Utah's Ski Mecca: Salt Lake City

Utah's Ski Mecca: Salt Lake City

Published by Brion O'Connor

SLC Offers Unparalleled Choices for Skiers and Riders.

On a stunning, bluebird day in February at Utah's Park City Mountain Resort, as I hopped aboard a high-speed quad with my brothers Matt and Mike, a fourth skier joined us from the single's line. Once we began our rapid ascent up the hill, small talk ensued.

“Another day in paradise,” said our chair-mate, a pearly white smile creasing his tanned face.

“Oh, do you live locally,” I asked.

“Nope,” he replied, beaming. “I'm from Connecticut.”

That exchange would become a familiar refrain during my week-long “tour de fluff” in the Beehive State. Skiers and snowboarders have a ridiculous array of fabulous resort destinations in North America, but few states can match Utah in terms of its moth-to-the-firelight attraction that pulls at winter enthusiasts.

“After filming street in Minnesota for a few weeks, I got back to Utah early January,” said Kulkea athlete and ski film aficionado Luke “Lupe” Hagearty, a New England native who recently moved to Salt Lake City. “My childhood friend Evan Lai-Hipp and I were blessed with a really deep day at Brighton.

“It was a memorable day for sure, so much snow,” said Hagearty. “It was nice to ski with no camera or pressure on myself – soul shredding with a homie at its finest.”

Traditionally, ski vacations consist of finding a top-notch resort, good deals on lift tickets, airfare, and slope-side hotel or condo, and a nice selection of restaurants nearby. Now, imagine a city that provides a sophisticated metropolitan vibe as well as quick and easy access to more than a half dozen outstanding resorts. Sound better?

Say Hello to Salt Lake City.

Less than an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport, visitors can explore 10 ski resorts, several of which – Alta, Deer Valley, Park City, and Snowbird – are legendary. The mix of dramatic, serrated mountains and bountiful snowfall (averaging more than 400 inches annually, starting this winter with a Thanksgiving storm that dumped 70 inches on the region) found in the Wasatch Range is intoxicating. After all, this is where the "Alta Flu" – the phenomenon of absentee workers following a snowstorm – became famous.

“The light Utah snow is hands down the best,” said Kulkea athlete and freeskier John Brown, another Northeast native who now calls Park City home. “You have to go to Japan to get anything like it, and even then you won’t find the terrain you find here.”

Ski Utah trademarked the slogan "The Greatest Snow on Earth," and few claim false advertising. But if you go, arrive well rested, and in shape. I'll never forget my first ski trip to Utah, more than two decades ago. My brother Sean and I stepped out from the airport into a steady rain. When we climbed into our van, I couldn't hide my disappointment as our driver greeted us cheerily.

“Oh, don't worry,” said our driver with a wide smile. “This is going to change.”

And he was absolutely correct. You might even say prescient. Halfway up Little Cottonwood Canyon, on our way to Snowbird, the rain had transformed to thick, heavy snowflakes. By the time we arrived at our lodge, we were in the midst of a winter wonderland.

Little Cottonwood Canyon UT SkiLittle Cottonwood Canyon, UT.

“From the above-treeline, big-mountain vibes mixed with an amazing amount of tree skiing and plenty of sunny days to enjoying groomers, the park, or the amazing 360 degree views at the top of Snowbird's tram that will make you feel like you're in Europe,” said Brown. “The variety of terrain in the Wasatch unprecedented.”

My 78-year-old father-in-law, who still works out every morning before heading to his law office, once remarked: "I believe you should finish a vacation even more tired than you started." That Puritan ethic applies perfectly to skiing the Wasatch Range, and Utah's capital of Salt Lake City.

Here, you can establish a "home base" for your daytime powder adventures, and indulge your urban appetite at night (or even an "off day"). There's a dizzying assortment of lodging, restaurant, and entertainment options, including theaters, the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre, and even professional basketball at the Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the NBA's Utah Jazz. That's why we opted to rent a car, despite the excellent public transportation system servicing the city and the resorts.

During our late-winter trip, we set up camp at the Hotel Monaco, a stylish former bank building built in 1912. The accommodations were fabulous (they'll even supply a goldfish to keep you company), as was the hotel's award-winning restaurant, Bambara. Chef Nathan Powers – voted Utah's best chef in 2014 – features up a menu that is both eclectic and delicious (as a resident of Boston's North Shore, I never thought I'd be ordering sea scallops in Utah).

Other nights, we popped into the cozy Martine Café – if you're a fan of Manhattan cocktails, this is a must – and chef Matthew Lake's intriguing Mexican bistro Alamexo. If your après ski hunger pangs won't wait, stop by Trio Downtown on the edge of town. Salt Lake City also boasts a slew of funky after-hours hot spots, from brewpubs like Squatters to the creative cocktails of Pallet, and Beer Bar and Bar X, both owned by Modern Family star Ty Burrell.

Additionally, Salt Lake City has a number of visitor-friendly ski rental shops. I prefer traveling with my ski boots, but not skis and poles. I flipped those savings into my rentals at a shop in downtown SLC, where I sampled a number of current models from K2, Völkl, and Salomon.

Snowbird Ski resort Utah -

Snowbird, UT -

After collecting our gear, we drove straight up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird Resort. The result of Texas billionaire Dick Bass's vision in the early 1970s, Snowbird today is the quintessential "skier's mountain," with trails to suit any ability level. Snowbird's new tram station and restaurant on Hidden Peak – The Summit – are impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the 2,500 acres of skiable terrain over 3,240 feet of vertical.

