Huntsville, UT – Looming over the east side of Ogden, Utah, the city’s namesake peak rises
roughly 4,000 feet above the bustling streets and avenues. On the far east
side of Mt. Ogden, though, lies Snowbasin, Utah’s "newest" ski resort.
Snowbasin. (photo: David Quinney)
Mt. Ogden looms above Snowbasin’s slopes.
How does the term "newest" apply to a ski area that installed its
first lift over 60 years ago? Simple. By the time the 2002 Winter Olympic Games
had arrived in Salt Lake City, almost everything at Snowbasin was new. The
resort invested no less than $70 million in its preparations for the Salt Lake
The first new thing you’ll notice
is the access road via Ogden Canyon. That is, if you find it.
We stayed in Ogden and followed
the signs to Snowbasin. The drive took us through the canyon – a narrow twisty
road with one lane in each direction, but unlike the Cottonwood Canyons’ roads,
it doesn’t rise up into the mountains as much as sneaks between them on the
north side of Mt. Ogden.
Once through the canyon, it was
clear sailing as we followed the signs to Snowbasin. The road clung to the
side of the expansive Pineview Reservoir and through the broad Ogden Valley.
Despite its altitude at 5,000 feet, a mere 700 feet above snowless Ogden, the
valley was covered with the white stuff.
We turned right at the next Snowbasin
sign and started heading uphill on a narrow road. And left. And right. And
up. And right. And left. And left again. And up. And right. And down.
And … well, you get the picture. How in the world did they get all of the
Olympic visitors up this road?
Actually, they didn’t. We had
taken the old access road. A new access road coming from Ogden lies
a short distance east of the one that we had taken, and Trapper’s Loop Road
now links the brand-new Snowbasin Road to Interstates 80 and 84 east of Park
City, the preferred route for accessing Snowbasin from the Salt Lake Valley.
Upon arrival at Snowbasin, you’ll
find a collection of brand-new base structures constructed specifically for
the Olympic Games. The new two-story, 45,000 square-foot Olympic Day Lodge
features full-service and cafeteria dining for skiers, enhanced by five enormous
stone fireplaces. A broad brick sun deck faces the slopes. The new buildings
are built with large log framing and lots of wood and stone, reminiscent of
the River Run lodge at Sun Valley.
Earl Holding’s new Grand America Hotel brings a new level
Click on the image above to open a full-size
Snowbasin’s Strawberry area. (photo: Gary Nate)
The Middle Bowl Express gondola. (photo: David Crim)
The summit of the Strawberry lift treats guests to spectacular
The Olympic Day Lodge. (photo: Marc Guido)
Snowbasin’s John Paul area. (photo: David Quinney)
The Olympic Tram. (photo: Gary Nate)
The view of Snowbasin’s Grizzly Men’s Downhill Course
Huntsville’s Shooting Star Saloon. (photo: Marc Guido)
At the Shooting Star, you had better keep a close eye
A coincidence? I think not.
While Snowbasin has been variously owned by the City of Ogden, the developer
of Berthoud Pass in Colorado, and Vail founder Pete Siebert, Snowbasin and Sun
Valley are now both owned by Sinclair Oil patriarch Earl Holding … you know,
the folks with the green dinosaur logo. Holding had long owned the Little America
Hotel in nearby Salt Lake City, and last year constructed the lavish Grand America
Hotel right across the street from the Little America to fulfill a perceived
need for a first-class lodging facility in Salt Lake. Shuttle transportation
is available to link the Grand America with Snowbasin, providing a unique ski/city
The third new thing you’ll notice
at Snowbasin is the mountain’s lift system. There are four big new lifts: the
Strawberry Express gondola, the Middle Bowl Express gondola, the John Paul Express
detachable quad, and the Olympic Tram. The gondolas and chair each have a vertical
rise of over 2,300 feet; the tram adds another 500 feet above the John Paul
chair. All together, Snowbasin’s uphill conveyances serve 3,000 acres of downhill
The Strawberry Express serves
the southern third (skier’s right) of the mountain. The terrain here consists
primarily of wide, gently pitched trails, with a few patches of trees, a couple
of ravines (e.g. natural half pipes), and an open bowl or two thrown in for
good measure. There’s a little bit of steep stuff here, but most of the skiing
below Strawberry Peak is solid blue square cruising.
