"At least the snow is deep," a stranger shouted, his face hidden, caked with ice.
Staked like a wall at the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, the Wasatch Range towers over Utah's Great Salt Lake and the vast desert basin beyond. For skiers and snowboarders, the range's sharp peaks and plunging valleys -- plus hundreds of inches of powder snow each season --create an ultimate playground for fast descents in deep snow.
Since 1995, when I first drove west on a winter road trip, the Wasatch has ranked as my favorite ski destination in the United States. The world validated my bias in 2002 when the XIX Olympic Winter Games landed in Salt Lake City amid the Wasatch's pyramids of white.
The mountains near Salt Lake offer a dozen resorts, including the European-flavored Snowbird with its aerial tram and steep slopes, as well as locals' hills like Powder Mountain. For snow quality, steep skiing, price, accessibility and variety of terrain, Utah is tough to beat. Here are eight reasons I keep going back.
1. The region's self-proclaimed "Greatest Snow on Earth" is in reference to the fluffy white stuff that falls up to 500 inches deep many seasons at Snowbird Resort, Alta Ski Area, Park City Mountain Resort, Brighton and a half-dozen other areas near Salt Lake City. Mountains jutting past 11,000 feet adjacent to the Great Basin create an abrupt interruption to desert clouds coursing east. Big snow -- hundreds of inches of light, airy powder every season -- is the advantageous result.
2. Fly to Salt Lake City International -- an inexpensive hop from the Twin Cities most of the year, especially now that Southwest is in the game -- and you have 11 ski areas within an hour's drive. Rent a car and you can be booting up at Brighton, Solitude or Alta Ski Area in as little as 45 minutes. The glass skyscrapers of Salt Lake City cut a silhouette as you drive east just before the Wasatch takes over, the urban outskirts intermingling with the foothills of the mountains. Major highways then lead uphill to most resorts. Or you can jump on a bus. The city boasts a public bus system to transport skiers at low fares from the city to the ski resorts in the mountains above town.
3. The tight fiefdom of ski areas in the Wasatch Range, though geographically aligned, maintain a variety of resort personality types. Want utter luxury? Try Deer Valley for a day. Halfpipes and stunts are popular with a freestyle crowd at Brighton, where three terrain parks are built on the hill. Alta can be a no-frills, nostalgic peek at how skiing grew out of one of America's original big areas. Snowbird is tall, steep and serious, with a cable car whisking skiers to 11,000 feet overhead. I have skied eight areas in Utah, and no two seemed the same.
4. With many ski areas so close to the Salt Lake metro area, lodging is plentiful, including moderately priced options. I have stayed in Salt Lake City for as low as $49 per night. Compared with other major ski centers in the United States, lift ticket prices in the Wasatch are not significantly less. Alta Ski Area, long known for its cheap lifts, now charges $66 per adult day, an average rate for a U.S. resort of its size. Deer Valley costs $86. But smaller Utah ski areas like Sundance Resort, Brighton, and Wolf Creek offer true mountain skiing at more affordable rates ($47, $58 and $32, respectively, for full-day adult tickets).
5. From the precipitous "Finger Chutes" atop Allen Peak at Snowbasin resort, to "Great Scott" and other stomach-in-throat drops in Snowbird's infamous Cirque formation, the craggy Wasatch Range has no lack of hairy terrain. Rock-lined chutes and double-black-diamond runs pepper most trail maps in the area. Compared with Colorado, Utah offers more thrills and better steep-skiing bang for the buck.
6. Avalanche-savvy skiers and boarders can access the vast Wasatch back country via chairlifts at several resorts, where boundary gates offer legal entry points into mountain wilderness outside resort property. Two years ago, entering through a gate at Snowbasin resort, four friends and I skied -- with avalanche beacons on -- for 4 miles and nearly 5,000 vertical feet through the outback. A car shuttle picked us up at the other end for transport back to the resort.
7. A unique guided trip operated by Ski Utah, a private company, the Interconnect Tour allows intermediate and advanced skiers a chance to sample up to six resorts in the Wasatch in a single day. You take chairlifts and link from ski area to ski area via back-country routes that traverse alpine bowls and high passes through the Wasatch. For my trip, we began at Deer Valley Resort in the morning and finished at Snowbird. In between, guides led us through the back country and Park City Mountain Resort, Brighton, Solitude and Alta Ski Area for a whirlwind day. Cost is $250 per person, including lunch and a "golden" ticket for lift access at all resorts.
8. At the Canyons, a resort 30 minutes from Salt Lake International, there are powder bowls, alpine faces and more than 100 cut trails. Snowbird boasts 2,500 acres of terrain streaming off two peaks. Powder Mountain is a sprawling, low-budget resort near the town of Ogden that offers five mountains and vast back-country-like skiable terrain. Park City, Alta, Deer Valley and Snowbasin are biggies, too. Ample acreage -- which equals more turns in fresh snow and more mountain to explore -- is a hallmark of many Utah resorts.