Snow Basin, Powder Mountain & Sundance: Three of Utah’s Hidden Gems
By Max Hartshorne
The stories I heard about the snow in Utah preceded my ski visit by decades. As a boy going to a private school where rich kids took vacations to places like St. Croix and Vail, there was always one or two who told tales of the magical Utah snow at places like Snowbird, or Alta.
As a youngster I skied icy Vermont resorts in giant flat Hart skis, with cords that connected to them to my ill-fitting boots. The lines were long, the trails were often icy, and often I’d sigh and think, when will this be over? I just didn’t get as into skiing at my friends did, I found myself tired and slipping and after lunch I’d begin to contemplate the apres ski — much more important than the skiing itself.
Fast forward nearly four decades, and I’m on my way to ski the magical powder of Utah, that famous snow that’s the tagline for the whole state. Snow they call proudly the Greatest Snow on Earth. In a continuing tradition of how GoNOMAD likes to roll, we’d bypass the most famous resorts in the Great State of Utah to find the lesser known resorts that offer that same amazing lightweight powder but sharing it with far fewer skiers.
March is Tough
I learned that March, however, is a tough month out here. Though the snow this year has been bounteous, nearly 480 inches had fallen by early March when we visited, this is a month where it can freeze, refreeze, and dump more on top.
But before that powder dump, you can get stuck in the creamy slightly hardened powder and fall on your happy face. I learned this when on one of our first runs of the trip, at Snow Basin, I veered off the groomed trail and quickly found my skis crossed and my face planted in the stuff.
No worries. Just keep to that lovely corduroy and all will be well. We were skiing with a few experts, and I could sense that they both yearned to veer off of these green round circles and green squares to their cherished black diamonds.
But hey, that wouldn’t happen, and since we were the guests, our polite hosts indulged us the joy of making our long wide turns and gleefully, fearlessly, gliding down the mountain. A morning run at Powder Mountain with the sun glinting through the pine trees was indeed bliss. Boy why hadn’t I been skiing in so long, I kept asking myself!
A Transplant’s Story
Rich Koski is a perfect example of the kinds of people we met in Northern Utah. He wanted to move to a ski-friendly state from his native Michigan, and he took a road trip, contemplating a move to places he’d skied over the years. He began with Colorado, where he’d spent many years on nearly all of the resorts. Then he considered Utah, and Wyoming, and then a friend invited him to Snow Basin, located about 30 minutes north of Ogden, Utah.
The town of about 250,000 is where the famous singing Osmond family came from, and is in the midst of exciting developments — there’s a great spirit of boosterism here. Rick saw two things that convinced him that this was going to be his home, and his home ski area…. an absolute absence of lift lines and that fantastic Utah snow.
On a powder day, people out here have “powder alarms” that signal them on their iphones that it’s time to take the day off since a fresh powder dump is awaiting. “Dude, get up, it’s a powder day, GO SKIING!” Today Rich works in sales for the Ogden Convention and Visitors bureau, and manages to get up on his favorite slope about 60 days a year. Great work if you can get it!
Snow Basin, like all of the “hidden gems” we discovered in Utah, is a big mountain. It’s got 3000 acres of skiing and 3,000 feet of vertical drop. There are more than 100 open runs, and 7 lifts. Once the Olympics were held here, and the two starting points, for men and women, are accessible by a small lift. But the trails from there are all double diamond!
Located 35 miles north of Salt Lake, it’s easy to get to as well. Snowbasin has lavishly appointed lodges, with big fancy chandeliers and excellent food. A towering salad with fresh avocado slices and portobello mushrooms was just one of the delights we sampled on our leisurely lunch break in the lodge.
It’s a full service resort with all of the things people want, a daycare center complete with a ‘magic carpet’ that whisks the tykes up a little ramp to let them learn the snowboarding ropes and a range of options for ski schooling. Despite the really nice appointments the best thing about Snow Basin is that so few people ski here. You just slide right into the lift, and rarely if ever have to wait. Lovely!
When we reached the top via the enclosed four-person gondola, it was cloudy and visibility was tough. As Rick sagely advised, “If you can’t see it don’t ski it,” and I abided by his advice.
Another feature of the mountain that appealed to my style of skiing was that on the beginner and intermediate trails there were virtually no moguls. On the expert slopes, we saw plenty of the bumps that the best skiers just love, but for me, the ease of a nice fast glide was happily, never interrupted by an unseen mogul. Adult lift tickets for this resort are $66 per per day.
Up at the top of Snow Basin there is a restaurant called Needles Lodge where we enjoyed the aforementioned giant salads and they have everything except cappuccino… the machine was broken on our visit. It’s up at 8710 feet, and their tagline is ‘Experience the flavor of Europe.’ They’ve definitely got the ambience down already.
