By Jill K. Robinson, San Francisco Chronicle — At the end of a day of skiing at Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon, I’m worried that my husband and I might be late to pick up our 8-year-old daughter from her ski-school lesson. Despite her eagerness to take a daylong class, there’s a little bit of guilt that comes from dropping her off and having a full day to enjoy ourselves, sans kid.
We wander over to where Veya is chatting away with a group of instructors, post-lesson.
“She knows how to turn,” one of them says. “She just doesn’t always do it. That’s OK, I was like that when I learned to ski here.”
They take turns giving her high-fives and encouragement for the next ski day, and turn her over to us.
In an industry that seems to cater to “faster/bigger/more” improvements, it can sometimes feel that all those additions have also resulted in cranking up the attendance on the mountain. Unless you get up before daylight to participate in a first tracks program, or hit the resort on a midweek day far away from holidays, it may be difficult to get that sweet feeling of escape.
But if your ski and snowboard tastes lean more to the old-school side — where chairs don’t have to be heated or hold six to eight people, on-mountain dining is good but doesn’t have to be gourmet, and trails don’t look like a city sidewalk at lunch hour — there’s still hope. Alta Ski Area, Brighton Resort, and Powder Mountain are all within easy reach of Salt Lake City, and may just remind you of that non-corporate resort where you learned, back in the day. It turns out you don’t have to be vintage yourself to appreciate the feeling of a simpler time.
Alta is for skiers. The motto is on bumper stickers, ball caps and T-shirts. For new visitors, it may show the resort’s dedication to no-frills skiing, but it’s also a serious statement. Leave your snowboards behind, because Alta is one of three remaining ski resorts in the country that is for skiers only. In the Wasatch Mountains’ Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta is characteristically a local hub, with legendary powder, less expensive lift tickets, and close proximity to Salt Lake City.
One of the two oldest ski resorts in Utah (the other is Brighton), Alta has held onto its true identity since the beginning. The five ’70s-style lodges that are built into the mountain are all individually owned and offer an old-school style of ski lodging that’s very communal — with breakfast buffets, community-style dining, living-room space and game rooms.
In the morning, we hit the Alta Transfer Tow from Rustler Lodge to the Albion base, home to the Alf Engen Ski School. It takes less than 10 minutes to sign Veya up for ski school, ensure that her pockets are packed with the necessities (lip balm, sunscreen, tissues and snacks), and arrange the appropriate pick-up time. Five minutes later, we’re on our way up the Supreme chair to dedicate the morning to powdery trails between Point Supreme and Sugarloaf.
After an afternoon of family skiing and snowball throwing, we head back to the Rustler to relax by the fire before dinner. A huge Scrabble game sits on the corner table, and it’s soon scattered with easy kid words: bear, bugs, snow, hero, ski and moose. Other visitors wander by, glance at the board and nod, before settling in with their family card games by the fireplace. I think I even spied a few guests with slippers heading into the dining room.
Known as “the place where Utah learns to ski and ride,” Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon is part of the winter history of many locals. My unofficial survey (which consists of asking instructors and resort staff when I remember to) shows that a little more than half of the people I’ve talked with have a deep history with Brighton. Even kids of past instructors are teaching ski school basics. And when children 10 and under can ski for free, you know it’s popular with parents.
This time, after ski-school dropoff, we zip up on the Great Western Express chair to near the top of Clayton Peak for the long ride on the Western Trail. First, we pause when we get off the lift to enjoy breathtaking views of Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird. Then, we head across the mountain toward the Snake Creek Pass before taking the long sweep down.
For a change, on the opposite side of the resort is Mount Millicent, where the Scree Slope trail starts as a single black diamond with a middle segment that becomes a double and eventually back to single status again. The steeper trail mixes wide-open segments with varying bumps, rolls and patches of trees and rocks. Near the base, we decide to enjoy an adult beverage in the A-frame at Molly Green’s before ski-school pickup time. The funky vibe is all throwback, with big windows, views of the mountains, taxidermy on the walls and a huge fireplace.
When we leave the mountain with kid in tow, we’re constantly stopping so she can say goodbye. She’s already thanked her instructor and the gang of others who high-fived her, but has to stop where another group of instructors are chatting, so she can hug them. At an old-school resort, it’s easy to find all your instructor pals.