That translates to 116 trails, with more beginner terrain (27 percent) than many Wasatch resorts, making it a great option for neophytes and families (just make sure you know where you're going to avoid getting stuck on runs you can't handle). And experts, whether they prefer in-bounds or off-piste terrain, should get their fill as well with steep chutes, giant powder-filled bowls, and exceptional glades.

The next day, we headed further up the canyon to the granddaddy of Utah ski hills, Alta. This pioneering resort is now 82, dating back to 1938. It's a special place, flawlessly blending Old School, quad-busting terrain over three peaks (and more than 2,500 feet of vertical) with New School amenities (though my nostalgic heart misses the ancient-if-unpredictable Germania Chair). How Old School? Alta, like Mad River Glen in Vermont, still prohibits snowboarding.

“I would have to say Alta would be my favorite resort for a powder day,” said Brown. “You just can't beat the Little Cottonwood Canyon snow.”

The Alta tail map is littered with black diamond trails, and each one is legitimate (fair warning – 55 percent of the 116 runs are rated advanced, while only 15 percent are designated beginner). Bring your A-game. Looking to go out of bounds? Alta's Grizzly Gulch Snow Cat Skiing offers access the backcountry adjoining the resort, and an annual snowfall of more than 500 inches practically guarantees good conditions.

To the north, Big Cottonwood Canyon is home to the resorts of Brighton and Solitude. Recently purchased by Deer Valley, Solitude is one of my favorite Wasatch escapes. It's a big-time hill (10,035-foot summit, with more than 2,000 feet of vertical) with a small-town atmosphere, featuring precipitous, challenging pitches among its 1,200 acres. Keep in mind, only 10 percent of the 82 trails are considered “beginner.”

Fantasy Ridge, off the Summit Express, is worth every step of the lung-busting hike. Eight lifts, including four detachable quads, make for delightfully short lift lines. And the Honeycomb Grille at Solitude Village offers an ideal lunch break.

Solitude Mountain Ski UT

Solitude Mountain, UT -

Meanwhile, Brighton is considered the locals' hill. The drive up the canyon is a bit longer, and Brighton isn't as polished as Solitude. But for devotees, that's a good thing.

“Brighton is one of my favorites with the younger crowd always keeping the stoke alive,” said Brown “The slack country – access to touring terrain from the mountain – at Brighton is some of the best I have ever done. The park is also very popular with a ton of rail and jump options.”

I personally love Brighton's rough-cut base lodge, with its raucous après ski scene. The family friendly terrain is simply tremendous (youngsters 10 and under ski free), and the darling of the snowboarding set. What's more, Brighton has the most night skiing terrain in Utah, with 22 runs and more than 200 lighted acres.

“Brighton has a more local vibe then some of the corporate resorts,” said Kulkea athlete Luke “Lupe” Hagearty. “There's an Old School feel there in comparison to a resort like Park City. I love the fact that you can shred really good terrain on a pow day and have access to a fun park. The Millie Tubes are my favorite.”
Brighton Ski Area Utah

Brighton Mountain, UT.

Due to the border dividing Salt Lake and Summit counties, Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort aren't part of Ski City's money-saving Super Pass. But you don't have to acknowledge any man-made demarcations. Park City is a quick jaunt east on Interstate 80, a former mining town that has grown exponentially in the past four decades (there are now roughly 100 restaurants and bars here, highlighted by the High West Distillery, Mexican fusion at Chimayo, and The River Horse).

The pride and joy of the late, great Stein Eriksen, Deer Valley is the epitome of skiing elegance, with a price tag to match. Most of Deer Valley's 103 runs are perfectly groomed, much like the stylish Eriksen and the mid-mountain lodge that bears his name, and enhanced by stunning views (which often include celebrity sightings).

To appreciate just how big Deer Valley is, consider the resort boasts 21 lifts, including 13 high-speed quads, that can deliver more than 50,000 skiers and boarders uphill each hour. But with more than 2,000 acres of terrain and 3,000 feet of vertical over six peaks, you won't feel squeezed.

Park City Mountain Resort – now owned by Vail Resorts, which folded The Canyons under the Park City umbrella – is so popular that it doesn't have sufficient parking by the main lodge. But the spectacular trails and glades that comprise this sprawling resort make the shuttle, or parking by the Canyons Village, a minor inconvenience.

Not to be outdone by its neighbor, Deer Valley, Park City features 17 peaks, and more than 7,000 skiable acres (including 500 acres of snowmaking, which is a tad redundant most years). More than 300 trails (a third of which are groomed every night) and more than 3,200 feet of vertical will keep you exploring new terrain for days.

Bobsled Olympic Park UT

Bobsled at Olympic Park, UT -

If you've got extra time (or an extra day), detour to the Utah Olympic Park , home to the Alf Engen Ski Museum and 2002 Eccles Olympic Museum. Experience a white-knuckle ride down the Olympic bobsled course (Dec-April), "extreme tubing" on a Nordic ski jump, or soar high above the snow-covered ground on a Zipline.

After six days on the slopes, my legs were wobbly but my skiing soul was full. My father in-law would've been proud. I slept soundly during my flight back to Boston, dreaming of my brother Matthew's parting words: "We have to do this again."

He was right. We didn't have time to visit the areas north of Salt Lake City, outside Ogden, including Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Nordic Valley, and Sundance to the south via Provo. We need to come back.

For more detail, contact Visit Salt Lake ( or Ski Utah (

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