By Larry Olmsted, Forbes — In European skiing, there are several “mega-resorts” which combine multiple independent ski areas sharing borders on special lift tickets allowing visitors to ski from one to another. As result, the amount of skiing that can be done in one day is enormous, but more than that, these combined resorts link different towns, often several of them, and even multiple countries, allowing skiers to have a very varied cultural experience in a single day.
For example, when I skied at Les Portes du Soleil on the French/Swiss border, I started my day with breakfast in France, and then had a classic alpine slopeside lunch in Switzerland before skiing back across the border. Another French mega-resort, Paradiski, connects a staggering 15 different ski-in/ski-out towns and villages, all with a unique assortment of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and nightlife.
There is really only one similar large scale experience here in the United States, and it almost always offers something even the mega-resorts of the Alps cannot guarantee – fresh powder! It is called the Ski Utah Interconnect Tour, and it is awesome – I just enjoyed it last week.
Ski Utah is a marketing association that includes every alpine ski resort in the state of Utah, world famous for having some of the best snow in the world for skiing and snowboarding, very dry, light, and in most winters, deep. It is even trademarked as “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” For this special tour, Ski Utah employs its own highly experienced guides, and holds permits allowing them to duck ski resort ropes, ski across resort boundaries, and lead guests in National Forest Service controlled backcountry areas. There is no way to legally replicate this on your own.
Ski Utah describes the tour thusly: “The Ski Utah Interconnect Adventure Tour gives an advanced to expert skier the opportunity to experience the magnificent beauty and incredible backcountry terrain of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Tours operate seven days a week, weather and conditions permitting. Guests will ski resort terrain and the backcountry terrain between and through as many as six resorts in one day. Interconnect Adventure Tour guides are trained in snow safety and backcountry etiquette, two Interconnect Guides accompany every tour.”
The rate ($325) includes guides, a lift ticket good at all six resorts, a loaner avalanche transceiver, lunch (in the base of one of the ski resorts, typically Solitude, which is now owned by Deer Valley and as a result has greatly elevated food) and a return shuttle to the starting point. You book the tour through Ski Utah, with the option of doing it in either direction, North to South from Deer Valley to Snowbird, or vice versa. Snowbird is very accessible from downtown Salt Lake City, and since most ski visitors to Utah will be staying in Salt Lake, Park City, or at the adjacent Alta/Snowbird resorts, you can just start closest to where you are sleeping. The greater Salt Lake City area is one of the premier ski vacation destinations in the world, with eight world class resorts within an hour of the airport, including the nation’s largest, short drives and very easy air access from across the country. Utah already gets over 4,000,000 skier days annually – one of every thirteen in the entire nation – so the Interconnect Tour is another great add-on option or amenity for the many passionate ski travelers coming here anyway.
I went from the Deer Valley end. You enjoy a few warm up runs on resort trails before riding lifts to the top and stepping out of bounds for a short backcountry ski into Park City, now the nation’s largest ski resort since merging with the former Canyons before this season (the specific route and interconnection points vary daily based on conditions and there are places where you can simply step under the rope from Deer Valley and arrive immediately within the Park City resort).
One guide always leads and one brings up the rear, with group size limited to twelve guests. The Tour is also offered a private outing for groups of friends or corporate groups, and it would be a great teambuilding/bonding day ($2,500 for 1-6, $3,500 for 7-12). No backcountry experience is needed, and the entire tour is done without ever taking off your skis (except lunch), though there is some uphill side stepping. It is best for advanced intermediate skiers and above, and the backcountry sections between resorts typically offer the same kind of unbroken powder conditions and widely spaced trees you would encounter on a cat-skiing trip, though it is mostly low angle (not steep) and can be navigated even by those who have little or no powder skiing experience. Guides are very good at sizing up participants and leading them through terrain suited to their ability.
The Tour interconnects the two resorts of Park City (Deer Valley and Park City), the two in Big Cottonwood Canyon (Solitude and Brighton) and the two in Little Cottonwood Canyon (Alta and Snowbird). All three valleys are separated from the next by a single mountain ridge, and are much closer than they appear while driving. Successful guests ski all six resorts in one day, with a combination of lift served in-bounds resort skiing and backcountry segments in between. The route varies, but on our day, our group (a private complimentary tour for members of the media and local ski industry hosted by Ski Utah) traversed a stunning 29 miles of distance from start to finish with 14 lift rides and just shy of 36,000 vertical feet of skiing in between. Including a leisurely lunch it took just over six hours before well-deserved beers at the end. It is a fun and memorable accomplishment, with stunning views and pristine backcountry snow along the way, but it is not physically onerous and is quite doable for many skiers.
The Ski Utah Interconnect Tour is offered seven days a week in ski season, snow conditions permitting, and runs from Snowbird north on Sundays and Thursdays, and from Deer Valley South every other day. Participants must be 18 or older and unfortunately, because Alta and Deer Valley are two of the nation’s three remaining resorts banning snowboarders (don’t ask me why), it is only open to skiers. Private tours can start in a custom location, and Ski Utah has partners ski shops offering specials on rental gear. The Interconnect Tour is also available as a Gift Certificate. For more information visit the Interconnect Tour’s website.
It doesn’t hurt that Utah is already off to a tremendous start to the 2015/16 season with tons of snow, more coming frequently, and the best conditions in years.