Five hundred annual inches of the lightest, driest, fluffiest snow found anywhere in the world. Eleven ski areas within one hour of the nearest major airport. Over 100 lifts and trams serving nearly 25,000 skiable acres.
Colorado? The Alps? Heaven? Nope, only in Utah.
Utah? When I packed up my small family a year ago and moved from Utah to Virginia I assumed that I would get the usual blank stares when asked about my home state. “From Utah? Oh, well welcome to America…” Instead it has been much the opposite. “From Utah? Why would you ever want to move?”
Really though, we love Virginia. But we fortunately left behind plenty of reasons to make trips back. December 21st we returned to Utah for 17 days to ski.. er, I mean visit family for the holidays. And do some skiing, if we had time. The following is a trip report.
Perfect conditions and easy accessibility are the two qualities that are endlessly hyped by SkiUtah (http://www.skiutah.com), and Snowbird certainly has both qualities. Just 29 miles from the Salt Lake City International Airport you can ski a 200 day long winter season on 500 annual inches of snow. That is six months of skiing on over 41 feet of snow.
We skied the ‘Bird the day after our arrival. It was the Friday preceding the Christmas holiday weekend. Everything was open and there were no lift lines. But all was not perfect. Despite some big early storms it had been several weeks since new snow had fallen in the Wasatch Mountains. It was also a gray cloudy day, making visibility difficult, especially high on the mountain.
This was my first trip to the ‘Bird since the new lift in Mineral Basin opened a year ago. I had heard the raves and didn’t wait to head stright over the top and down. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. A new high-speed detachable quad serves a large open bowl of strictly powder, above-treeline skiing. Even after two weeks of no new stuff there was still plenty of powder to be found back here. And the new lift unloads near the very top of the famous aerial tram. This means you can now access all of the tram-served runs on the front east side of the mountain without actually riding the tram.
A couple of tips: buy your lift pass before driving up to the mountain. You can get a chairlift-only ticket at the Smith’s Grocery Store below the mountain for $36. At the resort you will pay $45 for a chair-only pass. Include the tram and the regular price goes up to $54. Unless you want to spend a lot of time on the upper-east side of the mountain, don’t bother buying a tram pass, thanks to the new Mineral Basin quad you can now ski the whole mountain from the chairs.
Snowbird may be closest, it may have the best snow, but it can’t brag about having the highest base area in Utah. That distinction goes to Brian Head.
If Brian Head was any farther from Salt Lake City it wouldn’t be in Utah. This ski area sits high on the top of a large mountain deep in the red-rock country of southern Utah. You likely won’t see many SkiUtah license plates in the parking lot at the bottom of the Giant Steps chairlift. It is three hours south of Salt Lake, and an equal distance north of the home of most of its clientele: Las Vegas, Nevada.
We had driven past Brian Head many times on trips to and from my Grandparent’s home in nearby St. George. I knew that it was a fairly small area, no high-speed lifts, and the terrain didn’t appear particularly steep or challenging. It was also just two days after Christmas, and a big crowd seemed likely. But we decided to stop anyway.
The ski area is actually two separate mountains. The first is strictly beginner slopes. We headed to the second. It was indeed a small mountain, by Utah standards. And signs indicated that this particular forest was suffering a pest infestation, meaning many of the trees had been removed. This created a lot of wide open glade-type skiing, which actually compensated for the total lack of acreage. Combine this with a half-dozen freshies, a perfect clear, sunny day, and an endless mountaintop view, and it made for fine ski outing.
What is the number one powder ski resort in North America? The number one value resort? The number five backcountry resort? The number five steep resort?
According to Skiing Magazine it is the legendary Alta…
Alta sits on the same mountain as Snowbird, its base being just a mile or so farther up canyon. And it also gets 40 feet of that superior Utah powder. But the similarities end there. Where Snowbird caters to the ritzy destination crowd, Alta is dedicated to “the pureness of the skiing experience.”
That’s right: no pesky snowboarders allowed! And many old center-pole chairlifts are cobbled together using rusty, discarded mining equipment. Okay, that last part was somewhat of an exaggeration. Really though, nothing ever changes at Alta. They still have all of the old, slow chairlifts, the same old cafeterias and lodges, and the same old snow and terrain that make for some of the best skiing anywhere.
And the lack of amenities means cheaper lift tickets. We paid $35 for an all-day pass. Unfortunately Utah was now stuck in a giant high-pressure weather system that was pushing the big storms to the north and the south. It also caused a thick cloud of fog to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. On the drive up the mountain the fog cleared, revealing a clear day above. Despite the conditions there was still plenty of snow and killer terrain at sunny Alta.
Two weeks of skiing was creating somewhat of a drain on our bank account. It was time for some more discounts. My father-in-law happened to also be visiting in Utah, and he had found that as a retired serviceman he could get a limited number of $15 passes that would be valid at any ski area in Utah. Now here is a reason to serve: for the skiing! (Where do I enlist?!)
This was our opportunity to ski with the rich and famous. So we made the short drive to Park City. The town of Park City sits directly below the ski runs at Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR). On either side of town are Deer Valley and The Canyons. I have been to The Canyons many times, and the conditions at PCMR were better than Deer Valley. That same high-pressure weather pattern was still stuck over Utah, so no freshies. Instead it was another glorious, sunny day on the slopes. The temperature stayed just low enough to preserve the snow that was already in place, so the conditions were still pretty good overall.
PCMR also has changed a lot since my last trip there. The old gondola and nearly all of the fixed-grip lifts have been replaced with high speed detachable quads and six-packs. Perhaps this isn’t “pure” enough for some, but I prefer to spend my time skiing and riding down the slopes, not waiting in lift lines or sitting on chairlifts.
But even better, they have added new terrain. The new McConkey’s Six-Pack serves some very steep terrain at the top of the mountain. We made many rides here and on the old “pure” Jupiter chair skiing the double-black chutes and bowls. We saved enough time for some runs down the terrific bump runs just on the Silverlode and Motherlode chairs before calling it a day.
PCMR ultimately caters more to the destination crowd and East coast skiers. Groomed tree-lined green and blue runs abound. Gourmet restaurants can be found even high on the slopes. And massive new hotels and condos ring the base area.
17 days. Four days of skiing. One resort I had never skied and two others I hadn’t been to in many years. A successful trip? Certainly, but now its nice to be back “home.” But I won’t be here for too long. Thanks to Southwest Airlines and family connections I truly am “Free to ski about the country.” In two weeks I return to Utah for more of the Greatest Snow on Earth.
After 20-or-so years Chad Hansen got tired of skiing the world-renowned powder in his home state of Utah. He now makes Bristow, Virginia, his base camp for ski trips to D.C. area resorts.