The Wasatch Range jags skyward immediately east of Salt Lake City. Its upland faces, narrow canyons, and rugged beauty are pure Wild West. Its westward slopes, which face the city and are known as the Wasatch Front, have been a Mecca for skiers since Brighton and Alta opened in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon in the 1930s. Today, the Cottonwood Canyons’ four very different ski areas and 7,000 lift-served acres remain a true skier’s haven, a place where skiing, snow, and the mountains themselves still come first.
Just 30 minutes away, downtown Salt Lake buzzes with urban vitality. It's a city in the midst of dynamic change, a once ho-hum place now surging with commerce, culture, and entertainment. Mormonism is a presence, but so are coffee roasters and high-tech start-ups, oddball street art, and a seriously groovy cocktail scene. By day, downtown hums with Wall Street transplants, tattooed millennials, shoppers, and conventioneers. By night, it’s all about entertainment, including NBA games, Broadway shows, superb eats, and live music from bluegrass to opera to punk. In fact, nothing about today’s Salt Lake City save easy access to exceptional skiing smacks of a typical ski town. But for a vacation that marries big mountain skiing with big city diversions, there’s no destination more convenient, nor—surprisingly—more fun.
“I call it streets to peaks,” says Nick Como, 37, a native New Yorker and avid skier who has lived in Utah since 2004. Como and I are catching our breath after goating along a ridgeline at Solitude Mountain Resort. It’s a powder day. The evening before, we were catching up with friends at a downtown bar with 100-year-old walls, 130 varieties of whiskey, and a shoulder- to-shoulder crowd. Now there’s no crowd at all—only our three ski pals huffing to catch up and the gnarled arms of 1,000-year-old limber pines marking time.
We all tip off the ridgeline. The snow is boot deep and untracked, with a springy, easy bounce. It parts with a feathery whisper as we bound and weave down the long, forested draw, everyone laughing and hooting as we go.
A few hours later, I’m 30 minutes away and 5,500 feet lower, already having had a cocktail (a Corpse Reviver, appropriately) and a delicious downtown dinner (Mediterranean-inspired bites of pork belly, duck, and polenta), and now taking my seat in the sparkling new Eccles Theater for opening night of the national touring edition of Broadway’s The Lion King. Rafiki, Simba, Nala, Scar, and the dancing hordes of wild things dazzle the sold-out crowd of 2,500. It’s just another weeknight in Salt Lake City.
A decade ago, this urban core was a different place. Store fronts were boarded shut. Business towers were empty. The suburbs were growing, but downtown was getting grittier and more deserted by the day.
Como, who works at an economic development corporation called Downtown Alliance, says today’s vitality is no accident.“Utah’s secret sauce is collaboration. Politicians, the business community, church leaders, community groups, environmental groups … everyone gets into a room and works things out together.” In 2007, that collaboration yielded a strategic blueprint called Downtown Rising, which has since brought $100 million to a multi-faceted urban makeover,with more to come. Goldman Sachs now has 1,800 employees here—its largest North American office outside Manhattan. Yet entrepreneurs can still afford to launch one-of-a-kind bakeries, bars, and boutiques, bringing historic spaces back to life. “Salt Lake City is at that perfect point in the trajectory where we have all of the big city advantages but very few of the problems,” Como says.
“Salt Lake City is a lot more cosmopolitan than it used to be,” says David Porter, who has called the city home since 1995. “It’s a great place to live.” We are skiing laps at Alta on a wind-whipped, sun-kissed, weekday morning. Porter, 45, is a single father, a full-time violinist with the Utah Symphony,and a solid all-mountain skier. While his career is demanding—four to five hours per day on violin (rehearsing, practicing, and teaching) plus performances three to five times per week—he manages to ski 30 to 60 days each winter. “Closer to 60,” he says with a smile. “It’s a highly variable schedule, which has its difficulties if you’re a parent but also has its benefits if you’re a skier.”
For a vacation that marries big mountain skiing with big city diversions, there's no destination more convenient—no more fun.
The benefits play both ways. From the top of Alta’s Collins lift, we glide across the Ballroom Traverse, under Mt. Baldy’s 11,068-foot summit. The surrounding landscape is all snow capped peaks and wind-washed sky, like a clarifying rinse for the mind. I carve down a pitched parapet in the Ballroom, and feel, at every turn, completely alive. A few hours later and some 6,000 feet lower, I take my seat in Abravanel Hall to hear the Utah Symphony in concert with jazzy world lounge ensemble Pink Martini, who in turn bring on a tasseled marching band for the finale, all of whom dazzle the sold-out crowd of 2,800. It’s just another weeknight in Salt Lake City—which now gets my foot-stomping, delighted, hand-clapping, ski-sated vote for America’s most unexpectedly entertaining ski town.
FOUR METROS TO HIT BETWEEN TURNS
A 90-minute drive from Whistler, Vancouver is a seamless blend of metropolitan hub and gateway to the mountains. A former Olympic venue, the coastal city has top-notch science and art museums, as well as thriving nightlife. Head out to the Capilano Suspension Bridge for a worthy adrenaline rush.
Tucked between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, Burlington’s college-town energy draws tech types and new businesses, yet the city has kept its signature small-town charm. Stowe and Smugglers' Notch are nearby. Stroll along Church StreetMarketplace to take in the local color.
Boasting 300 days of sunshine and just 65 miles from Winter Park, Denver has become a sophisticated urban center with great dining and culture. Get a behind-the-scenes look at Denver’s thriving microbrew scene with one of countless available brewery tours.
Quebec City, Quebec
Quebec City is North America’s European winter wonderland—no need for a pricey overseas flight. Stroll charming Old Town Quebec and sample the amazing Quebecois cuisine. You can take a shuttle right from your hotel to either the Mont-Saint-Anne or Le Massif ski resorts.
Susan Reifer Ryan lives outside of Whistler, B.C., where she gets her urban fix in nearby Vancouver at John Fleuvog's shoe design atelier, Boulevard Kitchen, and the Fairmont Pacific Rim.