When people think southern Utah, they imagine towering red rock spires and miles of rugged desert; they rarely picture snow. But those who have been to Brian Head to sample its 425 annual inches of super-light powder are onto a great ski secret.
Little more than an hour north of Las Vegas, I-15 sneaks into a cleft in a high plateau, slipping between the claustrophobia-inducing walls of the Virgin River Gorge. It climbs rapidly from the flats of southern Nevada and the extreme northwestern corner of Arizona to the high plains of southern Utah. Travelers exit the highway at the tiny hamlet of Parowan, where rusted signs swing in the high-desert breeze, and a stray dog crossing the road is one of the town's few signs of life after the sun sets.
The scant snow that falls in Parowan rarely sticks around for long. That's because in the desert southwest, elevation is the only difference between a broad, flat desert and deep, dry snowpack. Heading southeast out of town, the road climbs through no fewer than five climate zones. First to disappear are the Joshua trees below forbidding sandstone cliffs; then the terrain suddenly turns decidedly alpine. The road makes its final uphill assault via several steep switchbacks, rounds a turn, and a big sign-probably buried in snow, as it's some 7,500 feet higher than Las Vegas-welcomes you to Brian Head.
Skiing here will more than likely remind you of the places where your family vacationed during your childhood. The staff and the locals are warm, generous and inviting. There's acre upon acre of wide-open groomed corduroy, the staple of family skiing. Each of the side-by-side peaks-Navajo and Brian Head-has its own base area. Novices and young snowsliders enjoy the gentle slopes of Navajo Peak, right out the door of their hotel rooms, where there's no risk of encountering terrain beyond their ability-or the intimidation of experts speeding past. Adjacent Brian Head Peak is home to roller-coaster cruisers and moderate bump runs. Here, parents relax in the warm southern sun on the expansive deck at the Giant Steps day lodge as they watch their kids launch from the tabletops, rails and halfpipe of the resort's terrain park.
Brian Head, with 540 skiable acres and 1,707 vertical feet, packs surprising punch into a small package. Even though the longest lift-served run is just 1,161 vertical feet, the undulating topography yields slopes that seem magically long and are loaded with personality as they bob and weave down the fall line. The annual snowfall average of 425 inches impresses even the most cynical powder snob. And nearly all of Brian Head Peak is available for exploration, thanks to the mixed blessing of a spruce beetle infestation that has cleared many of the trees between the marked runs.
Runs such as Straight Up, Wild Ride and First Tracks are bumped up for experts, but the mountain lacks any intimidating steeps. "Ninety-five percent of the skiing and snowboarding public is a beginning or intermediate skier or snowboarder," says Craig McCarthy, the resort's marketing director. "This mountain is great for them. Ninety-five percent of the people will love this place, and, quite frankly, we're proud of it."
From midseason on, however, the steep scree fields of Brian Head Peak above the resort's lifts are accessible via a short hike or snowcat ride ($5 per trip) and easily make up for this lift-served black-diamond deficiency. Other popular backcountry routes descend the backside of Brian Head Peak to a convenient roadside pickup location.
What Brian Head lacks in sheer volume, it makes up in stunning scenery. The views from the slopes are nothing short of staggering. The red rock formations within nearby Dixie National Forest lend credibility to the region's nickname "Color Country." Far below, the paved lanes of I-15 stretch to the horizon across the high desert toward Salt Lake, 240 miles to the north. To the southeast, the ledges of the Grand Sttaircase-Escalante National Monument cascade across 1.7 million rugged and remote acres, where they culminate in the Grand Canyon. Leave Brian Head, and the region has changed little since the Anasazi, Fremonts, Southern Paiutes and Navajo were its only inhabitants.
Maybe that's why the resort has a laid-back attitude not often found anymore. "Brian Head is still stuck in the '70s," Bob Hillis explains. He ought to know. Hillis arrived in 1972 with his parents, who discovered the resort in the back of a ski magazine as a place to get away from it all. They bought a condo the following week and stayed.
Hillis, a carpenter, is your stereotypical ski bum, and his scraggly mane of long blonde hair is itself reminiscent of the 1970s. He pauses for a moment, then notes that every Brian Head local knows every other. For good reason. Aside from the few full-timers who live within Brian Head's boundaries and college kids who attend Southern Utah University in Cedar City, some 29 road miles away, the regional population is sparse. A mere 34,448 people call Utah's Iron County home, and only 4,000 of them bought season passes last year. As such, Brian Head depends on destination guests, who constitute 70 percent of the resort's 150,000 annual visits, to survive. The result, as Hillis points out, is that locals appreciate visitors.
On my last night at Brian Head, Hillis makes good on that assertion. He and a few of his friends take me to the Double Black Diamond Steakhouse for dinner, where we enjoy perfectly prepared steaks. The lively conversation flows as readily as the merlot.
As I drive away from the resort, I make a short detour a mile or so to the south, park my car in a remote turnout and walk a few hundred yards through the snow to the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument. Mother Nature has brushed the stratified cliffs in crimson, beige and purple. They ripple away for miles into the distance and plunge thousands of feet below my perch, all dusted in winter white. The broad, flat expanse of the Escalante Desert stretches to the horizon. The air is perfectly still, its silence punctuated only by the crowing of a raven circling somewhere below. It's not the Grand Canyon, but perhaps it's even better. For in winter, Cedar Breaks feels like my own private Grand Canyon, my own secret haven. Just like Brian Head.