It’s all downhill for Powder Mountain — or should we say ‘Dirt Mountain’ — this summer

Why more Utah ski resorts may turn to lift-served mountain biking in the off-season

Eden • A cloud of dust and a flurry of butterflies appropriately stood in for fireworks and confetti earlier this month when Powder Mountain announced a major change to its operations.

Summers have been a time of tranquility in the area since before the first lift was built on the property, located less than 10 miles north of Eden, in 1972. But starting this year, under new resort operators, Powder Mountain is emerging from that summer cocoon and with the intent of transforming itself into one of Utah’s top downhill mountain biking destinations.

The makeover even comes with a new, seasonal moniker: Dirt Mountain.

“I think this is one place mountain biking — with just kind of this intermediate, accessible terrain — we can be truly world-class at,” said Phil Hansen, Powder Mountain’s interim CEO and general manager. “And we have literal mountains of it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of painted lady butterflies flutter past mountain bikes near Hidden Lake Lodge at Powder Mountain on Monday, July 12, 2022. Powder Mountain has renamed itself "Dirt Mountain" for the summers after this year installing its first three downhill mountain biking courses.

The resort is opening with three lift-served downhill trails that begin at the Hidden Lake Lodge and cover approximately 10 miles of terrain with 1,268 feet of vertical drop. Over the next five years, it plans to expand to roughly 15 trails totaling about 40 miles across 1,200 acres.

Justin Holly, the former lead builder for mountain biking at Powder Mountain and now the sports shop manager, said the goal is to bring people to the resort for more than just its snow.

“It’s one of the few things that really you can do to make money in the summertime in the resort aspect out here,” he said.

The transformation has been in the works for about five years. The idea took form just a few years after the 10,000-acre ski area was purchased in 2013 by the founders of Summit Series, invitation-only talks that cater to entrepreneurs and artists who are among the global elite. Initially, though, the funding for the bike park wasn’t there, said Powder Mountain spokesperson J.P. Goulet. Right after the money materialized, the pandemic hit.

While it delayed the opening of the lift-served downhill trails — the resort has had 34 miles of free, public cross-country trails for nearly a decade — COVID-19 may have actually given the project some forward momentum, especially as Hansen looked to take over. One trade-industry website said sales of front-suspension mountain bikes grew by more than 150% in April 2020 over the previous April. Some bicycle shops, like The Bike Shoppe in nearby Ogden, sold their rental fleets to make up for the surge in demand and still haven’t gotten to a point where they have a strong enough supply of bikes to be able to rent them out.

“I think if anything,” Holly said of the sport, “it’s just gotten more popular.”

Yet anyone who wanted the thrills of the descents without the pain of climbing back up didn’t have a wide variety of options in Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mountain bikers kick up a line of dust as they take on the green flow trail known as Falkor at Powder Mountain on Monday, July 11, 2022. Powder Mountain has renamed itself "Dirt Mountain" for the summers after this year installing its first three downhill mountain biking courses.

Deer Valley Resort has been offering lift-served mountain biking since 1992 and has crafted itself into one of the most esteemed bike parks in the country. Still, it’s an hour-and-a-half drive for anyone living in Ogden to get there. Brian Head, which has 12 downhill trails and bills itself as “Utah’s Premier Bike Park,” is even farther.

Nearby Snowbasin offers lift-served access in its gondola during the summers, but it doesn’t offer the groomed flow trails or jump trails that are currently en vogue.

“It is a different product,” Goulet said. “They’re not building flow trails and spending thousands and thousands of dollars.

“But looking out into the future,” he added, “you’ll see more and more of them building these kinds of trails.”

Indeed, Solitude added bike haulers to The Link lift as well as a beginner flow trail this summer and has plans to build four trails next summer. Sundance, Woodward Park City and Park City Mountain also offer some lift-accessed mountain biking.

The benefit of offering mountain biking isn’t just for the customers, Goulet said. He said one perk for the resort is providing summer jobs for workers who are typically seasonal. The resort’s neighbors, meanwhile, might see more options for summer dining and excursions. Hansen hinted that other activities could follow.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susi Muecke rounds a turn on the blue trail named Big Ern at Powder Mountain on Monday, July 11, 2022. Powder Mountain joins a growing number of resorts that are turning to mountain biking for revenue in the summer.

Robert Bingham, a retired internet entrepreneur who built one of the first houses in the area, said he’d like the resort to be operational “seven days a week, 365 days a year.” He noted that Powder Mountain caps ticket sales in the winter to prevent overcrowding, and he thinks the same approach could be implemented in the summer, if necessary.

Powder Mountain has already implemented a cap of 250 tickets per day.

“I think that that philosophy, if you plug that into the not mountain bike side,” Bingham said, “it’ll keep this place just nice and, you know, just not crowded.”

Currently, lift-serviced mountain biking is only an option Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $40 per day or $400 for the season, which will end when the snow falls. Goulet suggested new riders might want to come during the day Thursdays and Fridays, when the trails are quieter. The resort stays open late Thursdays, and a lift ticket is available for $25 for use between 4-8 p.m. Bike and gear rentals, a repair shop, tacos, ice cream and beer can also be found at the Hidden Lake Lodge.

Like ski runs, the trails vary in difficulty, with beginner/easy ones dubbed greens, intermediates labeled as blue and the most strenuous trails marked as blacks. Powder Mountain currently has one green flow trail, one blue jump/flow trail and a black technical trail that wraps around Hidden Lake. Holly said the trails and any jumps or bridges can also be used by skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

Brycen Rackham, the lead technician at The Bike Shoppe in Ogden, tested them out during an industry day held just before the trails opened to the public on July 14. He said he usually rides cross country, not downhill, but he would be happy to pay to spend a summer day among the berms, butterflies and dust at Powder Mountain.

“Overall, I’m super excited,” he said. “I think it’s really cool. The kind of vibe they have out there is just kind of hang out, have fun and be safe.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mountain bike is cradled in a bike rack as it heads up the Hidden Lake lift at Powder Mountain on Monday, July 11, 2022. The ski resort unveiled a new downhill mountain biking operation with three new trails and more in the works.