Utah ski resorts offering backcountry-type opportunities
Utah resorts still want skiers and snowboarders to come enjoy their groomed slopes and high-speed lifts this season, but they're also offering expanded options for people who want to get a taste of the backcountry without the risk of going alone. New opportunities include a pair of new lifts at Powder Mountain Resort that open 5,000 acres of powder skiing through trees, and a new luxury cat-skiing operation at Whisper Ridge in northern Utah on 60,000 acres. Ski Utah is also widening its marketing of a long-running guided tour that takes in the back country near six resorts in one day.
The appetite for exploring beyond the boundaries of resorts has been growing in recent years. An estimated 5.7 million skiers and snowboarders ventured into the backcountry in 2015-2016 - up 34 percent from 2008-2009 ski season, according to research from Snowsports Industries America. A large chunk of those people went into the "side country," areas connected to resorts that resemble backcountry.
Utah ski resorts are hoping to repeat last year's banner season in which they parlayed good early-winter snow and buzz created by Vail Resort's new mega-resort into a 10-year high for visitors. Several of the state's 14 ski resorts are hoping to open in November to kick off season, though a lack of early season snow could make that difficult. Here's a look at what's new this year, including several of the new options for backcountry-like experiences.
Powder Mountain: New lifts, new terrain
Powder Mountain Resort's new lifts give skiers and snowboarders access to 10 new groomed runs on about 1,000 new acres. It also allows skiers to explore some 5,000 new acres of rugged terrain in a bowl that before was only accessible by all-day guided snow cat operations. Skiers can get to the runs off the lifts, but must pay an additional $25 (or $20 for season pass-holders) to take a snow cat ride out of the bowl each time they ski down. Regular lift tickets cost $79 for adults.
The terrain is ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers who want to practice powder and tree skiing, said JP Goulet, Powder Mountain spokesman. The lifts and 6 miles of new roads connect the existing resort to the site where Powder Mountain's owners - a group of young, wealthy entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders and artists who purchased the resort in 2013 - are planning to build a New Age mountain town. Built around a vehicle-free main street, they tout the community as a rethink of the American mountain town with homes, pop-up stores, micro apartments, farm-totable restaurants and yoga boot camps. Work has begun, but the project is expected to take several years.
Powder Mountain, about 50 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, is also limiting day tickets to 2,000 per day so they can offer skiers and snowboarders uncrowded slopes. Deer Valley is the only other ski resort that has a set limit for daily skiers, though other resorts turn people away when parking lots get full, said Paul Marshall, spokesman for Ski Utah.
Luxury cat skiing
For skiers with plenty of money who are looking to get totally off the grid, Whisper Ridge Cat Skiing offers 60,000 acres of private terrain to carve through in the day and the option to spend nights at luxury yurts. The operation, located about 85 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, uses modified snow cats to carry skiers up and down the hills.
Day rates are $450 per person in the early and late season and $495 during the heart of winter. Yurt lodging rates range from $725-$1,000 a night depending on the type of yurt and dates. It is not the first cat skiing operation in Utah. Park City Powder Cats has been around for years. It offers rates of $549-$569 per day, depending on the dates. Alta, Powder Mountain and Snowbird also are offering cat skiing packages.
One day, six resorts
Ski Utah's long running "Interconnect Tour" has a developed a loyal group of customers who come back, but officials are hoping to entice skiers who may be among those tempted to ski more in backcountry terrain, Marshall said. The guided tour, which costs $395 per person, takes skiers down backcountry routes near six different Utah resorts, starting at Deer Valley near Park City and finishing at Snowbird in the Little Cottonwood Canyon. The tour usually takes participants about 25 miles and down about 16,000 vertical feet.
Guides carry rescue beacons and take other safety measures needed in the backcountry. Skiers must be 16 or older and must be advanced skiers. No snowboarders are allowed. "It offers a taste of what the backcountry is about with the assistance of guides who know the terrain and area so well," Marshall said. "It's a great way to kind of put your toes in the water."
File photo shows heavy snow blanketing skiers as they ride the gondola from the parking lot to the base of the mountain at Canyons Village ski area in Park City, Utah.
File photo shows skiers pay the price for late season turns at Alta, Utah, as they hike up the mountain.