Clash of the titans
A new direct flight to Utah has put the ski giant Park City in direct competition with big hitters Vail and Whistler. Which offers the best holiday on the slopes?
It’s been a long time coming, but you can now take a direct flight from the UK to the ski resorts of the Wasatch Mountains, in Utah. Delta flies to Salt Lake City, and from there it’s 40 minutes in the car to the sensational slopes at Park City, the biggest resort in the US.
So is Utah now the must-ski region of North America? We pitted Park City against two old faithfuls, Vail and Whistler. Here are the results.
Whistler, British Columbia
Skiable area 8,171 acres
Top lift 7,494ft
Vertical range 5,135ft
For sheer variety of terrain, you can’t beat Whistler. This giant ski area, two hours north of Vancouver, has stomach-in-mouth chutes, wide open bowls, bumps, jumps, forest glades and pistes: you can ski them all in a single descent. And almost every off-piste slope within the resort boundary is secured against avalanches, so you don’t need safety gear or a guide.
It’s not just for experts, either. There are memorable intermediate pistes, including the four-mile Peak-to-Creek descent, which drops through 5,020 vertical feet, and the resort is pepping up its nursery slopes in an effort to make itself more beginner-friendly.
In fact, Whistler would be a world-beater were it not for its maritime climate and occasional overcrowding. Being close to the Pacific Ocean means high average snowfall (460in a year), but blasts of mild, humid air from the southwest turn the slopes wet and heavy. On days like that, everyone migrates to the top half of the ski area, which means the most popular pistes are packed.
This hasn’t stopped Whistler regularly being voted the best resort in North America. The sprawling village has a rich mix of bars, restaurants and clubs such as Tommy Africa’s (tommyafricas.com). If after-hours buzz matters as much as the skiing, put it high on your list.
A week in January at the Listel Hotel starts at £1,131pp, B&B, including direct flights and transfers (020 8939 0726, crystalski. co.uk)
Skiable area 5,289 acres
Top lift 11,570ft
Vertical range 3,450ft
Two kinds of skier will love Vail. The first is the less confident intermediate, who needs a few days on wide, grippy pistes to find a rhythm. Vail has this kind of terrain in spades, thanks to the gentle gradient of its key descents and the high-altitude, freezer-cabinet climate: go in January or February and you may face a day or two of -10C. But it’s worth it for the dry, soft and squeaky snow.
The resort’s other big fan club is made up of advanced but not expert skiers who adore its back bowls: wide, ungroomed snowfields on the far side of the main ridge. After a storm, they’re often knee-deep in powder, and have few natural obstacles, so are perfect for wannabe off-pisters looking to tighten up their technique.
It’s just a shame there’s a socking great freeway next to the village. I-70 will whisk you to and from Denver airport in a few hours, but it doesn’t half look ugly when you crest the final ridge. Many skiers won’t care, but if you do, eating at the 10th, a top-notch mountain restaurant, will distract, as will dinner at Bol, a bowling alley where you can order champagne and oysters while you play.
A week in January at the Evergreen Lodge starts at £1,655pp, B&B, including direct flights and transfers (01273 224060, skisafari.com)
Park City, Utah
Skiable area 7,300 acres
Top lift 10,026ft
Vertical range 3,226ft
The new kid on the block was formed last winter by joining two separate resorts, and offers steep, steady or extraordinarily gentle pistes in enormous quantities. Park City is smaller in area than Whistler, but, according to the German ski consultant Christoph Schrahe — who has measured every significant resort in Europe and North America — it has seven more miles of piste than its rival, making it the biggest ski resort in the US or Canada.
Park City is ideal for mixed-ability groups, and its fusion of Wild West architecture and spirited bars creates one of the most attractive après-ski scenes in America. But what makes it irresistible is a pair of resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon, just 50 minutes’ drive away. Alta and Snowbird are set at opposing ends of a tight little valley lined with proper pointy peaks. This valley is as close to a snow machine as mother nature can manage. Snowbird averages 500in of the white stuff in winter, Alta 514in. Usually, the powder is so light and dry, you can blow it off a tabletop.
You can’t guarantee that your trip will coincide with one of Utah’s snowstorms, so it makes sense to base yourself in Park City, where you can ski fresh snow or not. But if a blizzard blows in, hallelujah! You’ll have hit the jackpot.
A week in January at the Hyatt Place Park City starts at £1,497pp, B&B, including direct flights and SUV hire (0131 243 8097, ski-i.com)
Snow quality 7, pistes 8, off-piste 9, scenery 8, village 7
Snow quality 9, pistes 9, off-piste 8, scenery 6, village 6
Snow quality 8, pistes 10, off-piste 7, scenery 6, village 8
As the figures show, it’s a tie between Whistler and Park City. Whistler suits advanced and expert skiers best, Park City beginners and intermediates. If you add Snowbird and Alta into the equation, Park City is the more compelling destination.