October 14, 2008
Even though times are tight, skiers will still find a way to ski and snowboarders will find a way to ride. If you don't live out West, a winter vacation in the deep, dry powder of the Rockies may seem out of the question this year, but don't despair. For the cash- and time-strapped, Utah offers a solution.
Even East Coast snow riders -- the new, industry-approved term combining skiers and boarders -- can frolic in the state whose license plate proclaims "Greatest Snow on Earth." Even better? They can do so without spending much more than they would on a trip to upstate New York or New England.
Why Utah? The best reason to go is the snow. The ski resorts closest to Salt Lake City average 430 inches per year -- many received 700 last year (58 feet!) -- and it's almost always light, fluffy powder. Colorado, the Sierra Nevadas and even the Pacific Northwest get plenty of powder, too, but Utah's dry climate and the effect of Great Salt Lake means exceptionally dry snowflakes, containing as little as 4% water. The result? Ice, a staple for East Coast and Midwestern snow riders, is virtually nonexistent. And in February, the sun shines about 60% of days.
Access and variety also separate Utah from the rest of the country. Seven ski areas lie within 38 miles of Salt Lake City International Airport, a major hub with 800 nonstop arrivals every day. There's also the Utah Transit Authority, or UTA, a public transit system that can get you from the airport, downtown or just about anywhere else in the metro area to the lodge quickly and cheaply.
Alta, Brighton, The Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, Snowbird and Solitude, each with its own character (and price range), offer a combined 14,000 skiable acres, compared to 5,800 for the combined membership of Ski Vermont.
If that sounds like something you'd love to experience this winter, here's what you need to know to do it on the cheap.
The Lay of the Land
First, a quick lesson in the geography and economics of skiing around Salt Lake City. All seven ski areas are under an hour's drive from the airport, but they're really in three different locations. There's an excellent, interactive map on the Ski Utah Web site. And one key note: Alta and Deer Valley do not allow snowboarding.
Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons are in and around Park City, 36 miles east of the airport off Interstate 80. The other four resorts are in two canyons: Alta and Snowbird are in Little Cottonwood, while Solitude and Brighton are in Big Cottonwood, also east of the city, but farther south, off of Interstate 215 and state Route 210. Each canyon has its own road up, separated by about 10 miles, and both are steep and prone to restricted driving conditions during snowstorms.
Park City, one of the truly great ski towns, offers glamour, world-class shopping and après ski activities, plus the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 15-25, 2009, this winter, when lodging rates skyrocket). Lodging tends to be expensive, and the resorts are generally costly, with daily, midwinter lift ticket prices in the $79-to-$83 range. On-mountain and downtown dining and services also tend to be pricey.
Lodging options at the Cottonwood Canyons resorts are limited, and also expensive. But these areas can be much cheaper than Park City. You'll give up some après ski, the shopping and a lot of dining options -- but you'll find a pure skiing or boarding ambience, smaller crowds and a range of family-friendly (Solitude), local (Brighton) and hard-core (Alta) attitudes far different from Park City.
Lift tickets at Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude range from $58 to $64. For the budget traveler, the advantages don't stop there. Because they're so close to Salt Lake City and the eastern metro area, they offer easy access to cheaper, down-canyon lodging and dining options.
Keepin' It Cheap
Generally speaking, the farther you go from the resorts (or downtown Park City), the cheaper things are. That applies to lodging, lift tickets, equipment rentals -- even food and beverages. Given that, here are some specific ideas to keep costs down:
* Plan ahead. From lodging to lift tickets and equipment rentals, everything is cheaper if you book early in the season, often before early December. Once you're on the ground, remember that buying lift tickets and renting equipment before you get to the mountain can also save you money.
* Stay in town. Try hotels and condos in Midvale, Cottonwood Heights or Sandy for easy access to the Cottonwoods. Downtown Salt Lake also works well, offering a short trip to Park City and a slightly longer one to the canyons. Check rates at the Residence Inn Salt Lake City Cottonwood or the Best Western Cottontree Inn. If you're focused on Park City, poke around The Canyons resort and the town's outskirts, because the town has a fabulous, free shuttle system that runs morning, noon and night.
* Take the shuttle or city buses. Loading yourself, your equipment and your ski clothes onto a bus doesn't sound like fun, but it's cheap ($2.25 each way). Besides, even with a rental car, you may have to take public transportation to the Cottonwood resorts. Avalanches and avalanche prevention often shut down the roads, or restrict them to buses or four-wheel drive. If it snows overnight, call the resorts' ski conditions hotlines for road information before you decide where to ski. If you do rent a car, consider your winter driving skills or an all-wheel/four-wheel-drive rental if you're planning to drive up the canyons.
* Scout out discounts. Deals abound, online and on the ground. Wherever you stay, they'll likely offer discounted lift tickets for nearby resorts. Many offer the Salt Lake Super Pass, with discounts on one to six days of skiing at Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude (with a free day if you buy three days or more by Dec. 1). It's also available from Ski-SaltLake.com, CheapTickets.com and other travel Web sites. The vouchers include rides on the UTA buses to the resorts. For the Cottonwoods and the Park City resorts (The Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort), you can also buy tickets at area ski shops such as Canyon Sports or Ski 'N See in Salt Lake (but not at Park City stores). You can save up to $18 -- provided you buy before you head up.
Mike Woelflein [TheStreet.com]