After hitting the slopes in Utah, head south to some of the most beautiful, and overlooked, canyons in the US.
One day we were flying down soft, fluffy snow on the steepest slopes I’ve ever seen, with names that gave a good idea of what to expect in advance: Super Fury, G Force, Massacre and Thrasher. The next we were hitting Interstate 15 heading to some of the most spectacular canyons in the United States, tucked away in the south of Utah and often (wrongly) overlooked in favour of the Grand Canyon.
Welcome to a holiday concept that works better in America than anywhere else: skiing and sightseeing on a winter road trip. Utah is the best place to do it, with a cluster of excellent ski resorts around Park City, in the Rockies just outside Salt Lake City, the dramatic scenery of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, and the convenience of being near Las Vegas. Skiing, driving, hiking and a bit of a flutter — not your average winter break.
Our arrival was memorable: a steep drive into the mountains through a heavy snowstorm from Salt Lake City International. Right away, my friend, Nicki, and I were discovering that Utah’s ski resort motto, “the greatest snow on Earth”, is no idle boast. Locals explained that because clouds come across the desert to reach the mountains, the type of snow that falls is drier and crisper than in other states. It was, we found, pleasingly crunchy and smooth. And there was, thanks to the storm, an awful lot of it.
The three main resorts around Park City include Park City Mountain (best for families with plenty of beginner and intermediate runs), Deer Valley (with huge, pristinely groomed slopes, and a no snowboard policy), and Canyons, with the fourth-biggest ski area in the States after Big Sky and Moonlight Basin in Montana, Heavenly in Nevada/California and Vail in Colorado. We were staying at Canyons — home of Super Fury and Thrasher.
The resort suits beginners too, but it was the sheer variety of slopes, so many of them black runs, that blew us away. From snaking bumpy rides through pine trees at the top of the highest peak (3,044 metres), where there was an aptly named run called Fright Gully, to gentle cruises down wide open slopes, and short steep plunges (I recommend, and will never forget, Devil’s Friend), there was more than we could possibly explore in a few days. That was despite a network of fast lifts and hardly any crowds.
We split the skiing between Canyons and Deer Valley, which has enormous runs that must be among the best-maintained anywhere. It’s full of millionaires: some of the private lodges lining the lower slopes are valued at more than $12 million (£7.4 million). It’s also dotted with unusual sculptures of elk and bears, with the occasional elaborate totem pole. The slopes are so wide and the snow so groomed it feels as though you’re skiing on air. Turns seem easier than usual. You can go faster than you normally dare, though not on the rougher mogul runs on Bald Mountain. Watch out for Grizzly and the delightfully named but bone-jarring Ruins of Pompeii.
After three days of skiing, we were ready to hit the road, though not before an evening out at the No Name Saloon in the heart of the old mining town of Park City. A cheap taxi from Canyons took us to beers, buffalo burgers, rock ‘n’ roll and a rough and tumble but hip crowd. All sorts of celebrities have passed through, including Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Paris Hilton and Robert Redford. The interior is eclectic, with vintage motorbikes hanging from the ceiling, old antlers and a mounted buffalo head. It’s part of a run of 19th-century and early 20th-century wood buildings in Park City, which is teeming with little galleries, coffee shops and bars (this may be a mainly Mormon state, but it’s no trouble getting a drink).
Interstate 15 took us all the way to Bryce Canyon, almost in a straight line. We stopped to see the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, marvelling at the grand facades of the buildings belonging to the Mormon Church, the perfectly kept gardens, and spotless sidewalks. Then we zoomed south, with the jagged peaks of the Rockies to the east, seeming to spread out forever, surrounded by snow-sprinkled plains. Some 250 miles and about four hours later we were turning off Interstate 15 and arriving in the little town of Panguitch, where a dusty Cowboy Collectibles shop on Main Street sold everything from second-hand cowboy boots and stuffed anteaters, to brass “brothel tokens” and even a few rusty-looking ancient guns. “You don’t need a licence for those,” drawled Becky, the owner.
With a pair of 1950s snake-tipped boots ($55) in the back of the hire car, we drove the short distance onwards to Ruby’s Inn, an isolated spot with a diner on one side serving “flat iron steaks” and pale ales to guys and gals in lumberjacket shirts.
It was great “road trip USA” stuff and was conveniently next to our hotel, from where we set out the next morning to visit one of the most beautiful spots in the whole of America. Bryce Canyon in the early morning light is breathtaking, with cliffs leading to a giant rim above a bowl of rust-red columns of rocks; formations known as hoodoos. They were dusted in snow, looking even prettier than in the summer, according to a local we met . Paths led down into gullies with hidden corners, the rocks towering above. The sky was a perfect blue. We climbed up and drove to Inspiration Point, from where many of the columns looked as though they had taken on faces — a bit like nature’s version of China’s famous Terracotta Warriors at Xian.
Zion National Park is about 80 miles to the south west, and we found it as stunning as Bryce but in a different way. We drove along a twisting road between vast pale-pink boulders, passing through tunnels and arriving at the pleasant town of Springdale, with its cutesy art galleries, bohemian cafes and bars. Zion Lodge was in a valley between mountainous red-rock peaks just outside town. Many of the other guests were mountaineers, clasping coils of ropes and pitons.
This is prime hiking territory, and the local tourist office provides maps. As we set off clutching ours, it felt so far removed from the ski slopes of Park City — as though we were on an entirely different holiday. We walked for miles along the meandering riverbed, winding between giant boulders and pines.
All that was left to see was Las Vegas, 170 miles to the south west — back on the Interstate 15. We’d travelled more than 600 miles and seen vast tracts of Utah, a state not many holidaymakers visit, ending up in a city in Nevada that’s one of the nation’s tourist traps. We lost a few bucks on a blackjack table at Caesar’s Palace and a few more on the “slots” at the Bellagio. Via the Super Fury and Thrasher, Mormon churches and the hoodoos of the canyons we’d arrived at the clatter of coins in Sin City. Not many ski trips end like that.
Need to know
Tom Chesshyre was a guest of Ski Safari (01273 224060, skisafari.com) and the Utah Office of Tourism (goutah.co.uk, skiutah.com). Ski Safari offers a seven-night B&B stay in Canyons at the four-star Grand Summit Hotel, one night at the Best Western Bryce Canyon and two nights at Zion Lodge from £1,699pp, flights into Salt Lake City and out of Las Vegas and car hire included.