Travel: Home of heavenly snow: Chris Gill discovers the delights of Utah, an offbeat alternative to trendy Colorado

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The Independent Travel
For most people, skiing in the United States - or at least skiing there for the first time - means going to Colorado. All things considered, that is probably as it should be, because the state offers two of the largest, swankiest abd best resorts in the US, Vail and Aspen.

For the cost-conscious, Colorado offers value-for-money accommodation, a cute village and extreme altitude at Breckenridge; for seekers after something special in village atmosphere and scenery, it offers Crested Butte and Telluride; and for insomniacs, it offers a whole mountain of night skiing at Keystone; and that is not all by any means.

There are, however, other options. Experts might want to consider New Mexico's Taos or, more likely, Wyoming's Jackson Hole for their first shot. Both are distinctive places that are on the lists of many adventurous skiers. But the state with the widest appeal after Colorado is one that is often overlooked in Britain - Utah.

If you are seeking a 'different' skiing holiday, you cannot do better than Utah. It is a state of salt flats, deserts and spectacular national parks. Skiers find it extraordinary because the Wasatch mountain range rears up only miles from the centre of the state's one major urban area, Salt Lake City.

The city comprises a lot of real estate, in the usual American fashion, but is really little more than a large town. Students of religious mutations will be aware that this is the home of the Mormons and their famous choir.

The citizens of Salt Lake may not have a Mont Blanc or a Tuxer glacier within reach, but for ordinary skiing purposes their town has the edge even on such privileged European cities as Geneva and Innsbruck.

Within 40 to 60 minutes' drive of downtown Salt Lake City are half a dozen worthwhile and distinctive ski resorts. They have in common something that is fundamental to Utah's appeal: what the state proclaims from every car licence plate to be 'the greatest snow on earth'.

The general consensus is that the best snow is to be found in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the head of which is shared by two small resorts, a winding mile apart geographically, but light years apart in style.

The snow in the canyon may or may not be exceptionally light, but the locals are well practised in maintaining the myth. Powder that has European visitors smiling from ear to ear is dismissed with a shrug as being distressingly wet. The quantity, however, is not in doubt: the average snowfall is 50 per cent higher than in typical Colorado resorts. In recent years the snowfall has not always reached the average, but last year's exceptional total of 700in (18m) was impressive.

Alta, right at the head of the valley, cannot really be called a resort. It has nothing that could be called a village - just a few small hotels and self-catering lodges dotted around the pretty valley at the foot of the main lifts. Snowbird isn't a village either: it has even fewer places to stay. But it is a recognisable resort, although a small one, in the modern French mould, with a central concrete plaza and a 500-bed hotel.

The two ski areas have some features in common: a lot of skiing packed into a small space; a high proportion (by US standards) of skiing on open or lightly wooded slopes; and a lot of steep off- piste skiing - enough to win the canyon something of a cult following.

To European visitors, Snowbird's piste skiing can seem rather claustrophobic, such is the density of the network. Alta's area is more open, and is served by first-generation chairlifts.

Utah's major resort, Park City, is some way north-west of Little Cottonwood, although with guidance it is possible ski from one area to the other via the intervening Big Cottonwood Canyon and its resorts of Brighton and Solitude - a day trip known as the Utah Interconnect.

Park City is a proper little town, which retains much of its old mining- town flavour without the sugary fake- Victorian coating that tends to characterise Breckenridge. The ski area is less scenic than those of Little Cottonwood Canyon, but bigger and more complex. Much of it is laid out along the lines of the classic Colorado resorts - pistes cut through the forests down the flanks of several rounded ridges. But at the top of the area is some seriously steep off-piste skiing on open slopes and down thrilling couloirs. The three mountain restaurants are of bearable quality.

Park City has a life after dark, not too seriously inhibited by the state's gradually slackening but still peculiar licensing laws. But for a much greater range of apres-ski possibilities, it is only 45 minutes to downtown Salt Lake City.

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