OGDEN, Utah -- The 2002 Winter Olympics, held in Salt Lake City, forever changed skiing and snowboarding in Utah.
Nowhere in the state is that legacy more evident than at two Ogden, Utah-area resorts, 50 miles to the north of Utah's capital city.
Snowbasin: A Sun Valley Resort, which had operated for nearly six decades as a city-owned and essentially locals-only resort, underwent a $150 million overhaul before the Olympics.
Its long, steep ski courses shooting off Allen's Peak captured television viewers' attention worldwide during the men's and women's downhill, super G and combined racing events.
Powder Mountain Winter Resort underwent its own, though less-extreme, makeover.
Like others who have skied Utah's mountains for many years, I had never before skied either of these two fantastic resorts, which offer completely different experiences. (Take the chance now -- Utah's resorts are expected to continue operating lifts through mid-April, and backcountry skiing usually continues through May or later.)
Modern, Magnificent Snowbasin
Robert Earl and Carol Holding, the multibillionaire owners of the renowned Sun Valley Resort in Idaho and the Utah-based Sinclair Oil, bought Snowbasin in 1984 and are still in the process of transforming it.
The experience of Snowbasin begins before hitting the slopes, with a warm welcome from friendly attendants and a view of Earl's Lodge, the stunning timber cabin. The lodge's interior decor is notable for its Murano glass chandeliers from Italy, crown moldings and marble countertops throughout -- including in the food service areas and restrooms.
Before the Olympics, the Holdings added three eight-passenger gondolas and upgraded older chairlifts.
The lifts offers skiers access to the resort's 2,830 acres of terrain on a 2,900-foot vertical drop on Strawberry Peak, Mt. Needles and Mt. Ogden; the gondolas provide welcome relief in colder weather. They also, I found, promote conversation between strangers on facing seats.
"The gondolas have spoiled me to death," Robert Smith, 51, an engineer from Orlando, told me.
Michael Chardack, 48, an orthopedist from Salt Lake City, explained that he was on a mission: to cover as much terrain as possible between 9 a.m. and closing time at 4 p.m. With no waits at any lift or gondola, Chardack had traveled more than 50,000 vertical feet by 3:30 p.m.
Another area physician, Scott Kendell, 37, came to Snowbasin instead of some of Utah's better-known resorts in
Park City or the Cottonwood Canyons, which are a bit closer to his home, because it's "usually not much more crowded than this," he said, scanning empty hillsides.
Busy days at Snowbasin -- usually Saturdays or powder days -- bring no more than 1,000 visitors, far fewer people than other resorts, says Kevin Stauffer, Snowbasin's guest services supervisor.
Snowbasin is known for its state-of-the-art snowmaking and extensive grooming. Widespread weather stations allow a computerized system to continually adjust the water and air content of the manufactured snow.
The resort is also recognized for its fine food -- not the typical ski resort fare of chili or burgers gobbled off Styrofoam dishes.
Instead, the cuisine at all three day lodges is made to order and served with china and silverware. For lunch, I tried a local favorite, the spicy tomato bisque served at the mountaintop John Paul Lodge, which also boasts pizza fired in a cherry-wood oven and an extensive Italian menu. (The lodge is named not for the former Pope but for John Paul Jones, an avid Ogden skier who died in combat in WW II.)
Paul Scardino, 42, a software engineer from Layton, joined me for lunch, marveling at the surroundings. "Look at this place -- it's spectacular," he said. "Three years ago, when I'd get here, I'd have to eat all by myself. At least now I have to wait in line."
The lodge's layout, as do the others', allows every diner to be near an enormous roaring fireplace. I sat facing the mountain to take in the vistas.
One of the reasons Snowbasin is not yet realizing its potential is that it has no on-site overnight lodgings.
The Holding family, which owns about 9,000 undeveloped acres around the resort, is planning to construct a boutique hotel with 150 rooms at Snowbasin's base. They will also be selling condos in the future, though most of the land will remain untouched, explains Mary Rowland, Snowbasin's spokeswoman. The family is not going to rush or do scattershot development, she adds.
Though they don't offer overnight accomodations at Snowbasin, the Holdings do have the hotelier's magic. In addition to
Sun Valley, they own two Salt Lake City hotels: the $325-a-night
Grand America Hotel, one of Utah's finest, and the less-pricey
Little America, with rooms from $170 to $230. Snowbasin operates a daily one-hour shuttle between the hotels and the slopes.
The closest lodgings to Snowbasin are the condominiums at
Lakeside Village. Rooms run from $175 to $425 a night for up to 12 guests, and a frequent shuttle operates between the condominiums on the Pineview Reservoir, within sight of Snowbasin, and the mountain.
Pristine Powder Mountain
In contrast to the luxury of Snowbasin, Powder Mountain promises a bare-bones, off-piste experience.
Its day lodges are simple and old-fashioned. The food is decent. But the skiing is unparalleled -- and even less utilized than Snowbasin.
Powder Mountain is North America's largest ski area, with more than 5,500 acres of skiable terrain and plans for expansion.
It has no snowmaking capability, relying instead on nature. Grooming is limited to a handful of trails in higher-traffic areas near lifts. The owner, Alvin Cobabe, and his family own more than 14,000 acres.
Because of Powder Mountain's enormity, I recommend hiring a mountain host ($80 for a half-day or $125 for a full day; one price for up to six people).
"This is incredible snow for most people," said my host, Phil Wagner, 65, "but we're jaded. We want four feet of powder, or at least two feet."
Last season, Powder finally replaced the older Hidden Lake chairlift with a high-speed detachable quad. But the seven chairlifts serve just a fraction of Powder. The resort is so vast that skiers access Lightning Ridge and James Peak on a passenger snowcat ($8 a ride) and from free roadside bus shuttles beneath the Powder Country area.
"This is a different kind of mountain," Wagner noted, a retired wildlife biologist who's been skiing for four decades. "On deep powder days, you're going to have more fun here than anywhere, taking powder over your head and 20 feet in a single turn."
Powder Mountain has cafeterias at its four lodges. The food offerings, unlike at Snowbasin, are traditional resort-style food -- mostly grilled sandwiches. There is ski-in/ski-out lodging at the
Columbine Inn and at three condominium complexes for $85 to $295 a night.
More rooms near Powder and Snowbasin, along with restaurants and a golf course, are located in the nearby town of Eden, especially around the tiny but charming
Wolf Creek Resort.
In my travels around Powder with Wagner, we also trekked to the remote Cobabe Canyon. It was midafternoon, and we couldn't see anyone, anywhere, as we cut virgin tracks through aspen trees and ponderosa pines. We stopped when I had to untangle myself from the base of a tree.
"My rules of thumb," Wagner said with a laugh, "are simple: Always look two turns ahead, and no eating aspen sandwiches."
At least I was having fun, in keeping with Powder's motto: "More fun. Real snow."
Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.