My 20-year old son Vince and I took a ski trip to Utah during the first week of January, 2011. Vince wasn’t alive the last time I visited this part of the ski world. The snow was superb, the crowds low, and the convenience for sampling a variety of outstanding ski areas - unparalleled. The only negative about the trip was… what took me so long to get back to Utah?
We skied six different ski areas in six days. Each one had a little different flavor, but the common denominator was fabulous skiing/riding on packed powder trails and through lightly tracked days-old snow in bowls or glades. As we bounced around the Wasatch Mountains our accommodations ranged from low-budget chain motels in the Salt Lake City suburbs, to bargain priced luxury at the Ogden Marriott, to the slopeside excellence of the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge at Alta.
Over the next few paragraphs I hope to convey impressions and tips about the roster of ski areas we visited: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird. There is one quick and crucial conclusion that can be drawn right off the bat. Although it was gloriously sunny during our visit, these higher elevation Utah resorts had received a ton of quality snow in the month before our arrival. Whether you visit in early January or any other time during ski season, it’s a matter of meteorological record. Your odds of catching good snow in Utah are as good, or better than just about anywhere else on the planet!
The first thing you’ll notice are the world class lifts and lodges. They serve big time skiing off two long express gondolas, both with approximately 2,500 feet of vertical. Perhaps the hallmark of Snowbasin’s 3,000 acres is the exceptionally nice array of long, intermediate groomers. Other terrain features include halfpipe-like natural gulches, ungroomed open hillsides, steep bowls, and extreme chutes at the highest elevations. The summit tram tacks on another 500 feet of vertical beyond the gondolas to access the starts of the Men’s and Women’s 2002 Olympic Downhill runs (single black diamond difficulty during our visit).
The whole resort is set directly beneath jagged Mt. Ogden (elevation 9,572 feet) with extraordinarily scenic views off the backside of the summit towards the Great Salt Lake. Although the various base and mid-mountain lodges are gorgeous and serve delicious food, there is no base village with overnight lodging. I think this tends to throttle skier visits. The mountain was not too busy even when we skied it on New Year’s Day. The lines for all the lifts were never more than a minute or two and often ski-on. The enclosed gondolas and tram worked great to beat the elements and enjoy a great January day of cruising.
It’s a sin to visit this mountain for just one day. For longer stays there are nearby condo developments in the Ogden Valley and very economical hotels 30 minutes away in interesting Ogden. We found luxury at the downtown Marriott Ogden where the advance-purchase room rate for New Year’s Weekend was only $69 per night. It has beautifully appointed rooms, a concierge desk, ski packages with shuttle service to the slopes, an elegant seafood restaurant/bar, and an attractive indoor pool with hot tub. Ogden boasts a fun central business/dining/shopping district with numerous diversions including the state-of-the-art indoor Salomon Recreation Center.
Powder Mountain is a marvelously quirky, off-piste paradise and undoubtedly one of the best venues I’ve ever seen for learning to ski powder. It has a mom and pop vibe, but this home on the range includes a mind blowing 7,000 acres of skiable terrain. Tackling the deep stuff is highly encouraged and the price of a lift ticket includes shuttle bus pick-ups after long runs through a vast glade called “powder country.” The resort also offers a la carte $15 snowcat rides and various guided tours for exploring additional backcountry acreage.
The morning ride Vince and I took alone together in Powder Mountain’s Snow Cat for backcountry skiing off 9,105-foot Cobabe Peak was one of our greatest Utah memories. And though distant visitors undoubtedly come here most often for the off-piste opportunities, easy-skiing trip companions would find the mellow side of the mountain to be very appealing. Powder Mountain has some super wide novice and intermediate runs covered with a user friendly packed form of their patented powder. Hotshots can blast through untracked freshies while novices dance down groomed ballrooms.
Powder Mountain’s other top attributes are that it’s never too crowded, and that it provides a fine, lower cost Utah skiing/riding alternative. It’s a few minutes farther than other resorts from the Salt Lake City International Airport (still only 55 miles), and has a fair amount of low glam slopeside or near slopeside accommodations to support extended visits.
This area was founded in 1936 and is the oldest in Utah. A favorite of local snowboarders, four terrain parks and a halfpipe are set up from top to bottom in a central, moderate angle section of the trail layout. Tourists can enjoy some of the best scenery in Utah from a great selection of intermediate slopes at Brighton. It has a high elevation (lifts top out at 10,500 feet) with varied exposures just about guaranteeing something good to ride all winter.
The intimate base area is easy to navigate with copious free parking close at hand. Generalizing the terrain; to the lookers left are fun single black bumps and glades served by the Great Western Express high speed quad (1,745-foot vertical), a central section features numerous intermediate groomers and terrain parks, and towards the looker’s right is a mix of scenic groomers, double black diamond chutes, bowls, and glades all beneath beautiful Mt. Millicent (elevation 10,452 feet). It was in this section off the Milly Express high speed quad (1,125-foot vertical) that Vince and I teamed-up for our first true Utah double black diamond run, Lone Star.
Brighton’s base is at a snow-sure elevation of 8,755 feet. 100% of the trail layout is accessible by high speed quads. If you are looking for ground zero for the greatest snow on Earth, this is it.
Forgive the cliché, but we found this mountain to be as empty as the name implies. Solitude has a cute, compact, modern base village. It also has memorably handsome terrain for all levels.
