By Ian Merringer, Special to The Globe and Mail -- Little Cottonwood Canyon seems aptly named. No mere valley, this is a steep-sided trench running east into the Wasatch mountain range in northeast Utah.
Its narrowest part is at its mouth. But as you drive further along State Route 210, up the 15-kilometre canyon, you can start to see how the now widening terrain would allow enough room to lay out a few ski runs and lifts.
Then you pass Snowbird Ski Resort. By the time you round the next bend in the road and arrive at Alta Ski Area, you are in a powderhound’s geography-induced fever. Alpine bowls are arranged around some of the range’s highest peaks. At the end of the canyon, Alta is a good start to a tour of the seven ski areas that crowd Salt Lake City like suburbs crowd Toronto.
Salt Lake has good cause to call itself “Ski City.” Utah’s skiing credentials are well known. The Wasatch rises abruptly out of the flat Great Salt Lake Desert. Storms get forced up and over the 3,500-metre peaks in a hurry. It means lots of dry snow on steep slopes. As for the city part, with six major resorts within a 45-minute drive of downtown, an urban-based ski vacation is worth considering.
Some would say that a proper ski day has to end in a hot tub, with messed up hair and a bag of chips nearby. But maybe you’d like a change. And Salt Lake City has plenty to offer the visitor who has stored his skis for the night.
Ski with a local
It was mid-January. Two days earlier a storm had come in from the coast and dumped 50 centimeters of dry powder on the area’s ski resorts.
At Alta, sprawling, with chairlifts going off at all angles up the alpine ridge, local guides are helpful. I was following David Porter, a transplanted Minnesotan and classical violinist.
Since the wide, upper-mountain Sugarloaf basin had been mostly skied out the day before, Porter took me to the Supreme chairlift on the furthest east fringe of Alta. Here, dozens of shorter runs among the sparse trees still held a morning’s worth of fresh snow caches. I followed him faithfully, even when it was clear he wasn’t sure where we were going.
Porter had moved here 18 years ago, which made him a veritable Alta virgin. History is slow here: Alta opened in 1938, but it hasn’t yet come around to accepting snowboards. Legend has it the wait list for the Alta ski locker room is 50 years long.
But the pace of life is noticeably quicker in the newly vibrant city down the valley. “When I moved to Salt Lake City, I was expecting a desert with a dried up lake,” Porter said. “There’s a lot more than people realize – a good bar scene, lots of independent music.”
After a morning of blue skies and bending skis, Porter told me he had to leave for a practice run through The Pearl Fishers. It’s not a ski run, it’s a Georges Bizet opera.
Porter would be playing with the Utah Symphony that night, yet here he was at midday on top of one of the continent’s better-known mountains. Getting back in time to tune up wouldn’t be a problem. Alta is just a 40-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City.
More drinks than spouses
On our visit, we had planned a day on the mountain at Alta, a day next door at Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort (both in Little Cottonwood Canyon) and a day at Solitude Mountain Resort (one canyon to the north in Big Cottonwood Canyon). In between, we’d take in the opera and an NBA game (try seeing those in any other ski town) and sample the burgeoning brew pub, tapas and fine-dining scenes in one of the West’s most historic cities.
That history wasn’t always one of urban vitality. Wayward Mormons settled here, beyond the reach of secular law, in the mid-1800s. Entertainment was not an important sector of the local economy, with nightlife destinations being few and far between – literally. When church leader Brigham Young laid out the streets, he stipulated they be wide enough for an ox and cart to make a U-turn. It gives the city a very spacious, Pyongyang feel.
But modernization has made inroads. Polygamy was outlawed in 1890. Liquor laws loosened a century later. Modern Utah is a place where you can have more drinks than spouses: The city of 190,000 now has more than 140 bars.
There’s a theory that Utah’s formerly restrictive liquor laws inspired generations of home brewers, a heritage now sanctioned and ready to be savoured at places such as Squatters Pub Brewery (147 West Broadway). Here, the line of taps is longer than any ski lift line I saw all week. I settled on their Respect Your Mother Organic Amber as a smooth and not-too bitter refuge from the roster of creatively named IPAs. The food is high-end pub fare with southwestern accents, good and satisfying after a day of skiing.
Having overindulged, we decided to walk it off by skipping the free ride on the city’s light-rail system (all rides within downtown are free) and shuffled along for a few blocks to the arena to watch the Utah Jazz play the L.A. Lakers. (The Utah team name is a holdover from when the Jazz were based in New Orleans. Salt Lake City stops short of being a jazz hot spot.)
Dinner on the second night was at the dimly lit Finca (327 W. 200 St.). It’s a place to trade Spanish tapas dishes and appreciate how the weight of the city’s 1,700 restaurants allow for a proper local and exotic supply chain. There was a time when so few chefs were demanding sea food that ingredients had to be flown in via Fed Ex. No longer.
Foremost among the cultural attractions is the Utah Symphony. Comprising 85 players, the symphony in season performs two or three shows a week, often pairing with the Utah Opera company. An aprés-ski promotion offers a $35 concert ticket when skiers show a same-week lift ticket at the box office.
It’s true, you won’t find any slope-side, outdoor hot tubs in downtown Salt Lake City. But as I settled back into my chair at the historic Capitol Theatre, I closed my eyes and let the opening strains of The Pearl Fishers wash over me. Relaxation was complete, and I wouldn’t have to keep getting up to press the restart button on any hot tub jets.
If you go
Air Canada, West Jet, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines all fly to Salt Lake City International Airport. And no rental car is necessary. TRAX light rail will get you from the airport to downtown in 10 minutes for $2.50 (U.S.). Rides within downtown are free. The UTA Ski Bus services the four Cottonwood resorts from downtown for $4.50 (or Ski Bus service is FREE with the Ski City Super Pass).
Where to stay
In-town accommodations can be half the price of staying at the resorts. Mid-range options run through the gamut of chains, including Marriot, Hyatt, Sheraton and Hilton. For more individual tastes, the 105-year-old, newly renovated Peery Hotel retains hints of the Old West (rooms start at $79 a night) and the Grand America abounds in tapestries, marble, fountains and chandeliers (starting at $209 a night).
Utah Symphony: This winter’s performances include Lehar’s The Merry Widow, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and Verdi’s Aida. utahsymphony.org
Ballet West: Performances in February and March include the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Beauty and the Beast. balletwest.org
Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Rehearsals are free every Thursday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. mormontabernaclechoir.org
The Leonardo Museum: Part science center, part art gallery, part museum. Older kids will love the fusion of technology, art and science. theleonardo.org
Natural History Museum: Showcasing Utah’s rich dinosaur fossil heritage. It has interactive play areas for younger kids. nhmu.utah.edu
On the mountain
Purchase a Super Pass for access to any of the four Cottonwood resorts (Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude). It includes Ski Bus rides from downtown. Three- to 10-day packages are available, three-day passes start at $237. Buying the Superpass also gets you a 20 per cent to 40 per cent discount on rental gear.