A skier at Snowbird makes the most of two feet of fresh snow.
Utah's Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are terrible places to shop for designer clothes. They're no good for a rocking nightlife and not much better for celebrity spotting. What they do do well here is snow. Featherlight snow. Martini-dry snow. And lots of it.
"Utah in general has better snow than other states," says Salt Lake City meteorologist Mark Eubank. "We think it's because when the winds blow before the storms, salt dust gets into the clouds and makes nuclei for the ice crystals." As condensation blows in across the Great Salt Lake and up the canyons, it dumps snow, adding up to about 500 inches of the stuff annually—more than anywhere else on the continent. Aspen, by comparison, gets a paltry 300 inches and Sun Valley 220. Deer Valley, on the other side of the ridge, gets just 300.
The canyons were deemed too environmentally fragile to serve as venues for the 2002 Winter Olympics. So while the celebs frolicked in Park City, local skiers breathed a sigh of relief—their secret had been spared. Together, the canyons harbor four ski resorts: Snowbird and Alta in Little Cottonwood and Solitude and Brighton in Big. Each has a personality as stubbornly individual as your cherished old knit cap and lucky mittens.
Alta, which has built a reputation on its reluctance to change, still refuses to let infidel snowboarders anywhere near its slopes—and swears it never will. It's a place where covered parking has yet to be discovered, lifts tend to be slow as chilled molasses, and families that have booked the same week every year for generations play Scrabble and checkers in the lobby before dinner.
Snowbird, by contrast, just "down canyon" as they say in these parts, is the closest you'll get to the distraction-packed resorts of less snowcentric areas. Fifteen restaurants, five bars, a kids' camp, a spa, four lodges, five pools, and a tram shooting straight up to 11,000 feet keep the place buzzing. And Snowbird doesn't scrimp on the skiing, either. Given the choice between a new lift or new bedspreads in the rooms, this resort will pick the lift every time.
Big Cottonwood remains the more hush-hush of the two canyons, but word is getting out about Solitude's just completed Euro-style condo village. Still, the resort remains true to its name. Area residents teach their kids to ski here because fresh snow doesn't get skied off by midafternoon, lift lines are unheard-of, and they don't have to worry about little Johnny being run over by the hordes.
True loners and rebels can take refuge just up the road at their last stronghold. Brighton has the lowest lift ticket prices in the region and an aversion to updating its facilities that borders on the fanatical. Up in the A-frame bar, stuffed buck heads keep watch over an aggressively un-color-coordinated congregation dominated by the thrill-seeking snowboarding set.
Then again, the best-kept secret hereabouts may be that after the snow melts, the canyons only get lovelier. All summer long, overheated valley dwellers drive up into the cool mountains, where all of the resorts have rooms to let. Swimming pools warm in the sun, and chairlifts tote mountain bikers and hikers up to granite lakes and fields bursting with wildflowers. There's a quiet to the canyons in late summer, a kicked-back calm as they lie in wait for the first storms to blow in and bring more of the good stuff so the party can start again.
Photography by Scott Markewitz
This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 801. Pick up AAA's Salt Lake City Guide Map and Colorado & Utah TourBook. Ski Utah offers winter vacation information at (800) 754-8824 or www.skiutah.com.
The resorts are a 45-minute drive from the Salt Lake City airport, a major hub for Southwest and Delta. Typically, crowds will be an issue only over Christmas, New Year's, and Presidents' Day weekend. On those holidays, however, once the parking lots fill up, that's it—no other vehicles will get in. So if you're not staying at the resorts, consider taking public transit.
There are hotel rooms and rental condominiums for every budget at the resorts, but you can save a few bucks by staying in Salt Lake City (a 30-minute drive) at one of the business-oriented hotels, which discount heavily on weekends. Check out rates at (800) 847-5810 or www.visitsaltlake.com.
IN LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON
Lift tickets: $47 (adults), $20 (age 12 and under). The old-school 1939 Alta Lodge ($104-$245) and the more upscale Rustler Lodge ($114-$713) both offer ski-in, ski-out housing; their room rates include a hearty breakfast and dinner. 359-1078, www.alta.com.
Lift tickets with tram: $59 (adults), $47 (age 12 and under). Lift tickets alone: $49, $38. The area's biggest resort offers 900 slopeside rooms ($99–$1,279) in four lodges. 742-2222, www.snowbird.com.
Alta Lodge and Rustler both put on a good spread, with a homey ambience that comes from having a roomful of loyal regulars. At Snowbird, the Aerie Lounge is known, believe it or not, for its sushi, and Keyhole Junction is a casual stop for a taco or three. The Shallow Shaft (742-2177), just across from the Alta Lodge, is a longtime favorite for an après-ski steak dinner.
IN BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON
Lift tickets: $41 (adults), free for age 10 and under. 532-4731, www.brightonresort.com.
Lift tickets: $47 (adults), $26 (age 7 to 13), free for age 6 and under. The Inn at Solitude ($180–$255) is the on-site boutique hotel, and brand-new condos in every configuration rent for $270–$690. 534-1400, www.skisolitude.com.
The Creekside Restaurant at Solitude serves sophisticated, wood-grilled fare in a slopeside setting. But the canyon's favorite gathering spot is the Silver Fork Lodge, a mile down canyon from Solitude, where regulars line up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On a nice day, the patio here is the place to be. The lodge also rents out a few basic rooms upstairs ($135–$160). 533-9977, www.silverforklodge.com.