lounge and enlarged restaurant.
In 1982 Chair 2 was installed in place of the old T-bar, which opened up an additional 10 acres of ski slopes for schussers. Last year a third chair was constructed for the beginners' slope.
All this progress didn't come easy. The Highfields had plenty of problems developing the area, the main one being snow or the lack of it. The average annual snowfall is about 180 inches, but the deviation is ridiculous. They've had as little as 22 inches in one season and as much as 340. Some seasons don't begin until January. Others begin on schedule on Thanksgiving Day.
Maffy Highfield pointed out that Lee gets all sorts of famous and infamous people. Maffy recalled the time when a widely known mobster came up and bought season passes for his entire family. Maffy took Polaroid pictures of each of the children and his wife for the passes, but when it came time to take papa's picture, he bellowed, "No way! Nobody takes my pitcher."
"It's only a Polaroid, there's no negative," Maffy explained, "but if you don't want your photo taken, there's no way we can give you a pass. You'll just have to buy a separate lift ticket each time." The mobster looked her in the eye and said: "At's sokay, as long as there's no pitchers."
It's not unusual to see a long limousine parked in the lot with a driver waiting while his boss is taking a few turns on the hill.
Wedding on Skis
"The most romantic event we ever had," Maffy said, "was when one of our ski instructors, Curtis Fox, got married on skis, so we just outfitted the whole wedding on skis and brought 'em up the hill. It was beautiful," she said with a grin. "But coming down the hill--that was funny."
The ski school is directed by Swiss-born Marcel Barel who has built a reputation for teaching the handicapped to ski. A free-spirited soul, he has been kicking around Lee since 1966. The school is certified, and offers group and private lessons.
For the first time in Lee's 23-year history, overnight accommodations are available at the new, luxurious Mt. Charleston Inn. The inn is on the mountain, about 12 miles from the ski area. Double rooms run $49 a night Sunday through Thursday and $59 on weekends. Half-price room rates during weekdays at selected times during the winter season are frequently offered as an inducement to promote the new hostelry.
All-day lift tickets run $15 and children under 12 pay $10. Ski school runs $10 per person in a 1 1/2-hour class. A one-hour private lesson costs $25, and if you want the master, Barel, to teach you, you'll pay $35 an hour. Skis, boots and poles rent for $11 a day, and you can rent a whole ski suit for $15 a day.
Ski-Lee Rentals, a "pre-Lee Canyon" shop where visitors can make reservations for lift tickets and pick up all their ski equipment, is at 2395 N. Rancho Road.
LTR Stage Lines runs a bus to Lee Canyon every Saturday and Sunday. The pickup points and schedule have not yet been determined. Expect to pay about $10.