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The Changing Face of Utah Skiing and Salt Lake City

Bob Goligoski

Off the tarmac in Oakland, CA at 6:30 a.m. one mid-December day. On the slopes at Solitude just outside Salt Lake City at 10:05 a.m. Eight inches of fresh powder the next day at Alta. Day three starts with more powder runs at Snowbird, a mile from Alta, and ends with a 9 pm nonstop back to the Bay Area.

There is probably no other ski town in America with a major airport just 45 minutes away from seven or eight good-sized ski resorts. For that reason, Utah is in the cross hairs of thousands of destination skiers and snowboarders every winter. And, of course, it does not hurt that most of the resorts annually get about 500 inches of the lightest, fluffiest powder in the land.

It had been six or seven years since I last visited Utah and the number of changes and upgrades since then is mind-boggling.

There was virtually nothing at the base of sleepy, little Solitude before. Now there is a Euro-style condo village buzzing with restaurants, shops, bars and about 250 condos, townhouses and hotel rooms.

Historic Alta is still truly a “skier’s mountain” because Alta is still one of three ski resorts in the country that bans snowboarders. But the aging, slow chairlifts have been mostly replaced by high-speed chairlifts that whisk skiers quickly to the resort’s 116 runs.

At Snowbird, a tunnel at the top of the Peruvian lift gives you access to a vast bowl called Mineral Basin which welcomes skiers and riders of all calibers from novice to expert. And work will soon begin on the first restaurant at the top of 11,000 foot Hidden Peak, a mountain-top serviced by The Tram, an eye-popping lift that brings you up 2,900 feet in just seven minutes.

The three resorts, along with the Brighton resort, lie in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons on the Western flank of the Wasatch range. I did not get a chance to revisit Brighton on this three-day trip but I recall it is a snowboarding mecca with several terrain parks plus a half dozen chairlifts going to all types of bowls, chutes and tree runs.

The Cottonwood canyons are where the locals mostly come to play. And why not? The sprawling, glitzy resorts on the other side of the Wasatch – Park City, The Canyons, Deer Valley – price their daily lift tickets around $95 while skiing at Brighton, Alta, Snowbird and Solitude runs you between $62 and $78 for a lift ticket.

Folks in these parts were somewhat startled in late 2011 when plans for SkiLink were revealed. SkiLink would be a transportation gondola between The Canyons and Solitude which would connect the resorts in the Park City area with the Brighton and Solitude resorts in Big Cottonwood canyon.

Project promoters say the link would reduce the 45 – 55 minute drive between the two sites to an 11-minute gondola ride. No date was given for the start or completion of the link. Before it becomes a reality, it will have to vault a number of environmental and legislative hurdles.

Meanwhile, life goes on at a placid pace at relatively undiscovered Solitude. During my Monday of skiing at Solitude, I was one of about 100 people on the slopes. Solitude is a very aptly named.

Altitude sickness is less of a concern here than at some Colorado resorts because of the lower elevation. The base of the four resorts is around 8,500 feet while most of the skiing and riding takes place just under 11,000 feet.

The Cottonwood canyon resorts have a laid-back ambiance, in my opinion, because they are still largely owned and operated by families, not absentee-owner corporations. The DeSeelhorst clan bought Solitude in 1977, for example, and Dick Bass, a well-known Texas oilman and mountain climber, has been in charge at Snowbird since it debuted in 1971.

Solitude has 65 runs that criss-cross the terrain and shoot through various canyons. Intermediate runs ribbon down from the summit. There are no terrain parks but the natural terrain gives riders plenty of places to bump and grind down the slopes.

For nordic buffs, Solitude has 20 kilometers of cross country terrain. Visitors into snowshoeing come here for the eight kilometers of terrain dedicated to snowshoe addicts.

Solitude has discovered, as have many resorts, that the way to attract more fans is to upgrade the resort chow. The menu at Kimi’s Mountainside Bistro beckoned and did not disappoint. Offerings range from cheese fondue and roasted chicken and poblano chili to spice rubbed roasted pork baguette.

I missed out on what is said to be the culinary summit at Solitude –The Yurt. One moves on cross country skis or snowshoes through a moon and lantern-lit forest to a Mongolian yurt where a chef prepares a five-course meal before your eyes. Reservations are advised.

It snowed that night and how perfect to wake up in the Alta Lodge the next morning to eight inches of new snow. I am not much of a powder skier but even I could handle this with style. It was like skiing through silk. The snow lived up to the Utah marketing hype that proclaims “the greatest snow on earth.”

Meteorologists explain that it has something to do with salt dust from the Great Salt Lake getting into the clouds and creating the perfect nuclei for the condensation that then comes along and reliably dumps 500 or so inches of snow each winter into the Cottonwood canyons.

Alta, high up the road from Snowbird, is the chief recipient of this largess. Alta and Snowbird connected 10 years ago and so now you can ski both resorts with one lift ticket.

