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Greatest snow on earth? Reporter puts Utah’s brag to the test with visit to Salt Lake City, its nearby slopes

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:07am

SALT LAKE CITY — Specialty license plates in Washington tout “Ski and Snowboard Paradise.” But the rear bumper of nearly every vehicle in Utah makes a more audacious brag: “Greatest Snow on Earth.”

There is legitimate snow science behind this claim — a compelling argument that Utah, especially the Wasatch Mountains just outside Salt Lake City, have the ideal combination of consistently dry-but-not-too-dry snow in sufficient volume for seasonlong deep powder skiing and snowboarding.

That claim delivered in spades last winter when Utah broke records for annual snowfall. Amid that historic ski season, I traveled to Salt Lake City to attend the Outdoor Retailer trade show. While Seattle is unquestionably a ski town, consider packing your skis and boards if you want to experience a true ski city.

Salt Lake is a place where you can enjoy the comfort and excitement of a vibrant city while sampling a different flavor in the Wasatch skiing variety pack each day, just 30 miles from downtown: Brighton/Solitude, Alta/Snowbird and Park City.

But big city skiing comes with logistical challenges — Washington’s Cascades traffic doesn’t hold a candle to the Wasatch’s potential for grinding gridlock. Read on for my take on the right way to navigate from downtown to summit.

Choose a home base

Wintertime mountain tourism is serious business in Utah. Salt Lake City International Airport’s baggage claim holds a clue: a belt specifically designed for ski and snowboard bags. Flight time is two hours from Sea-Tac Airport; for road warriors, budget at least 13 hours behind the wheel.

If you choose to stay slopeside, Canyon Transportation will whisk you from the airport directly to the main Wasatch ski areas (from $52 per person each way for a shared van). But follow that route and you’ll likely be committed to just one ski resort during your trip — once you’re up a canyon or ensconced in Park City, moving around to other zones is a hassle.

Staying in Salt Lake instead saves orders of magnitude on lodging, makes bouncing around more feasible and gives you the opportunity to experience this booming, outdoorsy metropolis. Check-in at the evo Hotel, the first lodging property by the Seattle-based outdoor retailer (queen bed from $135 per night). The art-laden hotel anchors the evo Campus Salt Lake, a block-sized complex with a Bouldering Project climbing gym, All Together Skatepark and evo store with rentals and service. Left your gear at home? You can rent skis and boards on-site. Evo Hotel also participates in the Salt Lake Ski Superpass, offering discounted lift tickets to four area resorts (from $151 per day).

I had small quibbles about the hotel, like insufficient hooks in my room for hanging wet gear and a lobby coffee kiosk that doesn’t open early enough. But thoughtful design shines through the unique concept that encourages guests to hang out in communal spaces rather than hide out in their rooms. During my stay, I met locals at a screening by the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival and sat in on an informative talk by the Utah Avalanche Center.

The evo Hotel sits in the Granary District just south of downtown. While there isn’t a hotel restaurant, nearby food and drink options are solid. Tuck in at Slackwater for pizza and beer, or choose from ramen, tacos, Cajun food and cocktails at Woodbine Food Hall.

Day One: Big Cottonwood Canyon

Two canyons slice their way east from the valley floor into the heart of the central Wasatch. The bigger of the two, home to Ikon Pass-affiliated resorts Brighton and Solitude, is arguably the less complicated to reach. Big Cottonwood faces fewer avalanche-related road closures than its smaller counterpart, but can still be a traffic nightmare on powder days and weekends. Always check the Utah Department of Transportation website before you go: cottonwoodcanyons.udot.utah.gov. If you dare to drive, paid parking is $20-$35 during peak season and free after 1 p.m. and for carpools of four-plus visitors. Reservations are required at Brighton.

The better alternative? Utah Transit Authority ski buses. For $5 each way, or free with an Ikon Pass, let someone else do the driving. While locals grumbled about service reduction from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes due to driver shortages — and I saw firsthand the overcrowding that results during powder days — Seattleites would be grateful to have King County Metro run any ski bus at all from a local park-and-ride up to Snoqualmie Pass.

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To hop on the ski bus, drive your rental car or call an UberSKI or Lyft Ski Rack (yes, these exist in SLC) to one of two park-and-rides at the mouth of the canyon. Or take the UTA Trax Blue Line to the Midvale Fort Union Station. Light rail to a bus to the slopes? A Seattle transit-riding skier’s dream come true.

