The History of Brian Head Resort
Claim to Fame: A resort unlike any other, Brian Head Ski Resort boasts Utah's highest base elevation at 9,600 feet and astounding views of sandstone red rocks and the neighboring Cedar Breaks National Monument. In fact, the ski area is near Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park too, so it serves as an excellent base camp for park enthusiasts. You can spy red rocks from many different angles at this resort atop a stunning high desert plateau.
Unique Character: Thanks to its high-altitude location far from giant cities, the stargazing at Brian Head is incredible. Neighboring Cedar Breaks National Monument is actually considered a Dark Sky Park and the resort even hosts stargazing nights with a ranger and marshmallow toasting.
Brian Head Resort is simply different, and you can't compare it to any other resort in Utah. Its rolling terrain is surrounded by vermillion red rocks with distant peaks looming on the horizon. Its high elevation in the desert ensures that the powder snow contains very little water and a legendary amount of fluff. Beginners will most appreciate the terrain off of Navajo Peak, while intermediate and advanced enthusiasts will want to start off on the Giant Steps or Blackfoot Chairlifts.
What’s in a Name: Brian Head Resort
There are a few different stories as to how the area earned its moniker. Already a familiar landmark to Fremont Tribes, the mid-19th century explorers and surveyors also began using the area's prominent peak for charting and cartography. An extinct volcano, many referred to it as Monument Peak; however, local shepherds and ranchers often used the name ‘Brian Head’ to honor an American politician William Jennings Bryan. Alternate tales include references to explorer John Wesley Powell, who spied the peak from afar and named it after one of his superiors working for the Geographical Survey office.
Indigenous peoples, mainly the Fremont, used the lands around Brian Head Peak for hunting and gathering during the summer and autumn months. Nearby Parowan Valley was home to prehistoric Anasazi and Sevier people who relied on granaries and pithouses for food storage during lean months.
White settlers in the early 20th century used the area as a summer range for cattle, sheep and horses. The area was home to several ranches, a hotel, a restaurant, a dance hall and a few homesteads in meadows atop the plateau. It remained a sleepy backwater and a high elevation retreat to escape the searing desert heat in the summer. Farming, grazing, and logging kept settlers busy and the area was known for its butter and cheese which were shipped to the nearby mining towns of Silver Reef, Pioche, and Frisco. Many called the area “Little Ireland” due to the lush green vegetation, and a nearby Irish family, the Adams, who operated a dairy farm and grazed sheep in the area. In the 1930s, local brothers from Parowan, Thomas and Joseph Holyoak, acquired the property.
A Mountain Dream
In the early 1960s, real estate developer Burt Nichols was interested in mountain property and the creation of a ski area. He mused over topographical maps in California and the Southwest, evaluating the potential of each mountain range near Southern California with elevations over 11,000 feet. The 11,306-foot Brian Head Peak caught his attention and its roads and proximity to Interstate-15 cemented his decision. Milt Jolley, a resident of Cedar City, helped convince the reluctant Holyoak brothers to sell their property.
Meanwhile, Nichols linked up with a gentleman named Homer Vasels who had similar interests and dreams. Nichols prepared promotional materials for the project while Vasels created an investment package for their ‘Brian Head Corporation’, founded in May 1964. With support from the locals and a loan from the Small Business Administration, 640 acres of land was purchased.
Georg Hartlmaier in action - Thanks to the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah Ski Archives Special Collection
Nichols knew he needed an expert to help him bring his plans to fruition, so he shared his dream with professional German skier Georg Hartlmaier, who was working in a ski shop in Munich. Nichols invited Hartlmaier to help him start a new ski resort in Utah while showing him maps of the area and asking him if he thought the terrain would be suitable for a ski resort. Hartlmaier was impressed with the proposal and agreed to immigrate to America with his wife Stefanie.
Hartlmaier arrived in 1964, and his wife followed him with their child in 1965. The three were the outpost’s first full-time residents, occupying a home and ski shop near the location of today's Wildflower chair. Georg would rely on his past experience with ski racing and coaching in Germany and Austria to serve as Brian Head's first Mountain Manager and Ski School Director. He helped to plot the ski area’s runs, and he toiled hard to build the first ski lift. Today, Georg's children continue to operate the beloved Georg's Ski Shop which offers gear, rentals, souvenirs and slopeside lodging.
