For most Mid-Atlantic skiers, snow and terrain availability dominate our concerns. Issues such the quality of lodges, food, and customer service are much lower on our list, especially since many of us visit local resorts for just a day or two at most. During a recent February 2017 trip to Utah, I considered factors besides snow that make for an enjoyable ski experience, and began taking note of ways destination resorts like Snowbasin enhance the customer experience.
Let’s face it. Skiing leaves much to be desired until you get your skis on and start making turns. The entire process of gathering your equipment together, driving to a remote ski resort, putting your boots on, and schlepping from the parking lot to the lift can be an ordeal. Snowbasin attempts to make this process as easy as possible. Parking lot attendants guide you to a spot. Shuttles are available to take you to the lodge and those who wish to walk can borrow a wheel barrow to haul stuff across reasonably level lots. Once at the lodge, employees greet you and answer any questions you might have.
From there, you can take a few steps over heated bricks (which melt snow and ice) to one of three lifts: the Needles Gondola (2,310 vertical to Needles Lodge); the John Paul high-speed quad (2,424 vertical to John Paul Lodge), and the Little Cat high-speed chair (servicing a beginner area and accessing lifts to Becker face and Wildcat ridge). Or, you head into the palatial Earl’s Lodge, built with money from the 2002 Olympic Games and Robert Earl Holding (the former owner of Sinclair Oil).
When you enter the lodge, you immediately walk into a large foyer complete with carpets, leather sofas, and a roaring fire. It’s the warmest possible welcome. Downstairs (also accessible by elevator) is another fire, more sofas, and a bag check. This is where I usually change into my boots. As any boot fitter will tell you, booting up is one of the most crucial moments of the day. The rest of one’s snow experience is often determined by how you boot up — wrong moves in this ritual can lead to severe pain, shin bang, and performance issues. Being able to boot up in a warm, comfortable environment is priceless.
Once booted, I hand my boot bag to the friendly Snowbasin employees at bag check for a small fee (between $3 and $5 depending on the number of bags). She in turn scans my Value Pass, which resembles a season pass and contains a resort charge feature (the pass is linked to a credit card).
Ready to go, I make one last stop at the men’s room. At most resorts, a trip to the bathroom is to be dreaded but Snowbasin’s washrooms are a world apart. Marble counters, wood paneling, and gold fixtures dominate. Stalls contain wood doors that extend to the floor for maximum privacy. Staff clean the restrooms continually throughout the day. I can truthfully say that Snowbasin has some of the few public restrooms I actually enjoy visiting. If the resort were in Europe, I would gladly pay the attendant € .50 for each use.
Lift lines are rare at Snowbasin because most ski visitors to Utah stick to Park City and other resorts near Salt Lake City. However, if they do occur, Snowbasin staff quickly open switchbacks, and efficiently load gondolas and chairs. In most cases, a staff member carries your skies from the front of the line to the gondola, giving you extra time to get settled in the car. The Snowbasin lift operations staff, many of whom are women, are never surly or gruff. They always greet you warmly, often by name, and are always looking out for your safety and comfort.
Once on the mountain, one is immediately impressed by the grooming — rated 6th in the world by Ski Magazine. Except on powder days, most marked trails are groomed, even many single blacks. For those who prefer unpaved, Snowbasin offers ample inbounds, off-piste territory for all ability levels — 3,000 acres to be exact! With all the terrain, fast lifts, and vertical, I generally get the equivalent of a long day’s skiing at Timberline done in a few hours at Snowbasin.
All that skiing always makes me hungry for lunch. Snowbasin offers three food venues: two at mountaintop lodges (Needles and John Paul) and one at Earl’s Lodge at the base. All the lodges are gorgeous with restaurant-style seating, but fast casual service. Snowbasin’s pizza and burgers get top marks but there are other options as well, ranging from Asian cuisine to Mexican. Vegan and healthy choices also exist at every venue.
I have skied approximately 54 days on the mountain during six visits to Utah and tried nearly everything on the menu, which changes a bit from year to year. My favorites are the shrimp and Napa cabbage noodle bowls (at Earl’s), the chicken parmesan sandwich (John Paul), and the killer nachos at Needles (a huge portion that needs to be shared by 2-3 people). The dining staff will customize anything — special orders don’t upset them. They also bus the tables.
Those who want adult beverages have a choice of 11 beers on tap and numerous bottle options. Espresso and cappuccino are also available and made with high-end machines. Water is free and plentiful at every lodge. And one last issue: price. Snowbasin does not fleece guests who wish to buy hot meals. Food prices are comparable to fast casual venues in DC and Northern Virginia. Ample portions also mean many items can be split two ways. A couple can easily split an entrée and a salad and spend less than $25 total.
Snowbasin has seasonal workers from around the world and also a cadre of full-time staff from the local environs. Everyone wears a uniform related to their job category and a nametag that includes information about each person’s town or country. Staff are very serious about their jobs. Mountain operations personnel are out all day inspecting lifts — often climbing towers to insure our safety. Ski Patrol are always looking at snow pack for avalanche risk and marking trail hazards. Snowbasin takes great pride in its avalanche dogs and one can often see them practicing. If one gets hurt, the patrol is never far away and in the worst case, helicopter evacuation is possible at numerous points on the mountain including the Middle Bowl and Strawberry. There’s a medical clinic run by Intermountain Medicine near the Becker lift as well as Ski Patrol’s first aid center at the base.
When an issue arises, everything is handled professionally. I was recently stuck on the Porcupine Lift for 15 minutes. When I finally arrived at the summit, I was met by a Ski Patrol member who explained what had happened and handed us free beverage coupons. I have been stuck countless times for more than 20 minutes on lifts in the Mid-Atlantic and was never once offered an apology, let alone drink coupons.
One thing Snowbasin does not have is a Mountain Host ski tour program. Mountain Hosts are available throughout the resort to answer questions but they do not offer tours — something that nearby Powder Mountain and Deer Valley offer. Because Snowbasin is a huge mountain (really a collection of mountains), I would recommend that it consider creating a tour program. The resort could even charge a nominal fee for a 1-2 hour host guided tour.
Great mountains are not built solely with staff, and infrastructure; visitors play a big role in creating the mountain experience. Snowbasin guests are some of the nicest people around. They are exceptionally polite in lines, and friendly on lifts. A large percentage of visitors are locals — season passes always outnumber day passes except on certain busy weekends. These pass holders are quick to answer questions on lifts, often serving as adjunct Mountain Hosts. A constant refrain I hear is: “Welcome to our mountain; enjoy it; but don’t tell anyone about it.” I respectfully disagree. Snowbasin needs and deserves to make some money from destination visitors, which are increasing every year. Its Ogden location and lack of on-mountain lodging will always make it less crowded than many other resorts, but its ever improving service, large staff, and culture of excellence need to be rewarded!
A favorite last run for me is Rainer’s off of Porcupine and then the Wildcat Bowl — a huge concave bowl (a sort of natural half pipe on steroids) rarely skied because of mysterious traverses needed to access it. The run is so big that its snow often changes at different altitudes. It can be bone dry blower powder at the top and spring snow at the bottom. At the base lodge, I retrieve my bag, remove my boots, and then hear my siren call: “dollar cookies will now be served at Earl’s.” That’s my invitation to sit in front of the fire with a cookie and a cappuccino, listen to satellite radio over the resort’s very fine sound system, and think good thoughts about the ski day. The main problem for me with Snowbasin is that I never want to leave.
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.
Sounds like your home away from home! Snowbasin is a special place. Because there is little or no accommodations immediately adjacent to the slopes I think of it as the world's greatest day-ski area.