Ski season in Utah is off to a great start – and that is surprisingly good news for Vegas visitors. Sin City is off the radar for most travelers planning a ski vacation, but it shouldn’t be, since it is closer to the major resorts of Southern Utah than Salt Lake City is, and while these resorts get less attention than famous names like Deer Valley, they get more snow, far fewer skiers and snowboarders, and cost a whole lot less money. With another foot of the state’s famously dry powder hitting the region in the past couple of days, this is one ski trip that should not be overlooked!
As explained below, there are a number of logistical and budgetary reasons why you should consider Las Vegas as a legit ski trip destination, but the best one is simply that it’s Vegas. This is one of the world’s most beloved vacation spots and more than 40 million people choose to make the trek each year (when December numbers are finalized, it may be another record tourism year for Sin City, and if not, it will be close). Simply put, a lot of people want to go here anyway, so using it as a base for an annual winter ski or snowboard trip combines two great experiences into one vacation.
You basically get two complete vacations in one trip, bookending a standard 5-day ski holiday with two Vegas weekends, saving time at each end because it’s so easy to get to, and saving so much money on air, lift tickets, car rentals and resort lodging that you can use it for shows, dining and fun in the city – where very reasonable hotel rates are usually available as well. This can be a real bargain-oriented budget ski trip with lots of extra fun, or it can be done in full luxury style. Either way, regardless of budget, even those who choose Las Vegas’ many 5-star options will spend far less than on a trip in equivalent style to Aspen, Vail or Park City.
It is a win-win for pretty much anyone. Bargain seekers or high-rolling gamblers, beginners or adventurous backcountry skiers, all will find a lot to love. If you have any less gung-ho skiers or snowboarders in your family or group of friends, the Vegas compromise also assures that everyone enjoys the trip this year. Golf fans can combine the two sports and take advantage of the many high-quality Las Vegas courses. Food fans can go for Michelin-starred meals and the world’s richest enclave of celebrated celebrity chef eateries. Nightlife fans can revel in Las Vegas’ unparalleled assortment of day and night clubs. Retail junkies will find a selection that far surpasses that of even the poshest ski towns such as Aspen, and likewise spa-lovers will have far more and better choices than any ski destination offers – there are eleven Forbes 4 and 5-star rated spas, plus dozens of other great ones. Rethinking the ski vacation paradigm with Vegas just gives you more of almost everything.
I wrote about this here at Forbes several years ago, but it’s time to revisit the topic, especially in what is shaping up to be an epic Western ski year and given all the changes that have been going on in Las Vegas, with major hotel relaunches (read here), more great new restaurant options (read here) and amazing shows and live entertainment (these are currently the 5 Best). At the same time, the Vegas area ski resorts have all been upgraded.
Consider the typical destination ski trip in this country. The highlights common to most ski vacations usually include a flight, lodging, 4-5 full days of skiing or riding, après activities and dining, and non-skiing diversions, from spa treatments to other activities.
Now consider the Las Vegas spin on this model.
Getting There: Vegas is much easier to get to than just about any major ski destination, with a wonderful airport served by non-stop flights from tons of places, by all the major carriers, all the budget carriers, and many international carriers. Winter weather never effects flights here, you rarely have to change in hub cities prone to winter delays such as Chicago or Minneapolis, and flights here are almost always cheaper, especially at peak ski times like spring break and Presidents Day/MLK times that do not have the same impact on Vegas. With the rare exception of the immediate Salt Lake City ski resorts (Park City, Alta, Snowbird, etc.) and the far less served Jackson Hole and Eagle/Vail airports, there are almost no places you can get to on full size, long haul flights that are actually close to the skiing.
Most of the Colorado resorts are 2-3 hour drives from Denver without traffic or winter weather (or both), which can more than double travel time. Similarly, Whistler is two hours from Vancouver. Flying into the smaller airports like Telluride, Aspen, or the like is always dicey, small planes subject to cancellation in bad weather, and even if it goes smoothly, the extra time involved in making the connection and the additional flight leg(s) often exceeds what it would take to drive.
