GUIDE TO SNOWBASIN ©2007 Kyle Jones
Driving up the access road gives a good view of what awaits. A series of four sharp peeks cradling four or (arguably) five different drainages with large open bowls, muscular ridges and large stands of fir, aspen and scrub oak. The mountain is both tall and wide and it has a natural, unspoiled look to it. The terrain has character rather than consistency and is punctuated by pitches, rolls, double fall lines, and more than the occasional flat spot.
The pre-Olympic expansion added to both the north and south side of the area and took the base area down the beginner hill and to the north. The old, upper parking lot is the first you come to but is usually not open. From here, the Becker and Wildcat triple chairs each take skiers about halfway up the mountain. Wildcat Ridge used to be the heart of Snowbasin where skiers could choose to go left or right to chairs to complete the trip to the top or simply ski down some of the better runs on the mountain. Currently, the Wildcat chair rarely runs. The Becker Triple takes you up a long ridge to the left and provides access to much of Snowbasin’s novice terrain. Down the hill at the base area, the Little Cat beginner lift heads up a short hill to the south and the Needles Express gondola and John Paul Express quad chair head off in different directions to about 2400 vertical feet of signature Snowbasin skiing.
The Needles Express is the clear winner of the most popular lift contest and crowds develop here with increasing regularity. It provides access to much of the original lift serviced terrain. However, it starts at the bottom of one drainage and drops you near the top of another. To get back to the original drainage before the bottom requires one of three choices. You can follow the lift line down Pork Barrel. This is a fine option but too steep for many. Your second option is the Porcupine Traverse, a hard left at the bottom of the first pitch of Sweet Revenge. Your final option is the Boardwalk cat track--a hard left about halfway down Sweet Revenge or Trail 119. If you do not take one of these runs, you are committed to this side of the mountain until near the bottom. Just below the unloading platform for the gondola is the top of the Middle Bowl Triple and just over the Needles ridgeline is the top of the Porcupine. These are the two original upper mountain lifts, but are largely ignored.
Back at the base area, the John Paul Express Quad speeds up over 2400 vertical feet of steep rugged terrain to top of John Paul Ridge near the northern boundary of the resort. From there, the Olympic Tram takes skiers to a beautiful, dramatic view as well as the start of the Men’s Downhill course (Grizzly). The Women’s Downhill (Wildflower) starts down the ridge. This area has probably been the most significant of the recent improvements by providing long, sustained steeps and access to some truly wild terrain. Snowbasin always had great intermediate and advanced cruising as well as numerous short steep pitches, but it lacked the sort of terrain this area serves up in large doses.
The last area defines the new southern boundary of the resort. The Strawberry Express Gondola takes another 2400 plus vertical foot trip up the mountain and provides access to a vast open area of primarily intermediate and advanced skiing. The view from the ridge at the top of the Gondola alone justifies the trip on a sunny day. This is perhaps the best intermediate cruising terrain at Snowbasin but the top is prone to wind and low visibility.
In all, Snowbasin covers about 3200 acres and just less than 3000 vertical. Navigation around the resort is fairly simple with one notable exception. Strawberry is a bit removed from the rest of the resort and returning back to the base area can be problematic—especially for snowboarders. They will probably be happier on the upper return route that connects with Dan’s Run in upper Middle Bowl. The lower return is a nice option for skiers who are less inconvenienced by the long flat return on Penny Lane. The Dan’s return drops down the mountain in three steps that are a little steeper than some intermediates may prefer separated by flats that require speed management.
A Cruiser’s Paradise
Great cruising is a large part of Snowbasin’s equation. To cover it, we will start on the south side of the resort and work north.
Accessing Strawberry Bowl requires a trip on either the Becker Triple or either Middle Bowl lift. The Needles Express Route allows you more vertical for the same ride time while the Becker Triple route gives you access to Bear Springs, a nice run you probably would not ski otherwise.
Most of the runs at Strawberry flatten out considerably near the bottom so keeping a little speed is advisable. The Strawberry Gondola terminates a few feet below the high ridgeline linking Strawberry Peak and De Moisey Peak. On a sunny day, the view off the top is spectacular. Your immediate skiing options are limited to the cat track (designated Elk Ridge on the trail map) that loops around the back side of the mountain to a saddle on the ridgeline or you can turn around and ski the large open bowls you just ascended. Anyone who is not at least a strong intermediate should probably opt for the Elk Ridge route. From the saddle, you can ski down Elk Ridge or the easier route down a catrack to the skier’s left. From this point you either hang a right to Gordon’s and Elk Ridge or continue cutting across the mountain to Main Street.
