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Skiing Snowbasin: A mountain resort that’s hard to forget

Here I am again, making some resolutions about the year 2010. No, really, I will try to honor some of these ideas, unlike the ones from last year ... or the year before ... or whatever.

I love skiing in familiar places, and I also love trying someplace new. It’s like being with old friends or meeting someone new — each offers its own type of experience. So I want to tell you about someplace you may not have been, but if you have, a smile will be coming to your face right about now: Snowbasin, Utah. Visiting Snowbasin was one of my resolutions from last year that I did keep, and it remains a great choice.

You’ve heard of Snowbasin, right? It’s next door to Alta, isn’t it? Or is that Snowbird? Maybe you aren’t quite sure. Though both are in Utah, they are decidedly different, and Snowbasin is simply special.

Located outside of Ogden, instead of Salt Lake City, this was the site of the 2002 Winter Olympic downhill and Super G speed events. It takes a big mountain to hold a certified downhill course, so you know Snowbasin has some significant vertical: about 3,000 feet. But here’s what you might not know.

The lift system is fabulous. It is one of the select few places where the snow rider has multiple high-speed lift options from the mountain base to the top; three of the four lifts with the greatest vertical rise are here. There just isn’t a lot of lift waiting time, as the uphill lift capacity far exceeds the number of skiers who frequent the resort. In total, there are two gondolas, two high-speed quads, four triple chairs and one tram, and all offer a comfortable ride.

The tram is a very unusual lift. It only goes up about 500 feet, but it feels like an elevator because that 500 feet is straight up Mount Allen to the top of the Grizzly downhill course. This men’s course is considered one of the most technically demanding downhill courses anywhere in the world, and you can ski it. I went with a tour guide the first time, and he stopped many times to talk about the mountain, its history and the Olympic races held here.

After lunch I decided to go back alone and see if I could ski the course non-stop from top to bottom. I was successful, but I should be embarrassed to say it took me 21 minutes. The winning Olympic time was roughly 1 minute 39 seconds, and though my top speed was probably 25 mph, the men routinely hit 85. As I like to say, the cool thing about snow sliding is that everyone can enjoy it at his own speed, or in my case, slow motion.

There are two other significant aspects that distinguish Snowbasin from its Utah brethren. The resort is owned by Sun Valley, and although the terrain is different, there are some definite similarities. Snowbasin has almost 600 snow-making guns, which makes it one of the two largest operations in North America, the other being Sun Valley itself.

Second, you will just not believe how opulent the mountain lodges are. It’s like someone took everything that is good about the Sun Valley lodges, and then made them better. Earl’s Lodge, at the base, is fabulous in every way, the Needles Lodge on the mountain is gorgeous, but the John Paul Lodge is as good as it gets, featuring a spectacular setting at 8,900 feet in elevation, complete with a four-sided fireplace that warms the spirit as much as the feet.

Beyond the alpine and snowboard terrain (three terrain parks, each progressively more advanced), there are 19 kilometers of groomed beginner and intermediate Nordic trails, and snowshoeing is also available.

The only thing missing at Snowbasin is on-mountain lodging, and although they have been talking for years about building a hotel at the resort, it hasn’t happened yet. So the best option is to find lodging nearby in the Ogden Valley. I stayed at the Lakeside condos, which are about a 15-minute shuttle ride to the lifts, and I would happily stay there again. Package deals are available that can significantly reduce the daily lift rate of $65.

There really don’t seem to be a lot of dining options available nearby, though there are some. Having a car available would be a good idea unless you want to cook dinner at your condo every night.

One truly remarkable establishment is the Shooting Star Saloon, Utah’s longest-operating tavern. It is as much a museum as a busy watering hole. The entire ceiling is covered with dollar bills, accumulated back to the days of Prohibition. Located in nearby Huntsville, this is a must-see side trip while skiing and riding in beautiful Ogden Valley. Save room for the Star Burger, which USA Today has named one of the five best burgers in America.

One last item: there are a couple of other ski resorts in the Ogden Valley, and Powder Mountain is a very worthy diversion. It boasts more skiable terrain than any resort in the United States: 7,000 acres. This place gets tons of snow, and although it is nowhere as fancy as Snowbasin, the skiing is awesome, especially if you like powder. With the vast terrain and relatively few skiers, the freshies can last for weeks.

You’ll find returning to Snowbasin and Powder Mountain on my new list of resolutions.

John Naye is a Mercer Island resident and the current president of the Western Region of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association. He can be reached by e-mail at jnaye@trekworks.com.

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