A T-shirt, being sold as a fundraiser for the Utah Avalanche Center, prominently features the distinct outline of the state of Utah. Less immediately noticeable, but arguably more attention-grabbing, is the message written inside the image in a small, black font:
The designer, Evan Thayer, perhaps better known by his Twitter handle Wasatch Snow Forecast, said he designed it as a sort of wink and nod to those who believe Utah is the superior state when it comes to skiing. In other words, for people like him.
“It’s not a serious competition, but it’s fun to poke fun at Colorado,” he said. “I mean, Colorado has great mountains, but they do see less snow than we do and less consistent snowfall than we do. So I personally think Utah’s better. But I’m perfectly happy to let others find out for themselves.”
But does Utah actually have better skiing and snowboarding? It’s a question that has been debated for years during apres ski sessions, on slow chairlift rides and in social media threads. Colorado has cultivated a reputation as the state of skiing. Yet almost any Utahn will say they have it better. Rather, they’ll admit it behind closed doors after you’ve sworn not to tell anyone.
To settle the subject, we’re sizing up the two states in a head-to-head showdown. With the help of some experts, hopefully we’ll have some resolution as to whether Utah’s ski and board scene is a well-kept secret (though one that springs more leaks every season) or the also-ran to the Rocky Mountain resorts to the east.
Better lower the safety bar, because this could get ugly.
Let’s get some simple facts out of the way first. Colorado is bigger in *almost* every measurable way. The size of the mountains, the size of the industry and the number of resorts, lifts and runs the state has on tap all tower over what Utah has to offer.
For example, Colorado’s ski sector generated an economic impact of $4.8 billion during the 2013-14 ski season according to one study. A similar study of the industry’s economic impact in Utah released by the Kem C. Gardner Institute in 2018 estimated it at $1.8 billion. That’s a cavernous gap even when taking into account the number of skiers and snowboarders in the Rocky Mountain region grew slightly during that four-year span.
Colorado also has more resorts. It boasts 31, twice as many as Utah. It also has 43,553 lift-accessed skiable acres. Utah, despite boasting the two largest ski areas in the nation, offers 30,947 acres to play in.
“Just in sheer volume of choice, it dwarfs this state,” said Dave Amirault, a former ski industry executive who has worked both at Aspen Snowmass in Colorado and Utah’s Snowbird resort, “as far as the amount of skiable acres, lifts, resorts, mountain towns, kind of all that stuff.”
By now, the word is out that the drive up the I-70 corridor from Denver to the resorts is, well, unpleasant at best and soul-crushing at worst. Alternatives exist, of course, but they will not be cheap. A hotel room in a resort town along the corridor costs about $300 per weekend night in-season. Flying into a small airport to ski Buttermilk or Purgatory or Telluride can be equally expensive, not to mention the time wasted on layovers (which by some accounts are worse than long lift lines).
So this one clearly goes to Utah, right? After all, all but a handful of resorts can theoretically be reached within an hour’s drive for the newly remodeled Salt Lake City Airport.
Utah has its own access issues, sure. There’s a reason the Utah Department of Transportation is seriously considering putting a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Big Cottonwood Canyon is probably next. The traffic up and down those narrow roads leading to four of Utah’s most popular ski areas often means an 8-mile trip can take an hour or more. This season, with the reduced Ski Bus service, it’s not going to get any better.
To Utah’s credit, though, it offers alternatives. Within a five-hour drive — about as long as it takes to get from Denver to Aspen — or less, powderhounds can reach any ski area within the state as well as most of those in Idaho and Wyoming’s Grand Tetons.
“People tend to think of Utah as a singular entity for the ski market,” Amirault said. “And I like to politely remind everyone … that the intermountain west transit here between Idaho and the Tetons is just as far as some of your Colorado resorts.”
Length of Season
A budding rivalry has begun to form between two Cottonwood Canyon resorts, Snowbird and Solitude, over which can lay claim to the #LongestSeasoninUtah. Solitude’s general manager has said she wants to stay open into May. Snowbird, meanwhile, has been known to allow skiing and riding as late as July 4.
Truth be told, though, neither can keep pace with the Colorado resorts that contend for the #LongestSeasonintheUSA.
Arapahoe Basin and Loveland — both located west of Denver off the Interstate 70 corridor — also pride themselves on their deep seasons, which stretch into summer. They get an early start, however, often loading up their lifts in early November or even, as was the case this season, before Halloween.
Most of Utah’s resorts, meanwhile, typically aren’t open before Thanksgiving. This year was an exception, with Brian Head Resort firing up Utah’s season on Nov. 4. That was the earliest the Beaver-area resort had ever opened and was among the top five earliest starts to the season in state history. And yet, three Colorado resorts still beat it to the start line.
