After having skied more than 75 ski resorts in the U.S.,
I thought I had seen it all – the biggest mountains, the longest runs, the
deepest powder, the most spectacular scenery, the best groomed slopes and
the most captivating and charming places where one could possibly ski.
was wrong – flat out wrong because I had never skied Snowbasin in Utah. At
least until last winter.
Just 40 minutes north of the ski capitol of Salt Lake
City, one would think that Snowbasin would be a popular spot – well-known
to skiers and snowboarders all over the country. But such is hardly the
case. Snow lovers going to Utah almost always end up at Snowbird, Alta,
Park City and Deer Valley, well-publicized winter resorts also a
snowball’s throw from Salt Lake City.
The first time Snowbasin – which opened in 1940-- really
showed up on the national radar was 2002 when it was used as site of the
men’s and women’s downhill races at the Olympics. But skiers and riders
didn’t start flocking to the slopes the following year in large part
because Snowbasin has no base lodging and is not a destination resort.
with a big-league vertical drop of 2,950 feet and a dazzling array of 53
runs spread over 2,660 acres, perhaps best reflects the personality of its
owner, Earl Holding. Now in his late 70’s, Holding is a low-profile
billionaire who owns Sinclair Oil, the Sun Valley ski resort and various
hotels. He is a mainstay on the list of the 400 richest Americans
published annually by Forbes magazines.
Mary Rowland, Snowbasin’s public relations and marketing
manager, reflected that “this is the first year we ever put an ad in one
of the ski magazines. This has pretty much been a mom and pop operation
for so long.”
Snowbasin is anything but a small-time operation. There
are 13 lifts including two top-to-bottom gondolas. Hop into a gondola and
8 minutes later you are at the top of a phalanx of runs and a two-to-three
mile dash to the base. There are not many places anywhere where one can
ski so many miles so quickly in one day.
With a its high rocky cliffs, granite spires, sharp
outcrops and jaw-dropping chutes, Snowbasin has a wild, untamed feel. It
reminds one a lot of Jackson Hole.
But Snowbasin generally has much tamer terrain that
Jackson Hole and scopes out at 20 percent novice, 50 percent intermediate
and 30 percent expert. But the real tough runs here, such as the men’s and
women’s downhill courses, are well-groomed and within the ability of high
intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
One morning we took the Mt. Allen tram to the start of
the men’s Olympic downhill. We didn’t garner many style points sliding off
the 60 – 70 degree initial pitch but it was rather startling to hear that
the men racing in the Olympics were hitting 80 mph only six seconds out of
the start gate.
Taking a break here for a mid-morning cup of hot
chocolate is an experience because the several day lodges at Snowbasin
resemble five-star hotels. Grand fireplaces line the walls. Italian
chandeliers sparkle over acres of marble floor. Rich, custom carpets are
splayed across shimmering white oak floors.
No one eats off plastic or paper plates at this resort.
There are proper dinner plates befitting the cuisine that includes Swiss
cheese fondues, wine braised homemade sausages of pork, boar and elk,
black corn tamales stuffed with lobster and roasted whole tomatoes filled
with tangy mozzarella.
Back on the snow, we come across what looks like a
stunning day lodge that isn’t on our trail map. On closer inspection, this
is not a day lodge. It’s a service building that houses what is said to be
the most advanced snowmaking system in the world.
The system includes 300 miles of wiring, 47 miles of
pipe, and 591 snowmaking guns and has the ability to cover 23 miles of
runs with man-made snow. Some 104 weather stations around the resort feed
new data every 15 minutes to an advanced computer system which runs the
One of the snow makers explained that “we can make about
20 different kinds of snow. If you want powder, we can make a very light
powder. If we have some races scheduled and heavier, dense snow it needed
for the race course, we can produce snow with just the right consistency.”
With a normal annual snowfall of more than 400 inches,
Snowbasin probably doesn’t need to make much snow.
Even though we were skiing on a cloudless, warm sunny
day during the “high” season, the slopes were not crowded and lift lines
were less than two minutes long. On a busy day, Snowbasin will attract
about 4,000 visitors. Compare that to Park City which will lure more than
12,000 skiers and snowboarders.
On a typical Sunday, you’ll likely see more jackrabbits
than skiers on the slopes. This is Mormon country and the Mormon churches
are filled most every Sunday.
One of attractions of Snowbasin is the price. Daily
adult lift tickets are $58. Compare that with $74 at nearby Deer Valley
and $62 at Snowbird. Snowbasin also is opening a lift-served, six-lane
tubing hill this season. Kids can slide down once for $2 while the adult
fare for one ride and slide is $5.
Snowboarders come here mostly for the 340-foot long
super pipe with 18-foot walls, plus two well-designed terrain parks. For
cross country skiers, Snowbasin has a network of Nordic trails that spans
When Earl Holding bought the resort in 1984, he brought
a “spare no expense” attitude to the Wasatch mountains. It is hard not to
leave with a very pampered feeling after a day of sliding down impeccably
groomed terrain, on snow that has been custom made to exactly the right
consistency and on slopes that you virtually share with no one else. Not
to say anything about the food which Zagat would rate off-the-charts for a
There is considerable talk around the resort about what
the tight-lipped Holding has in store for the future. Mary Rowland will
say only that “the base facilities are being reviewed for potential
build-out in two to five years.”
The local betting is that Snowbasin will become a
destination resort soon. One of the locals speculated that “we’ll know
about this new hotel the day that Mr. Holding writes the check to start
work. We’ll all wake up one morning and there’ll be 2,000 workers here
with shovels to start on that hotel.”
Holding already owns the Grand America and Little
America hotels in Salt Lake City. There is some shuttle bus service from
Salt Lake City to the resort.
Some visiting skiers say in the condo’s and bread and
breakfast joints 10 minutes down the road in the Ogden Valley. The city of
Ogden, with its numerous hotels and motels, is 20 miles away.
We ended the day where many Snowbasin skiers and riders
go when the lifts shut down – in the Shooting Star Saloon about 10 miles
down the road in Huntsville. The Shooting Star, which is as much a museum
as it is a popular watering hole, opened in 1879 and is the oldest,
continuously operating bar in Utah.
(More information about Snowbasin can be obtained by
dialing 888-437-5488 or visiting the web site at
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