Huffing up a rocky ridge at Utah's Alta ski area, where accessing the most radical terrain requires strenuous hiking, I held hope for a payoff. From the promontory, one of several muscular bluffs that give Alta its character, the world dropped away, sun-reddened cliffs melting into vast snowfields. I was hunting fresh powder in conditions that typically bode ill for such a quest: a popular mountain, three days after a snowstorm, during the year's busiest ski week, the Christmas holidays.
Funny, then, that I felt no surprise 10 minutes later bounding through uncut powder down a pine-dotted knob, sun-glinted snow exploding off my skis. The years have taught me to almost expect such serendipity in Utah, in large part because the state's Wasatch Mountains host nine ski areas, each with its own charm and allure, within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City.
Next door to Alta, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, is Snowbird. One slot north, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, are Solitude and Brighton, followed in the next northward nook by Park City, Deer Valley and the Canyons (formerly Wolf Mountain). South of Little Cottonwood, in Provo Canyon, is Sundance, and north of Salt Lake City is Snowbasin, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics downhill and Super-G races. Park City and Deer Valley also will host Olympic events.
This isn't to say that Utah is lift-line free--its abundant, airy snow is world-renowned, after all--but the convenient smattering of resorts helps space the crowds, and the vastness of the bigger areas means you don't bump elbows on the way down. Last winter, my friend Lauren and I managed to bag five of these mountains in seven ski days, my devotion to Alta being the only impediment to a hill-a-day tally.
Alta sits just one mile from Snowbird--they're separated only by a shoulder of Mount Baldy--but the resorts are as different as two neighbors could be (though each presents world-class, big-mountain skiing).
Alta proudly hugs the past, with $33 lift tickets, no snowboarders or high-speed lifts, and a throwback infrastructure that includes cozy wooden lodges. Snowbird embraces modernity, justifying its $52 lift ticket with a 125-person base-to-peak tram and other high-speed lifts, a mid-mountain ski demo center, an array of on-site shops and eateries and massive concrete lodges hosting restaurants, bars and opulent pools and spas. It's noisier than Alta but also more convenient. Two very different resorts, yet you can actually ski from one into the other.
As for the lingering powder I found at Alta, credit that to the lung-crushing hikes required to reach the resort's sacred realms, such as the ghostly massifs of Devil's Castle or the free falls of Gunsight and East Greeley bowl (no lifts up there). Also, Alta's powder outlasts Snowbird's due to the snowboard prohibition, which deflects shredders away from Alta.
The ideal base for exploring this playground is Park City, with its robust nightlife, shopping and dining and the five-minute driving distance from both Deer Valley and the Canyons (in fact, some of the town's ample lodging is closer to the Canyons than to Park City resort. Hotels, condos and guest houses abound in the area; we bypassed them all and snagged an empty room in my cousin's house).
I blamed Park City's plentiful bar scene for my edginess at 8:30 a.m. New Year's Day, when Lauren was still asleep and the resort's lifts were humming in preparation for their opening at 9.
"Ugh" was her first (and for a while, only) remark of the day, but, nonetheless, 30 minutes later we were on one of the town's free shuttles and, at 9:30, on a chairlift. (You can cut the morning rush even closer if you bunk near the Town Lift, which hoists skiers from a street-side loading zone to mid-mountain.)
Park City was lean on snow during our visit--it gets about 100 fewer inches annually than do the Cottonwood canyons--but, as at Alta, powder stashes existed. While a parade of skiers filed into a hard-chop Scott's Bowl, I found soft turns between silent walls of pine in Peruvian Gulch.
The resort's extensive speed-freak lift system, as fast as any in the country and far quicker than any other in Utah, is a joy to modernists but a bane to those of us who actually enjoy walking uphill to reach prime runs. McConkey's Bowl, previously accessible only by a 15-minute hike from the Jupiter lift, is now catered by one of the resort's four high-speed six-seat lifts, meaning that McConkey's powder is devoured by 10 a.m. on snow days.
Bent on proving the distinct virtues of each of my favorite Utah resorts, the next day we drove the 50 minutes from Park City to Solitude, which mixes fast blue runs on its front side with the raw, craggy beauty of its crown jewel, Honeycomb Canyon. The canyon runs out from Solitude's summit, consuming acreage and widening as it descends, and it may be skied as an intermediate run in the gully between slopes.
(Far more rewarding is my usual chosen route, an arduous traverse that passes beneath chalk-white, wind-sculpted cornices and massive rock walls, between bus-size avalanche remnants and gnarled tree trunks, and around stocky nubs of stone. Among my most treasured ski-hike rewards are the outer reaches of Honeycomb, where steep, pristine powder shots lead to air time off of rock noses and, lower down, serene glades. Sketchy snow conditions kept Honeycomb closed during our visit, but prior ventures have seared these details into my brain.)
My affection for Alta and Solitude explains why I brought a cynical eye to Brighton, a noticeably smaller resort than its neighbors and, apparently, a training ground for teenage snowboarders. Although Brighton offered no surprises, it did not disappoint (to wit: During an ill-advised plunge through a tight grove, I nearly rearranged my skeleton on a tree). The Brighton foray gave us our only inconvenient commute of the week, as a minor snowstorm turned the return drive into a two-hour crawl down the canyon.
Our final day found us at Snowbird, a daunting and varied mountain that has never let me down. Lauren and I skied laps all day, she floating down Snowbird's expansive intermediate terrain and me trudging over promising crests, seeking one last patch of unskied powder. We would meet at the tram, squeeze in for another whisk up, and repeat.
But on that last run of the day, I got a little carried away. Determined to end the week with a perfect run, I wandered far from the tram into sections of Snowbird I hadn't seen before. After 15 minutes, with daylight fading, I was ready to head down when I came upon a rope strung through the trees and a sign: "Welcome to Alta. No snowboards allowed."
I had found my Grail: a bowl of heaven-fresh powder, two feet deep, undiscovered by other hikers. Lauren would wait. The drive back would wait. Dinner would wait. I dropped over the ridge and skied away.
DETAILS: Skiing Salt Lake
Many major airlines serve Salt Lake City from the D.C. area. Delta flies nonstop from Dulles, and Southwest runs a Saturday-only nonstop from BWI; other carriers require connections. Fares start at about $200 round trip, but expect to pay between $270 and $350.
Full-day lift prices and contacts:
* Alta ($33; 801-359-1078, www.altaskiarea.com)
* Brighton ($35; 1-800-873-5512, www.skibrighton.com)
* Deer Valley ($60; 1-800-558-3337, www.deervalley.com)
* Park City Mountain Resort ($57-$60, depending on demand; 1-800-222-7275, www.parkcitymountain.com)
* Solitude ($39; 1-800-748-4754, www.skisolitude.com)
* Snowbasin ($39; 801-399-0198, www.snowbasin.com)
* Snowbird ($52; 1-800-453-3000, www.snowbird.com)
* Sundance ($25 weekdays, $30 weekends/holidays; 801-225-4107, www.sundance-utah.com)
* The Canyons ($52, with early and late season deals; 1-888-226-9667, www.thecanyons.com)
For Park City lodging, call Park City Mountain Resort (1-800-222-7275) or the Park City Chamber of Commerce (1-800-453-1360; www.parkcityinfo.com); for other resorts, call Ski Utah (1-800-754-8824; www.skiutah.com). For Utah snow conditions, call 801-521-8102.