Utahs Powder Paradise: Snowbird and Alta Ski Resorts
As the plane banks a turn, I stare in amazement at the snow-laden peaks jutting heavenward. Approaching the Salt Lake City Airport, I feel breathless as I gaze at the mountains east of the city. Majestic in their rugged beauty and rising to 11,500 feet, the white-capped peaks of the Wasatch Mountains provide a crowning backdrop to the citys skyline.
Whenever I fly to Salt Lake City for a winter ski vacation, I feel like a kid in a candy store. Before me lies the spine-tingling runs of seven major ski areas that are less than an hours drive from downtown. Like a colorful glass jar filled to the brim with luscious treats, its difficult to make a choice. I can almost taste the sweetness of the snow as I ponder my options. Do I ski the front side of the range in Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood Canyons or go backside to the Park City areas? With so many pristine snowfields calling out to me, its hard to make a choice. But having just a three day vacation, Ive decided to focus this time on two ski areas in Little Cottonwood Canyon, a short hop from downtown.
Photo credits: Ski Utah, Richard Price (all photos)
Little Cottonwood Canyon
Just east of Salt Lake City lies a magnificent canyon where skiers can find some of the best snow on earth, nearly 500 inches a year of light, dry powder. Little Cottonwood Canyon enters the Wasatch Range from I-215 in the nearby town of Sandy. Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort is but a mere 26 miles from the city, and just a mile further, Alta Ski Area is tucked at the end of the canyon.
|I have just taken the Little Cloud Lift to its summit of 10,800 feet. After last
nights snowfall, a group of ski patrollers has been working avalanche control all
morning and the Road to Provo has just opened. Acres of untracked powder await my
signature. As if upon cue, I begin a dance down Shireen, carving giant
"S" curves as I weave my way through a bowl full of light fluff! Sinking to my
knees, I rebound and make turn after turn, adrenaline pumping as I reach the lift.
Ah, Snowbird. I love the terrain here. There are huge bowls of double-diamond slopes on the frontside, the Peruvian Cirque and Silver Fox that challenge my fears; and the wide open reaches of Regulator Johnson and Last Choice on its backside. With lots of blue runs in between like Bassackward and Bananas, theres lots of terrain to relax and cruise. Tree skiing? The glades on Tiger Tail and Thunder Bowl kept my skis in the slalom position. Its a mecca of choices and skiers of all abilities have over 2,500 acres of terrain to challenge.
|Snowbird rises to a height of 11,000 feet. Taking the aerial tram to the top of Hidden Peak, I had 3,240 vertical feet of thigh burning turns, top to bottom, for my last run of the day. Reaching the base, I gaze at the stunning reflection of the peak, captured on the glass facade of the Cliff Lodge. A quick coffee at The Birdfeeder, and Im ready to catch the bus back to Salt Lake, my headquarters for this holiday. Its great to have chauffeured service to the slopes and back.|
The Locals Favorite
It snowed again last night and the ride to Alta is a wonderland of white. It is known as a skier's mountain, and Salt Lake City locals call Alta home base. The scenery is spectacular with Mt. Baldy towering with intimidation at 11,690 feet. Its not a fancy place -- there are no high speed quads -- kind of a throw back to skiing in the sixties. But after a few runs, I decided I actually welcomed the rest on the fixed-grip lifts.
The locals have their haunts and it is rare that they will share their secret powder stashes with anyone. I saw many free-heeling it above the lifts, seeking some private chute of untracked powder. Being an "outsider," I had to settle for the cool slopes of the Greely Bowl before settling into a rhythm to ski the trees of Eagles Nest.
Exploring the area, I made sure that I didnt lose track of my trail map. Alta is divided into two main regions, West Rustler and Albion Basin. My modus operandi was to ski as many black diamond runs off West Rustler as my legs could handle, and then cruise some of its blue trails. Alfs High Rustler off the Germania Chair proved to be a steep, deep thigh burner. Two chair rides, up Collins and back to Germania, I welcomed the easier slopes of Mambo, Meadow, and Corkscrew. A leisurely lunch break at the on-slope Albion Grill got me in the mood to brave the Albion Basin region. The Supreme Chairlift offered a steep black run, Challenger, that met up with a more friendly Sleepy Hollow, with easy tree skiing.
Alta can be your powder heaven even if youve never skied powder before. Alf Engen and his wife Evelyn have had their ski school here since 1948 and teach neophytes and children how to master the lightest and driest. With a few lessons, youll soon feel like a master on runs like "Mambo" and "Aggies Alley."
|Destination: Salt Lake City
Its early season snow and its easy to-get-to location makes Salt Lake ski areas a great West Coast destination. Staying in town really has its advantages: I dont have to rent a car, hotels are reasonable, there are great places to dine, and there is lots of shopping and sightseeing for my non-skiing friends. My hotel offered free shuttle service to the airport and I was able to take a bus, right from the hotel to the slopes. The proximity of Salt Lake City to seven ski areas allowed me to make my ski itinerary flexible.
Salt Lake City after dark is no New York, but it does offer lots of options. There are sushi bars, country-western saloons, even nightclubs with jazz, blues, and rock bands. And yes, I was able to get a drink with my dinner. Culture is showcased in the Utah Opera Company, and its Symphony orchestra. The Utah Jazz Basketball team plays its games, just west of the city, at the Delta Center.
My only regret -- not being able to stay a full week and ski more of Utahs world-class resorts. I know Ill be back for more of the "Greatest Snow on Earth."
Click here for details to plan your own ski trip to Salt Lake, Snowbird, and Alta.