Go West: a ski tour

Wide open spaces, empty highways, pistes with room for everyone... Minty Clinch goes skiing in Utah and California


1. Adventure, Snowbird Valley and Deer Valley

The celebrated Utah Interconnect is a day-skiers-only tour that starts in either Snowbird or Deer Valley and takes in up to four of the resorts in between (Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Park City). The tour starts from Snowbird on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from Deer Valley on the other days. Not suitable for boarders, as there is some traversing and walking. The price is $195 (£100) per person, including guides, lunch, lift tickets and return transport.

CONTACT: Ski Utah Interconnect (001 801 534 1907; skiinfo@skiutah.com).

2. Snow cat skiing, Grizzy Gulch Alta

Groups of up to 11 meet in the Albion base area in Alta for orientation over a continental breakfast before climbing into a heated cab for the ride up Little Cottonwood Canyon. The snow bowls in Grizzly Gulch cover 375 acres between 9,000ft and 10,500ft, a tree-dotted paradise for skiers or boarders. Price $275 (£140) per person for five descents.

CONTACT: Grizzly Gulch Snow Cat Adventures (001 801 359 1078; alta.com).

3. Ice climbing, Snowbird and Alta

Even if you've never climbed a frozen waterfall, you can scale the ice in Little Cottonwood Canyon. You claw your way up, getting a grip with ice axes and boot crampons. The reward is an exhilarating abseil back to base. The season usually lasts from December to February. Anintroductory ice course costs $120 (£60) per person.

CONTACT: Exum Utah Mountain Adventures (001 801 550 2800; exum.ofutah.com).

4. Yurt dining, the Canyons

Choose between the Viking Yurt, which seats 32, allows individual bookings and includes a five-course dinner, and the Yonder Yurt, which offers a three-course dinner for private groups. Both start with a forest sleigh ride and can include a moonlit tour on skis or snowshoes. Viking Yurt costs $118-$177 (£60-£90) per person, including tax and tip; Yonder Yurt, $877 (£445), for groups of up to 12.

CONTACT: Park City Yurts (001 435 615 9878; parkcityyurts.com).

5. Drive a bobsleigh, Park City

The Utah Olympic Park was built to stage the ski-jumping, bobsleigh and luge events for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. It is now an adrenalin amusement park with entry-level ski-jumping classes, zip lines and Alpine slides. You can also ride the Olympic bob run as a passenger, but best of all is learning to drive yourself. A one-day course is $500 (£260) per person, with dates available in March. There is a Fantasy Camp five-day course from 27 Feb- 3 March, price $1,800 (£900).

CONTACT: Stephan Bosch Bobsled Driving School (001 435 658 4208; utahskiing.org; olmparks.com).

6. Day tripper, Sundance resort

Robert Redford first bought into his Rocky Mountain dream on the back of his success in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' in 1969. His understated hideaway byMount Timpanogos is an eco-friendly escape from the glitz of nearby Park City. Three chairlifts access 450 acres of trails and snowfields: the midweek lift pass (Monday-Friday) is $35 (£18). You may have to share the slopes with the owner, not exactly a hardship.

CONTACT: Sundance Resort (001 801 225 4107; sundanceresort.com).

7. Freedom of the slopes, Lake Tahoe

Buy an interchangeable pass for Lake Tahoe's six best resorts - Heavenly, Squaw, Kirkwood, Alpine Meadows, Northstar and Sierra, before you go. Six days out of eight, £172; eight out of 10, £230; 10 out of 13, £287. Once there, you can only buy a passin Heavenly.

CONTACT: World Ski (0870 428 8739; worldski.co.uk).

8. Dog sledding, Squaw Valley

An hour-long swing through the snowscape behind up to 10 Alaskan huskies driven by a racing guide at speeds of up to 13.5mph on the 2.5 mile track. It's $95 (£48) for adults and children over 60lb, $45 (£23) for children under 60lb.

CONTACT: Wilderness Adventures (001 530 550 8133; squaw.com).

Big sky, big snow, big wagons. That's how the Rockies were when the West was won and that's how they are today. No doubt 19th-century pioneers driving horse-drawn carts cursed the champagne powder fields that barred their progress. More than a century later, snow riders can't get enough of them. Utah claims "the greatest snow on earth" for its resorts near Salt Lake City, while California, never knowingly oversold, makes extravagant assertions of its own: seven metres for Squaw Valley, one of 16 resorts around Lake Tahoe, in 2006.