Alta, open since 1938, has the same kind of vibe you find at places like Sun Valley and Taos. People return here year after year. They are passionate skiers. At Alta Lodge, about 75 percent of the guests were on return visits. The handful of lodges at the base toss in breakfast and dinner with the room rate and total strangers often share the same table and sometimes develop lasting friendships.

Connie Marshall, Alta’s marketing director, said, “We have more soul and history than most resorts. Our guests could go anywhere in the world. But they choose to come to Alta.”

A network of seven chairlifts and several surface lifts spans the 116 runs that appeal to any type of skier. After a scrumptious Vietnamese, crab and asparagus soup at the slopeside Collins Grill, it was back to the well-manicured runs spilling through the trees.

Alta does not appear to be suffering because it will not allow snowboarders in the door. After all, Snowbird is only a mile away and has plenty of natural terrain features that appeal to snowboarders.

With 2,500 skiable acres, a vertical drop of 3,240 feet, 85 runs, an aerial tram and 10 chairlifts, Snowbird is the “big daddy” of the Cottonwood resorts. My special favorite – Regulator Johnson, a majestic bowl run off the tram that seems to go on forever.

For the truly adventuresome, helicopter skiing with Wasatch Powderbird Guides is available from a heli-pad in the Snowbird complex. They can be reached at www.powderbird.com.

The pedestrian village at the bottom boasts four lodges with some 900 rooms, 16 restaurants, five bars, a market and various shops. Snowbird is also a popular convention center with a ballroom to handle up to 900 people for various meetings and gatherings.

The resort has Utah’s longest ski season and was open until July 4 in 2011.

After the tram top restaurant is completed, big plans are afoot to build a second tram that will rise into the Twin Peaks area and open up the backside with a bevy of runs.

Figures compiled by the Cottonwood canyon resorts and the other 10 ski resorts in the state concluded that they enjoyed 4.2 million skier/snowboarder visits last season. Resort owners noted that about half their guests come from Utah and the rest from elsewhere. Most out-of-state skiers hail from either California or New York.

Eight airlines fly into Salt Lake City with about 300 daily in and out flights. It is possible to do what I did -- fly early one day, be on the snow by 10 a.m. and get in three full days of skiing with two night’s lodging -- from a number of cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Long Beach, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and Albuquerque.

Buses run frequently in Cottonwood country connecting the various resorts along with linking the downtown area and airport with the resorts. Although you might pay $200 to $300 for a slope-side lodge room, you can usually find a nice low-cost motel in downtown Salt Lake City for $50 or $60. And the ride from downtown Salt Lake City to the four resorts is usually only about 30 minutes.

In 2012, a direct rail system in the area will be expanded to connect the airport with downtown Salt Lake City.

One of the fascinating things about a trip to the Utah snow country is discovering how much Salt Lake City has changed in recent years. The spiffy downtown area is vibrant with restaurants, bars, stores, shops and parks. Some travelers do not include Utah in their winter travel plans because they believe that Salt Lake City is not an exciting party venue and still labors under restrictive liquor laws.

All that has changed. You can now typically get as much alcohol in mixed drinks as you can anywhere else. And last year, the Utah State Legislature did away with the state’s 40-year-old “private club” provision. Now revelers can wander with impunity from bar to bar.

Beer has caught on big time in Utah. There are more than a dozen breweries pumping out ales that are doing very well in national and international beer competitions. These are unusual, flavorful concoctions with alcohol content often in the 8 to 10 percent range.

Two of the very best that I sampled: the Brainless Belgium from Epic and the HellsKeep bottle from Squatters Brewery. You can almost inhale the citrus, pine, oak, smoke, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee and vanilla used to create the aromatic beers.

It has been 10 years since the Olympics were held in Utah but the state is still reaping benefits from that event. Utah Olympic Park is open with various attractions. One can hop on a bobsled with a guide and hurtle down the bobsled run used in the Olympic. Or take a chairlift to the top of the highest ski jump used in the Olympics.

Tubing addicts have a place to call home – Gorgoza Park. This is a lift-served, lighted tubing hill with a variety of lanes ranging from timid to scary.

Salt Lake City also has a new Natural History Museum. Utah has one of the highest concentrations of dinosaur fossils in the world and many of these wonders reside in the museum.

The city’s renaissance will be just about complete when the City Creek Center opens in March in the heart of Salt Lake City. This is a $2 billion development paid for by the Mormon Church that features more than 80 stores and restaurants and more than 400 apartments and condos.

A quick tour of the complex reveals the uniqueness of City Creek. A 1,200-foot long creek, a re-creation of the actual City Creek that once bubbled through the city, meanders through the development. Fountains blast into the air including one that shoots fire and water choreographed to music.

A retractable roof hovers over City Creek to keep visitors warm and dry if need be. A trout pond lies over some of the 5,000 underground parking spaces. It’s a good bet that City Creek will be an après ski and snowboarder destination at the end of many a day on the slopes.

For those contemplating a trip to Utah, these two web sites may help with your planning: www.visitsaltlake.com and www.skiutah.com

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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