SALT LAKE CITY – I called it “The Utah Blitz.” After landing at SLC International, I set out to ski as many resorts as possible over the next four days. How many could I hit?
Salt Lake City might be the world’s best location to try a stunt like this. Eleven ski resorts are a short drive away in the Wasatch Range offering arguably the best access to winter recreation anywhere.
Thank goodness I had my wife, Leslie, along on this boondoggle. Unlike me, she’s a normal person who isn’t obsessed with skiing, and she kept the adventure from turning into a powder addict’s descent into madness.
Alta and Snowbird
It’s a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City up Little Cottonwood Canyon to two of Utah’s very best resorts. Alta, established in 1939, is one of the nation’s oldest ski areas and one of three in America that continues to ban snowboarding. (Deer Valley in Utah and Mad River Glen in Vermont are the others.)
So, yes, Alta is old school. Alta’s steep slopes attract the most annual snowfall in the state. Last year, 52 feet dumped (that’s right, feet), and this year Alta is on track to receive even more.
After staying in the newly renovated Snowpine Lodge, one of several European-style accommodations at Alta’s base, we explored the rolling terrain off the Supreme Lift, finding some fluffy powder amid the trees. Leslie took a break, and I found steeper drops off the Collins Lift, one of the main chairlifts in Alta’s central village.
So far, so good. By the time we finished a savory lunch at Alta Lodge, it was time to head to Snowbird, Alta’s Little Cottonwood neighbor. If Alta is a venerable cathedral, Snowbird is the glitzy skyscraper next door.
The storm was raging, and Leslie went to the spa – blizzards just aren’t her thing. Being the powder hound I am, I stayed out and met up with Rob Sogard of Snowbird’s Mountain School, who showed me around this world class resort.
High winds had closed the signature Snowbird Tram, a lift that rises 2,900 vertical feet to the resort’s summit at 11,000 feet on Hidden Peak, so Sogard and I explored some advanced runs off the Peruvian Lift and Gad 2 on the resort’s north-facing front side.
In the whiteout, we headed for the trees to help with visibility and had a wild afternoon. During one chairlift ride, I asked Sogard to compare Alta and Snowbird.
“The main difference is in the lift experience,” he said, noting that the tram offers a top-to-bottom drop with huge vertical. “Some people will lap the tram all day.”
“Lap,” as in ride up, ski down, ride up again – repeat – scoring huge vertical with each run. I was sorry I missed it, but my afternoon was still amazing filled with rollicking powder shots that turned my first-day legs to jelly.
Solitude and Brighton
The next morning opened to gorgeous bluebird skies with 10 inches of fluffy powder just waiting for skiers.
It doesn’t get much better than the day we had at Solitude, one ridgeline away in Big Cottonwood Canyon. This friendly, feel-good resort is smaller than Alta and Snowbird but still delivers some of Utah’s best skiing.
For intermediate skiers, Solitude’s groomers are inviting, open and fun. For those who want steeps and powder, there’s plenty of that, too, much of it found in Honeycomb Canyon accessed from the Summit Lift.
We toured the resort’s groomers in the morning, and then Leslie said, “I’m going to lunch,” and I joined the diehards in Honeycomb, scoring one of the best powder runs of our Utah visit.
“We get this amazing blower powder here,” said Sara Huey, communications manager of Solitude. Huey, who grew up in the Spokane Valley and went to college at Seattle Pacific University, is the perfect person to ask about the differences between Utah and the Pacific Northwest.
“The Northwest has incredible terrain, but when you come to Utah, the skiing is like being on a different planet,” she said. No arguments.
I met up with Leslie in Solitude’s appealing midmountain Roundhouse Lodge for lunch, and then headed next door to Brighton, a place known for its beginning and intermediate terrain with long groomers that stretch around the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
It’s also the best snowboarding resort in the Cottonwoods. I had a sunny afternoon cruising around, and by the end of this fun day at Solitude and Brighton, I had skied all the way across Big Cottonwood Canyon and logged my fourth resort in two days. The Blitz was on.
I’ve been wanting to ski Snowbasin, about 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, for years.
Snowbasin, near Ogden, is best known for hosting the downhill, super-G and alpine combined during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Its Grizzly downhill course is legendary for its steepness, dropping 2,900 vertical feet in just under 2 miles.
Sadly, it was not to be. I could only gaze up longingly at the Grizzly downhill as high winds closed much of the sprawling 3,000-acre resort.
Leslie and I still had fun skiing groomers off the Wildcat Express, and when she took off to go shopping in Ogden, I stayed out and found fluffy powder in Sunshine Bowl off the Becker Lift.
We stayed overnight in nearby Huntsville at the cozy Compass Rose Lodge and the next morning dawned to 7 inches of new snow as I headed to Powder Mountain. Leslie said, “See ya, I’m done!” and sent me on my way.
Powder Mountain is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever skied. It offers 8,464 acres of terrain – that’s more than behemoth Whistler Blackcomb – but unlike the British Columbia giant, Powder Mountain actually limits how many season passes and day passes it sells to preserve its experience.
Powder Mountain’s massive footprint is augmented by two cat-skiing operations. Many runs fall out of the lift area onto the resort’s steep entrance road, where you can catch a bus back to the chairlifts.
I skied untracked powder all morning, and I loved this resort’s rugged backcountry feel. I also enjoyed the camaraderie among the diehards I met on bus and snowcat rides.
The skiing at Powder Mountain feels laid back, unlike anywhere else. “There’s no hurry. We never get skied out,” said J.P. Goulet, Powder Mountain’s marketing manager.
Unfortunately for me, I did have to hurry. It was time to catch the plane home, my six-resort Utah Blitz complete.
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