A good time never felt so creepy. Nearly a foot of new snow has settled over Utah's Powder Mountain, but the parking lot is still empty when the bullwheels start turning. No rabble of snowboarders jockeys for first chair. Atop an uncut slope called the Powder Chamber, I scramble to chase my local guide, Roger Arave, before anybody poaches my line. But it's a hurry born of habit, not necessity: This mountain is so empty it feels haunted. We'll not cross another's tracks—in fact, we'll barely see anyone else—until day's end. This is Utah? On a Sunday? In February? This is not normal.
But then again, I've entered the weird world of "Pow Mow," perhaps the best stateside ski area you've never heard of. It's a playground bigger than Vail (5,500 acres) that gets as much precipitation as Snowbird and Alta (500 inches), yet on an average Saturday sees but one-fourth (about 1,500) the number of skiers that cause Deer Valley to stop selling lift passes. In an era when some Wasatch Range resorts seem more taken with sushi and starlets than skiing, consider family-run Pow Mow the homespun antidote to "Was-Angeles." "This place," yells Arave as he blasts through uncut powder, "is like Alta back in the '60s."
Though it sits just 55 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, Powder Mountain is like an isolated mountaintop flower that follows its own quirky evolution, at its own pace. The idiosyncrasies begin in the parking lot, which is near the top of the mountain. From here, the prospects can seem underwhelming—just four chairlifts, with seats that are coughing up their stuffing, and one T-bar service about 2,000 vertical feet. Intermediate skiers can quickly exhaust their options.
But first impressions deceive. Six ridges comprising 2,800 acres reach northward like the fingers of a circus freak's hand, the canyons between them furred with pinyon, black pine and aspen. Here, almost nothing's groomed—and everything's in play. "We just name some of the stuff so the ski patrol can find you," jokes marketing manager Marc Paulsen.
From the Sunrise T-bar, intermediates pole out to Cobabe Canyon for a wilderness-like run through groves of bare aspens that shiver in deep snow. Experts skirt the rocky nose beneath the Paradise lift and strike it rich on runs like Eureka and Motherload. What really keeps the locals coming back, however, is Pow Mow's bevy of hidden powder caches—and the charmingly odd ways that skiers access the goods.
From the Hidden Lake lift you can drop into Powder Country, the resort's backside, for an additional 1,200 acres of fall line plunges that end at the access road. Here, an old Blue Bird school bus driven by a guy named Woody retrieves skiers every few minutes. Mountain guides lead escorted tours into Wolf Creek Canyon, yet another backcountry stash. These 800 acres spill down the area's south side, where another shuttle waits at the bottom. Then there are the choppers of Craig Olsen's Diamond Peaks Ski Adventures, which land in the parking lot. But my guide favors another option. For $7 a ride, we grab a bight of frozen rope trailing behind a snowcat for a quick haul up Lightning Ridge, which accesses 700 more acres of tree shots and steep bowls. I chase Arave's contrail down a pinch of snow between rock faces on a run called Big Kash. To return to the cat, everybody skis across two parking lots while dodging SUVs. Nobody on staff bats an eyelid. (Add liability attorneys to the list of those who have yet to discover Pow Mow.)
Unpeopled terrain, coupled with the laid-back approach of Pow Mow's operators, keeps locals like Olsen coming back. "They fence off what they legally have to, and that's about it," he says one afternoon, as we board Woody's bus.
Someday, when a big developer buys it, he's gonna put up ropes. Until then," he says, "we're gonna have fun."