Modern pioneers have never had it so good. America's roads are wide and empty while the SUV, unlike the covered wagon, is heated and "winterised", an easy roller on ice or snow and a legitimate beast of burden. Americans routinely drive their SUVs for a couple of thousand miles to the Rockies, stopping only for gas and guzzling. For European visitors, US immigration is the one downside: once you're in, life on the open highway is a blast.

Salt Lake City airport is the most convenient starting point for a road trip through Utah and California. In 1847, after a memorable 1,100-mile trek from Illinois, Brigham Young established the Mormon church on the edge of the saline lake that gave the city its name. The high-altitude semi-desert valley in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains would have been bleak in those days, perhaps making it the perfect backdrop for Brigham's self-denying faith.

His followers colonised the mountains, establishing a silver mine in what is now Park City. The US government, hostile to Mormon ideology with its emphasis on teetotalism, was quick to spread the good news, deliberately creating a silver rush that triggered entertainment for miners in the form of bars and brothels. I haven't checked the brothels recently, but I can confirm that the bars still line historic Main Street, making Park City by far the liveliest option.

It, too, is a good starting point, not least because the stress-free 35-mile highway from the airport finds a mirror image in the lazy daisy Homerun cruiser that bisects the skiing area. Anyone capable of clipping into their bindings can negotiate the winding green run from the Summit House mid-mountain restaurant to the live music bar in the Legacy base station without breaking sweat. Nowhere else is quite so flat, but the lower two-thirds of the mountain is networked with easy blues. For powder riders, the upper third is the hook, a long "drop off where you dare" ridge with steep bowls. When it snows, hang about until it opens: first tracks satisfaction guaranteed.

Park City is more town than village, the focus of three resorts that share boundaries but not lift systems, though foreigners can now buy a six-day triple pass through their tour operator before they leave home. Deer Valley is so aspirational that it hires handsome lads to seize skis and carry them to the slopes the moment patrons get out of their cars. They don't even expect a tip. Boards are forbidden because the elderly über-rich, the target market for this grandiose real-estate operation, doesn't like hearing the scrape of much younger people having fun. The Canyons is more family oriented, a compact ski-in, ski-out Intrawest village that urgently needs to develop character.

Park City peaks in late January when the Sundance Film Festival comes to town, but there is always a chance of star-spotting in Robert Redford's Zoom restaurant near the bottom of Main. After a few nights out, it's time to make the 50-minute loop through the canyons to Snowbird and Alta. They're a mile apart, but they've always been chalk and cheese: sleek Snowbird, with its ground-breaking aerial tram and dominant high-rise buildings, and gnarly Alta, with its rugged wood-clad individualism. After years of barely veiled loathing, they've invested in the lifts required to link the ski area, but again the free flow of commerce is obstructed by a ban on boarders. Predictably, the culprit is Alta and the reason ideological: after seven decades of skiing, it can't imagine it any other way.

The emotional divide also covers accommodation: de luxe faux rustic in Alta, where the celebrated Lodge greets the same distinguished guests year after year; spa and sparkle in Snowbird at the Cliff, with its 10-storey atrium and huge rooftop Jacuzzi. The mountains come close to the best the Rockies can offer, with empty pistes, magnificent snow bowls and rock and gully combos that test ambitious skiers. Ski till you drop is the game here: it would take a dedicated party animal to stay up after midnight.

In safari terms, the main event is Salt Lake City to Lake Tahoe, an eight-hour drive of nearly 600 miles. Start early and stop for a café breakfast.

In the language of the local Indians, Tahoe means blue, an accurate description of an enormous oval sheet of water. The Nevada-California state line bisects the town of South Lake Tahoe, a concrete mini-Vegas on one side and unpretentious motels on the other. Gamblers can stay in a casino resort hotel such as Caesars or Harrah's on the Nevada side, accessing the ski areas by day.

Of the resorts overlooking Tahoe's shoreline, Squaw Valley makes the most sympathetic base. Squaw is ski-in, ski-out, with magnificent lake views and varied terrain. Neighbouring Alpine Meadows makes a pleasant day trip, but Kirkwood, an inaccessible village at the other end of the lake, is the region's great "must ski". Check the road is open before you start, then plunder the powder until the lifts close. It doesn't get any better than this.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

Minty Clinch was a guest of Ski Independence (0845-310 3030; ski-i.com). It offers a two-week trip from £1,997 per person based on two sharing, including return flights, car hire and four nights in Park City, four at Snowbird and six at Squaw Creek, room-only.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Utah Office of Tourism (08456 020574; utah.travel). California Tourism (0906 577 0032, calls cost £1.50 per minute; visitcalifornia.com).

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