Reporting from Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah—At last — a ski area suitable for our readers in the federal witness protection program.
Solitude Mountain Resort lies about 30 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, tucked into the same Wasatch range that harbors such famed ski destinations as Park City, Deer Valley and the Canyons. But Solitude occupies a different canyon and a different category. It makes less fuss and draws fewer people than most of those other resorts. Yet it gets just as much snow, often more. And as I found a few weeks ago, it gives skiers plenty to handle.
To reach Solitude, you fly to Salt Lake City and drive (or get driven) southeast, concluding with a careful cruise up curvy Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. As you near 8,000 feet above sea level, a little lodge will pop up on your right, then a pedestrian-only neo-Bavarian village. You have arrived at the retreat Ski magazine calls "North America's most aptly named ski resort."
Despite this low profile, Solitude's mountain towers a little more than 10,000 feet, and by early December, when many Western ski resorts were just turning on the lights, Solitude already had its 65 runs open and 4 feet of snow on the ground. The annual average is about 500 inches.
When it comes to lodging, however, the resort is tiny. It has 46 hotel rooms and 212 condos, townhouses and vacation homes, all built between 1995 and 2009. In a 2010 ranking of the 30 biggest ski resorts in the Western U.S. and Canada, Ski magazine's readers put Solitude near the top for weather and snow quality, near the bottom in dining, night life, off-mountain activities, lifts and terrain parks.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
THE BEST WAY TO SOLITUDE
Many airlines (including American, Alaska, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, United, US Airways and Southwest fly nonstop from LAX to Salt Lake City. Also, Southwest and Delta fly from Burbank. Solitude lies in Big Cottonwood Canyon, neighboring the Brighton Resort, about 35 miles southeast of the Salt Lake City airport. For a fee, resort-area lodgings can arrange ground transport. If you rent a car in winter, it's probably worth the extra cost to pay for four-wheel drive.
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"The plus about Solitude is that you rarely have lines," said Sherree Luke of Salt Lake City, a 15-year Solitude skier whom I found warming up by the resort's Moonbeam Lodge fireplace. Especially in Solitude's Honeycomb Canyon area, "you're away from everyone," she said. "It's just like you're out in the woods by yourself."
Solitude offers eight lifts, serving about 1,200 skiable acres. About 20% of the slopes are suitable for beginners, 50% for intermediates and 30% for those in the "advanced/expert" category — a more beginner-friendly mix than at many of the 13 major resorts in Utah. The most ambitious Solitude skiers gravitate toward Honeycomb Canyon, which includes about 400 acres of lift-accessible, off-piste terrain. Begin at the top of the Summit lift and you have a 3.2-mile blue odyssey (that is, mostly intermediate difficulty) to the bottom of the Eagle Express lift. A day pass costs $68, versus $85 to $90 a day at the Canyons, Deer Valley or Park City (all of which have much more territory).
As for Solitude's village, it's handsome, especially the atmospheric clock tower. But it's a resort, not a real town. If you're cooking in one of the condos, you'll need to buy groceries in Salt Lake City before entering the canyon. And though you'll hear a pleasant tolling every 15 minutes that sounds like a church bell, it's just a bit of recorded neo-Bavarian stagecraft — no church, no bell.
The village is better for couples and families than singles. It's not a place to go shopping, and it's a fair bet that nobody has ever gone there to see and be seen. Basically, it's witness protection heaven, which I pointed out to resort spokesman Nick Como.
"How do you know that's not why I'm here?" he asked.
I should say that I saw the place about as empty as it gets: late November, just a week after the resort opened for the season, before all the lifts were running, when just three of the village's five restaurants were serving dinner and two of the four casual eateries on the mountain had yet to open. Traveling anonymously and paying the beginning-of-season rate of $169 a night, I was the Inn at Solitude's first guest of the season.
I was also fortunate. Within a few hours of my arrival, the dense, gray sky dumped the season's first serious snowstorm. Pretty soon, a foot of powder had fallen on an existing 2-foot snowpack, and the next day, a lucky few hundred of us had the responsibility of defiling it. Up, down, up, down, with scarcely a pause at the bottom. In two days, I never stood in a lift line for more than 60 seconds. (Instead of old-fashioned lift tickets, Solitude issues radio-frequency-identification pass cards with embedded electronic chips that you can leave in your pocket.)
"Lucky dog!" one of the lift attendants said as I edged up for my second run around 9:20 a.m. "I'll be out there tomorrow."
For two days, I skied green and blue (beginner and intermediate) runs until my thighs burned. After the first day, I headed for Kimi's Mountainside Bistro, where I dined alone. Not alone at my table. Alone in the restaurant, except for the staff.
"When they say Solitude," I thought, "they're not kidding." Then my food came, and I had another thought: "Great chanterelle mushroom soup."