Beaver, UT – It was an eerie quiet. As
the sun descended into the cleft of Beaver Canyon, I was the only known person
within 20 miles. Literally.
Granted, it was a Sunday night. It was still somewhat surprising,
however, that I was the only overnight guest at southern Utah’s Elk
Meadows Ski & Summer Resort. “If you need anything, I’ll be here until
6:00,” the reception desk clerk cautioned me. Perhaps there were security
personnel around, but I didn’t see them.
After unpacking in perhaps the plushest overnight accommodations
that I’d enjoyed in years, and throwing a load of smelly polypropylene from
my long whistle stop tour into the washing machine, I soaked in the peaceful
serenity and limitless view that only a mountaintop accommodation can deliver.
Mountain range after mountain range folded the horizon through the absolute
desolation of western Utah toward the Nevada line.
After the sun disappeared, I took a drive around the resort
to orient myself and to double-check – nope, not a single vehicle parked anywhere.
With the resort dining room closed for the evening, I continued back down
nearly 4,000 feet of elevation via the hairball access road, blasted into
the side of heart-stopping cliffs, to Beaver, the nearest touch of civilization.
There, I sated my hunger alongside the Interstate at a truck stop Wendy’s
– nearly the only game in town. A stiff odor blowing in from the cattle farm
next door wafted into the restaurant as each customer opened the door. Toto,
we’re not in Salt Lake anymore.
Just in case I’d die of starvation in the wild mountains of
southern Utah, only to have the buzzards find my lifeless corpse when the
snow finally melted sometime in July, I picked up a frozen breakfast burrito
for the morning at the truck stop before heading back up the canyon to bed
down for the night.
SOLITUDE AS A THEME
I think that I spotted a whopping six paying customers on the
mountain the following day. Liftlines were, needless to say, nonexistent.
The funky synthesized beat and Fred Schneider’s voice of the B-52s hit Private
Idaho echoed throughout my brain all day, but this was Utah. Not the
Utah I know – the aggro competition for fresh tracks at Alta, the hustle of
Park City, and the concrete bunkers of Snowbird – but instead it was southern
Utah, where ski resorts coexist with desert flora, 18-wheelers and pig farms.
Click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new
“Help” and “Born to Be Wild” showcase some of the steeper
I hooked up with Patrol Director Dave Prunkard (“just like ‘drunkard’
but with a ‘p’,” in his own deadpanned words) and chased him at warp speed
from the “base lodge” down Hollywood Bowl to the Holly Double Chair lift as
the wind whistled through the vents of my helmet. Yep, I said “down” – Elk
Meadows is for all intents and purposes an upside-down ski resort. The West
Village lodge is atop one pod of skiing which bottoms out in a drainage below
the access road and subsequently ascends a steep, adjacent north-facing ridgeline
on the other side of the streambed. Continue a bit further up Utah Route
153, and on the opposite side of the road you’ll find Elk Meadows’ gentle
novice terrain. Even here, the “base lodge” is at the summit, accessed via
a steep resort road. Getting from the lower pod to the upper presently requires
a shuttle bus ride, but one can descend in the opposite direction by skiing
down the “Long Winding Road” trail and under a skier tunnel beneath Route
153, or via the “Get Back” trail after clicking out of your bindings to cross
Yep, the layout sure is peculiar.
Prunkard’s personality belied his speed on snow. A demon on
skis, he’s in person a soft-spoken man who subscribes to the theory, often
seen in rural mountain residents, that there’s no point in using five words
when two will do just fine. It’s a marvel of economy and efficiency in speech.
As the day progressed, the conversation began to flow more fluidly as his
turns did down the fall line.
We spent the morning zipping down steep, deserted runs in the
resort’s lower pod. We were satisfied by the steep bumps on “Satisfaction,”
thrilled on “Thriller,” turned like mad on “Turn Turn Turn” and got our kicks
on “Route 66” with nary another soul in sight. We thankfully finally bumped
into another patroller, second-year tele skier Alex Marshall, who had just
moved up this season from neighboring Brian Head. Stopping
to talk with Marshall finally gave me a chance to catch my breath, which at
this altitude was somewhat lacking. Not that Prunkard’s rapid-fire pace had
anything to do with it … no, not at all.
