Ski safari in Utah, USA: Exploring an outdoors paradise
From skiing to cycling, snowy peaks to desert dunes, a ski safari road trip through Utah is the best way to experience an unrivalled array of activities and landscapes
- By Matt Barr -
From Bob Dylan's iconic wintry pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie’s deathbed, to Harry and Lloyd’s Homeric trek to Aspen in Dumb and Dumber, the great American road trip is an enduring trope of US culture. It also lends itself perfectly to a particularly North American style of ski trip, especially in a resort-rich powder paradise like Utah.
The problem until now has been access; with in-bound flights from the UK to Salt Lake City previously routing through Chicago or another hub, journey times in excess of 14 hours were the norm. So when we hear that direct flights are now available from Heathrow to SLC, my wife and I make like Harry and Lloyd and hit the road.
North to south, Utah is so vast that our route would enable us to take in the full range of the state’s geographical glories, starting with the iconic ski resorts that dot the Wasatch Mountains, before snaking south to the otherworldly desert landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. From there, we’d finish up in Las Vegas, eight hours south and just over the border in Nevada, Utah’s neighbour to the west.
Our first stop, Salt Lake City, is the perfect starting point for such a mission. With transfer times of under an hour, you can banish jet lag with ease and concentrate on exploring the resorts within 60 minutes’ drive of the city. It’s these resorts that have inspired the tourist board’s grandiose ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ tagline, and that put SLC alongside places like Chamonix, Innsbruck and Vancouver as one of the world’s great winter sports cities. There’s simply something in the air here, a rare combination of world-class terrain, a proud local identity and a hard-riding international clientele that lends the place an aura of tough, vibrant cosmopolitanism.
For the first few days we explore the resorts of nearby Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood Canyons – Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude. Despite their proximity, each hill has a distinct character and topography. Snowbird is a world-class freeride mountain, full of steeps and gullies. Brighton, on the other hand, is more of a snowboarder’s paradise, all fun parks and piste ‘sidehits’. Then there’s family-oriented Solitude, which offers a mix of sedate groomed trails and some serious-looking backcountry terrain.
Alas, a freakish run of high temperatures means the Greatest Snow on Earth is, in our case, the Wettest Slush on Earth, with “you guys should have been here last week!” which soon becomes increasingly regular refrain. On the plus side, it means that once the riding’s done for the day, we can explore the rest of Salt Lake’s surprisingly diverse charms, dining at the rather enjoyable Trestle Tavern one evening and taking in a Utah Jazz NBA game the one after.
Next, we head to Park City and Canyons, two neighbouring resorts that have recently joined forces to create one super-sized ski area. For years now, European resorts have been locked in a size-based arms race, intent on partnering with their near neighbours and advertising themselves as – yes – the biggest ski area in the world, so the news that these two neighbouring (and already sizeable) American behemoths have got in on the act piqued my interest.
We stay at Canyons Resort, a classic ski-in/ski-out US destination with a hot tub on the roof and a heated pool for winding down post-ride. The vibe here is a tad more upmarket, as you might expect from a place that hosts Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival each January and counts Will Smith as a winter resident. Still, it’s nice to be part of the jetset for a couple of days, joining the throng for some lively St Patrick’s Day Guinness in Flanagan’s and exploring the new ski area. With 300 trails and 41 lifts over 7,300 acres, the area is truly vast and covers it all: backcountry, groomers, leg-burning top-to-bottom trails and an almost unnecessary eight funparks.
We’re exhausted by the time we reach Utah Olympic Park – a legacy from the 2002 Olympics that sits just down the valley – to sample the bobsleigh run that was used during the games themselves.
Angel’s Landing is a three-hour climb with vertiginous walkways and 450m drop-offs
Although you don’t get to drive the thing, a ride on the Comet bobsled is still a genuine high-velocity, neck-cricking experience, with 3Gs and speeds of up to 60mph enough to see you mentally practicing your sprint starts and plotting how you’ll make your debut on the 2022 GB bobsleigh team.
Day five, and it’s time to head south and really start ticking off those US road trip clichés. Freeways crossing vast prairies dotted with towns and cities named things like Ogden, Provo and Fremont? Tick. Random local FM rock stations single-handedly keeping 1970s rock dinosaurs in PRS payments? Tick. Remote gas stations patronized by farmers wearing Make America Great again caps? Tick. Historic roadside settlements staffed by Mormons who are enthusiastically offering histories of the state? That too.
As we head towards Bryce Canyon National Park, one of five national parks in Utah, grasslands give way to desert and, eventually, the unique multi-hued rocky crenellations of Bryce Canyon. We make straight for Sunrise Point, and from there walk the classic Navajo/Queen’s Garden Loop with the other international pilgrims. A slight dusting of snow gives Bryce Canyon’s ancient arid sandstone formations a gleaming majesty that our iPhone photos can never adequately convey, and suddenly Park City and its $30 wagyu burgers seem further away than a mere four-hour drive.
After a night at the Ruby’s Inn – which wholeheartedly embraces the alpine theme with stags’ heads-a-plenty mounted on its timber-clad walls– the next stop is Zion National Park, our penultimate destination a further two-hour drive to the south. With its steep red cliffs, waterfalls and forest trails, Zion is the type of place that has been leaving more eloquent travellers than myself tongue-tied and groping for superlatives since humans first started frequenting the place some 8,000 years ago.
It’s the scale that does it – the 15-mile long West Rim Trail itself is framed either side by sandstone cliffs more than 1,000m high, and is full of nightmarish scrambles such as the famed Angel’s Landing, a three-hour ascent where the really intrepid can negotiate vertiginous walkways with 450m drop-offs. Vertigo sufferers like myself need not apply.
A 12-night Utah and National Parks Ski Safari starting in Salt Lake City and ending in Las Vegas costs from £2,115pp including flights, SUV car hire for the duration and accommodation on a B&B basis, based on two sharing. For more information contact Ski Safari. 01273 224 068; skisafari.com
Instead, we hire road bikes and enjoy the best day of the trip, being guided by Shirley and Margaret of Red Rock Cycles around Zion’s punishing-yet-beautiful climbs and swooping, hairpinned descents.
Later, limbs spent and minds tired from goggling at all that neck-craning natural majesty, we head to Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale and demolish the famous rib-sticking burgers we’ve been hearing about since we arrived in Utah.
And so to our final leg: Vegas, another state entirely and different type of national monument. But that’s another story.