The lower mountain has conventional tree-lined groomers and a large ungroomed single black diamond hillside served by three express chairs. The upper mountain has a handful of very distinctive advanced groomers and numerous pockets of double black diamond glades. The summit also provides access to Honeycomb Canyon, perhaps the single most beautiful chunk of advanced ski terrain we saw in Utah.
In my view Solitude would be a superb place for vacationing families or groups looking for a quieter piece of Utah ski paradise. It has great snow and low crowds. The updated, upscale base village is 33 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport. If you must take your family ski trip during Christmas Week or over President’s Weekend, this may be one of the most pleasing crowd-beaters in the US.
The storied ski history of Alta dates back to 1938. Many of the buildings, runs, lifts, etc. have names related to historical figures or events. Like many of the resorts we visited, the 30-minute transition from the desert flats of Salt Lake City to serious snow country is almost shocking in its suddenness. Once there, Alta gave me a sort of Shangri La feeling. It’s perfect for those who wish to seclude themselves in a winter wonderland where the focus is all about skiing.
The scenery and terrain is so beautiful it’s not only a treat to ski, but it made me think it would be fun to hike when there is no snow on the ground. We only scratched the surface in our one day visit, but our explorations included picturesque high-elevation groomers off the Sugarloaf Lift, expansive open hillsides like Ballroom and East Greely, the beautiful pines and chutes of expert level Catherine’s Area, double diamond glades like Eagle’s Nest, and the bodacious steeps of High Rustler.
Traditional Alta remains a skier’s only mountain and staying in one of its classic slopeside lodges is a quintessential American ski experience. Vince and I spent a night at the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge. It’s rustically elegant and located adjacent to the Collins high speed quad chairlift (~1,900-foot vertical) for primo access to the upper mountain. Old ski photos and prints line the walls and give it a museum-like quality. Our breakfast and dinner there were outstanding.
This is one of the great expert mountains in the country with ski terrain ranging from strong intermediate to off-the-charts extreme. People come from around the world to ride the aerial tram up the 11,000-foot Hidden Peak and test their mettle on 3,000 vertical feet of the best steeps in Utah. Truth be told, we hit Snowbird late in our trip on a “recovery day” and thrived on its slightly softer side exploring very pleasant intermediate to advanced skiing on trails like Bassackwards (Gad Valley area), Chip’s Run (Peruvian Gulch area), and all across the enormous Mineral Basin.
Mineral Basin, Snowbird’s “backside,” reminded me of parts of the Austrian Alps. It is several miles across horizontally, has two express quads serving a vertical drop of about 1,500 feet, and is about 90% treeless. Its exposure catches the sun almost all day. I understand this can sometimes make for heavy conditions during mild weather, but temperatures never got above 25 degrees on the day of our visit and the entire basin skied beautifully in much appreciated full sun.
Snowbird appeared to have the largest and most vibrant slopeside base complex of the six resorts we visited. At the end of a challenging day on the slopes there are a number of aprés ski options for the indefatigable seeking further action. The humongous Cliff Lodge has a fortress-like elegance. I had been to Snowbird once before in mid-season when it was quite busy, but during the first week of January we never waited in a lift or tram line while feasting on its 2,500 acres covered with the greatest snow on Earth. Gotta luv Utah!
Snowbasin: 3,000-foot vertical drop, 6,400-foot base elevation, 3,000 skiable acres, 6 chairlifts, 2 gondolas, 1 tram, 400 inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.snowbasin.com/
Powder Mountain: 2,200-foot vertical drop, 6,895-foot base elevation, 7,000 skiable acres, 4 chairlifts, 3 surf lifts, 500 inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.powdermountain.com/
Brighton: 1,745-foot vertical drop, 8,755-foot base elevation, 1,050 skiable acres, 6 chairlifts, 1 surf lift, 500+ inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.brightonresort.com/
Solitude: 2,047-foot vertical drop, 8,000-foot base elevation, 1,200 skiable acres, 8 chairlifts, 500 inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.skisolitude.com/
Alta: 2,020-foot vertical drop, 8,530-foot base elevation, 2,200 skiable acres, 7 chairlifts, 545 inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.alta.com/
Snowbird: 3,240-foot vertical drop, 7,760-foot base elevation, 2,500 skiable acres, 10 chairlifts, 1 tram, 500 inches of average annual snowfall. Website: http://www.snowbird.com/
The walk-up daily lift ticket prices in Utah are a bargain compared to many places in the US and ranged from ~$59 to $66 for the resorts we visited. Sources for additional discounts for the general public include the Ski Salt Lake Super Pass, Liftopia.com, specially priced tickets from local Salt Lake City ski shops, and various ski and stay packages from local motel/lodging properties.
Ogden Marriott website: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/slcog-ogden-marriott/
Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge at Alta website: http://www.skigmd.com/
The Ski Utah website is the single best source of info on all Utah ski areas: http://www.skiutah.com/winter/index.html
Powder Mountain / Snowbasin
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Solitude / Brighton
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Snowbird / Alta
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Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
There's a little thing I always meant to correct about this article and the new DCSki format motivates me to test the article comments feature:-)
About this statement on Brighton, "It was in this section off the Milly Express high speed quad (1,125-foot vertical) that Vince and I teamed-up for our first true Utah double black diamond run, Lone Star." The black diamond run I meant to refer to is Lone Pine, not Lone Star. Lone Pine parallels the Milly Express HSQ and features a few little rock outcroppings and some steep drops. It's a fun and challenging run with spots where you'll have an audience watching how you handle it from the chairlift.