Utah Ski Vacation January, 2009
This year we decided to head to our neighboring state of Utah to try some of the highly reputed ski areas in that state. It's an easy seven hour drive from home, and staying at a motel in Salt Lake (one which accepted our doggies) made for an inexpensive base camp from which to try a variety of skiing close to the city.
To be honest we were really dying to see what our nemesis - in the ski area ratings game was like - namely Deer Valley. So our first stop was at that iconic resort. It was an hour's drive or so up over Parley's Summit, down through Park City to the day skier parking area at the entrance to the resort. Parking was free. FREE is good. It's a whole lot better than the $25 it costs day skiers to park in Vail's structures this year.
We arrived quite a bit before the lifts opened so were able to pull in at a great spot just below the roundabout at the entrance to the Snow Park Lodge building. A day lodge is also good. It's a place to change into boots, etc. and store shoes while on the mountain. Again something Vail just doesn't have. There we could buy lift tickets, shop for accessories, find ski rentals (had we needed them), and buy a snack, or a full meal as well. Also - FREE overnight ski storage, and the option of a $5 hot wax. Good deals both.
To be honest (and probably sounding spoiled) escalators like Beaver Creek's would have been very helpful given the long uphill climb through this day lodge, but heck, I suspect we can't expect everything to be perfect - even in Deer Valley - or in Vail for that matter.
The first express lift is close to the lodge, and we made a quick run up the nearest peak before heading back down to take advantage of the daily mountain welcome tour that's offered for both intermediate and expert skiers.
We chose the latter option, but as a couple of the people who had joined this our group were not really "better" skiers, the tour bogged down a bit. Nevertheless we had a good guide and enjoyed his commentary on various aspects of the ski area.
We broke away from the tour when two of our group were taking forever to negotiate a nasty, rock hard bump run, and we began an independent exploration of the resort. Situated completely on private land, there is ski in and out real estate everywhere in the area.
Residential streets traverse up and down throughout the place. Skiers pass over and under the roads on well designed bridges and underpasses. By comparison to what we have here at home the development on the mountain and the way the homes are dispersed reminded us of some combination of Strawberry Park at Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch in general.
There's one densely grouped batch of single and multi family housing units around the Silver Lake Lodge, but apparently the commercial retail and restaurant operations that initially serviced that "village area" failed. At least that's what we were told. Supposedly there's just not enough full or part time population in the resort to support a viable commercial core. Too bad that's the case, and it was a big negative where we were concerned.
The skiing's interesting and somewhat different from what we're used to enjoying here in Colorado. The resort consists of six different mountains which somewhat complicates movement back and forth.
Eleven high speed quads make the job easier. A few older fixed grips aren't that much fun but generally those rides are short enough that the time spent on them is not a big problem.
We found lots of grooming - as would be expected. According to our mountain welcome guide, roughly sixty percent of the entire ski area is groomed daily. Happily we also found lots of nice round bumps - at least they would have been fun to enjoy had the quality of the surface been in decent condition. It was not. A lack of new snow in the days before we arrived had created truly awful, icy, unpleasant conditions pretty much everywhere. On the groomed runs, after an hour or so of use, those slopes were again so firm it was close to impossible to hold an edge, and on the bumps (where virtually no one skied), it was a similar situation.
Really bad surface conditions happen from time to time at all resorts, although I'll have to admit we've rarely had such tough stuff here in Vail in the middle of winter, the exception being that what sometimes over the Christmas holidays is that the lack of regular new snowfall causes a similar hardening of the area's surfaces.
We're more or less addicted to mogul skiing. Here at Deer Valley, we'd classify the bumps as mostly level seven and eight style, and there are far more areas left bumpy than we really have thought would be the case. That's good news for those fellow skiers who are similarly inclined.
Also there were no big sharp troughs like we tend to have here in Vail on Prima, Highline, etc., so the mogul shapes were very user friendly - again, except for the snow quality. Our tour guide inferred that the bumps were so good at Deer Valley because snowboarders weren't allowed here. Sorry, but that doesn't ring true. Boarders rarely visit bump runs anywhere unless it's a powder day.
Nevertheless we had a good time. Alternating between bumps and the edges of the groomers, we eventually made it over to the Empire Canyon Lodge where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch.
As we like to say in Vail, "There's no comparison". In this case it's Deer Valley that can say that. Starting with a wide diversity of lunch dining options, following through with real china plates, decent flatware, and accoutrements that screamed "quality", our lunch was so much better than what we have available on our home mountain that there truly was "no comparison".
Sue had a Korean steak salad with mango chutney (took forever to prepare), and I opted for the turkey/brie Panini with a nice side of greens. A small glassine sack of superb home made potato chips topped the meal off - along with the obligatory pair of artisanal beers. Just a delightful meal.
After lunch we skied a bit more but found the hard surfaces just too much work and too unpleasant to deal with all through the afternoon. Still the day still felt like a good one when it finally came to an end.
