Unknown Utah

12th August 2009, by Chris Gill

The Canyons

The Canyons

Name the first three American ski resorts that come into your head, and the odds are that they’ll be in Colorado. Name another three, and I’d still be willing to bet that your list would not range more widely than California (Mammoth, Heavenly and other Lake Tahoe resorts) and Wyoming (the famous Jackson Hole). To be more specific, I’d bet it wouldn’t stray into Utah.

Yet Utah has clear attractions: it has arguably the best snow in the States; its mountains include two of the seven largest lift-served areas in the States; and none of its half-dozen major resorts is more than an hour from Salt Lake City international airport. With the dollar at its current level we should be flocking there. But we continue to overlook it.

The theory was that the 2002 Olympic Winter Games would finally put Utah skiing on the international map. Snag #1: they branded them the Salt Lake City games, which means nothing to British skiers. Snag #2: they ran the major downhill events in a place called Snowbasin, which is a mountain with (as yet) no resort village at its foot. Even if you wanted to book a holiday there, you can’t. So, not surprisingly, Utah is no more prominent on the UK market now than it was in 2001. But the appeal of Utah is increasing all the time, as a quick tour of resorts around Salt Lake City at the start of last season revealed.

Little Cottonwood Canyon

If you know anything about Utah skiing, you’ll know about the cult powder resorts of Snowbird and Alta, close neighbours at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon – famously blessed by a top-notch 500 inches of fluffy stuff per year, on average. What you may not know is that for the last three years the two resorts have been linked via the newly developed Mineral Basin.

This excellent bowl, complete with Alpine-style dramatic scenery, belongs to Snowbird but is just as easily accessed from Alta. Adding the two existing ski areas together with this new sector gives a total of 4,700 acres of skiable terrain. In the US, only Colorado’s Vail and California’s Heavenly offer bigger lift-served mountains.

I had an excellent couple of days renewing my acquaintance with Alta and Snowbird, and exploring Mineral Basin for the first time. Sadly, I got none of the trademark powder, but big dumps in November and early December meant that practically everything was open, and there were even some soft stashes left in high, north-facing nooks. Mineral Basin, though, is mostly sunny, and a spell of high temperatures just before my visit had left the ungroomed stuff here in a thoroughly unpleasant condition. But my real mission was to get to grips with what Donald Rumsfeld might call unknown unknown Utah, starting with a 45-minute drive around to next-door Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the adjacent resorts of Solitude and Brighton.

Big Cottonwood Canyon

The slopes of these resorts are about half the size of those of Alta and Snowbird and don’t have the same range of double-diamond steeps. But by general American standards they add up to a very respectable area – in the same league as Colorado’s Breckenridge or Steamboat, for example. They pack in a great variety, including acres of excellent cruising, some superb steeper blue/black groomed runs, away-from-it-all ungroomed steeps in Solitude’s Honeycomb Canyon and intimidating double-diamond black runs in several sectors at Brighton. Brighton’s lifts are mainly fast, Solitude’s mainly slow.

For off-piste skiers, this valley has the attraction that it gets much the same snowfall as Alta/Snowbird (other Utah resorts get appreciably less), but attracts fewer hardcore locals when a dump arrives, and so can provide fresh tracks for appreciably longer. There is excellent backcountry skiing to be done outside the area boundary, too, with guided groups that you can join at affordable rates.

When I zipped through here in 1999, Solitude consisted of a day lodge and the neat little Inn at Solitude. Now, there’s a small but perfectly formed village, with several hundred apartments clustered around a pedestrian core with a bar, ski shop, grocery store and a couple of restaurants. There’s even an outdoor skating rink. You might not want to spend a whole holiday in such a limited spot, but for a stay of a few days there is all you need.

Brighton, on the other hand, has developed hardly at all. It remains essentially a spot for day-visitors from Salt Lake – and of course those who ski over from Solitude. The links work adequately, but the run from Brighton to Solitude involves a bit of skating and there are plans for a new lift to avoid that.

Canyons

The other lesser-known resort I wanted to get to grips with was Canyons – known as Wolf Mountain before its takeover in 1997 by the American Skiing Company (owners of Steamboat and half a dozen New England resorts).
Canyons’ expanded lift network now sprawls across countless ridges and valleys (hence the name), and is reckoned to be the sixth-biggest in America, alongside California’s Mammoth and just ahead of Park City. It has a lot to offer at every level, from easy cruising through moderately pitched glades to some serious double-diamond runs from the area high-point of Ninety Nine 90. The lifts are mainly fast, but a couple of old slow chairs have been redeployed on the most recently developed slopes at the southern end of the area.

Unusually for an American resort, Canyons is no more than passable for beginners: there’s a general lack of long green runs, and the main one at mid-mountain gets too much through-traffic for comfort. What’s more, there is no genuinely easy run to the village – you have to ride the gondola down. Since my last visit the resort itself has been transformed: there is now an array of fabulous second homes (‘The Colony’) spread widely over the lower slopes and, more importantly, something resembling a village at the base. The centrepiece, as at other ASC resorts, is the plush Grand Summit hotel, perfectly placed for the access gondola (overcrowded at peak times, but about to be duplicated by a chair-lift). The resort as a whole has some way to go to develop a village atmosphere, and for now I’d still prefer to make day-trips to Canyons from a base in Park City, Utah’s best-known resort, only four miles up the road.

And finally …

Only 10 years ago, collaboration and links between Alta and Snowbird and between Brighton and Solitude were talked about as remote possibilities, nothing more. Now that these links are realities, I found a real change in attitudes.

Park City and Deer Valley could be linked by removing two fences and issuing a joint lift pass. A handful of lifts would be enough to link Canyons, Park City/Deer Valley, Brighton/Solitude and Alta/Snowbird, creating an area of something between 15,000 and 20,000 acres – three or four times the size of Vail, and a match for all but the biggest mega-areas in the Alps.
Now that really would put Utah on the international map.



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