By Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
For many skiing New Yorkers, an expedition to the slopes involves a major decision: north or west?
Most of those who pass on the long drive to Vermont end up flying to Colorado. But here’s the thing: If you’re going to get on a plane, you might as well head to Utah. The resorts around Salt Lake City compensate for the pricier airfare (about $350 on average for a nonstop vs. $200 to Denver) and the extra hour in the air with fantastic snow in fantastic quantities — minus the lift lines that plague Colorado’s Vail and Breckenridge.
Rather than glitzy Park City — the third-priciest North American ski town, according to TripAdvisor — you should head to the smaller Cottonwood Canyon resorts, all within 35 minutes of the Salt Lake City airport. That part of the Wasatch Range gets more of the fluffy white stuff without the prices and crowds, and each locale has a distinct identity: There’s truly one for everyone.
Best for: Ski purists
True to unassuming form, this family-run resort recently celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special-edition beer and a homey torchlight parade. Tucked in at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, Alta (alta.com) just doesn’t care about showing off. A day pass maxes out at $75 ($99 for an Alta/Snowbird combo), and people go there not to flash fancy outfits but to ski — and ski only. Snowboarders are off-limits. Alta’s vertical drop is only about 2,000 feet, but the varied terrain includes everything from chutes to bowls. With an average of 560 inches of prime powder a year, the place is a magnet for hardy enthusiasts who don’t mind the occasional traverse to claim first tracks.
Despite its reputation as a hard-core skiing paradise — a local nickname is “steep and cheap” — Alta actually is a good place to learn. Beginners should start off at the Albion Base, which accesses the resort’s eight green runs and hosts the excellent ski school’s main office.
Best for: Steeps hounds
A mile down from Alta, with which it shares a boundary, Snowbird (snowbird.com) means business, on and off the slopes. Some people say it’s suitable for beginners, but the truth is that the Bird rewards confident skiers and riders. Officially 38 percent of the 100 runs are blue, but some of them make East Coast black diamonds look puny.
As for Snowbird’s black diamonds (and double-blacks), they can turn an expert’s knees to jelly. I’ve been skiing for more than three decades and experienced one of my most memorable crashes ever on the black Tiger Tail in January. We’ll meet again, Tiger Tail!
As for the double-blacks, they can turn an expert’s knees to jelly.
A big attraction at Snowbird is the 125-passenger tram, which climbs 2,900 vertical feet in eight minutes. Show up early on pow mornings, when the line can snake out the building. For all this, a day pass is $85; a bargain compared to Vail’s $109.
Snowbird opened in 1971 and was developed by Texas gazillionaire Dick Bass. It offers a wider range of accommodations, dining and services than its Little Cottonwood neighbor — if you want to chase a day of steep chutes with a $130 herbal wrap, Snowbird has you covered.
Best for: Beginners and intermediates looking to build confidence
Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy: Solitude (skisolitude.com) is empty. Even on a weekend, lines are unknown, so you can gun down without fearing encounters of the close or even not-so-close kind. And because there aren’t any lines, you can get right back up the hill without pausing and make the most of the $72 lift ticket.
The grooming here is so smooth that you can just focus on your turns without worrying about hitting a hard patch. Go on, bust a move — nobody will see you fall!
The spectacular Honeycomb Canyon area offers a backcountry feel without the exhausting hiking since it’s accessible from the Summit chair. And the resort features the region’s finest nordic skiing, with more than 12 miles of trails and regular workshops and clinics.
Just off Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, Solitude’s main base has successfully recreated the intimate feel of a European Alpine village, complete with a clock tower and a central ice rink. How this gem of a resort remains under the radar is a mystery.
Best for: Snowboarders
Brighton (brightonresort.com) claims to be “where Utah learns to ski and snowboard”— emphasis on the latter. Three miles from quiet Solitude, this rowdy hangout has chosen to focus on young riders. Catering mostly to locals, who dig the cheap lift tickets ($71 for a “SuperDay” running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and laid-back vibe, Brighton feels like Utah’s answer to a Californian surf town.
Brighton is a good place for families trying to accommodate the diverging needs of skiers and boarders. The resort has spectacular scenery, and many of its 66 beautiful runs snake through glades. But the real draws are the six terrain parks, which include a variety of rails, jibs and ramps, as well as a large half-pipe. By the end of the day, everybody can agree on the awesome nachos at Molly Green’s, a great A-frame bar and grill conveniently located between the slopes and the parking lot.
Where to stay
If you want to stay slopeside, go for one of Alta’s revered lodges. They aren’t cheap, but most rates include breakfast and dinner, and everything you need is either on-site or within walking distance so you don’t need a car. (The lodge can help book an airport shuttle, $72 per person round-trip.)
The mothership is the Alta Lodge, open since 1939 (double room from $491 in high season, bed in dorm room from $148, altalodge.com). Linked to the Wildcat Base by a tow rope, the cozy lodge is so popular that many guests book their next stay when they check out.
If you want to keep your skiing options open or need some nightlife, the Monaco in downtown Salt Lake City is an easy 40-minute commute to the Cottonwood Canyons (double room from $229, monaco-saltlakecity.com). This Kimpton property balances understated chic with swoon-worthy comfort, and its restaurant, Bambara, is among the finest in SLC. The hotel is across the street from the Capitol Theater, which hosts the local Ballet West as well as plays and concerts, and a 15-minute walk from the Utah Jazz’s home arena.