JUST ANOTHER RISKY SCHEME?
Together, the three of us examined Elk Meadows’ possibilities.
A new liftline has already been cut across “Rocket Man,” “Satisfaction,” “Thriller”
and “Twist and Shout,” extending further down below the current low point
of skiable terrain and lengthening these trails. The top lift drive of the
used triple chair purchased from Deer Valley is already in place. The construction
will increase Elk Meadows’ current 1,300 lift-served vertical feet by another
hundred feet or so.
This lift is but a small element in a sweeping master plan that
Elk Meadows hopes to implement. The resort expects to begin construction
this summer on a 139-room luxury hotel adjacent to the Upper Meadows Lodge
with sound-dead walls. The hotel is set to anchor a small pedestrian village
development of condominiums complete with two acres of double-level underground
parking, dining and retail. Even the oxygen content inside each room may
be adjusted to mimic the O2 of the guest’s
hometown, thereby eliminating the risk of altitude sickness and rendering
a solid night’s sleep even to those who come from sea level.
“We’re not looking for a million skier visits a year,”
explained Construction Manager Drew Hopkins. “The owner of this resort
is kind of a construction technology aficionado. He loves learning about more
efficient ways to build things, so we’re putting this together with some plans
and materials that are state-of-the-art. This will be a total, catered resort.
We want to have five skiers for each employee … that’s all. This will be
a luxury resort.”
12,001-foot Lake Peak
Another liftline has already been cut to span Route 153 from
the bottom of the “Help” trail to eliminate the skier’s need for
shuttle buses between the two terrain pods. The adjacent Puffer Lake has
been proposed as a water source for a $2 million snowmaking system that has
already been engineered, although with 425 average annual inches of snowfall
and north-facing expert terrain, snowmaking isn’t always needed here. It
would be implemented primarily on the south-facing terrain at the Upper Meadows
Lodge. The property would all be serviced by a revolutionary $5 to $7 million
micro-filtration wastewater treatment plant. The resort even hopes someday
to string lifts up the treeless summits of 12,001-foot Mt. Holly and 11,320-foot
Lake Peak above the ski area, finally increasing the lift-served vertical
drop beyond the magical 2,000-foot mark. For now, these two peaks, along
with the wilderness surrounding Mt. Belnap further north, provide nearly endless
backcountry opportunity to those willing to earn their turns.
These would be ambitious plans anywhere, but are even more so
for a resort that lies at least a three-hour drive from any substantial population
base or airport, and therefore presently sees only 20,000 skier visits annually.
It’s tough to find anyone in the Salt Lake area who has actually skied or
ridden Elk Meadows. Given the circumstances, it’s difficult to not
The identity crisis stems in part from the fact that Elk Meadows
didn’t even operate as a ski resort at all last year. Many northern Utah
skiers and snowboarders aren’t even aware that the resort is back in operation
again. Embroiled in a bitter battle with the State of Utah over the implementation
of a $1 million, state-of-the-art water plant that failed on December 19,
2001, resort owner Wayne Case of Portland, Oregon chose to close the doors
on the season rather than continue to throw good money after bad by taking
the chance of opening with a non-approved water system. Eventually, a solution
was reached shortly after last winter season had originally been scheduled
to begin, and the resort reopened for a five-day-per-week operation for 2001-2002
(the lifts are quiet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays … errr, make that quieter).
“Just like this year, we didn’t have to open,”
reflected the resort’s General Manager, Gene Gatza, “because we were
going to lose money anyway. What we have up here is an imbalance between the
number of beds and the number of chairlifts. We can handle between 1,200 to
1,500 skiers a day easy, with no lines, and our bed base holds only about
250 people. We had to get to the point where we could move forward and develop,
but we wanted to maintain name recognition and accountability in the ski industry,
so we opened up this year.”
