Skiing in the Western United States

Because, When You Love Winter ...

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Skiing in the Western United States

The migration of New Yorkers down to warmer climes, especially those who come back in spring, is proof that there are those who embrace winter and those who will do anything to avoid it. I fall into the former category. I love winter. I love snow. I love the smell and taste of the unspoiled winter air, especially from the top of a snow covered mountain. That’s why, in addition to getting some days in here in the east, I make a point of trying to get out west to do some skiing every winter.

When most people think about skiing (or snowboarding – but I’m a skier so that’s the term you’ll read for the remainder of this article) out west, more often than not you think Colorado. I know I always did. Most of the popular ski areas in Colorado (Aspen, Steamboat, Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, etc.) average about 275” - 350” of snow a year. Compare that to the 150” – 250” you’ll get at most Vermont resorts that are drivable from Long Island and that’s not bad at all, especially when you combine that with an abundance of sunny days. It definitely makes for a great vacation.

About 20 years ago, I took my first ski vacation to Colorado. We went as a family, I got the flu on the plane (I apologize to the flight attendants that had to handle all those barf bags), we stayed slope side at Breckenridge for a week, had a blast, and I would do it all over again in a second if offered. But when it comes to booking (and paying for) my own trips, I can’t go anywhere but Utah.

The first time I heard about skiing in Utah was through my dad. He was looking to take a trip with some friends and got a tip from someone in the business that it was the place to go. So with the promise of legendary snow and sick terrain, he booked a trip and experienced a common tale for first-timers.

Flying into Salt Lake City the site of the Wasatch Mountain Range is nothing short of impressive. But when you land in Salt Lake City you’re generally greeted by the site of no snow. Not just a little here and there, but completely bare ground. In my dad’s case, it was actually raining. You then start thinking to yourself, “What did we do?”

Lying in a valley at about 4,200’ above sea level, Salt Lake City itself rarely gets snow. It is at the end of a long, flat stretch of land that finally ends with the Wasatch mountains, which rise steeply from the valley floor. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, which play host to Brighton & Solitude, and Alta & Snowbird mountains (respectively) sit in the perfect place to receive precipitation from a number of different weather systems.

Basically, what this boils down to is a lot of moisture-rich storms that cross the deserts of Utah and Nevada (with about 10% falling as lake-effect snow from the Great Salt Lake), all converging on the Cottonwood Canyons, where that sharp increase in altitude forces them to drop massive amounts of the lightest, fluffiest powder in the world. The second portion of that sentence is far more important than many realize (as anyone who’s ever experienced the “Sierra Cement” that falls on the West Coast). I’ve had Utah powder days where you can’t breathe because of the volume of powder that flies in your face as you glide atop the most amazing stuff on earth (and have even seen pictures of people skiing with snorkels to effectively remedy that situation).

How does this compare to the snowfall totals above? All four of the areas above average 500” + of snow each year, with Alta topping the list. During the ridiculous 2010/2011 season, Alta and Snowbird received 723” and 783” of snow, respectively. That’s over 65 feet of the white stuff, or 43 feet more than Killington received the same year.

Oh yeah, and the best part? The Salt Lake City airport is only 30 minutes from the mouth of the Cottonwood Canyons. Our trips seem to always have us leaving New York around 6 a.m., landing in Salt Lake by 11, getting to the mountain by noon, grabbing some lunch and then skiing on a half-day lift ticket from 1 p.m. until the lifts stop turning at 4:30.

So, now that you know why to go, how about where to go?

As I mentioned above, you can’t go wrong in the Cottonwood Canyons. Of the four areas mentioned above, we tend to spend most of our time at Alta, which is famous as a powder skiers paradise. And I mean “skier” this time, as it’s one of only three mountains left in the U.S. that don’t allow snowboarders (the other two are Deer Valley and Mad River Glen). Alta offers some sick terrain (as well as some great lift-accessible moderate terrain for those who prefer it) and boasts the highest average snowfall of all Utah areas (and #2 for ski resorts in the continental U.S.).

Snowbird (which is accessible from the top of Alta, and vice versa, when you buy a combo lift ticket) is right down the road from Alta, so they generally see the same snow conditions and the terrain (overall) is comparable. Snowbird offers 2,500 skiable acres, compared to Alta’s 2,200, and about 1,200 more vertical feet. This means bigger crowds but also more lodging and nighttime options.

If you’re bummed that Alta doesn’t allow snowboarders, fret not, as Brighton is a mecca for snowboarders the world over. Brighton is known just as much for its terrain parks as it is for some amazing skiing/riding options and should definitely be on your bucket list if you’re a snowboarder, but is hard to miss as a skier as well. Brighton also offers the only night skiing option in the Cottonwood Canyons, which makes it a good option on powder days when you can’t get up the canyon roads until later in the day.

Solitude stands as a very close second to Alta on my “Favorite Mountains” list. I’m not really sure why (I’ll venture a guess in a second), but I’ve had some of my best days at this mountain. Solitude is probably your best bet in the Cottonwoods for a family vacation because of the resort amenities. This also tends to mean a different caliber of skier/rider on average. As Alta and Snowbird boast some of the best skiers (and boarders) in the world as regulars, and Brighton the same with snowboarders, the best terrain also gets attacked the quickest after a big storm. I’ve found that powder days at Solitude (especially when the Honeycomb Canyon opens up) tend to last a little longer and provide more stashes of untracked champagne powder while most of the riders are busy on the main mountain.

If you’re a little more knowledgeable and adventurous, backcountry options are world-class from all of these mountains, and there are guide services (if you’re in good shape) and heli-skiing (if you have the money) that can be taken advantage of.

If you’re looking for a little bit more than just skiing and riding, you can always head out to Park City. The town of Park City is amazing and there are some great mountains in the area, but they lie on the back side of the Wasatch range which means the storms that come through dump most of their snow in the Cottonwoods before they get here. That doesn’t mean powder days don’t exist, but most people that come here are looking for a much more happening night-life scene or resort-quality accommodations. But if you’re looking to party, think of Park City a little like Las Vegas, where the laws somehow seem to be completely different than the rest of the state - meaning every beer on tap isn’t 3.2% alcohol, you don’t have to join a “club” to get a drink (which you don’t have to do at most of the on-mountain bars anyway), and bars can stay open past midnight.

Have your own stories or suggestions to share? Please comment below!

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