What else was interesting? It was fun to see the structures (tents and slope construction) going up for the annual upcoming world cup freestyle events here in late January, both aerials and moguls on the same courses where the Olympic events were held.
Later in the day we found an unusual set of
artificial bumps in a small terrain park that were perfect for training skiers
to stay directly in the fall line while skiing moguls.
Set on a very shallow slope these bumps were an ideal training arena for helping the skier who is fearful of the fall line. We could use this same kind of terrain feature here in Vail.
Another very nice touch while riding the lifts were signs on the lift towers identifying the runs we were passing by or crossing over. Again something that might be useful here in Vail.
Two very large and obviously very expensive hotel/condo projects are coming out of the ground - an enormous Ritz on the hill above the parking area and a complex named Montage uphill from and to the west of the Snow Park Lodge.
We liked Deer Valley a lot despite the lousy snow conditions. On balance its values and ratings are well earned and deserved.
......proved to be surprisingly well developed. A very nice day skier facility with complete lodge operations, restaurant, brown bag eatery, accessory shop, ski school office, and a place to change into boots. Vail could use this kind of facility at both the village and in Lionshead (had it the space to create it in either place). The building is modern and offers most of the amenities anyone could ask for who is just showing up for a single day on the hill..
Again, parking was free. Love it.
A short lift ride away to the south was another very nice, though sparsely populated village core area with modest retail and restaurant facilities, some attractive condo buildings, and we suspect, some kind of hotel.
We enjoyed a wonderful lingonberry crepe at the Stone Haus before heading off to seriously ski the mountain.
The base lifts are high speed quads though further up the mountain the double and triple seater old fixed grips take over. The latter types are no fun at all, especially at the very uppermost part of this resort.
Two climbers hiking above the top lift to some of the nasty chutes at Solitude.
Solitude skis much larger than the published acreage would indicate it should - and there's some serious terrain here - even where the runs are groomed.
We found and skied what we'd describe a series of almost precipitous single black diamond rated groomed runs.
Several were pitched much more severely than our one groomed double diamond run Blue Ox here at Vail. Also lots of steeper blue rated groomed runs exist. Clearly many of these tougher slopes are mowed down every night, but it would not be a good idea to fall on any of them due to the possibility of hitting the bordering trees at mach speed while sliding on one's back..
The top of mountain is very steep. There are backside chutes which were borderline scary given the lousy snow conditions we encountered. Much of the extreme terrain was closed due to poor snow cover.
The most interesting run we had all day was the long trail named "Woodlawn" in the basin of Honeycomb Canyon where most of the double diamond glades and chutes terminated.
Virtually all those steep runs were unskiable due to the lack of good snow. That gully run (Woodlawn) alternated between very steep and quite flat sections and reminded us very much of a similar track that gets skiers back from Corvatsch to the base of St. Moritz Bad in Switzerland.
On the front side of the mountain unhappily there were not a lot of enjoyable bumps for us to try. Those that did exist were very firm and just marginally skiable.
Despite being purportedly only 1200 acres, I'd again confirm that the mountain skis much larger than that. This is probably a wonderful area when soft snow or powder conditions exist and when the chutes on front and back can be more easily accessed..
As it was, with the marginal snow we had, it did become somewhat boring fairly quickly. We'd also suggest it's not a good area for low intermediates either. There is some good smooth and broad teaching terrain on the Main Street Run. A modest terrain park exists with some rails and no pipes.
The lift pass system was identical to what we enjoy in Europe. Self scanning is used on all lifts, and the pass is read automatically. We like this system. Saves the cost of ticket checkers, but the tradeoff is the possibility of scammers getting away with whatever they usually get away with.
Thursday we arose early to get close in parking in lot #2 which allows access to the base village and the tram plus the Peruvian Express lift that parallels the tram.
The tram operation starts at 9:00, and we were on the first ride. Weather was very blustery and iffy at the top. Flat light is the bane of our existence - especially when we're new to an area and don't know where we're going.
It was ugly up there this morning with a new front moving in - lots of wind, spitting snow and ice crystals, and close to zero visibility.
We followed a small group of first riders down a cat walk into Mineral Basin and dropped off the trail at what may have been the only groomed run back there. Not knowing an area is a real problem for us when we can't see anything - and the backside of Snowbird is wide open - similar to our back bowls in Vail. We rode the Mineral Basin Express back to the top of the mountain again and exited down the front side.
At least there are a few trees on the upper part of the front, and we could make our way down with not too much of a problem. The weather alternated between lousy and awful throughout the day spitting snow and sometimes rain. We'd have to stop and swipe the drops off our goggles from time to time.
Without question the difficult visibility kept us from enjoying as much of the area as we would have had the conditions been better.
So we moved back and forth across the front side using the Peruvian lift and the other high speed Gadzoom lift over in the Gad basin.
As the day progressed, the surface snow conditions actually improved (softened by the warmer temperatures), and we eventually were comfortable skiing most of the very steep bump runs we could find on the front side.
By the time we left Snowbird in early afternoon, the snow was completely spring-like with slush common all over the mountain.
