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Testing Out the Greatest Snow on Earth
By Chad Hansen, DCSki Contributor
January 26, 2001

The Greatest Snow on Earth.

Five hundred annual inches of the lightest, driest, fluffiest snow found anywhere in the world. Eleven ski areas within one hour of the nearest major airport. Over 100 lifts and trams serving nearly 25,000 skiable acres.

Colorado? The Alps? Heaven? Nope, only in Utah.

Utah? When I packed up my small family a year ago and moved from Utah to Virginia I assumed that I would get the usual blank stares when asked about my home state. “From Utah? Oh, well welcome to America…” Instead it has been much the opposite. “From Utah? Why would you ever want to move?”

Really though, we love Virginia. But we fortunately left behind plenty of reasons to make trips back. December 21st we returned to Utah for 17 days to ski.. er, I mean visit family for the holidays. And do some skiing, if we had time. The following is a trip report.

Snowbird (http://www.snowbird.com)

Perfect conditions and easy accessibility are the two qualities that are endlessly hyped by SkiUtah (http://www.skiutah.com), and Snowbird certainly has both qualities. Just 29 miles from the Salt Lake City International Airport you can ski a 200 day long winter season on 500 annual inches of snow. That is six months of skiing on over 41 feet of snow.

We skied the ‘Bird the day after our arrival. It was the Friday preceding the Christmas holiday weekend. Everything was open and there were no lift lines. But all was not perfect. Despite some big early storms it had been several weeks since new snow had fallen in the Wasatch Mountains. It was also a gray cloudy day, making visibility difficult, especially high on the mountain.

This was my first trip to the ‘Bird since the new lift in Mineral Basin opened a year ago. I had heard the raves and didn’t wait to head stright over the top and down. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. A new high-speed detachable quad serves a large open bowl of strictly powder, above-treeline skiing. Even after two weeks of no new stuff there was still plenty of powder to be found back here. And the new lift unloads near the very top of the famous aerial tram. This means you can now access all of the tram-served runs on the front east side of the mountain without actually riding the tram.

A couple of tips: buy your lift pass before driving up to the mountain. You can get a chairlift-only ticket at the Smith’s Grocery Store below the mountain for $36. At the resort you will pay $45 for a chair-only pass. Include the tram and the regular price goes up to $54. Unless you want to spend a lot of time on the upper-east side of the mountain, don’t bother buying a tram pass, thanks to the new Mineral Basin quad you can now ski the whole mountain from the chairs.

Snowbird may be closest, it may have the best snow, but it can’t brag about having the highest base area in Utah. That distinction goes to Brian Head.

Brian Head (http://www.brianhead.com)

If Brian Head was any farther from Salt Lake City it wouldn’t be in Utah. This ski area sits high on the top of a large mountain deep in the red-rock country of southern Utah. You likely won’t see many SkiUtah license plates in the parking lot at the bottom of the Giant Steps chairlift. It is three hours south of Salt Lake, and an equal distance north of the home of most of its clientele: Las Vegas, Nevada.

We had driven past Brian Head many times on trips to and from my Grandparent’s home in nearby St. George. I knew that it was a fairly small area, no high-speed lifts, and the terrain didn’t appear particularly steep or challenging. It was also just two days after Christmas, and a big crowd seemed likely. But we decided to stop anyway.

The ski area is actually two separate mountains. The first is strictly beginner slopes. We headed to the second. It was indeed a small mountain, by Utah standards. And signs indicated that this particular forest was suffering a pest infestation, meaning many of the trees had been removed. This created a lot of wide open glade-type skiing, which actually compensated for the total lack of acreage. Combine this with a half-dozen freshies, a perfect clear, sunny day, and an endless mountaintop view, and it made for fine ski outing.

What is the number one powder ski resort in North America? The number one value resort? The number five backcountry resort? The number five steep resort?

According to Skiing Magazine it is the legendary Alta…

Alta (http://www.altaskiarea.com)

Alta sits on the same mountain as Snowbird, its base being just a mile or so farther up canyon. And it also gets 40 feet of that superior Utah powder. But the similarities end there. Where Snowbird caters to the ritzy destination crowd, Alta is dedicated to “the pureness of the skiing experience.”

That’s right: no pesky snowboarders allowed! And many old center-pole chairlifts are cobbled together using rusty, discarded mining equipment. Okay, that last part was somewhat of an exaggeration. Really though, nothing ever changes at Alta. They still have all of the old, slow chairlifts, the same old cafeterias and lodges, and the same old snow and terrain that make for some of the best skiing anywhere.

And the lack of amenities means cheaper lift tickets. We paid $35 for an all-day pass. Unfortunately Utah was now stuck in a giant high-pressure weather system that was pushing the big storms to the north and the south. It also caused a thick cloud of fog to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. On the drive up the mountain the fog cleared, revealing a clear day above. Despite the conditions there was still plenty of snow and killer terrain at sunny Alta.

Park City Mountain Resort (http://www.parkcitymountain.com)

Two weeks of skiing was creating somewhat of a drain on our bank account. It was time for some more discounts. My father-in-law happened to also be visiting in Utah, and he had found that as a retired serviceman he could get a limited number of $15 passes that would be valid at any ski area in Utah. Now here is a reason to serve: for the skiing! (Where do I enlist?!)

