Snowbird • Strange things happen after dark in Utah’s mountains.
Porcupines the size of sheepdogs come out of hiding in search of a midnight snack. Brides snowboard next to their groom in nothing but a sleeveless white wedding dress, presumably protected from sub-freezing temperatures by the heat of passion. And hundreds of teens, families and weathered skiers and snowboarders alike — barely recognizable behind their goggles, balaclavas and beanies — find affordable options beneath panels of stadium lights.
“I love it. Other than the cold, it’s awesome,” said Ted Baudendistel of Sandy, who was snowboarding at Snowbird on a recent Wednesday night. “Nobody else is coming up the canyon with you and nobody else is going down the canyon with you. You have the mountain to yourself, pretty much. There’s no lift lines, and you get a lot of skiing in in a short amount of time.”
For those who equate a trip to the slopes with exorbitant lift ticket prices and long waits on the road and at the lift, what Baudendistel described — small crowds and some tickets dipping below $20 — may sound like a ski scene from an alternate universe. Yet with more than half the resorts in the United States offering skiing and riding under the lights, including nine in Utah, it’s more like a well-kept secret.
Less is more
Dustin Hansen incorporated night skiing into his business model from the moment he opened Cherry Peak Resort five years ago in the Bear River Mountains, less than 10 miles from the Utah-Idaho border.
“It’s just a different demographic than what’s out there,” he said, noting that he was looking for something to differentiate Cherry Peak from other Utah resorts. “When it came to night skiing, I wanted that extra niche. We’re bigger and have more power than most offer at night.”
Cherry Peak opens up about 80 percent of its runs to night skiing, accessed by two lifts and a magic carpet. Four Utah resorts — Brian Head Resort, Beaver Mountain, Woodward Park City and Powder Mountain — limit access to one lift. But patrons don’t seem to mind having fewer options if it’s easier on their wallets or their psyches.
That’s true for Trish Hasper, 48, of East Hampton, Mass. She and her family regularly ski at night on the East Coast. So while on vacation at Snowbird last week, Hasper and her family again went with the night option despite being limited to a small green run called Chickadee.
“I’m very comfortable on the beginner-type slopes, and it’s also much less expensive,” Hasper said. “And I’m not in good enough shape to be skiing all day, so 2-3 hours is good enough for me.”
Baudendistel, an intermediate to expert rider, might not have chosen to spend a couple hours on Chickadee had he not had to shuttle two of his kids up to the resort for ski team practice. He made the most of it, however, by using the gentle, uncrowded run to teach his 5-year-old son how to snowboard.
Roughly 5% of the 59.3 million skier visits nationwide can be attributed to night skiing, according to the National Ski Areas Association, but most of those are counted in the East and Midwest. The number of night visits barely registers in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states, which is why Park City Mountain Resort decided to end its night skiing operation four years ago. The hill is now only lit for ski team practices.
Nevertheless, other resorts have begun to fully embrace and cater to the creatures who come out at night.
Let there be lights
Brian Head Resort began offering night skiing about 20 years back by attaching flood lights to trees along its bunny slope. Five years ago, though, the resort invested in overhead lights along the runs around its Blackfoot lift. Many resorts have recently shed light on their terrain parks, which have become big draws for high school and college students. And two others, Cherry Peak and Brighton, have plans to expand their night skiing terrain within the next 10 years in what might become a battle for bragging rights over who has the most lighted vertical acreage.
Brighton currently owns that title. It has offered night skiing for more than 25 years — borrowing the idea from Powder Mountain, which installed lights for the 1972-73 season and is believed to be the state’s first night-skiing venue. Brighton now opens up more than 200 acres to its night owls, accessed via three lifts six evenings a week.
South Jordan resident Braxton Denos, 31, said the only reason he owns a pass to the resort is so that he can escape to the mountains for a ski session after work a couple times a week. The self-proclaimed “Mayor of Brighton” (though he also has season passes to Snowbasin and Alta), Denos enjoys the relative lack of crowds — he chooses to head to the backcountry on more hectic weekends — as well as the wilder vibe that comes out of the darkness. And though lift lines can form on the weekends even at night, he and his uncle, Michael Denos, 40, of Herriman, pride themselves in being able to find some hidden pockets of powder even then.
“It’s what you make 0f it, right?” said the Alta High graduate. “We come out here with headlamps and you stay within the lights but you can go get into the trees a little bit and find some powder. We both work 9-5, so it’s a nice way for us to be able to come out. We come out here, I ski about 3-4 days a week. Because of night skiing I can get two of those days in and ski all weekend.”
Denos compared skiing after work to going to the gym. But he’d be hard pressed to find a treadmill with a view as scenic as the sunset from atop the Majestic lift, a spin class that would leave him as vitalized as an off-piste adventure in the dark or a sauna with stranger creatures than the mountains at night.
“It’s magical. There’s something spiritual about the mountains and you have to respect that and be understanding,” he said. “This is my Zen. This is reality to me.”
UTAH’S NIGHT SKIING OPTIONS
Beaver Mountain • $15 Varied 5-9 p.m. 1 lift
Brian Head Resort • $25-30 Fri-Sat. 4-9 p.m. 1 lift
Brighton • $27-48 Mon-Sat. 4-9 p.m. 3 lifts
Cherry Peak • $25-29 Mon-Sat 5-9 p.m. 2 lifts
Nordic Valley • $37 Mon-Sat 3-8 p.m. 4 lifts
Powder Mountain • $33 Mon-Sun 3-9 p.m. 1 lift
Snowbird • $19-21 Wed/Fri/Sat 5:30-8 p.m. 1 lift
Sundance • $14-35 Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat. 4:30-9 p.m. 2 lifts
Woodward Park • $30-37 Mon-Sun. Until 8 p.m. 1 lift