Clearly Snowbird is a cut above what we're used to in the way of steepness. Had we been able to see better, exploring the backside and many of the wonderful chutes would have been an option. But poor visibility - and interestingly a lack of good snow cover in many places - kept our options pretty limited. The snow surface in all three areas we skied was quite marginal despite over 200 inches having come down already this season.
One of the howitzers at Snowbird for avalanche control.
It was nice to see mostly high speed chairs here though we did ride an old one, and we avoided trying a couple of others in Gad Valley that appeared even older. The tram is great, but when the runs it services are more or less impossible to ski due to visibility issues, the lower part of the mountain works better.
The buildings at Snowbird were fascinating - a testament to the need for designing and constructing avalanche proof structures - great concrete and glass monoliths obviously built with snow slides in mind. There's really no well defined village here. The main entry building has some retail, restaurant, and other options one would expect at a base area, but the variety is very limited.
Mid-Gad Restaurant. Throwback building to the 70s or 80s both inside and out.
Food service on the mountain is virtually nonexistent - the exception being the restaurant at the top of the Mid Gad lift. We had lunch there. It was OK.
Decent menu. Typically pricey ski area fare. Not a particularly good value, but it's what we've come to expect at most ski resorts.
Snowbird is definitely a "skier's" ski area. Lots of challenges everywhere for the better intermediate through any kind of extreme skier. Need decent snow surfaces for the latter types to enjoy the steeps though.
It's a good thing Salt Lake is close by. Can't imagine wanting to spend more than a night or two at one of the lodges up here. There are a few dining options in the larger lodges but certainly no shopping ones.
Snowbird (the mountain and lift system) reminded us more of Europe than any other place we've visited in the states.
OK. So what did we find that we liked over here in Utah compared to what we already have at home.
It's just plain fun to explore different kinds of terrain from time to time. With the exception of Deer Valley, both Solitude and Snowbird offered a challenging level of skiing we simply don't have at Vail.
And, as was expected, Deer Valley's on mountain food service was simply outstanding compared to what we have at home. Let's also remember though that the volume of customers that Vail must feed on a daily basis far exceeds what goes on at Deer Valley. Still, am not sure that's a reasonable excuse for the differences in the quality of the dining experiences.
Being accustomed to virtually all high speed lifts here in Vail, Deer Valley's express lift numbers were clearly comparable to ours. Snowbird and Solitude were somewhat behind the curve in that regard. We suspect that both Alta and Brighton would have fallen even shorter that way, had we had the time to ski them on this trip. Let's be direct again. We're spoiled by not having to waste time sitting on lifts.
Other infrastructure. There's one big issue we have with what we've seen over here in Utah, and that's the lack of a real "village" at the base of any of the resorts we visited. Park City's a different story though it's unlikely we'll ever ski there due to its reputation with other people we've talked to about it.
Deer Valley comes close, but there's apparently very little commercial in the core area on the mountain. We understand that residents even have to go to Park City for groceries - not that it's a particularly long drive. But not having easy access to a variety of dining places, shopping, and other normal town amenities really detracts from an overall vacation experience - at least that's the case from our perspective.
Nevertheless, we both agreed that Deer Valley, despite the really lousy snow conditions we encountered, deserves to be rated as highly as it does. We valued the variety of terrain, the many ungroomed areas where nicely shaped bumps existed, the attentiveness of the area staff, and especially the mountain food. So could we move there and be as happy as we are at home. Nope. Not a chance. Without the presence of a complete commercial core, even Deer Valley doesn't have enough to lure us here permanently.
Aspen, yes, Breckenridge, maybe, Steamboat Springs, yes, Telluride, maybe, but without more commercial variety in the village, Deer Valley simply doesn't have the "urban mountain" amenities we're used to taking for granted.
So would we come back again. The answer is a definite yes. We'd like to try Brighton and Alta too and would certainly revisit all the resorts from this trip again - snow conditions hopefully being better.
A last comment for ski area employees considering trying these areas. If one is a ski instructor, get a letter of confirmation from your company that you are a current member of your ski school; bring your PSIA card, and bring your employee pass. Otherwise you're apt to have your request for a discounted ticket be rejected. The same applies to any other ski area employee who's looking for some kind of discount here.
For a nicely priced, centrally located motel that can be used as a base camp, try the Super 8 motel in Midvale. This - in 2009 - with two dogs was a $60 per night room. Probably less if occupied by humans only. Wonderful staff. Extremely friendly, helpful service - from the first phone call to make the reservation, to check-in, breakfast server, and maids. Good continental breakfast. Coffee all day long. Free newspapers in the morning.
Surprisingly quiet, despite being fairly fully occupied, and with us having two dogs - hence our logic for selecting this motel. The room itself was small but very well designed including a nice sized window seat that served as our card playing area and later as a fondue dinner site. Location was convenient to eating places and access to ski areas. Highly recommended.
Here are some simple clips of parts of the areas we visited
It was a fun getaway that we'll probably repeat sometime in the near future.