At last -- a ski area suitable for our readers in the federal witness protection program.
Solitude Mountain Resort lies about 30 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, tucked into the same Wasatch range that harbors such famed ski destinations as Park City, Deer Valley and the Canyons. But Solitude occupies a different canyon and a different category. It makes less fuss and draws fewer people than most of those other resorts. Yet it gets just as much snow, often more and it gives skiers plenty to handle.
To reach Solitude, fly to Salt Lake City and drive (or get driven) southeast, concluding with a careful cruise up curvy Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. As you near 8,000 feet above sea level, a little lodge will pop up on your right, then a pedestrian-only neo-Bavarian village. You have arrived at the retreat Ski magazine calls "North America's most aptly named ski resort."
Despite this low profile, Solitude's mountain towers a little more than 10,000 feet, and by early December, when many Western ski resorts were just turning on the lights, Solitude already had its 65 runs open and 4 feet of snow on the ground. The annual average is about 500 inches.
When it comes to lodging, however, the resort is tiny. It has 46 hotel rooms and 212 condos, townhouses and vacation homes, all built between 1995 and 2009. In a 2010 ranking of the 30 biggest ski resorts in the Western U.S. and Canada, Ski magazine's readers put Solitude near the top for weather and snow quality, near the bottom in dining, night life, off-mountain activities, lifts and terrain parks.
"The plus about Solitude is that you rarely have lines," said Sherree Luke of Salt Lake City, a 15-year Solitude skier warming up by the resort's Moonbeam Lodge fireplace.
Solitude offers eight lifts, serving about 1,200 skiable acres. About 20 percent of the slopes are suitable for beginners, 50 percent for intermediates and 30 percent for those in the "advanced/expert" category -- a more beginner-friendly mix than at many of the 13 major resorts in Utah. The most ambitious Solitude skiers gravitate toward Honeycomb Canyon, which includes about 400 acres of lift-accessible, off-piste terrain. Begin at the top of the Summit lift and you have a 3.2-mile blue odyssey (that is, mostly intermediate difficulty) to the bottom of the Eagle Express lift. A day pass costs $68, versus $85 to $90 a day at the Canyons, Deer Valley or Park City (all of which have much more territory).
Solitude's village is handsome, but it's a resort, not a real town. If you plan to cook in one of the condos, you will need to buy groceries in Salt Lake City before entering the canyon. The village is not a place to go shopping, and it's a fair bet that nobody has ever gone there to see and be seen. Basically, it's witness protection heaven, which I pointed out to resort spokesman Nick Como.
"How do you know that's not why I'm here?" he asked.
I should say that I saw the place about as empty as it gets: late November, just a week after the resort opened for the season, before all the lifts were running.
I was fortunate. Within a few hours of my arrival, the dense, gray sky dumped the season's first serious snowstorm. Pretty soon, a foot of powder had fallen on an existing 2-foot snowpack, and the next day, a lucky few hundred of us had the responsibility of defiling it. Up, down, up, down, with scarcely a pause at the bottom. (Instead of old-fashioned lift tickets, Solitude issues radio-frequency-identification pass cards with embedded electronic chips that you can leave in your pocket.)
"Lucky dog!" one of the lift attendants said as I edged up for my second run around 9:20 a.m. "I'll be out there tomorrow."
For two days, I skied green and blue (beginner and intermediate) runs until my thighs burned.
The next day, the storm was still on and conditions were stiffer, including gusts up to 50 mph that drove the snowflakes -- and occasionally the skiers -- sideways.
"This is, like, totally insane," I heard a woman say on my way into the Moonbeam Lodge's Argenta Pub. "I haven't skied in powder like this in two years. It's totally kicking my butt."
"It's a good kind of hurt," said the man who was with her.
Until the early 20th century, Big Cottonwood Canyon was known mostly for silver mining. In 1936, the canyon's first ski area opened, Brighton, where many Utahans still learn to ski or snowboard. About two miles up the canyon from Solitude, Brighton draws young snowboarders, who line up next to local families chasing no-frill thrills. Management offers picnic tables for local skiers who bring their own lunches.
Intermediate string overflow Solitude has eight lifts and accepts skiers and boarders alike, with a mountain sports academy. Its Nordic ski center offers about 12 miles of cross-country trails and six miles of snowshoe trails.
On any given winter day, management says, about half the skiers and boarders at Solitude are locals. Apart from the units within Solitude, the principal lodging options in the canyon are the rustic, eight-room Silver Fork Lodge, the 20-room Brighton Lodge and several dozen vacation rentals.
In the village's Eagle Springs condo building, there's a lounge area called Club Solitude, for condo and inn guests. It has a big fireplace, board games and movie screenings.
If you check out Solitude on TripAdvisor, you get mixed readings on the service in general, which I understand. Though I knew I'd miss a few things by arriving so early in the season, the reservationist didn't make clear on the phone that the inn's pool, hot tub, two fanciest dinner restaurants and the most convenient equipment rental shop would still be closed when I arrived. Once I was on the scene, however, everyone I met was cheerful and helpful -- and I was especially happy to hand over a $20 tip to the hotel staffer who spent most of an hour digging my rental car out from under 2 feet of new snow.
"You don't have the amenities that maybe some families from the East Coast and West Coast are looking for," said Josh Dixon, a former Los Angeles resident who splits his time between Seattle and Park City. "You're not going to find your Rodeo Drive-type shops. You have to go to Park City for that, or perhaps Vail, in Colorado. But the great thing about Solitude and the other resorts up in these canyons is it's world-class skiing, and you're just not paying for the amenities that are nice but not necessary."
If you go:
For a fee, resort-area lodgings can arrange ground transport. If you rent a car in winter, it's worth the extra cost to pay for four-wheel drive.
Where to ski: Solitude Ski Resort, 12000 Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, Solitude; (800) 748-4754, www.skisolitude.com. Includes 65 runs on 1,200 acres. Adult day pass is $68 (or $78 for a combined Solitude-Brighton Ski Resort pass).
Where to stay: The Inn at Solitude, 12000 Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, Solitude; (877) 517-7717, www.innatsolitude.com. It has 46 rooms, Wi-Fi and a heated pool. Winter and holiday rates from $269 to $449 a night.
Solitude condos, 12000 Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, Solitude; (800) 748-4754, www.skisolitude.com. Winter and holiday rates are from $260 to $835 a night.
To learn more: Ski Utah: www.skiutah.com