On the other hand, getting to Las Vegas is super easy, and once you get there, the driving part is easier as well, with no crowds or snow choked mountain passes. Even in mid-winter, I-15 from Las Vegas to Utah passes through desert and is typically dry and traffic free, with speed limits as high as eighty. The only snowy impact on the 3 to 3 ½ hour drive might be at the very end as you approach the ski resorts. Flights to Vegas are usually cheaper than to traditional ski destinations, sometimes much cheaper, and rental cars are almost always significantly less. The savings keep adding up.
Skiing/Snowboarding: Utah has long been one of the world’s premier ski destinations mainly because it gets a lot of superb snow, deep, dry powder, trademarked as “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” But few skiers are aware that the state’s highest resort base elevation is at Brian Head, an easy 3-hour drive from Vegas. The second highest? Nearby Eagle Point. I’ve skied both and they are great, especially for powder lovers, which means any serious skier. These two hidden gems of Southern Utah skiing have both gotten substantial upgrades and renovations from hands-on new owners in the past decade. Both get 350-360 inches of perfect snow annually – more than Deer Valley and every major ski resort in Colorado. Reaching almost 11,000 feet, Brian Head has 71 trails, plus night skiing, a lift-served tubing hill, terrain park, and beginner’s learning center. It offers multiple base areas, hotels, condos, restaurants and stores.
Smaller Eagle Point has about 40 marked trails across its 1,200-acres in addition to extensive guided back country skiing beyond its boundaries. With no ski town, Eagle Point has more of a private, mom and pop house party feel, with all the lodging in condos managed by the resort, and fewer dining options, as well as a small night club with live entertainment on weekends. With a maximum of 200 overnight guests, the resort guarantees virtually empty slopes and chairs, so if you catch one of the frequent powder days here – more likely than at the vast majority of other ski resorts – it will be a true full day – or several days – of unbroken powder. Eagle Point is also one of the very few American resorts where you can rent the entire mountain for private functions, a big appeal to companies displaying or entertaining at the many large conventions Las Vegas is famous for. These typically involve charter buses for clients or employees and a great, totally private, inclusive, totally unique, and shockingly affordable alternative to another costly and mundane golf outing (I’ve written about private ski resort takeovers here at Forbes before).
For regular travelers, both resorts are dirt cheap by ski travel standards, with lift tickets below $60 (often much lower in advance or with packages), about half the going rate for major resorts. For more info on all Utah resorts, visit Ski Utah.
There are two other Vegas ski options. By far the closest and the only one that makes sense for day skiing or snowboarding from the casinos is Lee Canyon (formerly named the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort and locally known as Mt. Charleston). It’s just a 45-minute drive from Vegas, and for the last few years has been run by industry giant Powdr Corp. It has two dozen trails, lift-served tubing and a bar with great sunny deck, a fantastic après spot. It rises sharply from the surrounding Nevada desert and sits at over 8,500’, with hike or skin-to glades and chutes climbing to 11,000’. Because they get many first-timers, especially foreign visitors who may never have seen snow, they offer complimentary beginner coaching lessons and similarly bargain rate lift tickets to Southern Utah. I skied here and was surprised how good the snow quality is, even when it is warm and sunny on the Strip, and the resort is off to a great start this season, with all its lifts up and running. It’s small and you probably wouldn’t go more than one day, so Lee Canyon is perfect as a tune-up before driving to Utah, or for ski fans who want to do this hybrid vacation as a shorter weekend trip, getting in full days on the slopes an still easily making après back on the Strip.
Furthest out at four hours is the Arizona Snowbowl. It has more vertical (2,300’) then the Utah mountains, and major recent improvements in new high-speed quad chairs and expanded snowmaking. Sitting on Arizona’s highest peak, the lifts here run to 11,500’ with 55 trails and an average 260 inches. They just got a two-foot dump of snow. But that’s pretty common for skiers headed to Las Vegas.