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Originally published January 1998. Italicized updates/revisions May 2006.
Snowbird is one of the leading expert ski areas in North America. It is exceeded in quantity, quality and reliability of snowfall only by its neighbor Alta and Grand Targhee in Wyoming. These attributes in combination have earned the area a devoted following from many hard core skiers.
|SNOW CONDITIONS||Altitude||Season||Standard||High Mths||Low Mths||Maximum||Direction of Exposure|
|Range||Average||Deviation||GE 90 in.||LT 30 in.||Base Depth||North||East||West||South|
|Snowbird, Utah 10,000||7,900-11,000||475||85||44%||3%||109||50%||16%||21%||13%|
The variability of snowfall is less in Utah than in Colorado or in the Pacific States. Snowbird has had only 3 months between December and March with less than 30 inches snowfall in the last 23 years. Although Alta is only a mile away, there can sometimes be noteworthy differences in conditions. In the early season Alta will generally have better coverage due to higher base elevation and low skier density enforced by limited lift capacity. Snowbird has numerous extreme runs which require 6 to 8 feet of coverage to be skiable. There are also some busy runs near the base such as the Dick Bass Highway which will get rocky with too much traffic before the snowpack builds up. Therefore it pays to analyze the reported base depths to gauge how well covered Snowbird will be. A 70 inch base means the lower mountain is well covered and only a handful of the more extreme runs won't be open. With less than a 50 inch base, conditions can still be good on Little Cloud and the Peruvian Gulch, but one should expect rocks on the lower mountain or in narrow or wind exposed areas.
In the spring Snowbird can have the advantage over Alta with higher peak elevation and north facing runs in the Peruvian Cirque and Little Cloud areas. These areas will retain winter snow conditions well into April. The lower mountain and the east and west facing areas will have spring conditions after a few sunny days by early March, as Utah tends to be warmer than Colorado or the Northern Rockies. Of course, with average snowfall of 93 inches in March and 70 in April fresh powder conditions are possible at any time.
The new Mineral Basin area, added in 2000, is an object lesson in the effect of exposure upon snow conditions. It is nearly the mirror image of Little Cloud, with very similar topography and elevation, but facing southeast instead of northwest. Mostly treeless and served by 2 high-speed lifts, it is a delight on powder mornings. But after melt/freeze cycles the off-piste snow can be very difficult, so knowledgeable Mineral Basin skiers then make the long traverse and short hike out to the Bookends, which wrap around to a northeast exposure.
Cruising: Chip's is a great high speed cruise for 2,900 vertical. If it's not a busy day, you can reload the same tram you exited 10 minutes ago. The other best groomed cruising runs are more like 1,200 vertical off the Gad II lift and Mark Malu Fork from Little Cloud chair.
Moguls: Snowbird's mogul runs are numerous, tend to be in 500-1000 foot increments and are generally steeper than at most other ski areas. The main concentration of mogul runs is by the Peruvian chair. In warm weather they will be icy in the morning but very enjoyable after lunch.
Steeps: A premier mountain, probably exceeded in North America only by Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley. However, Snowbird's snow conditions are far superior, so the extreme terrain is open on a much more consistent basis than at Jackson or Squaw. The numerous chutes visible from the tram nearly all face north and will stay open once they get covered. The Last Choice area off Little Cloud also has superb snow preservation. Less reliable are the long runs from the Gad Chutes to Wilbere Bowl, which drop west to southwest off the Cirque Traverse and will turn to cement or slough off in warm weather, as well as the shorter south facing chutes in Mineral Basin..
Wide Open Spaces: The top third of Gad Valley (Little Cloud) and the top two thirds of the Peruvian side of the tram are virtually treeless. Little Cloud is one massive bowl which gradually curves from north facing at Mark Malu Fork to west facing at Regulator Johnson. Mineral Basin is a mirror image bowl on the opposite site of Hidden Peak which gradually curves from south facing near Baldy Express chair to northeast facing at Powder Paradise. The upper Peruvian side faces mostly north and has had low skier density as it was easily accessible only from the tram, pending the opening of the new Peruvian Express lift for 2006-07. All of these areas are subject to avalanche control in storms. Wind closures are less frequent than at Jackson or the West Coast areas with comparable above timberline terrain (Mammoth, Squaw, Bachelor, Whistler).
