Snowboarding Utah: The Day-in, Day-out Experiment

Utah’s mountains have always been one of my favorite places in the country to snowboard.  While some may argue that the individual resorts may not offer the variety of terrain seen at Vail or Whistler, it’s difficult to compete with the quality of Utah’s plentiful, dry powder (At the end of January, Snowbird had already received 250 inches of snow since the season began).   I try to make a trip out to Salt Lake City every year and when the opportunity presented itself again in January, I jumped right on it.

Utah Mountains - Near Snowbasin

Above:  Near Snowbasin.

Flying out of New York City to the mountains in the west presents many opportunities, as well as challenges.   On the upside, it’s easy to get just about anywhere on a direct flight, the flight choices can be extensive and the prices reasonable.  On the downside, the New York area airports are a disaster (you will never depart on time) and New York is, geographically, pretty far away from any of the top quality ski resorts.  This, unfortunately, translates to a lot of travel time and, more often than not, it is not practical to ski or snowboard on the day that you’re traveling.  Whistler is great, but the 6 hour flight to Vancouver, followed by the 3+ hours it takes to get your bags and get to the mountain means that you need two full travel days going in and out.   Lake Tahoe is not as bad, but  also requires at least one full travel day, particularly if you flying into SFO. Unfortunately, you can’t get a direct, early morning flight to Reno or Sacramento anymore, so their closer proximity to the Lake doesn’t help (I should note, however, that I have been very successful at snowboarding on the day of departure, driving to SFO and taking a red eye flight back to NYC that same day – this is very doable).  The resorts in Summit County, Colorado are a bit more accessible on the day of travel, usually depending on the traffic encountered while making the drive from Denver International out to the resorts, but this can still be a challenge.  The best option in this area is to fly into Vail/Eagle county, however, flights to NYC do not run on a daily basis and are often very expensive.

Utah Mountains - Little Cottonwood Canyon

Above:  Little Cottonwoods Canyon.

This is why the Salt Lake City area resorts win my award as having the most practical, same-day accessibility.   Even on a very tight schedule and small budget, you can reliably fly into SLC and hit the slopes on the same day of arrival and the same day of departure.  This, in my opinion, is the only option for New Yorkers to reliably travel, say, 3 days and ski 3 days on world-class terrain any day of the entire season.  The resorts in Utah – well, Park City, at least – realize this, and have been aggressively bombarding New York City airwaves with commercials delivering this exact message.  The proximity of all the resorts to SLC’s airport is a brisk 1 hour max, mostly all via highway, regardless of whether you choose the Park City Resorts (Park City Mountain, The Canyons, Deer Valley) or the resorts in Big/Little Cottonwood Canyons (Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude).  The awesome Snowbasin Resort is also only 33 miles from the airport.

To sweeten the fly-in-and-ski deal, the Park City resorts participate in a program where you can trade your same-day airline boarding pass for a free lift ticket – they call this their “Quick Start Vacation”.  Simply fill out a quick form, go to the ticket window at any of the resorts and you get a free lift ticket – no catches, no complicated processes.  Considering that a ticket to The Canyons costs almost $80, this isn’t a bad deal at all.

Theoretically, it all sounds good, but I’ve never actually tried to do it.  I usually find myself flying into SLC later in the evening, taking an after-work flight and retreating back eastward early in the morning, so that I don’t wind up arriving back home too late.  This time, however, I decided to test out Utah’s claims:  Could it really be so easy to snowboard on the days that I fly in and fly out?

To start, the journey began on Delta Flight 1187, the 7:00 am departure from Newark International.  Luckily, I only live 10 minutes from the airport, so I can still get to bed at 11:00 and catch 6 hours of sleep, while still making it to the airport 90 minutes ahead of time – your mileage may vary.  To my surprise, the early flight was full and, after a quick de-icing, we left only 15 minutes late.  A flight attendant told me that he calls this flight the “ski bus”, as it is usually filled with those people insane enough to get up at the wee hours of the morning to get some powder.  He was right – I easily counted 20 people who were in visable half-ski garb, many of which couldn’t help but sharing their mountainside war stories with their companions or with random people sitting next to them.  The flight arrived in SLC at 10:10 (ahead of schedule) and I had my snowboard bag in tow by 10:30.  SLC International knows how to handle baggage and, in particular, how to handle skis and snowboards.  The dedicated oversize luggage area and the people behind it get you your equipment quickly – a significant difference from, say, most terminals at SFO, where you have to wait years on end for someone to open a strange, secret door to deliver your snow equipment.

Rental car facilities at SLC are on-site, so you don’t have to fiddle with any shuttle buses.  I was in my car by 10:40 and quickly driving on the late-morning, traffic-free Interstate 80.  I arrived at The Canyons Resort in Park City about 40 minutes later and proceeded to use the parking lot as my changing room, something that I’ve done many times before.  This shameless maneuver requires a bit of advanced planning back at home – you don’t want to unpack your entire bag just to get what you need, so I bundle a day’s worth of outerwear, base layers and such together at the end of my snowboard bag for easy access.   At 11:35, I was at the ticket window and, after the short ride from the day-skier parking lot, I was on the Flight of the Canyons gondola at 11:50.   Ninety minutes after arriving at the gate, I was at the mountain (for free, nonetheless).

Fast forward though the next four days…

Utah Mountains 8

Above:  Snowbasin Resort.  One of two gondolas at the resort.

That first Monday was a cloudy, but powdery, day at The Canyons.  Tuesday was a spectacular bluebird day at Snowbird, made better after the whistling winds on the peak died down at around 1:00, finally allowing the tram to come off of wind hold.  Wednesday took me away from Park City and Cottonwood area and north to the awesome Snowbasin.

Thursday required a bit of planning.  This is where it gets a little tricky.  The flight back to New York departs at 4:55pm, which means that you need to be at the airport at 2:55 to return the car.  This requires you to leave the resorts at around 2:00 in the afternoon (a bit earlier if you don’t feel like pushing it).  That’s not a problem, but you’ve probably already checked out of your hotel by that time, so you need to find a way to do a quick change of clothes, unless you want to be flying home in sky pants for the next six hours.   I chose to go to Park City Mountain Resort that morning, mainly because I wanted to have a quick breakfast in Park City and spend a leisurely morning hucking around in their terrain park.   I made it to my car by 1:30 and proceeded to do a quick wardrobe change in the parking lot.  A little planning when I packed in the morning ensured that the clothes I needed were easily accessible in my carry-on.  The downside of this, of course, is that you don’t get to shower before take your seat on the plane.  Unfortunately, even having a Continental Presidents Club or Delta Crown Room membership isn’t helpful, as neither club in SLC has shower facilities.  A quick shot of Right Guard and some cologne would have to do the trick for the day.

My flight pulled into Newark at around 11:30 pm that evening and I was home around midnight.  I would surely consider this a “mission accomplished”, given that I was able to spend 4 days in Utah and snowboard on each of them without taking a dedicated travel day.   Will I try it again??? – well, I’m not sure.  Of course, if you want to absolutely maximize your time at the Utah mountains, this is a good way to do it but, the pace on the morning in and afternoon out is not exactly leisurely, and getting up at 4:30 to head to the airport is never my cup of tea – even if it’s coupled with a free lift ticket.  Nonetheless, the options are there and, maybe next time, I’ll modify the itinerary just a slight bit, allowing me to fly out the evening before, so I can get a full night’s sleep.  But, the Salt Lake City resorts still stand at the top of my list as the country’s most accessible major resorts and I will certainly be back…

There is a complete collection of Utah mountain pictures from my trip in January, as well as a number of photos of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square available on my Flickr.