At Powder Mountain – the largest ski resort by skiable area in the USA – I'm riding untouched calf-deep powder snow six days after it last snowed. "People don't know this place is up here, even people from Utah - and we're an hour's drive from the city [Salt Lake City]," the septuagenarian bus driver with long grey hair tied with a bandanna tells me as he takes me back to the top of the resort (there are 2000 skiable hectares of mountain beyond the ski runs, where you can be picked up by an old school bus). At Powder Mountain, there's one skier per hectare – how's that for social distancing?
Even closer than Powder Mountain – but in the other direction from Salt Lake City (Powder Mountain is north) - there's a rule at Sundance, the resort Robert Redford owned for 52 years, that once the car park's full, no-one else is allowed on the mountain, even though it's a tiny car park, that's said to never happen. One of Hollywood's iconic leading men might own his own ski resort (which comes complete with the bar Butch Cassidy's Hole-In-The Wall gang frequented in the 1890s as seen in the movie, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid – it's a hell of a place for apres drinks), but there are so many great ski resorts in Utah that even Robert Redford's resort goes mostly unridden (there's also a Forbes 4-star restaurant on-site).
For all its ski resort offerings, Utah still flies under the radar of many Australian skiers. Yet there are seven ski regions and 10 world-class ski resorts in Utah within a one hour radius of Salt Lake City's international airport (which is less than two hours flight time from Los Angeles). What's more, unlike many ski area airports, you'll never be snowed in, or out. Utah's best-known resorts - like Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird and Alta – are amongst the most awarded resorts in North America, yet they're still not the household names to Australians that Colorado's Vail and Aspen are (it's Deer Valley, however, that's won Best Ski Resort in the USA in the World Ski Awards for eight consecutive years). There are very few Australians to share the slopes with… so you'll always be an attraction to locals (ask for a beer and they'll think you want a bear, every… single… time).
It takes little effort to find a ski resort in Utah with few skiers on it that none of your ski friends have heard of. You don't even have to go as far as Powder Mountain or Sundance resort. Solitude ski resort is barely 30 minutes drive from Salt Lake's airport. Aptly named, it's lonely out here across over 100 runs, including one slope which hosted the prestigious downhill event in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ideal for families, it's reasonably priced and offers ski-in, ski-out accommodation, plus it's connected to Utah's first ski resort, Brighton, where you'll find some of North America's best quality powder snow.
Or there's Snowbasin, just a few kilometres beyond the outskirts of Salt Lake City's northern suburbs (40 minutes from the airport), where few international skiers go, but where you can enjoy apres drinks in a day lodge that looks like it belongs in Vail or Aspen (minus the $20 champagnes). Or keep driving 20 minutes north to Nordic Valley (formerly Wolf Mountain), a petite resort where only locals go, that's only 20 minutes south of Powder Mountain and where you're guaranteed powder runs on fresh snow days, even on the last run of the afternoon.
It's easy to weave between these little-known resorts on a road trip, though the distances between them can be less than 20 minutes. For those seeking even more solitude and fewer crowds, Southern Utah offers guaranteed crowd-free resorts, like Brian Head and Eagle Point, four hours drive south of Salt Lake City, where skiers can incorporate visits to Utah's famous national parks nearby (Zion and Bryce Canyon).
FIVE MORE SECRETS OF UTAH
1. SALT LAKE CITY IS ACTUALLY REALLY GREAT
Once most famous as the headquarters for the Mormon Church, in recent times Salt Lake City has redefined itself (many tech companies are moving headquarters here) with a burgeoning food scene unrivalled in the American West. Also home to trendy arts districts and a seven-day-a-week night life, it's surrounded by the Wasatch Mountains so hiking, skiing and climbing are never far away. And with only 250 000 people, it still feels homey.
2. NOWHERE DOES THE STARS LIKE UTAH
There are 24 parks and communities in Utah certified International Dark Sky Areas – the highest concentration of dark sky areas on Earth. Utah offers the best star gazing amongst the darkest night skies in North America. Watch from Dark Sky certified national parks like Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park, though you don't even have to go far out of Salt Lake City to find them: the closest (Antelope Island State Park) is barely 90 minutes away.
3. AND THEY'RE NOT THE ONLY STARS IN UTAH EITHER
If you prefer star-gazing of the Hollywood kind, there's as many around Utah as there are in Colorado. Mega-stars like Will Smith own homes around Park City, while Michael Jordan owns a place 20 minutes away. Robert Redford's lived in Utah since the '60s, and owned a restaurant in Park City's main street beside Ty Burrell's (Modern Family's Phil Dunphy) The Eating Establishment (he also owns two bars in Salt Lake City). Five minutes drive east, Deer Valley Resort hosts the likes of Brad Pitt.
4. IT'S HOME TO THE WORLD'S COOLEST FILM FESTIVAL
You've heard of the Cannes Film Festival – think of the Sundance Film Festival as Cannes… on snow. America's largest independent film festival runs in Park City – and features a showcase of the best new independent film-makers (it's launched the careers of everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson). For 10 days in January the world's best actors converge on the tiny ski town while musicians like Sting play at venues across town.
5. IT HAS ONE OF THE HIGHEST CONCENTRATIONS OF NATIONAL PARKS IN THE US
There are five iconic national parks in Utah (Arches NP near Moab, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion NPs) – meaning Utah ranks third in America for states with the most national parks (behind only California and Alaska), and they're all easily accessible from each other. It's simple to ski in northern Utah then drive a few hours south to hike national parks. You could then drive two hours to Las Vegas.
Fly to Los Angeles with Qantas (qantas.com.au) then to Salt Lake City with codeshare partner, American Airlines (aa.com). All visitors to the US must produce a negative Covid-19 PCR test within three days of their flight.
Craig Tansley travelled at his own expense.