Your other option from the top of the Strawberry Express involves returning the way you came in a large bowl marked Main Street or one of the adjoining chutes or bowls. Upper Main Street is often moguled down the middle and smoother on the sides. It is heavenly in powder or wind packed conditions and my clear preference if you are comfortable with its pitch because it adds variety to the long cruisers. A fade to the skiers left brings skiers to a number of nice chutes and to a signline. These runs are referred to as Sowback and Strawberry Fields. Incidentally, if you want to access the large open area between the Main Street Bowl and the saddle (White Room), you need to walk or sidestep up the short incline next to the unloading platform to the skier’s right. It is not obvious unless you are looking for it.
Now that we are below the first pitch, the real cruising begins. My two favorites are Main Street or Elk Ridge to Carnehan’s. These both offer a nice variety of terrain and a lot of vertical.
Elk Ridge is a long rolling cruiser which starts in an open bowl, descends a ridge to the bottom of a collection area, and traverses out to another ridge which it follows down to the bottom. The only weakness is middle collection area where the run is confined to a catrack leading to the final ridge. Although snowmaking usually ensures sufficient coverage, the snow quality on lower Elk Ridge is often spotty. Gordon’s is good alternative to the top third of Elk Ridge.
Two quick notes on the catrack that runs out to the final ridge. First, right before the catrack starts, a long, natural halfpipe branches off to the skiers right which may hold interest for some. Second, when the catrack intersects the ridgeline there is a large fairly open slope to the skier’s left. A part of this area is designated Canehan’s on the trail map. This can be a nice alternative to lower Elk Ridge if you are looking for some variety. It is a little steeper and never groomed. There are often moguls down the middle and it has a good pitch for effortless powder skiing.
The next main group of runs branch off of Main Street on the skier’s left of Strawberry Bowl. Main Street itself is a great run top to bottom. After navigating the upper bowl, you fade to the skiers left and pick up the trail below Philpot Ridge. The run itself cuts through a large open bowl area with lots of mounds and terrain variations and then funnels through a concave hollow before opening up again as it flattens near the bottom.
Just below the access trails leading to and from Middle Bowl, a right turn will bring you to Sun King. It is never groomed so the natural snow conditions will dicate the experience. Finding the run is obvious from the Gondola but not as obvious when you are skiing. In this same area, the Wolverine trail follows the ridgeline to join Elk Ridge. This is my least favorite trail in the Strawberry area but useful when looking for untracked powder off the ridge.
Further down Main Street you have two additional options. A fade to the skier’s right will take you to Coyote Bowl, a nicely pitched run that starts out fairly narrow and widens quickly. A hard left onto a short cat track takes you over to the usually uncrowded and slightly steeper Trapper’s Trail. As noted earlier, this is also nice option for skiers returning to the base area if you don’t mind the long ski-out on the Penny Lane.
Moving north over Philpot Ridge, we now come to the original ski area serviced by the Becker Triple, Middle Bowl Triple, Wildcat Triple, Needles Express and the Porcupine Triple. Since the Needles Express accesses most of this terrain, we will begin our focus there.
The Needles Express starts at the base area and takes you to the top of the old Middle Bowl Triple Chair. As mentioned earlier, this lift begins in one drainage and ends in another. If you want to ski the runs in the original drainage you must decide early and take Pork Barrel, Porcupine Traverse or Boardwalk.
Sweet Revenge is the main run through Middle Bowl and the clear winner of the most popular run contest. This run twists and turns down the heart of Middle Bowl and is wide enough in most places to accommodate the traffic it receives. About two-thirds of the way down Middle Bowl, Two Bit Street and Bullwinkle are nice variations. When groomed, cruisers will also enjoy the slightly steeper Moose Mound.
All these runs eventually meet at the bottom of the Middle Bowl Triple and the top of Bear Hollow. The Stewart’s road branches off to Wildcat Bowl and is a good choice if Wildcat is in decent condition. At the bottom of Bear Hollow you can either take a left onto Stein’s over to the bottom of Wildcat Bowl or continue straight to Becker Face or School Hill. Stein’s would normally be a good choice but it has been neglected in recent years. Becker Face is a great little run through the gully of the stream that cut Bear Hollow. It is often left to nature’s whim but skis like a natural terrain park when conditions are good. School Hill is a nice face for a slightly steeper climax to a generally mellow run.