Gatza, however, refuses to temper his enthusiasm. He seems
genuinely convinced – and is somewhat convincing – that such plans will, in
fact, come to fruition. The land for the hotel and village has already been
cleared. He was emphatic that the hotel construction will, in fact, begin
this summer. Gatza envisions Elk Meadows as a place to get away from it all,
where the guest may enjoy total comfort. Even the Salt Lake market could
use a place to get away from the Wasatch masses, in Gatza’s mind. A key component,
though, will be the proposed expansion of the airport in Beaver to allow the
introduction of a direct-flight program.
Gatza claims to have on his side the support of Beaver County
residents, for whom a large pig farm is the only other sizable source of employment
and tax revenue. The closure of the local mining industry means that economic
times are tough around here, and many who live here see the influx of the
tourist dollar as their savior. “The county of Beaver knows that
we need to open,” Gatza assured. “Let’s be honest: this is Utah,
it’s a small community, and they don’t necessarily want too many people to
live here all the time. But they don’t have any problem with somebody buying
something, paying taxes on it, and living here four or five times a year.”
Case, the owner of a company that makes laser guidance systems
for missiles, seems an unlikely ski resort entrepreneur. “The land is
the bank,” Gatza explained of Case’s capitalization for his expansion
dreams. Elk Meadows is situated on 1,400 acres of privately-owned land. “He
doesn’t need to have to pull out of pocket if anybody like Marriott or Four
Seasons or anyone like that wants to do a joint venture. He’ll put up the
land, and we’ll go from there.”
“The first hotel we’re building, we’re putting up on our
own,” Gatza continued. “The wastewater treatment plant we’re building
on our own. He’s really into exclusiveness – he doesn’t want to get a lot
of developers up here.”
North America’s longest tubing hill
What exists now at Elk Meadows is a scattering of condominium
properties mostly centered on the West Village Lodge. With construction spanning
several decades, some of the earlier units are of a more traditional condominium
style, but the newer units – of which my housing was a part – are positively
stunning. Natural timber walls adorned both the interior and exterior of
the structure, and features included a huge wraparound deck, hardwood and
ceramic tile floors, a natural stone gas fireplace, and a 35” or so television.
Downstairs was a private single-car garage and laundry area. Down featherbeds
and comforters adorned the mattresses, and Jacuzzi jets lined the bathtub.
The master bedroom window gazed out upon the top few towers of the Village
Double chair, and the living room, dining area and kitchen all looked south
for commanding views of the lower mountain’s steep trails through large picture
windows. Simply gorgeous.
Prunkard and I hopped on an empty shuttle bus to ride up to
the Upper Meadows Lodge to check out the broad, generous novice and low intermediate
terrain there. Acre upon acre of high-elevation slopes awaits the beginner,
the result of the original intent of the land as a Johnny Miller-designed
golf course that was never implemented, and more condominium units line several
of the trails. A new 30,000 square-foot day lodge to be constructed here
has already been approved by the country, and the old building will be rehabilitated
to house the daycare and ski school operations.
Below one of the two chairlifts lies North America’s longest
snow tubing park, and a halfpipe was in the beginning stages of construction
– a difficult task without the benefit of manmade snow to shape into the walls.
We made several runs up here with some of the ski school staff, and even spotted
two genuine paying customers at one point. It’s hard to pay the bills at
this rate. Hard to even meet payroll.
BRING YOUR OWN FUN
Those who visit Elk Meadows had better be prepared to ski hard
and sleep hard, or relax with family. “Cooking in” at the condo is the only
reasonable option for meals. BYOB, too, as you’ll have to party amongst yourselves.
For that matter, bring your own entertainment. It’s perfect, however, for
those wanting to escape the madness at home to a seemingly private mountain
What happens at Elk Meadows in the coming seasons remains to
be seen, but for now, the quality skiing and riding experience here is like
living in your own private Utah. Today, it’s the Yellowstone Club without
the price of admission.