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Utah’s resort cluster offers some of the West’s best skiing

Sun., Nov. 25, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY – This could be the next great leap forward for Utah skiing: Hopping from one resort in the Wasatch Range to another, with seven resorts already clustered so closely together some neighbors are separated by only a rope line.

It would make for a Euro-style experience in the mountains that loom over Salt Lake City. By combining 25 square miles of terrain, the Utah resorts could offer North America’s largest skiing complex – three times the size of Vail and twice as big as Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.

Canyons Resort has given the concept new attention with a proposed first step: a $10 million gondola traveling two miles over the 10,000-foot Wasatch ridge and dropping into Solitude Mountain Resort for customers of both resorts.

Many skiers are delighted at the prospect of open travel along some of the best skiing terrain in the West, with the reliability of dry Utah snow.

“It would give Utah the marketing edge it needs,” said Jon Weisberg, a retired Bristol-Myers Squibb executive from New York who moved in 2000 to Utah for the skiing and redrock canyons. “Stringing these jewels together will make it even better.”

It’s not clear Canyons will succeed, but the Park City resort has opened a debate that lay dormant for decades. The discussion could bring in other resorts, and it’s already spurring studies of transportation and route options involving rail, cable cars or dedicated bus lanes.

“The whole idea of connecting resorts has taken on renewed discussion and debate. We’re happy to be a part of it,” said Mike Goar, managing director of Canyons. “It’s consistent with the bigger picture of connecting resorts.”

Going over opposition from the U.S. Forest Service, Canyons asked Congress earlier this year to sell a corridor of land for the gondola, raising an avalanche of protest from backcountry skiers, wilderness advocates and municipal water officials.

“We need to curb development and keep the pristine beauty of the Wasatch mountains that draws people to this place,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, a preservation group that says it’s open to lower-impact options for resort connections.

Solitude recently stated that it hopes to see construction of the inter-resort gondola begin in summer, but aides to Utah’s Republican congressman Rob Bishop don’t expect any action until the new Congress is seated in January.

Skiers don’t have to wait for the politics to settle. It’s already possible to ski between some neighboring resorts in the snowy Wasatch mountains.

Solitude and Brighton offer a joint pass, along with Alta and Snowbird in a neighboring canyon. In addition, the trade group SkiUtah offers an underappreciated but somewhat taxing Interconnect Adventure Tour of all seven Wasatch resorts.

The daylong tour with a stop for lunch is led by backcountry guides who keep an eye on avalanche danger. The longest out-of-bounds stretch on the tour is barely two miles, the distance Canyons would connect with an express gondola.

Plenty else has changed since the 2002 Winter Olympics remade Utah’s ski industry. Utah officials are looking to possibly make another Olympic bid for the 2026 Games in a decision due this month.

The 14 resorts have invested in roughly $1 billion in improvements, adding terrain, high-speed lifts and bubble chairs. Park City now has a handful of five resorts, from the Waldorf Astoria to the Montage Deer Valley.

Some of the latest improvements came in small packages, like a tiny ski area in southern Utah that offers big adventure.

Just beyond Eagle Point’s gates are hundreds of square miles of untrammeled powder snow under the volcanic-shaped peaks of the Tushar mountains. Skiers can take endless backcountry loops with little effort using the resort’s lifts.

Managers of a New York-based hedge fund brought the former Elk Meadows ski area out of dormancy and are running it as a family operation for a third year. Revenue is thin for Utah’s most remote ski area, outside the ranching town of Beaver, but that didn’t stop the owners from offering free skiing.

Anyone can ski Eagle Point at no charge Thursdays in January, and for California residents skiing is free all season. Meanwhile, nearby Brian Head is slashing prices for skiers who buy a punch pass of five lift tickets for midweek use, at $159.

Adventure also is on tap at northern Utah’s Powder Mountain, which grew from one of the smallest to arguably the largest Utah ski resort, although it involves some walking or snowcat rides to reach distant slopes. The effort is worth it, with deep powder outlasting other Utah resorts for days at a time after a storm.

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