DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip through western states, in search of snow and adventure. After skiing in Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, he arrived in Utah, just after 30” of fresh snow arrived. He heads to Snowbasin Resort, a favorite among locals and DCSki readers.
After spending a day hiking a trail at Canyonlands National Park that was so amazing I still find myself daydreaming about it, it was time to swap the hiking boots for ski boots and to continue my search for snow.
On Saturday, February 24, 2018, I left Moab, Utah and began the drive to Salt Lake City. Along the way, I made a quick trip through Arches National Park, but didn’t venture far from my car. Although multiple hiking trails beckoned to me, I wanted to give my right knee time to recover from the prior day’s hike so I’d be in good shape to ski the next several days.
It was a relatively leisurely 4-hour drive from Moab to Salt Lake City (SLC). SLC would be my home for the next several nights, serving as a home base for day trips to ski areas throughout the Salt Lake region.
I had only made a brief trip to SLC in the past, where I spent one day skiing at a Park City ski area. So this would be my first “real” ski trip to SLC. And I might not have bothered a few weeks ago. SLC ski areas had been hit particularly hard by the lack of early-season snow. Throughout January, there wasn’t much snow to speak of. That primarily limited open terrain to the limited slopes that have snowmaking.
But all of that had changed in the days leading up to my trip. Just within the past 72 hours, Snowbasin had received 30” of snow, with more in the forecast. Things were finally starting to pick up for Utah ski areas.
I checked into a Holiday Inn Express in Murray, a suburb just south of SLC. As it turns out, SLC is one of the core strengths of Utah ski areas: it’s easy to fly in and out of, and there is plenty of relatively inexpensive lodging throughout the SLC area. A wide variety of world-class ski areas are just a 35-60 minute drive from downtown SLC. A lot of those ski areas are located in and around Park City, which is about 40 minutes due east of SLC — most of it in the well-maintained Interstate-80.
You can fly from the East Coast to SLC non-stop in less than 5 hours, and be on the slopes within an hour of landing. That’s not bad, considering it can take just as long to drive from the D.C. area to Snowshoe Mountain Resort, West Virginia. As nice as Snowshoe is, the skiing in Utah is on a different plane altogether.
One of my friends from the East Coast who was recently bit by the ski bug heard that I’d be out west and decided to rendezvous with me in SLC to spend 3 days skiing together. Tony had only been skiing a few days in his life, and was anxious to begin taking his skiing to the next level. I agreed to ski with him most of the time, to help teach him the ropes, although I couldn’t promise him that I wouldn’t occasionally sneak off to ski a black diamond when he wasn’t looking.
The next morning, we met up and decided to drive to Snowbasin Resort. It was a Sunday, and more than two feet of snow had just fallen in snow-starved Utah. Snowbasin is located further away from SLC than all of the Park City-based resorts, and we heard it can be far less crowded. And, I’ve heard DCSki readers rave about Snowbasin. So it seemed like the best choice for what was likely to be a busy weekend day.
We arrived there mid-morning and were greeted with crowds. We parked in the edge of an overflow parking lot and took a shuttle to the base area. The base area was hopping with people; I had to wait in line a solid 30 minutes to get my Mountain Collective pass, but once we were out on the slopes, lift lines weren’t too bad at all.
Conditions were phenomenal — among the best I’ve ever skied in my life.
Everywhere we looked, there was deep, fresh, dry powder — an incredible surface to ski on and through.
Most of my day was relegated to greens and just-barely-blues, as I helped Tony adapt to “real” snow. (He remarked that it felt different to ski on than Whitetail.)
While Tony carefully made his way down the slopes in a wide-S pattern, I zig-zagged every which direction as I departed the slopes and headed into the trees, popping back out on the slopes only to head to trees on the other side. If you traced my path it would have looked very similar to the circuitous path Billy used to make in old The Family Circus cartoons.
It was fun. Pure joy. This is what skiing is about.
As the day went on, we began to discuss plans for the next day. Originally we planned to try a different ski area, perhaps Alta or Snowbird. But we soon decided that we would return right back to Snowbasin. After all, it was an incredible mountain, with great snow conditions, and we had barely begun to scratch its surface. I hadn’t even made it over to the advanced terrain on the right side of the mountain. And we knew it would be far less crowded on a Monday.
So we were right back at Snowbasin the following day. The snow wasn’t quite as good the next day — most of the freshies had been skied off by the Sunday crowds, and with the previous day’s sun and cold temperatures overnight, the surface conditions weren’t the ideal dry powder they were the day before — but it was still great.
After giving Tony a few exercises to practice, I parted ways and began to explore more advanced sections of Snowbasin.
Throughout the day, Ski Patrol was actively performing avalanche control. You could hear mortars going off every 10-15 minutes. I rode the John Paul Express lift — a long lift ride located to the far right of the resort — and was able to observe Ski Patrol in action. A couple ski patrollers off to the right were tossing mortars into the snow below them; I saw a flash and then a moment later heard the bang. Each one was a little melodramatic, though — I expected to see a mountain of snow breaking loose and falling down, but each bang only resulted in a little puff of snow.