The Middle Bowl gondola serves
– surprise, surprise – the middle section of Snowbasin. There are also a handful
of older chairlifts that serve the same runs, but unless you won’t venture off
the novice trails, there’s no reason to ride them.
The Middle Bowl terrain runs
the gamut from green circle to black diamond, with the bulk of the runs labeled
intermediate. Experts who like long, sustained pitches may be disappointed here,
as the steep stuff comes in little pieces: steep, cruise, steep, cruise, and
It’s fun to quiz those facing
downhill about previous Olympic skiing medal winners while riding the Middle
Bowl gondi. Each of the gondola cars bears the name, year, and flag of a gold
medal winner (the American and Canadian silver and bronze medal winners are
also included). It’s a nice touch.
The weather, as it had been for
several days, was warm and sunny. I enjoy skiing on warm sunny days, but I
don’t like what it does to the snow. As we warmed up on a cruiser and headed
toward the Strawberry gondola, it was clear that anything which had faced even
a bit of sun the previous day would need some time to soften up. The groomed
trails were nice and soft, however, and we were at the Strawberry gondola before
we knew it.
The summit of the Strawberry
lift treats guests to spectacular views down the backside of the mountain. Spread
out below you are Ogden, the Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island, and range after
range of mountains.
While descending, we eyed a nice-looking
bowl below the cliffs off to our right. Vowing to return, we slipped into a
narrow ravine near the Moonshine Bowl trail. The ravine had softened up with
its increased exposure to the sun, and provided a fun roller coaster ride back
to the Strawberry gondola. We rode back up and headed toward Philpot Ridge that
divides the Strawberry area from the Middle Bowl area.
Tucked at the bottom of Grizzly,
between Dan’s Run and Moose Mound, sits the mid-mountain pumping station for
Snowbasin’s new fully automated snowmaking system that covers no less than 600
acres of terrain. The snowmaking building houses a total of 10 pumps. Seven
special fan-cooled towers are used to cool the water drawn from three wells
near the mountain. The resort has spent $30 million on its new toy, a requirement
for hosting Olympic skiing events, and it has paid off handsomely, allowing
the ski area to open in mid-November after 2000-2001’s snow drought kept them
closed until mid-January! Snowbasin boasts the most snowmaking coverage per
acre of any ski resort in the nation, and tower guns have sprouted in winter
in much the way that wildflowers do on Mt. Ogden’s slopes in summer. As much
as I prefer natural snow to man-made, skiing man-made is a whole lot better
than not skiing at all.
After a couple of runs in the
Middle Bowl, speeding down cruisers, sampling the trees and even bounding through
a few moguls, it was time for lunch. The cafeteria in the Olympic Day Lodge
serves a variety of daily pasta specials, wood-fired pizzas, and stir-frys on
real stoneware with genuine, honest-to-goodness flatware. No Styrofoam or plastic
forks here. Heavy, upholstered wood chairs and tables grace the wall-to-wall
carpeting that stretches from the massive stone fireplaces and imported marble
foyer to towering walls of glass that frame a view of the slopes. It’s not
your standard-issue ski area cafeteria, but be forewarned that the menu prices
aren’t standard-issue, either. Even the restrooms are more akin to a luxury
hotel than to a ski area base lodge. Before returning to the slopes, consider
ducking into the U.S. Forest Service Discovery Center located on the lower level.
After lunch, we rode up the John
Paul Express detachable quad. While the Stawberry gondola’s loading station
is way off by itself (don’t get stuck there at the end of the day), the Middle
Bowl gondi and the John Paul chair rise from the new base lodge area. The John
Paul chair ascends the northern end of the mountain, named for John Paul of
the 10th Mountain Division, not the Pope. This is pretty much all expert territory,
with long sustained drops, trees, gullies, and bowls. Atop the lift sits the
John Paul Lodge, similarly new and similar in style to the Olympic Day Lodge.