Utah’s main air travel gateway is of course, Salt Lake City, the capital and the place where 2.5 out of the state’s 6 million people reside. Another huge benefit is the relatively short drive that remains to take you to the ski areas.
Most people out here get around by car, and still there’s a well laid-out system of light rail, which soon will be serving the Salt Lake City Airport. So you could easily get from anywhere to here and not rent a car.
Powder Mountain is for traditionalists, who aren’t looking for a fancy lodge or anything less than is absolutely necessary. It’s perfectly maintained Ford Adminstration decor. But the burgers were juicy and big, and the turkey burger had tadziki on it, so I think they’re on the right track. Plus their mountain is one of the biggest in the U.S.
Powder offers an incredible 7500 acres of skiiable terrain. On the way up from the hamlet of Eden, we pass the busses that are used to shuttle skiers back up after they ski down the sides of the mountain. It’s such a big area, it’s easier to get them back up the hill by bus than by building another ski lift.
Powder Mountain’s appeal is that it’s old school skiing, without the fancy frills. They don’t even make snow at this mountain, but with so much terrain to choose from, they can usuallyl guarantee a good day of powder.
I heard a story while we were in the lodge at Powder Mountain about our host who was in a gondola with five young boys. Rich was surprised that all five of them were toting skis, and not snowboards. “Our dads like to snowboard, so that’s why we prefer to ski,” they told him.
In the same lodge, we met a man with a big smile on his face. His name is Greg Arnette, and he invented a type of ski goggle and sold it off to Bausch and Lomb. So these days, he rides his snowboard up and down these slopes and spends the rest of the year in Florida. He just can’t get enough of snowboarding, he said, having given up his skis several years ago.
Greg told us he rents a condo just down the hill from the main lodge here. These are quite affordable and a big part of the value that Utah has to offer versus other western resorts.
Powder is larger than Alta and Snowbird combined with one fifth the people! To cover this wide range, they have snowcats that take skiers up one hill, and you can even ski down, way down, to the 8-mile winding road that leads to the lodge and take a bus back up after skiing through the trees. You ski down from the lodge to get on the high-speed lift and on one mountain there’s an old school poma lift.
Atop the highest peak, you view a sweep of snow-covered mountains, and it’s all Powder Mountain! There are only about 1200 skiers on the average day here, so there are no lines.
This year’s powder so far has been the best in recent memory… but over the past four seasons they’ve seen 600 or more inches of snow. Powder charges $59 per day for an adult lift ticket.
Our final stop of our hidden gems discovery tour was to Robert Redford’s famous resort, Sundance. Despite being more well-known for the film festival and the TV channel, this resort is a big-time ski area as well. It’s another big mountain, with 42 trails and an impressive 2150 foot vertical drop. It’s not as big as the other two mountains, with just 450 acres of skiing, but there’s a nice mix of beginner and intermediate to go along with the super steep stuff too.
Lift tickets are a bargain at $47 per day. Like most advanced or intermediate skiiers here, we stayed up at the top for the whole day, using the upper lifts which have no lines at all instead of doing top to bottom runs.
Sundance Resort’s setting, right next to the huge Mount Timpanagos, is rejuvenating and the story behind how the resort came to be is a local legend. Redford borrowed $500 to buy just some of the land, and eventually came to own 5000 acres that he wanted very much to preserve and avoid being developed into condos or massive ranchettes.
Conservation, green awareness, and gourmet food today are big draws here, along with the chance to view films in the screening room and for many, opportunities to create art and listen to big thinkers. Hollywood big shots have spent a lot of time at Sundance, despite the fact that the film festival has grown too big and now takes place in Park City and Salt Lake.
We walked down a hallway that was filled with photographs of various directors and movie stars who have spent time at the actor’s training workshops here, names like
Denzel, and Alda, and Pollack and Tarantino. And in the Owl bar, a photo of the original Butch Cassidy and his sidekick, on a replica of their wanted poster.
The famous actor, we were told, is very involved in the day to day operations here at Sundance and takes a special interest in the decor and those little details that make the experience special for guests.
The Tree Room serves a high-end gourmet selection of exotic meats like loin of elk and buffalo medalions, along with a wine list that’s chosen as much for the personalities of each winemakers as the flavors of their wines. The streamside rooms in the resort are actually owner’s condos, so each is fully equipped if guests felt like taking a night off from the restaurant fare and wanted to cook for themselves.
Find out more about skiing in Utah at Skiutah.com.
UTAH’S HIDDEN GEMS
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