Snowbasin & Powder Mountain for Families
by Mitch Kaplan
Nine years can be a long time. Why, it’s a lifetime to a nine year-old. But, time has a way of flying, and here I was - nine years later - driving up the Snowbasin access road. Only it wasn’t the same access road. No, things had changed radically since I’d last come this way. And, that alone was reason enough to be back.
Tell most people you're skiing Utah and they'll automatically think Salt Lake City, Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon or Park City. But, Ogden, just a few more minutes up the road, is a grand place to escape the crowds and get a bit off the beaten track. Two fine ski areas hide up Ogden way, and the little city itself holds some pleasant surprises. I call it part of the "other Utah."
Nine years back, Snowbasin was rather primitive. Old lifts and a basic, almost ramshackle base lodge set seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But, the Olympics were coming, and with them would come changes. Today Snowbasin not only has new lodges and chairlifts, but even a new access road. This is Sun Valley's sister resort and owner Earl Holding doesn't, pardon the pun, hold back. First-class is the only class for Mr. Holding, and that's what you find now at Snowbasin. Nearly the entire mountain is served by high-speed lifts. The luxurious base and mountaintop lodges display Sun Valley’s breathtaking wood and stone open architecture, custom carpeting and massive chandeliers, with gourmet food and real china in the cafeteria. Frankly, skiing facilities emulating lifestyles of the rich and famous bother me, but one must admire magnificent work when one sees it.
I'm also not a fan of high-speed lifts for their own sake; sure they can cut lift line waits, but they can overcrowd the slopes as a result. Snowbasin, however, is one big hill. High-speed is needed for efficiency. And it works. I skied the Olympic downhill before its top section had actually been cut. The start house would be set way up on Allen’s Peak. I remember thinking, "Jeez - with these slow lifts, it'll take them all day to get to the race start." Now you get there by hi-speed chair and a cute, short-run tram.
The first-class attitude carries into the kids’ programs. I found, of course, a superb, fully-equipped children’s learning center. I expected nothing different. But, the individual attention to each kid surprised. I watched a group lesson on the learning hill. The group was comprised of just three kids. Okay, sure, it was late season and midweek to boot, but still. Even in prime time, according to ski school director Peter Miller, the groups are small.
And the major runs are equally uncrowded.
I skied two days with guide Kevin Stauffer. We covered enormous amounts of ground on all terrain. We never waited for a lift, and we could count on one hand the number of others we encountered during our downhill runs. Such space on a ski hill of such size is truly freeing. And exhilarating. It’s amazing how easily a person can become spoiled - just an hour from Salt Lake City or Park City.
I drove up a steep, winding road to Powder Mountain in a snow squall that began about halfway into my ascent. The leisurely drive suddenly took on double-diamond implications. But, hey, it was fitting to arrive here with fresh snow.
Powder is a "small" ski area. No designer base lodges or epicurean food. Just a small, rather cramped, base lodge where everyone seems to know everyone, mostly slow lifts, and 5,000-plus acres in which to play. True, much of that is snowcat skiing. Only here you’re pulled uphill by a snowmobile. And much is in "Powder Country," a unique in-bounds/out-of-bounds experience in which you ski off the marked pistes into the woods, emerge somewhere on the access road, and wait for the shuttle bus to pick you up on its regular run. But, even in-bounds, there’s more than enough acreage to slide for days. These guys even have the only green-rated tree-skiing I've ever encountered. Very cool.
I chased a wild man guide calling himself Marcus all over the ski area. "And, I do call this a ski area," he said emphatically on the lift, "not a ski resort." The difference may be a technicality to some, but it’s apt. At Powder, frills are absent, and skiing/riding rules. "How many places," he asked rhetorically, pointing to the unfettered fluff below as we rode a long, slow chair, "have untracked powder under the lift three days after a storm?" And, with that, we disembarked and made tracks in that fluff.
Indeed, that morning’s squall notwithstanding (it only left a trace), we spent the entire day skiing powder stashes until I dropped in to visit the PowderKids program. The kids’ center is set up in a trailer. Sound funky? It's not. It's homey. And, it reflects the simple, unembellished approach here. This is big mountain skiing with a local hill's friendliness and ambience. Beginner children have their own kids-only section at the Sundown area. And, if your offspring is a park-rat, the terrain park over there stays open for night riding.
Ironically, while Powder Mountain may be a ski area and Snowbasin a ski resort (at least by Marcus’ definition), Powder offers slopeside lodging while Snowbasin doesn’t. Powder’s lodging is modest - like the place itself - but it’s more than comfortable. Otherwise, Ogden destination vacationers find a handful of lodging choices. I bunked in Lakeside Village, a small collection of upscale condominiums about five minutes’ drive from Snowbasin. Wolf Creek Resort (which operates its own small ski area) manages a variety of homes and condos. Other condo complexes and inns are scattered about the Ogden Valley, and the little city, about twenty minutes’ drive from the ski hills, contains several chain hotels that offer affordable lift-lodging packages.
On the Town
Ogden doesn’t yield the expected "resort" experience. This isn’t Park City with its fashionable shops and endless restaurants. It’s a small city offering some kid-friendly fun.
An admirable effort is underway to revive Ogden’s Historic 25th Street, a section that’s anchored by Union Station, a classic train depot. The station has been beautifully restored, and in there kids will find plenty of railroading stuff - including a collection of locomotives and rail cars - at the Utah State Railroad Museum, and the Eccles Railroad Center. Like cars? Visit the Antique Browning-Kimball Car Museum. If guns catch their fancy, the Browning Arms Collection will appeal. And, there’s also the Natural History Museum, an art gallery and a good restaurant.
Elsewhere in town, Eccles Dinosaur Park fills six acres with 100-plus, life-sized dinos and a hands-on museum. Or, for something different, take a curling lesson at The Ice Sheet at Weber State University, site of the Olympic curling events. (Or, just ice skate there.) And, my last stop was at Farr Better Ice Cream, a old-fashioned, family-owned ice cream shop where high school kids have been ladling huge scoops of classic and exotic flavors onto cones (and charging relatively small change for it) for three generations or so. Delicious.
...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.
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