Driving up the Snowbasin Road on the morning after a snowfall is an experience like few others. Bathed in alpenglow, Mount Ogden’s pinkish spire has charisma and presence unsurpassed by other mountains in the area. Snowbasin is not a mystery hidden by other, smaller mounds but a towering mass of spruce trees, snow, and rock. It’s a mountain more akin to those in Austria or Switzerland than Utah, but with better snow. Daily ski reports always say, “Come to Snowbasin and make this your best day ever!” They aren’t lying.
There are many reasons I keep coming back to Snowbasin. Ease of access is one of the main ones. To quote Whitetail’s mantra, “Nothing Close, Comes Close.” Delta offers daily non-stop service from Reagan National Airport to Salt Lake City. From there, the resort is less than 45 minutes away by car. Only Utah offers western powder less than an hour away from a major airport with direct service to Washington.
Snowbasin does not have a base village. I don’t mind. Lack of development enhances the aesthetics and keeps crowds low. There are rental condominiums in nearby Huntsville, but Ogden is only 30 minutes away, so I generally stay there. While Ogden is no St. Anton, it does have everything a skier needs, including a multiplex and a large Gold’s Gym.
The restaurants on 25th Street are not only decent but much cheaper than one might find in a typical ski town. The sushi at Tona Sushi compares favorably with Japanese food found locally. I also recently found some decent pizza at the new Slackwater Pizza location on Washington Boulevard. To be honest, though, I sometimes just grab food at Smith’s grocery store and eat in my room. My preference is to eat an ample lunch at Needles or the John Paul lodges, burn the calories on the slopes, and go light on dinner.
I usually arrive at the mountain 30 minutes before the lifts open and have never had problems with parking, even on a powder day. For those not wishing to drive, UTA offers bus service from Ogden to Snowbasin or Powder Mountain. Breakfasts in Earl Lodge featuring egg burritos, Belgian waffles, and other treats; this is one reason I occasionally arrive early.
My next stop is the locker area downstairs at Earl’s Lodge. Much has been said about Snowbasin’s bathrooms and they live up to the hype, but what I appreciate is the relaxed atmosphere and friendly vibe. It’s nice to chat with people by the fire as I struggle to get into my ski boots. That gemüetlichkeit extends to the gondolas, where I have met many wonderful people, quick to share their secrets about the mountain and where to eat back in town. Snowbasin deserves to be snobby (because of the first rate lifts, service, and lodges), but for some reason, it’s down to earth.
As one emerges from the Needles Gondola (with warm muscles I might add), one has a choice: to ski back down to Earl’s Lodge or head over to Strawberry or Porcupine. I tend to do my warm-up runs on Needles — usually Sweet Revenge or along the intermediate trail adjacent to the gondola. Both trails are long groomers, covering over 2,300 feet of vertical. Narrow in places and wide in others, they offer something for everyone and can be skied in a variety of ways with plenty of sidetracks and diversions.
My favorite side journeys are two short, single blacks: Rocky J and Pineview. They give you a taste of the steeper stuff but without any real commitment. Those seeking bigger thrills need to hike to Lone Tree or Arrowhead off Strawberry or venture onto No Name from Allen Peak or some of the black diamonds on the far right side of Strawberry. Admittedly, most of these descents are beyond my ability level, but I am ticking off more expert trails with every trip.
Part of the reason is my instructor, R. My wife and I meet with her for several private lessons every trip, and seem to be improving a bit with every lesson. She has a lot of experience teaching children and that’s one reason she’s so good — if a kid can understand what she’s saying, so can an adult. She also pushes us a little but not too much, and seems to know when we can progress to more difficult terrain.
Because Snowbasin has so much vertical (three of its lifts cover over 2,000 feet), it’s an ideal place for intermediate and advanced skiers to raise their game to the next level. A good instructor can pack a lot of learning into a single run and then utilize gondola rides for off-slope instruction. Mine videotapes me with an iPhone and goes over the videos on the gondola while the other passengers politely refrain from chuckling as my flaws are being analyzed. For the experienced, life-long skier, a lesson is a hammer to the ego, but necessary for improvement.
Strawberry is the part of the mountain that reminds me the most of Europe. It’s wide-open upper bowl reminds me of some of the pistes I have experienced at Sölden, Ischgl, St. Moritz, and the Arlberg. It’s a good place to go on a powder day, but even on a normal day, there are many ways down — from easy blue squares up to double black slopes.
Like most Utah mountains, Snowbasin does not groom many trails after a snowfall but always offers one “paved” run per lift for the more timid. One note about Strawberry: clouds often funnel across the saddle, making visibility challenging at times on the upper mountain. When this happens, follow “Lollypops” down-sticks with red and green orbs on the top. The Lollypops take you down Main Street, the easiest groomer on Strawberry.
For those looking for manageable steeps, check out John Paul, accessed by the high-speed quad behind the Needles Gondola. The top of Grizzly Downhill with its dogleg run-out is one of my favorite spots on the mountain. Lack of skier traffic generally allows me to take a different line down on every run. In fact with the exception of the main run down Needles, few trails at Snowbasin ever get much traffic, even on busy weekends after a snowstorm. Porcupine is particularly lonely because no one wants to ride the fixed grip triple to get there.
For those in search of even more variety, sample some of the other resorts near Salt Lake City. Powder Mountain is just down the road from Snowbasin, but alas, I have never visited the place. I once went to Solitude and had a good time, and I have also spent a few days at Canyons. One of these days I need to visit Alta, Snowbird, and Brighton. Some skiers prefer the Cottonwood Canyons resorts because of the higher elevations and slightly better snow quality. For me, the comfortable amenities, lack of crowds, big vertical, and the vibe at Snowbasin make it hard for me to go elsewhere. For these reasons and others, I dream of returning to Snowbasin soon.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.
Nice photos John. Enjoyed your impressions of Snowbasin. You gotta wonder if the 2013 death of owner Earl Holding will eventually cause the Holding family to sell Snowbasin and bring disturbing changes? My only day there was a cold Jan 1, 2011 and we rode the gondolas and tram almost exclusively all day. Those enclosed lifts really helped us beat the cold. With the excellent terrain, lifts and lodges, but no slopeside accommodations you might call Snowbasin the greatest "day ski" area in America!
There's already a plan in the works.
I did not mention it in the article because I wanted to focus on what I love about the resort now.