Even on the busiest day, Powder Mountain isn’t crowded. It’s only about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, but because there are ski resorts closer to the city, fewer people venture farther away. The resort also limits its daily ticket cap to 1,500, and with 7,900 acres of skiable terrain between traditional lift-served runs and powder country, that means there’s about 3 acres per skier.
Powder Mountain (or Pow Mow, as it’s also known) is so old-school cool that it offers complimentary tours with mountain hosts twice daily. This gives you a chance to learn more about the mountain before you head off on your own ski plan.
Great uncrowded skiing is king here, but so are all-day snow cat adventures and guided backcountry tours at affordable prices. The Pow Mow area called DMI is local code for “Don’t Mention It” (a.k.a. Wolf Canyon) and with a guide, you can get in the thick of approximately 1,000 acres and a 3,000-foot vertical drop if you’re willing to take a short hike up to James Peak. This awesome terrain includes huge, wide-open bowls, thick trees and some steep chutes.
Our family ski-school après at Pow Mow consists of hearty ramen (not the instant kind) at the Powder Keg in Timberline Lodge — a no-frills bar and grill where you sit among lifties, locals and day skiers. It looks exactly like the one at my little ski mountain when I was a kid.
“Oh look,” exclaimed Veya, as she slurped up noodles. “There’s my instructor.”
If You Go
Daily direct flights from San Francisco to Salt Lake City (SLC) are offered by Alaska, American, Delta and United, cost about $200 and can take about one hour 40 minutes. From the airport, it’s about a 40-minute drive to Alta or Brighton, and an hour drive to Powder Mountain.
What to do
Alta Ski Area: 10230 E. Highway 210 (Little Cottonwood Canyon), Alta. (801) 359-1078, www.alta.com. A skier’s mountain, Alta allows only skiing — no snowboarders. Its 2,200 skiable acres include more than 116 trails. Day pass rates start at $104 for adults (buying in advance on the resort’s site allows for discounts).
Brighton Resort: 8302 S. Brighton Loop Road, Brighton. (855) 201-7669, www.brightonresort.com. Brighton’s five high-speed quads, one triple chair and magic carpet service 1,050 acres and 1,875 vertical feet. Day pass rates start at $85 for adults. Kids 10 and under ski and ride free.
Powder Mountain: 6565 E. Powder Mountain Road (Highway 158), Eden. (801) 745-3772, www.powdermountain.com. With more than 8,464 skiable acres, Powder Mountain is the largest ski resort in North America by accessible terrain (at 7,900 acres). Day pass rates start at $85 for adults and $47 for kids aged 7-12. Children 6 and under ski for free.here
Where to stay
Alta’s Rustler Lodge: Highway 210, Alta, (888) 532.2582, www.rustlerlodge.com. This property has the coziness of a throwback ski lodge where you feel like you’re returning home, even if it’s your first time. Incredible cuisine in the dining room and attentive service make it a popular choice for skiers. Rates start at $574 per night (full breakfast and dinner are included).
Inn at Solitude: 12000 Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton, (800) 748-4754, www.solitudemountain.com. Located at the resort next door to Brighton, The Inn at Solitude feels like a lodge with hotel amenities. The two resorts connect, so you can get a Sol/Bright pass at the ticket window and zip over to Brighton.
Where to eat
Molly Green’s: Base of mountain, Brighton. This full-service bar and grill on the second floor of the A-frame has a cozy fireplace and great mountain views. The menu includes hand-tossed pizzas, nachos, chili and burgers, as well as an extensive beer and cocktail selection. Entrees from $10-$23.
Powder Keg: Timberline Lodge, Powder Mountain. The cozy spot on the ground floor of Powder Mountain’s Timberline Lodge may be no frills, but serves delicious ramen, flame-broiled burgers, and a variety of beer on tap. Entrees from $8-$15.
Shallow Shaft: 10199 E. Highway 210 (Little Cottonwood Canyon), Alta, (801) 742-2177, www.shallowshaft.com. While the Alta lodges have their own dining rooms, this is a nice independent escape, with lobster gnocchi, house-smoked Utah trout cakes and grilled elk chop on the menu. Starters from $12, entrees from $26.