How to Survive the Holidays at Utah Ski Resorts

Ski resorts can get verrrrry crowded this time of year.
Ski resorts can get verrrrry crowded this time of year. Oskar Karlin
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It may be billed as the most wonderful time of the year, but for ski-loving Salt Lake City locals, the holidays can also be, well, not so wonderful, thanks to the tourist crowds that flood the town and slopes from now through early 2016.

And while we can't blame the resorts, who rely on this influx of tourist dollars to turn a profit, we can grumble a little bit.

Even so, there’s no reason for locals to be left out in the cold if we’re just a little strategic about our plans to get in some turns this holiday season. Late December and early January tend to attract generous snowstorms, so you won’t want to miss the powder plunder.

Over years of careful research, we've learned a thing of two about how to not only survive the holidays at Utah ski resorts, but how to thrive—and score some fresh turns and tourist-free après in the process. Here's all the intel you need to know.

1. Know which crowds are going where (and avoid them).

General rule of thumb: The more people you see doing this, the further away you should go.
General rule of thumb: The more people you see doing this, the further away you should go. Roderick Eime

While the Park City and Deer Valley resorts are usually jolly good fun, this is just not the time of year for a local to venture that way. These resorts draw huge crowds from near and far during the holidays, so lift lines can skyrocket and you’ll probably end up parking a mile away. (Ever walked a mile on asphalt in alpine boots? You won’t do it twice.)

The Cottonwood resorts are slightly mellower, although Snowbird attracts quite a few tourists with its vast on-site lodging, so plan on a Tram waiting line of theme-park proportions. Brighton brings all the local families and teens to its slopes thanks to moderate prices and a kid-friendly ski school.

For a real golden-ticket idea, head north to Snowbasin or Powder Mountain, both of which offer top-notch skiing and have minimal lodging options (hence few holiday tourists). Yeah, you’ll drive 45-60 minutes to get up there, but it's well worth a joyful day of snow shenanigans minus the tourists. Powder Mountain is best for minimal crowds, while Snowbasin is ideal if you perk up at the idea of gourmet dining and chandeliers in the bathrooms.

2. Get smart about where you après (hint: not up-canyon).

Apres is extra-awesome without the holiday crowds.
Apres is extra-awesome without the holiday crowds. Matt Brown

There are few pleasures as great as skiing right to the resort bar, peeling off your ice-caked helmet and wet gloves, and sitting down for a nice hot plate of unnaturally colored nachos and a pitcher of beer.

That is, normally, it’s one of the finer pleasures in life. But when you’re competing with throngs of people clamoring for colorful cocktails, all of a sudden your favorite bartender is torn in too many directions for anyone to have fun.

Face it: From December 20 to January 3, your resort bar kinda isn’t your own. So hop directly in your car and mosey down to the valley (beating the après traffic) for beers and warm platters of carbohydrates at the Porcupine, Lone Star Taqueria, or Bombay House, all of which are within minutes of the Cottonwood Canyons. You’ll skip the crowds, enjoy all-star culinary delights, and sip your preferred beverage in peace, all while toasting your brilliance and plotting how to beat the crowds again tomorrow.

3. Be the early bird.

Plan it right, and you may just be able to snag first tracks.
Plan it right, and you may just be able to snag first tracks. Beth Lopez

Normally we spoiled Salt Lakers show up at the resort at whatever time we feel like it. But not this time of the year. To stay ahead of the lumbering masses, show up a few minutes before first chair. Instead of wasting precious time on breakfast, throw a Thermos of coffee and granola bar in your pack and wolf them down while you wait.
Showing up early is an effective strategy for a couple of reasons: Tourists with kids have a really hard time getting out the door early (it’s tragicomic to watch two parents trying to get three kids to carry their own skis to the lift), and those sans kids are often nursing a little case of the bottle flu (see aforementioned colorful drinks under the après section). So beat them to it and enjoy an hour or two of serene schussing on the slopes.

4. Don't get sucked into the resort parking derby.

The bus can save a lot of parking hassles.
The bus can save a lot of parking hassles. Garrett

Repeat after us: "The ski bus is my friend." The underutilized UTA ski bus is included with most resort passes, so not only can you go to the resort in peace but you can go for free. If you don’t have a season pass, it costs just a few dollars. Well worth avoiding the parking crowds—in fact, the bus drops you off right up front, so you can thumb your nose at all the parking-lot schleppers sliding around on the ice.

You can leave from the mouth of either canyon or various points around town. You can even go to Powder Mountain and Snowbasin these days. You'll have to decode the route names, but you can clearly see which buses go to which resort and what part of town they leave from.

5. Don't even bother with resort lunch.

While everyone else is wasting time with lunch in a crowded lodge, you're wolfing a sandwich and enjoying fewer crowds.
While everyone else is wasting time with lunch in a crowded lodge, you're wolfing a sandwich and enjoying fewer crowds.

We know your dirty little secret: Chili cheese (cheez?) fries assembled from frozen Sysco ingredients are a ridiculously satisfying ski lunch. (We know your secret because we share this love.)

But, if the resort is slammed, you’ll perish of hunger before you ever get to the front of the everlasting line. So don’t Donner-party it: Bring your own lunch.

There may be nowhere to sit inside the restaurant (although if you peek inside you’ll observe many hapless ski-dads out of their seats, chasing their runny-nosed kids with overflowing trays of food, picking up dropped gloves and goggles along the way). As an alternative to participating in the culinary circus, simply plan to chow down in your car or on the lift. Knowing you might be eating on the move, pack accordingly. A sandwich in your pocket will go a long way, and a Thermos of mac’n’cheese can literally save your life.

Good luck out there this holiday season—and as always, if a non-local asks where they should go, say Park City.

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