Going Further Afield: The Utah Sampler 1
Author thumbnail By Robbie Allen, DCSki Columnist

While the East Coast was enjoying the warm weather, the family and I ventured to Salt Lake City in search of a White Christmas. Salt Lake City over the past couple of years is surprisingly not known for White Christmases. The locals claim the real snow does not come to the Wasatch Mountains until late January and February. As a result, planning a Utah ski trip over Christmas can be “sketchy.” However, this year the snow gods smiled and the good stuff dropped from the sky! It was a White Christmas for all and an even better a Powder Christmas for us.

We had relatives in the area and the deal was we would ski during the day and do the holiday thing in the evening. The condo we rented was right at the mouth of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, with easy access to the interstate. This provided a chance to easily visit four ski resorts in four days: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude, with each provided a different Utah experience.

Day One: Snowbird

Ok, I am an East Coast skier and proud of it. I learned to ski in the Mid Atlantic (Whitetail - Day One). I need to hear what my skis are doing to ski well. I have no experience in powder. Powder to me is what comes out of a snow gun. Thus I was surprised when the Lift House rental shop handed a pair of wide powder skis (Blizzard Brahmas 170’s).

“No… no… no,” I said. “I need skis with edges and a ski cut…not these fat straight things.”

The ski shop Tech gave me that knowing look reserved for ski and bike shop techs.

“Trust me,” he said.

Begrudgingly, I took the skis. Of course, I am glad I did. Overnight over 15 inches of snow fell at Snowbird. Those skis where just the ticket. I found myself skiing in knee to waist power. It was amazing and I could not hear my skis!

The slow tram on a powder day at Snowbird. Photo by Amy Allen.

Now Utah may have the “Greatest snow on earth,” but the issue is access. Snowbird is located up Little Cottonwood Canyon. During most of the winter months the road is open to 4x4’s or chained vehicles only. The road often closes altogether due to avalanche danger. This limits access to Snowbird and Alta, which is even further up the road. The result is a long, slow crawl up the canyon in the morning for those not staying at Snowbird. Those staying at Snowbird will enjoy a base lodge similar to Wisp Resort’s, in fine East German style.

Once at the base area, the main way up the hill is the famed Snowbird Tram. The Tram hauls 120 skiers up 2,900 vertical feet every 10 minutes. On a crowed day it seems to take longer. Our wait took almost an hour. The Tram is great for viewing the mountain but not great for getting runs in. But as I learned, that (getting runs in) is not what Utah powder skiing is about. It is about the quality of those runs. How many face shots? How many powder deep stashes can you find? This is more important than how much vertical you can get in. It is an old school idea for a mostly old school resort.

Day Two: Deer Valley

Talk about contrast. Deer Valley is the posh of the posh. It is Beaver Creek West… or at least, more West-er. Where Snowbird is all about powder, Deer Valley is all about groomers. Where Snowbird is all about self-service, Deer Valley is about full-service. From the shuttle that picks you up at your car to the on-mountain Guides offering snow advice, Deer Valley is always about service. It is also about skiing. (But just skiing — snowboards are not allowed.)

With 101 trails spread over six mountains and 3,000 feet of vertical, it is really about great big mountain skiing. It is a big enough area that even with holiday week crowds, once we got away from the base area lifts, we were skiing right to the chair most of the day. I found it a lot like Colorado’s Beaver Creek Resort as it, like Beaver, is really an area that opens up to exploring. Further, like Beaver, the emphasis is on groomers. It was not uncommon to see the grooming fleet on the mountain during the day. The only drawback is unlike Beaver, no one was waiting from me with fresh cookies at the end of the day.

Heading out at Deer Valley. Photo by Amy Allen.

Day Three: Brighton

Located on the Big Cottonwood Canyon (the sister canyon to Little Cottonwood), Brighton is much more of a “people’s resort.” Deer Valley is posh. Snowbird is hardcore. Brighton is family.

We skied here on Christmas Eve. The resort was having a “ski free if you dress like Santa” promotion. I thought there might be one or two Santas out there taking up the deal. Nope, there had to be over 100 Santas on the hill — whole families decked out in Santa gear! Clearly this is a tradition folks wait for all year.

The resort sold out by 11 a.m. Even with the crowds of Santas, the lift lines were not bad and the place quickly cleared out after lunch, no doubt due to it being Christmas Eve. The resort was close to 100% open and boasted a respectable 1,745 feet of vertical. Brighton also has some hike- to-terrain but this was closed on the day we visited due to avalanche danger. Brighton had a nice mix of groomed and non-groomed terrain with some glades stashed along the way.

I had my biggest vertical day here (21 runs for 24,644 vertical feet) as the family went home early and I was able to do laps off the Great Western and Milly Express Quad chairs. The Power skis work fine when you just point them down and go!

Good coverage at Brighton. Photo by Amy Allen.

Day Four: Solitude

I had asked my local relatives what resort they like best and they all said “Solitude.” After a day there, I understand why. Solitude, besides having the best name for a ski area, has a bit of everything. Want great backcountry terrain? They have that. Want fast groomers? Fresh powder? Wide open bowls? Yup, they have all that.

Located in Big Cottonwood Canyon, the resort recently brought in Intrawest — which owns West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain Resort, among other ski areas — to build a destination village at the base area. They have upgraded the base area — actually two base areas, a day base area and a village base area. Both are nicely done and sport the required Intrawest clock tower. In 2015, the resort was purchased by nearby Deer Valley.

The top of Solitude. Photo by Amy Allen.

The lifts are mostly high speed, aside from one painful fixed quad to the highest peak. Unfortunately this fixed quad was required to get the 2,047 feet of vertical available. Skiing here on Christmas day, we had the place largely to ourselves. We skied from one side of the mountain to the other, enjoying a variety of conditions and trails. Maybe Solitude should be called the “Utah Sampler” because it truly is.

Overall it was a great four days of skiing. We experienced a real variety of resorts, with each resort having its own appeal. Utah is known for great snow, but it takes great resorts to experience it. These four truly were. It was a great Utah sampler.

About Robbie Allen

Robbie Allen is an avid small hill skier. He has written several articles on the many small hills he has sought out.

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Reader Comments

JimK - DCSki Columnist
January 12, 2016
Member since 01/14/2004 🔗
2,982 posts

Thanks for the write-up.  A lot of your conclusions are right on.  You picked a great Christmas to head to UT and chose a neat mix of ski areas!!!  UT didn't have the best start either, but things kicked into high gear there over the last month or so.

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