We warmed up on the Bernhard
Russi-designed Wildflower Women’s Downhill course that seemed to go on forever.
Again, we encountered a Little Red Riding Hood mixture of conditions: some snow
too hard, some too soft, and a little just right. The variety of conditions
kept us on the trails, resisting the urge to explore steeper, untamed stuff
that fell off to skier’s left underneath the chair.
On our second ascent we continued
up the mountain via the Olympic Tram. As at the top of the Strawberry lift,
the views over the back of the mountain toward Ogden and the rest of the Salt
Lake Valley are spectacular. When the snow is right, it’s possible to begin
a backcountry adventure off the back of Allen’s Peak straight down into Ogden.
On the front side, though, here begins the Grizzly Men’s Downhill course, named
for a fabled bear that once roamed the Wasatch.
Now that I’ve skied a real downhill
course, I can tell you that those racers are completely insane. They
dive straight down Ephraim’s Face, a 70 percent pitch from the top of the tram,
and past the top of the John Paul lift, already clocking 70 to 75 miles per
hour at that point. They continue on a side slope across the hill to a blind
fall-away left turn. How would you like to be doing 70 miles per hour on skis,
looking at nothing but blue sky and far away mountains in front of you? I’ll
pass on it for myself. I hope that those Olympic medals are made of real gold,
because the winner really deserves it.
The urge to explore finally got
the better of us, and we poked around in the John Paul area. We found some
nice tree shots full of soft snow between the Grizzly Downhill and Easter Bowl.
Hoping for more soft snow, we continued down and across the John Paul liftline.
Unfortunately, the snow turned hard and we spent the rest of the run picking
our way down. We had been eyeing Allen’s Peak and No Name, the farthest to
skier’s left off John Paul, but the tough conditions on the lower mountain convinced
us to save it for another day.
With the sun setting, it was
time for some much-needed nourishment, and visitors to the Snowbasin area shouldn’t
pass up the opportunity to shuffle into sleepy Huntsville’s Shooting Star Saloon.
The only operating saloon in Utah, grandfathered past the state’s somewhat draconian
liquor laws because it has continuously operated since 1879, long before the
laws came into existence, the Shooting Star is a local anomaly. If the stuffed
St. Bernard head and whitetail deer’s hind end mounted on the wall insufficiently
entertains you, the locals both seated at the bar and standing behind it certainly
will. Don’t miss out on sampling a remarkably inexpensive, deliciously greasy
burger heaped with sautéed onions and peppers as you read the newspaper clippings
tacked to the walls or what Snowbasin’s public relations agency esoterically
terms “restroom poetry”. Be sure to ask the bartender about the “honor system
I can’t quite put my finger on
it, but the skiing at Snowbasin is just plain missing something. The lifts
are wonderfully efficient, the runs are long, and on a powder day you could
probably get fresh tracks for as long as you want. It doesn’t have the you-fall-you-die
steeps of Alta and Snowbird, but if you want to rack up a ton of vertical on
the groomers, Snowbasin may fit the bill.
Right now, Snowbasin is in between
life phases. One of the oldest continuously operating ski areas in the United
States, Snowbasin is not a hometown hill anymore, but it’s not yet a world-class
resort a la Whister-Blackcomb, either. While the on-mountain infrastructure
of a luxury destination resort is in place, thanks to the influx of dollars
to develop Snowbasin as an Olympic venue, it is totally devoid of any other
destination resort trappings, such as on-mountain lodging (there’s none), dining,
retail, or other ancillary development. Plans are in place to develop hotels
and condos near the base of the Becker and Wildcat chairs, but that remains
a number of years off to a time when skier and snowboarder traffic justifies
Snowbasin’s transformation into the destination resort that it’s trying to be.