You’ll find the earliest birds at Solitude, which begins spinning chairlifts at 8 a.m. On a powder day you’ll find yourself lapping blue square runs on the six-seater Eagle Express while you wait for avalanche mitigation up high. Once the Summit Express gets the green light, a cornucopia of black and double black diamond runs comes into play. If you’re lucky, Honeycomb Canyon will open too.

If Solitude is for the early birds, then neighboring Brighton is for the night owls. An arsenal of 250 powerful lights allows for well-lit night shredding on 24 runs Mondays through Saturdays. The two resorts are connected by a ski run off a ridgeline and their base areas are a short drive or bus ride apart. Solitude Nordic Center has a little over 12 miles of groomed trails ($25 day pass), making Big Cottonwood Canyon the better choice for anyone with cross-country skiers in their party.

Day Two: Little Cottonwood Canyon

Little Cottonwood is home to big-time skiing. Alta, the town and resort at the head of the canyon, has a rarefied pedigree among skiers (and skiers only — they famously don’t allow snowboards). Snowbird, with its captivating Brutalist architecture and base-to-summit tramway, is also the stuff of legend.

All of the superlatives about Alta and Snowbird’s snow and terrain are true. Too true, in fact, which has given this little canyon some big problems, like multihour traffic jams to travel a few miles that make getting to Stevens Pass on a Saturday seem like a cakewalk by comparison. Last winter, the canyon closed to traffic a record 34 times due to avalanche danger, while Alta went through several “interlodge” closures during which guests are legally forbidden from leaving their lodges for hours, or even days, due to avalanche hazard.

Ask any local on a chairlift their opinion of the proposed Little Cottonwood Gondola that would soar over the avalanche-prone road and expect to get an earful, pro or con.

In the meantime, dear visitor, your options to get from city to canyon are the same. Limited free parking is available, but gamblers should be prepared to pay: $20-$30 depending on the day of the week, reservations required.

Play it safe: Not only does UTA’s Ski Bus serve Alta and Snowbird, there is also the new, privately-run Cottonwood Connect service ($20 round-trip). Advance reservations mean a guaranteed seat.

(As a Seattleite stuck driving to the mountains — Crystal Mountain’s shuttle from Enumclaw notwithstanding — I can hardly complain, but the lack of ski racks on the Utah buses is baffling.)

Are the day-tripping logistics worth the effort, or should you just pony up the premium to stay at Alta’s Peruvian Lodge (from $679 per night for a double room with all-inclusive meal plan) or Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge (from $424 per night for two queen beds)? Only you can be the judge, but dropping into the Baldy Chutes at Alta, then kicking back to live music in downtown Salt Lake City that same evening is a potent one-two punch.

Day Three: Park City

If you have an Epic Pass, then Park City Mountain Resort is your Utah destination. If not, then don’t bother. Adult one-day lift tickets to Park City have topped $250. Stand-alone lift tickets are cheaper the earlier you buy online. But having skied PCMR last winter on a powder day, I can’t endorse a one-day lift ticket at that price.

Such is the curse of a big resort destination. On one hand, Park City is a dream come true: A real-deal mountain town with historical bona fides in silver mining and the cultural cachet of the Sundance Film Festival. Sidle up to the saloon at High West Distillery, the first spirit-maker in modern-day post-Prohibition Utah, for après bites washed down with a seasonal cocktail ($16), or plan ahead for a whiskey tour and tasting ($75). Stroll an actual Main Street with outposts of hard-to-find brands like knitwear purveyors We Norwegians. Park City is a rare authentic slice of alpine living and absolutely worth the visit.

But if you’re jonesing for mountain operations to hustle open key terrain when there’s a fresh foot of the Greatest Snow on Earth, look elsewhere.

With so many visitors already locked in on weeklong ski vacations, and Salt Lake locals more likely to jockey for position up the canyons, there isn’t a sense of urgency to deliver a premier powder day product. For all the ballyhoo about having the most skiable acreage in the U.S., I couldn’t even make it from Park City to The Canyons — a shorter distance than the gap between Whistler and Blackcomb — because the midmountain Quicksilver Gondola never opened.

Gripes aside, the nook around McConkey’s Express lift harbors some excellent powder stashes in the trees and offers a tasty huli huli chicken lunch ($20.75) at the historical Mid Mountain Lodge.

There are also fewer noncar options from Salt Lake to Park City. High Valley Transit runs five buses per day from downtown to a transit center on the outskirts where you can transfer to buses heading for the different PCMR base areas. If you do drive, the interstate makes for easier travel than narrow canyon roads. Park-and-ride to bus is the name of the game, or pay for Park City base area parking at $27-$45 per day depending on location, reservations required. Canyons Village base area parking is free.