Now, lets go back to the top of the Needles Express and take those runs leading back to the Porcupine Drainage. The most obvious line is Pork Barrel dropping between the upper lift line and a sharp rock outcropping called the Needles. It’s a good run and it is the most natural route to the Porcupine drainage but it deserves its black diamond designation. You will get a good view of it on the way up to judge if you’re up to it. If not, swing around the upper face and cut onto Porcupine Traverse near the bottom of the first drop. Needles Traverse and Pork Barrel join and drop into a gully followed by a hard left onto an open face leading to the bottom of Porky Face. The upper sections of Porky Face and Needles Run are discussed later.
The only other route back to the Porcupine side of the mountain is Boardwalk, a hard left off of the middle of Sweet Revenge. This road leads to a Saddle between the two drainages and almost to the top of the Wildcat Triple Chair. From here you can drop down Herbert’s back to the right and back to the Middle Bowl side or to the left down Blue Grouse. Blue Grouse is the better choice as it winds its way down the mountain in an enjoyable and varied manner. Porky Face/Needles Run joins Blue Grouse about a third of the way down and the Women’s Downhill Course (Wildflower) briefly joins it about two thirds of the way down. Near the bottom, you can drop over either City Hill or the final drop of the Wildflower Downhill or continue around the corner on Blue Grouse. Any of these options are enjoyable with Blue Grouse being the least difficult.
As noted, Boardwalk leads almost to the top of the Wildcat Triple. Those who maintain some speed can glide and skate their way across the ridge to the top of the lift. This same point can also be reached by a road which branches straight off the Needles Run as it makes a hard left onto the open face.
The top of the Wildcat Ridge used to be the heart of the resort but is now largely ignored. This is a shame because Wildcat Bowl is one of the great intermediate runs at Snowbasin. It starts as a large bowl, narrows into a concave gully with nicely rounded sides and then widens again near the bottom. In order to appeal to its natural audience, it has to be groomed occasionally but rarely is. Advanced cruisers would also enjoy Centennial if it were ever groomed.
The last part of this area is the Porcupine (Porky) area serviced by the Porcupine Triple. Most ignore this part of the mountain even though the advanced terrain park has recently been located at the top of the lift. Blame for this phenomenon rests squarely on the Porky chair. It is not only the longest lift ride on the mountain, but almost always the coldest as well. Bite the bullet, however, and you will have the wonderful Porky Face largely to yourself, which starts off gently before rolling over a large knoll onto an open face.
Upper Needle’s Run branches to the right just before the knoll. It joins the runs mentioned earlier coming over from the Middle Bowl side about a third of the way down its length. It’s a nice run but you may not want to spend your time on the Porcupine Triple to share a run with those coming over from Middle Bowl.
The Olympic Runs and the John Paul Area
The last stop on our tour of cruisers may be the best of all. This is the John Paul area and the site of the Olympic Downhill courses. Confident intermediates can and should ski the Wildflower downhill if conditions are favorable. The resort usually grooms all but the top and very bottom (now the half pipe) of the Wildflower course except on powder days. The middle third of Grizzly is also regularly groomed and the top is occasionally. Those of us who were lucky enough to ski the whole men’s course after the Olympics may not get a chance to ski it in that condition again.
The first step to skiing here is the speedy John Paul Express Quad. This lift is seldom crowded except on powder mornings. At the top, you are greeted with an awesome view of the rocky face of Mount Ogden. The Mt. Ogden Bowl trail departs straight ahead and winds down into the Porcupine Area. This is the only intermediate route of this chair but is less of a run than a road winding around several steep faces.
To get to the actual top of both of the downhill courses requires a trip up the Olympic Tram. This really is not necessary to enjoy the runs but the view from the top is dramatic and worth a trip—if only to ride back down. Those intent on yo-yoing the downhills can ignore the upper sections. The first forty feet or so below the tram drops precipitously down a narrow ridge to the start house for the Grizzly Downhill. Skiing the upper section of the downhill will give you a real appreciation for the bravery these skiers have. Racers hit 80 miles per hour within the first three or four seconds of the race. You, on the other hand, should make some turns.
If you want to ski from the top of the Wildflower Downhill, take road that winds around the back of the hill and accesses a number of runs (primarily dealt with in the next section).
The steepest sections of the Grizzly Downhill are the starting and finishing faces. The middle section rolls and turns down large and muscular faces and winds through a gullies with terrain variations and multiple fall lines. It is actually hard to follow because it makes a non-obvious, off camber left turn slightly before it intersects Wildflower. The Wildflower Downhill rolls over several large faces and drops before merging with Blue Grouse at the base of the Porky Triple and departing for the final drop (now into the half pipe). Another option is to ski the middle face of the Grizzly over to Wildflower. Both are as good as advanced cruising gets.