Alf Engen and D. Wayne Nichol at Brian Head Ski Area, circa early 1960s
- Thanks to the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah Ski Archives Special Collection
Brian Head Gets a Lift
With Hartlmaier's help, construction on a 700-vertical-foot chairlift, a T-bar and a warming hut began in September of 1964. The resort debuted in January of 1965 with a 4-week ski instruction program to welcome the youth of Iron County and introduce them to the novel sport of skiing. A month’s worth of Saturday ski lessons cost $6. The following year in 1966, Dr. Ray Cloward became the President, Chairman of the Board, and General Manager of the Brian Head Corporation. He worked tirelessly to clear off the debts, improved the Brian Head Inn and helped to bring running water, telephone service and power to the growing enterprise. The corporation undertook construction of the first condominiums and began selling off small parcels of land. When power finally came to the town, the creature comforts vastly improved!
Circa 1974 - Thanks to the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah Ski Archives Special Collection
It wasn’t easy operating a ski area in such a remote, high-elevation outpost. Staff members often had to wear many hats and go above and beyond to keep the ski area in working order. One example can be found in Mel Hunter, a retired foreman of the U.S. Steel Mines. He would keep the slopes well packed by traversing the snow with his snowmobile, waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. to prepare the slopes for the day’s skiers.
A new lift was installed across the highway for the 1969–1970 season totaling 1,190 vertical feet (today’s Giant Steps or #2 chair). Nichols offered to buy the operation in 1970, and the sale was finalized in 1971 with the creation of Brian Head Enterprises. A few complicated legal suits ensued with an elaborate agreement being reached in 1977; these proceedings prevented the resort from expanding during this time.
The town of Brian Head wasn’t officially incorporated until March 12, 1975. Though it was difficult to run a town in such a rugged location, the citizens were dogged in their determination to recognize their settlement. Today you’ll find three municipal buildings, including Town Hall, Public Safety and a Public Works maintenance shop. It’s remarkable to consider that the town of Brian Head itself was incorporated to better support the recreation and skiing in the area. It truly is a ski town!
Brian Head Resort undertook an expansion in 1990 when snowmaking technology was added alongside terrain parks for snowboarders. Ahead of its time, the resort also debuted over 200 miles of livestock trails for mountain bikers, and snowboarders were permitted in the early ‘90s. The Brian Head Tube Park was added in 1998. The year 2007 saw another terrain expansion, updated snowmaking capabilities and a new skier’s bridge near the Wildflower lift.
The Modern Era
The resort was purchased by John Grissinger in 2012, who invested over $16 million to make improvements and upgrade aging infrastructure. He added a high-speed chairlift, a night skiing operation and enhanced lodging and dining facilities. The construction of Giant Steps in 2014 was a major undertaking for the resort and greatly added to its status as a destination resort. A second high-speed quad, Navajo Express, was completed in 2019.
Mountain Capital Partners, which owns Nordic Valley—you can read Nordic Valley's history here—entered an agreement to purchase Brian Head in late 2019. Brian Head joins the group's portfolio of ski and bike resorts located in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Passholders can enjoy unique perks and access at all MCP properties.
Brian Head continues to serve as an alluring destination for skiers from Utah, California, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. Its astounding scenery, affordable rates and family feel keep guests returning year after year.
BRIAN HEAD QUICK FACTS & ZANY LEGENDS
Taken by Lexi Dowdall and generously provided by the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah Ski Archives Special Collection
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Daffey, M. (June 5, 2019). 'An insider's guide to Brian Head, the Utah resort you need to know about', Snowsbest. Retrieved from https://www.snowsbest.com/brian-head-utah/
Mills, H. (2021). 'Brian Head: A town with history that starts and ends on the slopes', News 3 LV, Feb 10. Retrieved from https://news3lv.com/features/road-trippin/brian-head-a-town-with-history-that-starts-and-ends-on-the....
Utah's Patchwork Parkway (no date). Brian Head. Retrieved from http://utahspatchworkparkway.com/brian-head/
Wadsworth, R. (2021). 'Brian Head Day: These families are at the heart of Utah's highest ski resort', St. George News, Feb 21. Retrieved from https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2021/02/21/raw-brian-head-day-these-families-are-at-the-heart-of-utahs-highest-ski-resort/#.YKBwO2ZKh-U