This was our opportunity to ski with the rich and famous. So we made the short drive to Park City. The town of Park City sits directly below the ski runs at Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR). On either side of town are Deer Valley and The Canyons. I have been to The Canyons many times, and the conditions at PCMR were better than Deer Valley. That same high-pressure weather pattern was still stuck over Utah, so no freshies. Instead it was another glorious, sunny day on the slopes. The temperature stayed just low enough to preserve the snow that was already in place, so the conditions were still pretty good overall.

PCMR also has changed a lot since my last trip there. The old gondola and nearly all of the fixed-grip lifts have been replaced with high speed detachable quads and six-packs. Perhaps this isn’t “pure” enough for some, but I prefer to spend my time skiing and riding down the slopes, not waiting in lift lines or sitting on chairlifts.

But even better, they have added new terrain. The new McConkey’s Six-Pack serves some very steep terrain at the top of the mountain. We made many rides here and on the old “pure” Jupiter chair skiing the double-black chutes and bowls. We saved enough time for some runs down the terrific bump runs just on the Silverlode and Motherlode chairs before calling it a day.

PCMR ultimately caters more to the destination crowd and East coast skiers. Groomed tree-lined green and blue runs abound. Gourmet restaurants can be found even high on the slopes. And massive new hotels and condos ring the base area.

17 days. Four days of skiing. One resort I had never skied and two others I hadn’t been to in many years. A successful trip? Certainly, but now its nice to be back “home.” But I won’t be here for too long. Thanks to Southwest Airlines and family connections I truly am “Free to ski about the country.” In two weeks I return to Utah for more of the Greatest Snow on Earth.

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Doug
17 years ago
Thanks Chad for your short synopsis of these resorts. Me and my family are seriously considering planning our annual ski trip to Salt Lake City next year. I understand air fare from DC to Utah has been very reasonable lately. I currently reside in Tidewater Virginia (Norfolk etc.) and plan on driving to DC and go from there. If you know of any other tips please pass them on. Thanks again for a wonderful article. P.S. Have you ever skiied Sundance?
JimK
17 years ago
Nice report! Have relatives in So. Cal, for years they’ve driven over to Brian Head for good snow, cheaper prices and smaller crowds than Cal ski areas. I think Alta’s one of the oldest ski areas (started around 1940) in Utah or US for that matter and I read a good line about why it’s still special, “the first guys there took the best place.” One of my unfulfilled fantasies is to spend a ski week in one of Alta’s old lodges. Good tip on chairs/lift tics at Snowbird. Tram is scenic, but is expensive and often crowded with waits.
The lower 80% of Park City reminds me of Killington, VT.
Chad
17 years ago
Southwest now has direct flights from Baltimore to Salt Lake City. I recently grabbed a ticket for $85 each way (regular price is $100-120). Most of the airlines seem to match Southwest for BWI flights. I will be skiing in Utah again this coming weekend.

I lived for years in Orem, Utah, just minutes from Sundance. Its very small, and is at a lower elevation than the Salt Lake and Park City resorts. So the conditions were never as good. I only went there when I couldnt get a ride to Brighton or Alta! I couldnt recommend it to someone traveling from so far.
JimK
17 years ago
Interesting comments about Sundance. I’ve never been there. It’s known to me because of Redford connection and film festival, which incidently is held in Park City, a ski town I thought was pretty neat. What do you think of Snowbasin? Must be decent if they plan to host some olympic downhill events there? The only time I skied Canyons was back in the Park West days. Have they changed or added a lot of improvements? Always heard good things about Brighton and Solitude, what’s up with those two? Hope you will report on your next Utah trip with lots of photos.
Chad
17 years ago
Redford lives in Sundance, and at one time the film festival may have been held exclusively in the small Provo Canyon resort. But it has way outgrown the facilities there at the ski area.

I just returned from another trip from Utah. I really wanted to go to SnowBasin and try out the Olympic Downhill runs. I havent been to this resort near Ogden since their recent pre-Olympics improvements have been completed. Unfortunately that part of the hill (the John Paul chair) was closed for “race preparations”. It was also closed for this same reason when I was in Utah at Christmas. Hopefully we can make it some time pre or post-Olympics next winter.

You wouldnt even recognize old Park West anymore. As you likely know this was once the most affordable ski area in Utah. American Skiing Co. has replaced every lift except one. Now there is a new gondola (Flight of the Canyons) from the base area which has opened several entire mountains to the south of the old Park West terrain. Most of this area is a big improvement in terrain and snow conditions, especially the Ninety-Nine Ninety area. And of course the lift ticket prices are way up, in the $50 range. Check them out at www.thecanyons.com.

Brighton and Solitude are popular with the locals. Brighton really caters to the snowboarding crowd, with new high-speed lifts and alot of groomed intermediate slopes. Unfortunately they havent upgraded the lifts on the Millicent side of the resort, where the best steeps and powder are. Solitude has added alot of base amenities lately, but unfortunately not a lot of new terrain. Both are great resorts, but I think destination skiers are better off heading to Alta and Snowbird, where there is better terrain, newer, faster lifts, and better layouts.

I just returned from another Western trip on Sunday. We had powder days at Snowbird, Jackson Hole, and Big Sky. Maybe Scott will let me write up another report.
Landon
17 years ago
Having lived in Utah for 20 years now and been skiing for all but 5 of them I can say you did an excellent job on rating alta and snowbird. I think its kinda of funny that the worlds attention will be focused on Park City more then Alta and Snowbird. Its easily arguable that Alta and Snowbird provide much better skiing at a better price. But of course we didnt want the Olympics being hosted in our watershed. But anyone who spends time here should definitly ski these two resorts for unmatched terrain and a great value.
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