17 things you didn’t know about Snowbird

With the Wasatch Range’s only aerial tram and boasting what it rightfully calls “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” Snowbird, Utah, is a skier and rider’s mountain, pure and simple. What it lacks in party vibe it more than makes up for in terrain, with countless pros either calling it home or visiting often enough for local barkeeps to know their name. But this Little Cottonwood Canyon gem also has enough family-friendly terrain for beginners to feel just as at home as the ski-film stars hucking cliffs above them. Read on for a few things you might not realize about this über-resort.

Snowbird
What’s not to like about the Wasatch? Photo courtesy of Snowbird

Lift beta: Snowbird’s 2,500 skiable acres are accessed via one aerial tram and 10 chairlifts (including six high-speed detachable quads and two conveyer lifts) for an uphill capacity of 17,400 skiers and snowboarders per hour. The 125-person tram covers 2,900 vertical feet in approximately seven minutes.

Snowbird powder
Sampling Snowbird’s lake-effect powder. Photo courtesy Snowbird.

The lake effect: Snowbird averages 500 inches of low-density (aka “dry”) Utah powder every year, thanks to its ideal geography and a phenomenon called the lake effect, whereby northwest winds pass over the Great Salt Lake and pick up additional moisture before funneling up Little Cottonwood Canyon and unleashing their bounty. The result: Utah’s longest ski season, lasting from mid-November through May (it’s been open as late as July 4). So far this year it’s hovering at about average, with a mid-mountain base of 64 inches and 187 inches of total snowfall to date—a lot more than resorts farther west have been blessed with this winter.

Founding badass: Former resort founder and owner Dick Bass, a Texas oilman and rancher, was the first person to climb the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain on each continent. He completed the achievement on April 30, 1985, with his summit of Mt. Everest, 14 years after Snowbird opened. “My underlying dream is the creation of a year-round resort, which respects and complements the beauty and inspiration of this natural setting—a place dedicated to increasing human understanding through the enhancement of body, mind, and spirit,” he wrote of the resort’s founding.

The ski tunnel: Snowbird has North America’s only ski tunnel. The Peruvian Tunnel, which opened in 2005, is a 600-foot-long George Jetson–like conveyor belt allowing easy access to Mineral Basin, the resort’s newest expansion, which added 500 acres of skiable terrain suitable for almost all ability levels. It’s mostly intermediate and advanced, but several green runs, like Lupine Loop, offer the easiest ways down to the Mineral Basin Express lift.

Joining forces: In December 2001, just before the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the resort installed Baldy Express, the second high-speed chairlift in Mineral Basin, providing a lift connection to Alta via Sugarloaf Pass and allowing the two resorts to offer one lift ticket to ski 4,700 combined acres of terrain.

Accessibility: Snowbird is 29 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport, which boasts more than 600 daily nonstop flights from most major U.S. cities, and just 25 miles from downtown Salt Lake City. Snowbird is a scenic 45-minute drive from the airport, making same-day skiing and flying a reality.

Silver lining: In 1869, a U.S. Army soldier prospected for silver in Little Cottonwood Canyon and founded the Emma Mine (namesake for the resort’s Big Emma run), which would become one of the largest producers of silver ore in the Wasatch. (The resort itself is named after the Snowbird mining claim.) At its peak, 8,000 people lived and worked in the canyon, which boasted two smelters, 138 homes, hotels, boarding houses, and a railroad. The entire original town was later destroyed by a series of avalanches.

Snowbird Tram
Ascending to heaven: the Snowbird tram. Photo courtesy of Snowbird

The tram as crane: When installing the high-speed Mineral Basin Express chairlift in 1999, which opened a coveted powder bowl on the resort’s back side, the resort used four snowcats to haul the 16,000-pound pieces over Sugarloaf Pass. Engineers also designed a special lifting frame and system to utilize the Aerial Tramway as a giant moving crane to haul parts up the mountain under the red tram car up to Hidden Peak.

Rug rats: Opened in 1986, the flagship Cliff Lodge houses the world’s largest privately held collection of oriental rugs. Stay there and you can also gain access to the award-winning, much-ballyhooed spa and outdoor pools and Jacuzzis on its top floor. Prices range from $200 to $395 per night, with special promotional packages offered year-round.

Seven Summits package: If you have the dough, the Seven Summits Package, named for resort founder Dick Bass’ mountaineering exploits, is the way to go. It lets you have early tram rides (beginning at 7:45 a.m.—invaluable on a powder day), plus line-cutting privileges at all lifts and the aerial tram, a locker and more. The resort’s Base Camp club offers line-cutting privileges at the Peruvian and Gadzoom lifts.

snowbird interlodge
Interlodge, anyone? Photo courtesy of Snowbird

Getting interlodged: If you ski Snowbird, stay up-valley at the resort’s base rather than in town. That’s where you’ll want to be if you get “interlodged” during a snowstorm and they close Highway 210, which leads to the resort, for avalanche control. While such road closures are a routine part of operations, an interlodge situation shuts down the entire resort, restricting guests to their buildings while avalanche control work is conducted. While it usually lasts only a few hours, it’s the aftermath that’s the Holy Grail, giving guests unprecedented skiing once lifts resume operation. Bottom line: You get the resort’s 2,500 acres of fresh all to yourself.

Cat skiing, anyone? Snowbird’s cat-skiing operation is now three years old, offering guided snowcat skiing in upper American Fork Canyon, including Sinner’s Pass, Pagan Basin, and Borussia in Mineral Basin, Miller Hill, and Mary Ellen Gulch. Much of the terrain is located on the resort’s private property south and east of Snowbird. Half-day, custom, and private tours are available for groups up to 10.

Après action: If it’s sunny, kick it at the Tram Plaza outside at the resort’s base for an après libation while watching the day’s last skiers make their way down the mountain. Also, look for specials and live music every night, including Whiskey Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays, and a DJ at The Forklift.

How to ski it: On a big powder day, hang out outside the patrol shack to glean any information you can about how and when they plan to blast the mountain for avalanche control. This lets you know which areas they plan to open first. Hint #1: If you see locals lining up at a certain lift, follow them. Hint #2: When it’s stormy and the light goes bad, ski the Gad II lift, where the shots are shorter but steeper and offer good visibility.

Be a tram guru: Wear your backpack when loading onto the tram, then drop it to your feet once the door shuts. “It gives you more room, but you can’t stumble around as easily,” says pro skier Cody Barnhill.

Backcountry access: The resort has two official backcountry gates leading to uncontrolled off-piste terrain, one off Gad II and one near Hidden Peak. Visit the Snowbird Ski Patrol Office first for daily updates on backcountry access and snow conditions. People going into the backcountry are required to have a partner, beacon, shovel, and probe. Pay attention, be patient and prepared, and always use the buddy system.

Snowbird ski terrain
Some of Snowbird’s stellar terrain; photo courtesy of Snowbird

Testament to its terrain: Want proof of Snowbird’s extreme bona fides? The resort has been hosting International Freeskiing Association (IFSA) events for the past four years, drawing the best freeskiers in the world to its cliff-riddled slopes. Last year it hosted the North American IFSA Championships, with competitors’ runs visible to onlookers from the tram plaza at the resort’s base.

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