Ungroomed Advanced and Expert Terrain
While many are satisfied with the wonderful high speed cruising, others long for more variety. If so, you will not be able to rely solely on the trail map, the existing signage, or even this guide. Exploration is key. Snowbasin identifies about 60 runs on about 3200 acres of mostly skiable terrain and many of the steeper runs on the trail map are unsigned.
Mogul skiers are likely to be disappointed. Most of the steeper runs simply do not see enough traffic. The best prospects are upper Main Street and Carnehan’s in the Strawberry area, Pork Barrel in Middle Bowl, and the obvious line beneath the John Paul Express. The rest of the advanced and expert skiing population should find plenty to keep them busy. Because the biggest concentration of this type of skiing is found in the John Paul and Olympic Tram area, we will start here and work our way south.
The Olympic Tram drops skiers off on a precipitous ridgeline at just under 9400 feet. From there you have one of four options: you can hike higher up the ridgeline if open to some of the craziest chutes around, you can ski the top of the Grizzly downhill or the neighboring bowl and chutes, you can follow the road around the backside to access additional options, or you can load back on the Tram and ride down. I have never mustered the courage to ski the runs higher up the ridgeline and cannot recommend them to anyone without bombproof skills, avalanche beacons, sound judgment, and no living dependents.
The second option is probably the most popular. The top of the Grizzly Downhill is quite steep and it can be fairly narrow early in the season. After a short shot through the rock walls, it opens up into a large, treeless bowl. Be very careful if venturing skier’s right of the tramline where there are a number of chutes and cliffs. There has been at least one fatality here.
The third option involves taking the road that winds its way behind the ridgeline and eventually emerges at a saddle near the start house for the Wildflower Downhill. You can also jump off this road at the obvious corner on the tram side of the mountain for some good steep skiing or a steep, narrow chute. From the saddle below, you can ski the top of Wildflower, or, if the sign line is open, take a hard left on the ridgeline and head out to the No Name area. If the snow is fresh and the sign line is open, this is your best option. However, accessing the No Name area will definitely require a traverse, some hiking, and could be a bit of a slog if you are one of the first out here. You can jump off this ridgeline to the right anywhere it looks inviting, but, the farther you go, the longer the run. Try to wait until you are at least through the sign line at Easter Bowl (the lower two thirds of which can be accessed through a lower sign line--a short side step and long traverse from the top of John Paul if the Tram is closed). Easter Bowl is great but, if you on your hike/traverse a little further, you face longest sustained steeps at Snowbasin. For my money, the area designated Shooting Star and a short traverse skier’s right out of the intersecting gully to the top of The Burn, is the best run at Snowbasin in powder. Wheeler’s is similar but there are fewer discrete lines down it.
At the base of the Olympic Tram, the John Paul Lift deposits skier at the top of the John Paul Ridge. There are a few runs identified on the trail map but that fails to tell the whole story. For example, one area is simply identified as Snow King. That single run actually encompasses almost 180 degrees of different exposures. You have a great view of this area from the lift so pick your line on the ride up. At the bottom of the Snow King, a collection traverse takes skiers around the corner and deposits them in an open bowl here with a moderate pitch called Hollywood that eventually intersects with the lower part of the Grizzly Downhill. There are also some nice trees on either side of this slightly concave slope. You can also continue to traverse around the ridge back to the downhill runs.
Rather than following the collector around the corner you can follow the lift line to Ellison’s or to another avalanche control gate allowing access to a series of generally north facing shots through the trees. Ellison’s has a bit of a double fall line and funnels through a narrow area near the bottom. It is often moguled if it has not snowed much recently. If you took the collector out to Hollywood, you can return to this area by dropping left on runs identified only on the trail map as Deane’s and Janis’s. There are lots of good lines and snow preservation is often quite good in this frequently shaded area. Again, you get a pretty good preview of these runs on the lift up. The exit from this area is the obvious path and short drops leading back to the base area. This same area collects skiers coming down from No Name or Easter Bowl. It is frequently a mediocre ending to some great runs.
Even if both of the downhills are groomed, there are off trail possibilities on either side or in between the groomed sections. The trees between the two are particularly nice. Also, if you take the Wildflower Downhill and continue straight as the run takes a hard left, you are treated to the huge, open face punctuated with some cliff to the skier’s right called John Paul. This is a wonderful place to bag first tracks and highly coveted by local skiers. Better ski it early as the sun can bake the snow fairly quickly.
