Utah skiers, snowboarders taking advantage of ‘bonus’ season, anticipating arrival of tourists

Midseason snow with early season turnout gives locals experiences of a lifetime.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers brave the high winds at Deer Valley, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Park City • Inside the Deer Valley Resort eatery where Kim and Mark Abbett were warming up with a bowl of chili Tuesday, it felt like early season. Crowds were sparse, more like pockets of people, scattered throughout the vast Snow Park Lodge. Downstairs, prospective employees were waiting to speak to someone in human resources. And those already working were navigating the nuances of computer systems and the customer service standards that are the hallmark of the ski-only resort that attracts guests from around the world.

Outside, though? Outside it felt like midseason. Only it was better. Way better.

Utah is having one of its best starts to the season in nearly 30 years with early resort openings and powder hits galore. But because the snow came long before the tourists usually do, the Abbetts — and everyone else in the state — are reveling in having the spoils mostly to themselves.

“This is a bonus. This is a huge bonus,” said Mark Abbett, 49, who moved to Park City with Kim and their kids in 2016. “Usually it feels like we go right into busy season. And this feels different. It still feels like it’s our town.”

Imagine no conga line of traffic leading to or from a resort. No jammed parking lots. No circling like a shark for an empty table at lunchtime. No lift lines. Just miles and miles of open terrain with few other skiers and boarders in sight.

“It’s a dream right now,” said Jim Steenburgh, a University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences and an avid skier, “for everybody in the ski industry.”

Yes, overcrowding was an issue during the season’s earliest days. A combination of months of pent-up desire to ski, accelerated by an abundance of fresh snow, collided with a lack of open resorts and led to viral images of long lift lines and parking woes at Solitude and Brighton. As more resorts have opened, and as they have opened more terrain, however, those issues have all but evaporated.

The scarcity of crowds, which is not entirely uncommon this time of year, isn’t enough to have locals loving life, though. It’s that combined with the quality and quantity of snow.

The storms started arriving in late October, just as they did last year. That season, though, most resorts had to delay their openings because that early snow was followed by a warm, dry stretch. This year, the snow has just kept coming. Even when it didn’t, temperatures have been cold enough to keep it from melting and to allow resorts to make some snow of their own.

Steenburgh said this November, or the first 28 days of it at least, was the state’s coldest since 2003. By mid-November, the state’s snowpack was 433% of normal.

(Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jesse Mullen, 10, of Heber couldn't wait to get his skis on the snow for his first runs of the 2022-23 season at Deer Valley Resort's opening day Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. The resort moved up its opener for just the second time in its 40-year history.

But the snow just keeps coming. Resorts across the Wasatch Range received between 6 and 19 inches of snow earlier this week, according to OpenSnow.com, giving most of them nearly 200% of their average base depth for this time of year. Another storm is expected to drop another foot or more at most resorts Friday with even more snow in the forecast for Sunday and Monday.

It’s been so good that at least half of Utah’s resorts actually opened earlier than expected. That included Deer Valley, which moved up its start date for just the second time in its 40-year history. It had nine lifts, 35 runs and one bowl open Tuesday. On last year’s opening day, on Dec. 4, it had seven lifts and nine runs available.

“This is ... I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kim Abbett, who has both Ikon and Epic season passes. “And there’s more lifts, more terrain open. It’s crazy.”

Mark Abbett nodded enthusiastically.

“I think today I got better powder,” at a resort, he said, “than I did any time last year.”

For some perspective, it’s more similar to mid-December conditions than midseason, Steenburgh said, and it’s not a record snowpack. He noted that Alta, which averages the most snowfall in the state, has received 123 inches so far this year. In comparison, in 1994 the Alta Guard station recorded 205.9 inches in November alone. Steenburgh said that’s the benchmark, but that high snow totals were commonplace in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“My joke usually is that your parents or your grandparents had better skiing than you do,” he said. “This is a great year [though]. I mean, certainly we’re off to a really good start.”

And most of the people who have gotten to enjoy it live in Utah. Deer Valley estimated that 80% of its guests during its passholder opener Monday and its official opening Tuesday were locals.

One was fifth-grader Jesse Mullen of Heber. He didn’t have any problem missing school Tuesday so he could finally get on the slopes — and probably get some fresh powder, too.

“Yesterday it snowed a lot,” he said, “so I wanted all that snow.”

The snow is expected to keep coming. Soon, too, will the tourists.

Out-of-town skiers tend to start arriving in mid-December, according to Dan Howard of Visit Park City, and they’re traditionally most plentiful around Presidents Day weekend in February. A Visit Utah poll, meanwhile, indicated that people interested in taking an overnight ski or snowboard trip in Utah would be most likely to come in January (43.4%), December (37.5%) and February (29.9%), respectively, with a considerable dropoff in the shoulder months of November and March and beyond.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers brave the high winds at Deer Valley, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Some of them are already here. Analytics from Visit Salt Lake shows the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts — Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude — saw just as many out-of-state visitors as locals in November. That reflects a massive jump over last year, when most resorts were struggling to open. That November — and more surprisingly in December and January as well — fewer than one in five skiers traveled in from out of state.

Most Utahns’ first reaction regarding the impending crush of out-of-towners might be to cringe. There goes the easy commute, the front-row parking, the reservation-less restaurant visits. But Visit Park City’s Howard pointed out that without those visitors, and the money they spend, and the jobs that creates, the resorts and their communities might have fewer amenities for everyone to enjoy.

“We are grateful for the visitation through this season, both because visitors add to the vibrancy of our culture and so many of our restaurants and shops are here because of the support that visitors give us in Park City,” he wrote in an email. “And of course we have two ski resorts in our town that we can ride and ski daily because of the visitation that we receive throughout the season from all corners of the country and from around the world.”

Ski Utah reported that out-of-state skiers account for 82% of all money spent on skiing and snowboarding. To that end, Howard said 66% of Park City’s annual income is generated during the roughly 16 weeks of the ski season. As that money trickles out to neighboring communities, it can even lead to a reduction in taxes and an increase in services.

Is that enough to sway Utah skiers and riders into believing they shouldn’t mind sharing the slopes with tourists? It might not be, but they’re coming anyway. So the best approach is probably to soak in these bonus weeks while they’ve got them.

That’s Kim Abbett’s strategy.

“I’m super excited because we can ski right now when it’s not crowded,” she said. “If we don’t ski on the holidays, oh well. It’s not that big of a deal.

“But to be able to get out right now with the conditions like this? I want to get out as much as possible.”