Utah's Triple Treat
As an East Coast kid accustomed to skiing in SnoCone-style slush, it's tough to choose favorites between Utah's 13 fabulous powder-hound destinations. That's because when you're raised road-tripping it from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to the molehills of Pennsylvania, out here it's all the real Wild West.
I welcomed the chance recently to visit Utah to see if the tourism department's catchy tagline - 'the greatest snow on Earth' - could live up to the hype.
My mission was to ski three very different resorts - Snowbird, Sundance and Deer Valley Resort - over the course of three days, for a smorgasbord of mass terrain, Redford rustic and up-there-with-Aspen posh.
Before the resorts and snow conditions had a chance to impress me, however, I found myself wowed by the logistics.
With a handful of world-class resorts located less than 50 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport, East Coasters can arrive on a morning flight and be swooshing down the slopes by lunchtime.
The best part?
If you hit the slopes the day you arrive, your lift ticket is free at Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley Resort or The Canyons, thanks to Park City's Quick START (Ski Today and Ride Today) program. (An out-of-state driver's license is required.)
Deer Valley Resort
Located just 36 miles from the Salt Lake City airport, Deer Valley Resort was my first stop.
Often considered Utah's answer to Aspen, CO, Deer Valley is a celebrity stomping ground replete with fine restaurants, extravagant hotels and an overall vibe that is chichi to the max: from the elegant faux-chalet architecture to curbside ski valet.
Still, Deer Valley manages an approachability that can be hard to find in Aspen. Plus the resort attracts plenty of day-trippers, who appreciate the mountain's no-snowboarding policy. (Deer Valley is one of only a handful of remaining US resorts that stick to a skiers-only mantra.)
The facilities here are top-notch, from the on-mountain dining (try the turkey chili at the Royal Street Café) to the new high-speed quad lift, easing access to the 91 trails along the resort's mostly north-facing slopes.
Also check out the Lady Morgan Express - a high-speed quad that accesses an additional 200 acres of mostly black-diamond terrain, including 65 acres of tree runs.
While gliding down the groomers and admiring the Aspen trees, be sure to take the Sterling Express lift to the top of Bald Mountain, where the views along the ridgeline take in the sparkling blue Jordanelle Reservoir.
Later, while tucking into the Zagat-listed Seafood Buffet at the Snow Park Lodge , I overheard a few locals grumbling in that friendly Utah way that it was about time for some fresh powder.
But with a 60-inch base and perfectly groomed runs to grip the edges of our skis, it was clear that nobody was really complaining.
It takes less than an hour to get from Deer Valley to Sundance Resort , Robert Redford's famed hideaway.
And when you cut through the canyon to the wooded hideaway at the base of Mount Timpanogos, it's hard to believe that Utah's third-largest city - Provo, home to Brigham Young University - is just a short drive away.
Sundance feels worlds from anywhere.
Here, everyone refers to Robert Redford, who calls Sundance his permanent address, as 'Bob.' If you stick around long enough, chances are you'll bump into Bob on the slopes or spot him traipsing along the resort's wooded paths
Being at Sundance reminded me of summer camp adventures as a kid, albeit on a very luxe level.
Privately owned cabin-style condominiums, available to rent for the night or longer, are built into the mountainside. Each boasts its own rustic style (rough-sawn beams, stone fireplaces) and unique decorations with a Native American theme.
When you step outside, it's to a woodsy winter wonderland, with lighted trails winding the way to the rustic base village.
There is a screening room for special events that is especially popular during the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place each January.
And guests can learn to solder silver jewelry and throw pottery at the resort's Art Shack.
Compared with Utah's sprawling mega resorts, the skiing and snowboarding options are limited at Sundance, with a modest 450 acres of primarily intermediate terrain accessed by just three chairlifts and 42 runs.
But the effect of the resort's laid-back vibe (wooden ski racks and the simple lift system conjure an old-school ski environment) keeps the focus squarely on the outdoor lifestyle and the spectacular natural surrounds.
Dine on buffalo and other Western game at the resort's renowned Tree Room restaurant, where Native American art from Redford's private collection hangs on the walls.
When it comes to Sundance's nightlife, it's about quality over quantity, with just one eclectic watering hole.
Resort guests get temporary memberships to the Owl Bar, where the Wild West spirit is alive and well in the form of patrons in cowboy hats and a bar with a story to tell; once frequented by outlaw Butch Cassidy, the restored circa 1890s stretch of wood that you sidle up to for a drink was moved here from Wyoming.
Last stop, Snowbird.
Skiers with a fondness for the warm Sundance aesthetic might find Snowbird's avalanche-proof architecture hard on the eyes.
The mega resort's bunker-style buildings, made from pre-molded concrete slabs, are most definitely minimalist and don't exactly ooze warmth.
But inside, all the creature comforts await.
The terrain is the main reason people hit the 'Bird. And Snowbird's stats are staggering.
An aerial tram and 10 chairlifts are capable of transporting 17,400 skiers and riders an hour. And with 85 runs spread across 2,500 acres, the place never feels overrun.
The location doesn't get any better either; just 29 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport, Snowbird is the closest resort to the city.
When I visited in early January, it was dumping - the first considerable snowfall for weeks - so I wasn't able to see what everyone promised were some of the most incredible views in the Wasatch range.
I was, however, able to test out the resort's claim to the 'world's lightest, driest powder.'
The white stuff accumulated fast and didn't get skied out. By the afternoon, I found myself floating like an air hockey puck down the wide, empty slopes.
Big on the wow factor all around, Snowbird's Peruvian Tunnel, introduced during the 2006-2007 season, takes the cake when it comes to on-mountain technology; it's a ski tunnel that pulls you on a conveyer belt through the mountain, from Peruvian Gulch to Mineral Basin.
Thanks to the tunnel, skiers and snowboarders can now access sprawling intermediate terrain that used to require switchbacks and steep pitches to reach. Built by a mining company, the tunnel is the only one of its kind in North America. You can't help but feel invigorated (not to mention warmed up a bit) when you pop out the other side.
When it comes to winding down after a day on the mountain, everyone has their apr��s ski vice.
Mine is hot tubbing. And in the world of gurgling hot pools, there is none finer than what you'll find on the rooftop of Snowbird's flagship resort, the Cliff Lodge & Spa.
With panoramic mountain views and that Jekyll and Hyde sensation of cool flurries on your forehead and a world of warmth bubbling around your slope-weary body, there's no better finish to a utopian Utah ski vacation.