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Lake Effect

Published: 11/15/2013

By Jeff Layton, Alaska Airlines -- A whiteout welcomed us to Utah. It was the kind of day that powder hounds spend their offseason dreaming about. The snow was already calf deep when we arrive at Alta, and light, airy flakes were piling up faster than the snowcats could groom. If a chairlift at Alta’s bas hadn’t been just 50 steps from the parking, I’m not sure we would have found it.


My wife, Amanda, and I glanced at one another with mild anxiety. We had flown to Salt Lake City to sample the legendary snow that falls en masse on the Wasatch Range rising to the east of the city, and we had certainly found plenty of it. For those of us accustomed to skiing in the Pacific Northwest, deep new snow is typically laden with moisture, and a challenge to both technique and stamina. But here on the slopes of Alta, we found Utah snow much different- delightfully different. By our second run, under clearing skies, my skis were bobbing effortlessly through the powder. Rather that struggling to stay upright, I bounced easily from turn to turn as if I were on a giant trampoline.


That’s when I understood why friends have always spoken about Utah with such reverence. Not only is the snow out of this world, but the proximity of lifts is astounding. How many cities can boast nine major ski resorts within an hour of downtown?


It’s almost unfair that Salt Lake City has so much excellent skiing at its doorstep, but there is a scientific explanation, my friend Andy Mars told us the next day as we rode one of Brighton’s lifts. The Wasatch mountain rise up from the east edge of town, and the massive Great Salt Lake flanks the city to the west. Winter storms extract moisture from the lake - which doesn’t freeze. The salinity of the lake water gives the snowflakes unique powdery properties, and they pike up in totals that regularly exceed 500 inches per season.


Andy, living in a half-buried A-frame at the base of Brighton, knows a thing or town about good snow, and where to the find the quintessential Utah runs- steep and deep with smooth, even powder. He explained that Utah resorts typically have a wide variety of terrain. Groomed runs are often adjacent to more challenging “Don’t tell Mom I’m about to do this” drops. That means it’s easy for novices like Amanda to play it safe yet still meet Andy and me for lift rides as we explore steep chutes and bowls. As Amanda steered toward one blue run, for example, Andy pointed his snowboard at a grove of trees to the side. I followed, and suddenly found myself gliding through a forest of aspen spaced like gates on a downhill course. We picked up speed, each of us choosing our own line, darting in and out of sight of each other, skiing with a blend of adrenaline, quick decision-making and improvisation.


Around noon, Andy took me to an open vertical drop with untouched, waist-deep powder. We bounded through snow that felt as dry as Styrofoam, that hissed as carved through it. Meanwhile Amanda was happily rolling out S-curves of her own over perfectly sculpted groomers. When she felt brave, she hopped into powder pockets, whooping with joy at the brief feeling of weightlessness.

The other Salt Lake area ski resorts are fundamentally similar, each offering a little something for everyone. Because there are so many ski resorts in a relatively small area, even a “busy” weekend in Utah can feel like you have perfection all to yourself. And since each resort is just a short drive away, you can stay downtown, or in Ogden to the north or Provo to the south- and you can leave the decision of where to ski until you get up in the morning. Bus and shuttle services make the trip to the lifts easy.


Or you can stay at the mountain resorts and walk directly to the lifts. A number of area are full-service resorts with some of the finest skier amenities found anywhere in the western United States.


Following are a number of options for taking advantage of Alaska Airlines’ daily service to Salt Lake City and the area’s incredible opportunities for a Utah ski vacation:


Cottonwood Area

The four Cottonwood-area resorts can be found just east of the southern end of Salt Lake City, where the Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons stretch into the Wasatch Mountains.



It’s easy to think you’ve stepped back in time at Alta. It’s a resort that’s not overly developed, but it has world-class terrain, and you can park just a few feet from the lift. Please note that Alta is a ski-only resort; now snowboarding.


Most lodges offer inclusive ski, lodge and meal packages. Alta also has guided snowcat skiing of the resort and groomed intermediate trails on each of seven lifts.


The AltaSnowbird day pass gives skiers access to Snowbird, on the other of Mount Baldy, for a total of 4,700 acres of skiable terrain.


Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort

Snowbird has everything you’ll need for a long weekend. Modern condos, lodges and dining options make it the most upscale of the Cottonwood resorts.


Snowbird is a large mountain that caters to advanced and expert skiers and board riders. It also boasts the largest tram in Utah, which can carry 125 people 2,900 vertical feet in seven minutes, and a people-mover conveyor that shuttles skiers and boarders through a 600-foot mountain tunnel, from the Peruvian Gulch side of the mountain to the intermediate runs of Mineral Basin.


And the snowfall? Three years ago Snowbird set a resort record with almost 800 inches and had a closing date of July 4.


Brighton Resort

Known as a snowboarder destination, Brighton is also the smallest of the Cottonwood resorts. It has open boundaries, so backcountry skiing is always an option, as well. And with an average 500 inches per year, a deep-powder stash is never far away.


Wide, gently sloping runs are geared toward beginners and families, but the resort also has a lot of expert runs and terrain park. Lodging choices are limited, but parking is a breeze.


Solitude Mountain Resort

Solitude is aptly names. If any resort in Utah is overlooked, it’s Solitude. And that’s just the way the locals like it. Steep granite cliffs back a quaint town with a clock tower, modeled after that in a European village, but the town also has a handful of newer hotels.


The skiing is a terrific balance of beginner terrain and runs that are chock-full of obstacles. Since it’s next to Brighton, you can buy a SolBright Pass that’s good at both resorts in a single day.