Chris Tomer, a Colorado-based meteorologist who has made a career of forecasting windows of opportunity for mountaineers and powderhounds, made a salient point when he noted that despite their longer seasons, the early and late-season snow quality is often sub-par.
“Normally as the air temps go up,” he said, “spring snow quality gets thicker and thicker.”
But it’s still skiable, right?
Utah’s highest in-bounds peak is Mount Baldy at Alta Ski Area at 11,068 feet. In comparison, more than half of Colorado’s resorts (17) have a peak elevation higher than that. Four of them crest 13,000 feet, including Silverton (13,487) and Telluride (13,150) in southern Colorado and the aforementioned A-Basin (13,050) and Loveland (13,010).
The base elevation at seven Colorado resorts is above 10,000 feet.
“The higher resorts are typically colder,” Tomer said. “Even in spite of, you know, a warmer world, the higher resorts will perform better for a longer time.”
Even though Utah has a reputation for tilting toward teetotalism, this battle isn’t a walkover for Colorado. Utah has a healthy craft brewery scene and several distilleries. One of them, High West, is located at the bottom of Park City Mountain Resort’s Town run. Spencer Spellman, a senior editor at the snow forecasting website OnTheSnow and a mixologist, said he believes it may be the only ski-in, ski-out distillery in the country.
“Park City is just one of the most iconic ski experiences,” Spellman said, “and there’s some really unique experiences that you can have there.”
Lest it be thought one-of-a-kind experiences are only on tap in Park City, try an Alta Bomb during the typically lively end-of-the day gatherings the Goldminer’s Daughter at the base of Alta’s Wildcat parking lot. It’s a double shot of espresso dropped into a PBR beer and it’s meant to be chugged.
Still, given Utah’s quirky rules around alcohol and the fairly recent adoption of elements of archetypal ski towns in places like Eden, it’s hard to give this one to the Beehive state. Again, Colorado’s ability to offer a wider variety of experiences — from luxury in Aspen to rustic in Crested Butte to the quintessential mountain village of Breckenridge — gives it the edge.
This one, as Tomer pointed out, comes down to pure math. Southern Colorado’s Wolf Creek is on record as having the highest average annual snowfall in the state with about 430 inches per season. By comparison, Alta, which gets the most riches of any Utah ski area, averages about 540 inches per season. That’s about a 20% difference.
It’s not like Alta is an outlier, either. Brighton, Powder Mountain, Snowbird and Solitude all boast at least 500 inches per year on average, according to statistics from Ski Utah.
Finally, we’ve reached the best-known and most contentious topic in the Utah-Colorado rivalry. Which resort has the best snow? It pits “Champagne powder,” as trademarked by Colorado’s Steamboat ski area against “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” the slogan emblazoned on many of Utah’s license plates.
Let’s leave this one to the experts.
Tomer, the meteorologist, said both can be pretty amazing and for similar reasons.
Generally, Tomer explained, the best snow doesn’t have much moisture and falls “right side up.” This means the early snow from a storm is formed at warmer temperatures and the last flakes are the driest and coldest, making for perfect, buoyant powder. At both Steamboat and in the Cottonwood Canyons, the air is met with little resistance until it hits the mountains. Then it’s forced to rise quickly, cooling as it goes. Neither area has the highest elevation, but in their cases, that doesn’t matter.
“Wherever you’re at, at whatever elevation, it’s the air temperature that drives the snow density,” Tomer noted. “In other words, the colder the air temperature, the lighter the snow.”
Though differences exist, Spellman, who hails from Oregon, said many people probably won’t be able to tell the difference between the two states’ offerings.
“If you’re a beginner [or] intermediate and going from a powder day in Colorado to the next weekend a powder day in Utah, you know, you may not see a huge difference,” he said. “It’s not like going from a first generation iPhone to like an iPhone 14 or something like that. It’s not going to be that big of a leap.”
Those who have more experience with powder and venture off-piste on the regular, though, will appreciate the nuances
“There’s a massive difference,” Amirault said. “[Utah’s snow] is far better.”
The X Factor
Having outscored Utah 4-3 so far, it would appear Colorado actually is the superior ski state. As in boxing, however, the score doesn’t matter if one of the competitors can deliver a knockout blow. And Utah has a nasty left hook.
It’s called Little Cottonwood Canyon.
No matter how our experts approached this comparison, no matter what conclusions they came to, they agreed on one thing: Few places in the world can compete with that canyon’s combination of snow quality and quantity as well as its caliber of terrain.
Tomer called it “perfectly positioned” and “like a catcher’s mitt” for storms.
Spencer said it has “really perfect, unique conditions for snow.”
“That place is pure magic,” summarized Amirault. “And all Big Cottonwood is is like diet Little Cottonwood Canyon. And all Park City is is diet Big Cottonwood Canyon.”
So there you have it. The winner, clearly is …
(Because even if Utah’s better, we’re not telling).
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