Heavy May Snows Blanket Utah's Mountain Regions
George Frey  /  Getty Images file
Tom Nagel of San Antonio, Texas enjoys the ski conditions in Alta, Utah.
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updated 12/29/2005 3:39:41 PM ET 2005-12-29T20:39:41

For skiers, Salt Lake City's numbers are incredible: 500 inches of snow a year at several resorts, 4,700 acres of skiing at the linked ski areas of Alta and Snowbird, 10 top resorts within an hour of the airport, and most impressive - a three-day ski vacation for two for $1,000.

Utah's skiing is built on what it calls "The Greatest Snow on Earth." The sheer quantity is astounding, with several of the snow-rich areas getting more than 40 feet a year. Toward the lower range of average snowfall in the Salt Lake City area, Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley and The Canyons still get 300 to 350 inches each year.

It's not just the quantity. The snow is also top-shelf quality. It's dry, fluffy and light: just perfect for powder pigs, though it was a big adjustment for this East Coast skier used to the crud. I kept catching edges and biting down hard on the mountain. Fortunately, the deep powder makes for a soft landing.

Any fan of the Winter Olympics has heard of Park City, but I skied - and fell in love with - the less glamorous resorts in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons just east of the city. Little Cottonwood Canyon hosts Alta and Snowbird. Slightly to the north, Big Cottonwood Canyon has Brighton and Solitude.

Slideshow: Italian dreams These resorts are amazingly convenient to the city. In fact, I have woken up in Washington, D.C., flown to Salt Lake, checked into my hotel and still skied four hours on Brighton in the same day.

The two canyons are ideal for vacations where the main concerns are skiing and price. I booked a room at the Best Western Executive Inn in Midvale on Travelocity for $50 a night (breakfast included). The $47 Salt Lake Super Pass includes a day pass for city transit and an all-day lift ticket at any of the four resorts. Express ski buses pick up a block from the hotel and take from about a half-hour to just under an hour, depending on which resort you are skiing.

My favorite is Snowbird, with the linked neighbor of Alta a close second. Both get tremendous amounts of snow and have a wide variety of trails ranging from mellow to fiendish.

What I liked most about the Bird is the wide open Mineral Basin on the backside of the mountain. It's reached via the Little Cloud Lift or the Aerial Tram that goes from base all the way to the top. Once you clear the ridge, there's an immense bowl below, with descents ranging from looping milk runs to hair-raising sheer dropoffs. On a fresh powder day, which is pretty common out there, virgin patches of snow will linger all day.

The Bird offers tree runs, chutes, moguls, and challenging terrain to keep any expert busy. But I wouldn't recommend it for beginners or tentative intermediates. My fiancee's face went pale when she saw the mountain; I skied solo that day.

Next door, Alta is a time-capsule of what skiing used to be like. There is a new high-speed chair to the summit, but many of the lifts are slow, which keeps the slopes mostly uncrowded. There's no real resort village and restaurants and stores are mostly scattered. And no snowboarding is allowed. But the skiing is glorious. Riding the lifts up, you can see tracks from where daredevils somehow navigated down impossibly steep runs peppered with cliffs and boulders. Since I'm able to write this, it's clear I didn't try those runs!

Alta has something of a cult status among those who live to ski.

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But it also offers plenty for the rest of us. It's a great place to learn to ski powder. And, the Alf Engen Ski School is there to teach you. I took a two-hour private lesson ($150), which helped eradicate some of my bad habits. Though it hadn't snowed for a few days when I visited, my instructor took me to some secret stashes of untracked powder. Aside from the ski instruction, a lesson offers a quick tour of the best areas on a mountain.

For beginners to experts, Big Cottonwood Canyons Solitude and Brighton are the best spots for diversity. My fiancee prefers beaches, but has reluctantly accepted that winter sports are part of the relationship package. She's still tentative, and prefers wide-open groomed runs that aren't steep enough to build a lot of speed. Solitude has lots of greens and blues that fit the bill.

Brighton is very family friendly. Children 10 and under ski or board free with a paying adult. (Some other resorts offer similar kiddie freebies, though the ages vary). There's a pretty nifty terrain park under one of the lifts. And we were pleased that a green run extends from one of the top peaks down, meaning we could take Snake Creek Express lift up to the top together and I could split off and challenge fate a bit and then merge back in and meet my companion down the mountain on the bunny run.

The mountains are absolutely huge, with stunning views of craggy peaks, snow-covered pines and pure white powder stretching for miles.

One of the drawbacks to the Utah ski trip on the cheap was the lack of an apres-ski scene around our hotel. The Best Western is right on a busy road, with little personality. But there are several good places to eat and catch a post-ski libation within easy walking distance.

If the legs are rubber from a day of shredding the mountain, Cafe Silvestre is a short limp across the hotel parking lot. It's reasonably priced and serves decent Mexican food.

A slightly farther walk on the main road, Midvale Mining Company Restaurant serves tasty diner-type food at a good price. The bacon cheeseburger will fill the nagging void left by a day of intense skiing. The hotel often has coupons.

If you'd like a freshly brewed beer and great pub food, the Bohemian Brewery & Grill is about a 10-minute walk away on the main street.

While the apres-ski choices on a budget tour aren't overwhelming, the combination of fantastic snow, varied terrain, convenience and affordability makes Salt Lake City my No. 1 ski destination.

If you go:

UTAH SKI RESORTS: (800) 754-8824.

ALTA: (888) 782-9258.

BRIGHTON: (800) 873-5512.

DEER VALLEY: (800) 424-3337.

SNOWBIRD: (800) 232-9542.

SOLITUDE: (801) 536-5777.

ACCOMMODATIONS: The Best Western Executive Inn, at 280 W. 7200 South, in Midvale, Utah, is a great launch pad for a Salt Lake City ski vacation. Book online at Travelocity.com or Expedia.com to get a $50 nightly rate. To reach Best Western directly, go to http://www.bestwestern.com or (800) 780-7234. From the Salt Lake City airport to the hotel, take the XPress Shuttle, http://www.expressshuttleutah.com/ or (800) 397-0773, $18 one way.

TRAX: The Trax light-rail connects many of the hotels in Salt Lake Valley to downtown, and the Ski Bus provides service to Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, Solitude and Sundance resorts; http://www.rideuta.com/schedulesAndMaps/routeSchedules/.

SKIING MESSAGE BOARD: Don't be fooled by its Washington roots - the http://www.dcski.com message board is a fabulous resource for skiers. It draws skiers who know resorts all over the country and world. Look for advice from regulars on the message board and browse through the archives for tips on various resorts.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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