words by Melissa Fields
Sure, flights between Denver and Salt Lake City International Airport depart and arrive pretty much on the hour. But making that trip in your car, particularly via the southerly Interstate 70 route, offers a trailerful of opportunities for along-the-way adventure. And then once you arrive in Utah, by day you get to take your pick of four of the Lower 48’s snowiest mountain resorts—Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude—and, at night, sample plenty of close-by restaurants, bars and other things to do in downtown Salt Lake City.
Hit the Road
There are three ways to make the 500-ish mile drive between Denver and Salt Lake City, but the most scenic and least problematic is via Interstate 70 to U.S. 40, both westbound (Interstate 80 through Wyoming closes frequently due to weather.) If you have the space, load your mountain bike into your car with your skis so you're prepared for your first stop, 3.5 hours from Denver, in Fruita, Colorado. And speaking of space, these road trip essentials are a must. There (as long as the trails are dry) spend a couple of hours pedaling the super-fun and flowy Horsethief Bench Trail, part of the Kokapelli Trail Network. After your ride, hop back on the road to knock out the remaining four hours to Salt Lake City along U.S. 191, Highway 6 and eventually Interstate 15.
Make Snowbird, located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, your first basecamp. There you can stay at the ski-in/ski-out The Cliff Lodge, a modern-Bauhaus-inspired hotel with multiple in-house restaurants and the rooftop Cliff Spa. Or spread out in a comfortable condo (with fully outfitted kitchens) at The Lodge or The Inn at Snowbird, located just steps from the lifts. For the second half of your stay, move over to Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Solitude Mountain Resort’s Bavarian-esque The Inn at Solitude or a condo at Eagle Springs West, both with access to outdoor pools and hot tubs.
Ski & Ride
Each of the Salt Lake resorts has its own distinct vibe and personality. Brighton is known as a locals’ mountain where snow sliders revel in the mostly intermediate-level slopes, ample terrain features and night skiing and riding. Solitude’s tree-lined runs funnel down into a quaint, Euro-inspired village (and the westerly Moonbeam base area) where the lifts are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., mid-March to the end of the season. Alta and Snowbird are both known for long, steep runs looming above plenty of gentler slopes appropriate for intermediates and beginners. Where they differ is that Alta exudes an old-school, skiing-purist persona, whereas Snowbird’s modern architecture and Tram lend to its distinctively modern atmosphere. Skiers can glide between both of these stellar resorts, accessing more than 5,000 acres, with the AltaBird pass. (Note: Alta is a skiers-only mountain.) A great way to get acquainted with all four Salt Lake resorts and the fascinating history of the canyons they reside in is on a free Ski with a Ranger Tour, offered at each on Saturdays at 1 p.m.
Passes & Tickets
All four Salt Lake resorts are part of the Ikon pass and the Ski City Super Pass, which both allow direct-to-lift access to all four resorts and free access to the UTA Ski Bus. Keep in mind that Alta and Solitude require advance parking reservations. Other passes of note accepted at the Salt Lake resorts include the Mountain Collective (Alta and Snowbird), the AltaBird day pass (available for purchase or upgrade at both Snowbird and Alta) and Snowbird’s Fast Tracks, a limited-access upgrade that allows express chairlift access.
Their are plenty of morning fuel-up favorites in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon. Start your day at the Silver Fork Lodge, a rustic alpine lodge just down canyon from Solitude that has been serving up huge breakfasts since 1947. Another option is to pick up a grab-and-go sandwich and other grocery items at Snowbird’s General Gritts. Go a bit fancier for breakfast with smashed avocado toast or eggs benedict from The Forklift, located on Snowbird’s Plaza Deck. Lastly, skip the hot espresso drinks, empanadas and homemade sweet breads at Alta Java for your morning pick-me-up! For lunch, carbo-load at Solitude’s Roundhouse, serving burgers and fries but also yummy curries and vegetarian options too. At The Summit, perched at 11,000-feet-above-sea-level at the top of Snowbird’s Tram, you can choose from shepherd’s pie, vegan or beef meatloaf, fresh pizza, an abundant salad bar and much more. Or indulge in Euro-inspired specialties and a glass of wine while overlooking Little Cottonwood Canyon’s dramatic ridgelines at Collins Grill at Alta. Dinner options in Big Cottonwood Canyon include St. Bernard's’s at Solitude and the Silver Fork. Over in Little Cottonwood, you’ll find many options at both Alta and Snowbird, notably Swen’s at The Snowpine Lodge, The Aerie Restaurant and Lounge in Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge, and, also at Snowbird, the Steak Pit.
The after-skiing repast takes on multiple formats at the Salt Lake resorts. For something sweet, grab a Liège-style waffle at Little Dollie Waffle’s, at Solitude’s Moonbeam Base, or a Rice Crispy treat and hot chocolate at Snowbird’s Baked and Brewed Cafe. Adults-only watering holes in these canyons include Thirsty Squirrel at Solitude, Snowbird’s SeventyOne Restaurant & Lounge and Brighton’s Molly Greens, where a draft beer and an order of the nachos could easily tide you over until breakfast. Or, instead of eating or cocktailing, cap your day with a yoga class at Snowbird’s Cliff Spa, Solitude’s Last Chance Southwest Grill or Our Lady of the Snows Center at Alta.
A few of the non-chairlift-assisted things to do on snow in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons include helicopter, snowcat and guided backcountry skiing with Snowbird Mountain Guides; cross-country skiing or snowshoeing the Solitude Nordic Center; and snowshoeing with a naturalist at Alta. Downtown Salt Lake City is only a 20-minute drive from the resorts in either canyon. There you can dine and drink at dozens of restaurants and bars; visit a museum or one of many public art installations; or take in an NBA basketball game, Utah Symphony concert or nationally touring Broadway musical, comedian or musical performance.
When it’s time to return to reality, backtrack along the same route you took to arrive in Utah. But then once you get onto Interstate 70 eastbound, take 191 south briefly to Moab. There, unload your bike about 20 miles north of Moab at the Klondike Bluffs Trail System for a slickrock spin. Or take advantage of the thin wintertime crowds there by heading farther south along 191 to Arches National Park for a hike. Spend the night at one of Moab’s multiple hotels, Red Cliffs Lodge, is a fan favorite! In the morning, hit the Moab Diner (open Monday through Saturday) or the Love Muffin Café (open Friday through Tuesday) for breakfast before heading back to I-70 and home to Denver.