Because of the high avalanche risk, some terrain was closed at Snowbasin, including portions of Mt. Ogden Bowl. In the coming days, there would be a couple of high-profile in-bounds avalanches at California ski areas, due to heavy and mixed snow. Thankfully they didn’t result in any fatalities.
I sampled various slopes across the mountain, working my way right to left. I eventually found myself at the top of the Strawberry Gondola, all the way on the left side of the resort. Strawberry Gondola had been closed for much of the prior day due to heavy winds. “It’s the most exposed lift and usually shuts down first,” explained a local to me.
Indeed, it was quite windy when I got to the top of the Strawberry Gondola — so windy I struggled to stay in one spot. But there’s a pretty phenomenal view up there, looking past the backside of Snowbasin. Although it was a bit foggy and cloudy, I heard other skiers remarking that on a clear day, you could see all the way to Salt Lake City.
I skied down Main Street — a nice, long, mostly treeless intermediate cruiser. The lack of trees means the trail is pretty exposed — and while I imagined it had ideal conditions the day before, just after a snowstorm, on this second day the fresh snow had been skied or blown off and it was definitely hardpacked.
After getting some miles under my belt and getting a better sense for the scale and scope of Snowbasin, I returned to the Becker lift to meet up with Tony. He had been making laps on beginner terrain there, becoming more confident with each run, until he was proudly tackling the intermediate School Hill slope. He enthusiastically demonstrated his mastery of School Hill to me, and I then challenged him to ski his first powder by going off trail.
“Oh my God, this is amazing Scott!” he yelled out as he delicately skied through the powder. He didn’t have much speed, so he quickly came to a stop and then sunk into the snow.
With his confidence increased, I challenged Tony to ski some more advanced blue runs at Snowbasin. Before the day was over, he had skied some blues (and even accidentally skied a black diamond) off ot he Needles Gondola and John Paul Express.
Although Snowbasin is a large mountain (it has a vertical just under 3,000 feet, has over 3,000 skiable acres, and gets 350 inches of snow in an average year), it is not a destination resort. It is a day area. You drive up a mountain to its base area, and find lots of parking spots, but no condos or retail shops — just a nice base lodge, Earl’s Lodge. There are also two lodges on top of the mountain. The lodges are quite elegant, with soaring ceilings, picture windows, and warm fireplaces.
And I’m happy to report the food is good too. Before heading back to SLC, Tony and I had a late-day lunch at Earl’s Lodge. I got a cheeseburger, and it was actually good. Was it the best cheeseburger I’ve had in my life? No, but it may have been the best cheeseburger I’ve had at a ski resort.
Once the slopes close, though, Snowbasin becomes a ghost town. By 5 p.m., the base area is deserted, save for a couple resort employees milling about.
Snowbasin feels like a “locals” mountain — it’s a down-to-earth ski area that is unapologetically just about the skiing. If you don’t ski or snowboard, there’s not much for you there — not even snow tubing, although there are cross country ski trails.
A lot of Salt Lake City skiers might pass over Snowbasin to head to the closer resorts of Park City, Deer Valley, Alta, Snowbird, and others. But I think a lot of Snowbasin skiers are perfectly fine with that. After all, it gives them more acres to themselves and more untracked powder to themselves. If you’re in the Salt Lake City area, Snowbasin is definitely a resort to add to your to-do list.
After two days at Snowbasin, there was only one ski day left on Snow Trip 2018. Unfortunately, that ski day would coincide with the onset of the flu. Stay tuned…
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
AH HA! Finally - a good cheeseburger! Finally!
Cheeseburger in paradise. Now you you know why many of us at DCSki are such fans of the resort: good turns, good grub, good vibe.
We started our 6 consecutive days of skiing SLC resorts with 2 days at Snowbasin after another big dump in the early morning hours. The drive up I-15 was treacherous and took much longer than need be due to GPS confusion but worth the risk as the snow was deep on the mountain. We even managed to get Laurel Mountain type parking very near Earl's as a local was leaving after a few early powder runs. It had been a while since I skied snow so deep but I soon caught the knack and let speed, ski shape and width to make the turns for me. By mid-day the powder was all chop so Jim Kenney lead us off the Allen Tram out to Easter Bowl where some freshies could still be found. I left too much on the mountain those first 2 days but in reality I only scratched the surface of the vast terrain. I spent the rest of the week mostly skiing long groomers with my wife who was recovering from a micro fracture of the tibia plateau and minicus surgery from our first day out in early December. It was the best PT. It was a truly memorable week for us and especially for my son who in the last 2 years has developed into a very good skier and my daughter, no slouch either. They finally had terrain that matched and pushed their abilities.