Before leaving John Paul, let me make mention of the Mt. Ogden Bowl area. This area can be fun to explore and is characterized by rolling terrain. This is a popular area with the snowboarders. There are a number of fairly steep drops into the Bowl from John Paul Ridge if you follow the ridge a short distance before taking any of several right turns into the bowl. Additionally, a traverse and slog off the top part of the Mount Ogden Bowl road will take you to Norwegian Wood, Bluejay Way, and Apron which often have some of the best and deepest snow on the mountain.
Moving south from John Paul are some of the other fine runs that merit exploration. Becks and Bash on Wildcat Ridge used to be prime mogul runs but now are better places to search for powder. At the top of Porcupine, the Powderhound Bowl area (particularly in the area identified as Revolver) is especially sublime in powder and usually has good snow preservation. From the top of the Needles Express, the large face beneath the Middle Bowl chair is really nice along with its cousin just below it--Trail 119. The problem with Trail 119 is that is will often require a bit of effort to get out there due to the flat approach. On a positive note, now that the Middle Bowl Triple runs less frequently, this formerly very visible face usually has room for first tracks later in the day. Pineview and Rocky J have similarly benefited from the Middle Bowl Triple’s frequent closure. Some really nice shots are also accessible from the Philpot Ridge area. Getting there requires heading out to the ridge separating Middle Bowl and Strawberry and heading along the ridge (the traverse is slightly below the ridge on the Strawberry side of the mountain). There are two named runs (Cirque and Grizz) on the trail map dropping back into the Middle Bowl. Dive in wherever you like and you will find a mixture of wide chutes and tree shots. Further down Philpot Ridge is a large open face dropping into the Strawberry area called The Diamond that makes for some stress free, moderately pitched powder skiing. This area gets skied out very quickly. Sunshine Bowl at the top of the Becker Triple has an interesting concave shape that would probably make it a snowboarder’s favorite if it were not for the long return on Penny Lane.
Last but not least, Strawberry Bowl has a couple of areas I strongly recommend. As mentioned previously, the upper bowls and chutes have great skiing in White Room, Sowback, and Strawberry Fields. Further down, Moonshine Bowl is a large area somewhat reminiscent (on a much smaller scale) to the Hobacks at Jackson Hole. The “bowl” really encompasses two distinct triangular ridges with a nice consistent pitch perfect after a good storm. It can be a little tricky to access these ridges, so many chose to peal off to the skier’s right or left onto runs now identified as Anytime and White Lightning to the skiers right and Gun Tower and Twist and Shout to the skiers left (you can also ski part way down Gun Tower and traverse left to Moonshine). Twist and Shout runs through some a thick stand of aspen not evident on the trail map so it’s best to wear a helmet. All these runs share a similar trait in that they are long ridgelines that feed into narrow gullies. I prefer to stay out of the gullies until necessary. This area is also accessible from the top of the mountain from the Sister’s Bowl sign line at the top of Elk Ridge. When open, definitely give this area a shot. Snow preservation is great on the well-shaded upper slopes. Unfortunately, you may hit the ski area boundary before you want to drop in. Many (myself included) keep traversing but you are on your own. This upper area feeds into the Get Back, Rainer’s and Anytime and all except Get Back end in gullies feeding into Last Chance, a barely pitched road heading back to the gondola. This entire area is vast and will usually still have powder shots late in the day.
Finally, the Strawberry Express drops skiers off on the ridge not far below De Moisey Peak. When the sign line is open, it is a fairly short hike to the top of the peak and its north facing chutes and steep bowls. These chutes require a cautious approach but they are often sublime with routes ranging from really steep to borderline insane. Lone Tree and Arrowhead are rightly prized by locals for first (or second) tracks. Lone Tree is easier to access than the slopes on the other side of the peak. This is all in bounds and avalanche controlled.
On powder days, the middle of the area serviced by Needles Express etc. will usually be the first to open followed by John Paul and Strawberry in that order. The Olympic Tram area will usually bring up the rear. Many of the sign lines mentioned in the preceding sections may not open until a day or two after a big storm. Good news if you missed it. You may want to avoid Strawberry on stormy days when the visibility is poor. There are very few points of reference in a large sea of white and it can be disorienting. Intermediate skiers looking to learn powder skiing should try the sides of Porcupine, Willow Springs, the Diamond and the areas to the sides of the lower Strawberry trails.