Trees: The only continuously forested area lies between the cut runs of the Gad II chair. There are some steep trees below Tigertail.
Powder: For the combination of terrain and snow it's unsurpassed. As this fact is not a secret, don't expect to see fresh snow remain untracked more than a couple of hours. If you don't think you can compete with the elite local powderhounds, here are a few suggestions for powder days. 1.) Mountain Experience, a fast-paced guided tour for experts, including cutting lift lines. 2.) Super Clinic, same as above for advanced skiers, also includes powder instruction. 3.) Go to another high snowfall Utah area where there will be less exciting terrain but much less competition. Brighton and Solitude in nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon are obvious alternatives. If you're willing to drive farther to really avoid crowds, try Snow Basin or Powder Mountain, which are smaller but will have some untracked snow all day long.
Historically powder lasted longer at Alta due to its slow lifts, but lift upgrades at Alta combined with Snowbird's expanded terrain result in fresh snow now being tracked out at a similar pace at both areas. Both areas reward local knowledge with off-the-beaten path stashes once the open bowls are tracked out.
Backcountry: The area requires registration with ski patrol before exiting boundaries. Given the obvious avalanche potential, these regulations should be taken very seriously.
Crowds: By Colorado or California standards, lift capacity is low. Therefore one can expect 10+ minute lines at popular chairs (Gad II and Little Cloud) and 30-40 minutes at the tram, the latter likely to decrease when Peruvian Express opens. However, the lift rides are shorter than at most areas because they cover more vertical in less distance (and at high speed in the case of the tram, Gadzoom and Mineral Basin). As a result an advanced skier can usually ski about 25,000 vertical feet, which is plenty given the challenging terrain. In addition to locals, the weekends bring in rich powderhounds due to the great convenience of Salt Lake airport. Obviously the lift lines will be worse on holidays or blue sky powder days, when the areas mentioned in the Powder section would be better choices. Alta's lift capacity is still lower than Snowbird's and one can typically expect to ski about 3/4 the vertical on a given day at Alta compared to the same day at Snowbird.
Skier density is not an issue anywhere at Snowbird except on a couple of catwalks which direct skiers to the base facilities. Density has been particularly low on the Peruvian side of the tram, but will be more similar to the Gad Valley with the new Peruvian Express lift.
Intermediates: There is not really an ability gap at Snowbird. There is just an increasing choice of terrain as challenge increases. Intermediates who enjoy runs we have defined as red will have plenty of variety. For those who have trouble beyond blue runs, Snowbird is somewhat limited.
Novices: Snowbird is marginal for beginners. Chickadee is the true novice area and it's tiny (150 vertical), south facing and subject to pedestrian traffic. Big Emma, West Second South and the Baby Thunder area have nice groomed runs which would be rated blue on many other mountains. Most novices would be much happier on the 800 vertical Albion / Sunnyside area a mile up the road at Alta.
Children: Snowbird has relatively compact base area, on site day care, and easy access to the condos if you're staying there. It's an excellent area for experienced skiing families where everyone can handle at least red rated terrain.
There are several options for Snowbird lift tickets. With the Mineral Basin lift providing access to Hidden Peak, the cheaper chairs only (no tram) ticket can be a viable option, particularly on busy weekends. Better yet are the discount tickets offered at Salt Lake Valley ski shops and Smith's markets. These are priced about the same per day as a 3-day ticket purchased at Snowbird. The final option since 2003 is the combined Alta/Snowbird ticket, which is expensive for a single day, but a 3-day Alta/Snowbird ticket is about the same per day as a single day Snowbird only.
Utah skiers are faced with three major choices of where to stay.
1.) The hard core will want to stay at Snowbird (or Alta) for the convenience and to avoid road delays on powder days. However, it's expensive except for a few $75 a day dormitory rooms.
2.) Stay in Salt Lake, a relative bargain with 30-40 minute commutes each day for skiing.
3.) Stay in Park City, which offers great restaurants and apres ski activities but doubles the commute time to the Cottonwood canyons.