In mountain regions around the world, downhill ski areas represent a significant source of anthropogenic disturbance while also providing recreation and revenue. Ski-run creation always results in some level of disturbance, but disturbance intensity varies greatly with construction method. Ski runs may be established either by clearing (cutting and removing tall vegetation) or by clearing and then machine-grading (leveling the soil surface with heavy equipment). To quantify how these different intensities of initial disturbance affect ecosystem properties, we extensively surveyed vegetation, soils, and environmental characteristics on cleared ski runs, graded ski runs, and adjacent reference forests across seven large downhill ski resorts in the northern Sierra Nevada, USA. We found that the greater disturbance intensity associated with grading resulted in greater impacts on all ecosystem properties considered, including plant community composition and diversity, soil characteristics relating to processes of nutrient cycling and retention, and measures of erosion potential. We also found that cleared ski runs retained many ecological similarities to reference forests and might even offer some added benefits by possessing greater plant species and functional diversity than either forests or graded runs. Because grading is more damaging to multiple indicators of ecosystem function, clearing rather than grading should be used to create ski slopes wherever practical.