A cat track here, a quad there...with a little imagination, Utah could bring European-style skiing straight into our backyard.
Travel to Austria's Arlberg, and you can ride more than 80 lifts linking six areas and schuss between downtown St. Anton and the far reaches of Oberlech. Head over to any of the dozen resorts on the Franco-Swiss border that make up the vast Portes du Soleil region, and the menu multiplies: You can take more than 200 lifts and meander along 400-some miles of marked pistes from one resort, even one country, to another.
In the States, the distances between most ski areas are usually so great that this kind of all-day multiresort touring is the exclusive domain of the OB crowd. But in Utah, you can do as the Euros do -- almost. Clustered together in the Wasatch Range are seven major ski areas in a six-mile radius. Little Cottonwood Canyon (Alta and Snowbird), Big Cottonwood Canyon (Brighton and Solitude), and Parley's Canyon (Park City, Deer Valley, and The Canyons) literally adjoin one another.
In size, snow, and scope of terrain, each resort can easily stand alone. But imagine them together: With a total lift link, the whole would be vastly greater than the sum of its parts. Recent lift additions already make it feasible to ski between several of them; new cooperative lift tickets make it practical. Utah still doesn't touch the ski circuses of the Alps, but it's getting close. And people have been talking about it -- and skiing it, with or without guides -- for years. All it takes is a quick bird's-eye geography lesson with a grain of creative license to see the potential for real European-style resort-to-resort skiing right here in the USA.
If you are looking south toward the Wasatch from Salt Lake City, Parley's Canyon is the farthest to the left -- that is, east. Focus in. You'll see Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and The Canyons in roughly an east-to-west arc. Just west of that trio is Big Cottonwood, and just west of that is Little Cottonwood.
A closer look reveals that from Deer Valley's Empire Express chair, you can ski a short distance down a blue-square trail called Supreme, literally feet from the boundary to PCMR's Jupiter Bowl. A rope keeps you where you belong, and signs warn you not to cross, but that doesn't stop many people.
Beam yourself across the expanse of Park City, and beyond the rope is White Pine Canyon. Keep going, and you'll reach The Canyons. A lift link between these two resorts would take three chairs, tops -- not impossible, but someone with vision and cash would need to step up and forge the link. Park City has made a good start: It already issues a Silver Pass, available only with lift/lodging packages at participating properties, which can be exchanged for day tickets at any of the three ski areas. Between the recent lift-building spree of The Canyons and the rumored master plan of Park City, it could happen.
The long ridge connecting the high points of The Canyons and PCMR also separates Parley's Canyon from Big Cottonwood. In fact, you can drop off the back of Park City's Jupiter lift and reach the canyon floor right across from Solitude's base area. Once at Solitude, the connection to Brighton is easy. For years, skiers have used the Sol-Bright Trail between them -- it leads into Brighton from the top of Solitude's Summit chair and the other way from Brighton's Evergreen chair down to Solitude -- and the areas now sell a joint Big Cottonwood Canyon lift ticket for $59.
From the top of Solitude, it's a long and challenging traverse to Alta, at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and neighboring Snowbird. Last year, Snowbird installed a high-speed chair in Mineral Basin, within sight of Alta. This year, a second high-speed quad makes the link a reality -- Mineral Basin II unloads at Sugarloaf Pass, the dividing line between the two resorts. Alta's detachable Sugarloaf chair ends in the same place, so you can ski strraight into Snowbird's back side. These resorts, Utah's two leading powder houses, now offer a $68 lift ticket (just $12 more than Snowbird's tram ticket) for the combined 4,700-acre kingdom.
The puzzle of peaks is falling into place, but stumbling blocks remain. Deer Valley is shying from an official connection since it doesn't allow snowboarding -- a tough policy to enforce at a high-mountain crossing. And it limits lift-ticket sales, too, to avoid the typical lunchtime crush. A posh new day lodge in Empire Canyon could disperse midday crowds, and eliminate one of the potential problems. Alta also prohibits snowboarding, so the dual Little Cottonwood ticket is obviously useful only for skiers.
In the meantime, you can always ski the various combinations. Unless you are experienced in and equipped for serious backcountry skiing, don't try the entire link yourself. (The Big to Little Cottonwood traverse is especially hairy.) Instead, plunk down $150 and join a Utah Interconnect trip guided by the folks at Ski Utah, and let them run the circus for you. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, groups with avalanche beacons ski from Park City's Jupiter Bowl to Solitude, Brighton, Alta, and Snowbird. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, the tour is from Alta to Brighton and then Solitude. The price includes lunch, lifts at all included resorts, and transportation back to the resort of origin.
For information about Utah ski areas and the Ski Utah Interconnect, call 801-534-1907 or check out skiutah.com.