Powder Report 

On the heels of the first winter storms, here's what's new at Utah resorts.

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The El Niño winter is hitting northern Utah pretty square-on this year—a welcome development considering the past few dismal snow years, and the fact that El Niño only guarantees a good snow season in the Southwestern states. But, now that it is actually snowing, don't waste any more precious time. Give thanks by clipping back into your bindings and checking out what's happening on Utah's finest resort ski slopes.

Several significant changes have taken place this year—and some of us might be better poised to take advantage of them than others. For starters, probably the biggest news is the merger between the former Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort under the ownership of Vail Resorts, a mega company that owns a total of 11 mountain operations in Utah, Colorado, California, Nevada, Minnesota and Michigan. Under the direction of the Vail Management Co., the merger of PCMR (now called the Base Area) and Canyons (now called Canyon Village) has created 7,300 acres of skiing, which they claim is the single largest ski resort in North America—but officially, it has several hundred acres less than British Columbia's Whistler at 8,171 acres.

The biggest problem for most locals, however, will be coughing up the $122 one-day lift ticket, a price that reflects not only the elite nature of the new super-resort, but also all the money that Vail has dumped into the acquisition. Vail bought PCMR for $182.5 million in cash after years of expensive litigation with the resort's former leaseholder, Powdr Corp. In addition, Vail poured $50 million into mountain improvement projects, the most necessary of which was the new Quicksilver Gondola that links the two resorts. Accessed from mid-mountain, at the base of the Silverlode Express lift on the PC side and from base of Flat Iron lift on Canyons side, the 8 1/2-minute gondola ride carries skiers over the top of Pinecone Ridge and drops them into mostly intermediate-level groomed runs. The gondola opened to riders on Dec. 17.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Brighton Resort this year has clarified the parameters under which skiers can access its slopes for no money at all. Consider that Brighton and most other resorts in the United States are on public land owned by the U.S. Forest Service (the former PCMR, for example, is leasing private land owned by Talisker Corp.). Logically, this means that skiers should have access to resort property on public lands all season long, even without a lift ticket, as long as they don't use resort infrastructure and services like lifts and ski-patrol-rescue services. But, most resorts will turn away hikers as a matter of "safety." Brighton's willingness to accommodate nonticketed skiers is, therefore, extremely commendable, and its new uphill-travel policy does a great job of balancing skier safety and public access. The uphill-travel policy is designed with a red light/green light system to indicate when the slopes are open to hikers (it's posted at the resort and online), and has designated uphill travel routes and rules of conduct.

Another interesting development in the local ski scene is the grand opening of state's newest ski resort, Cherry Peak, in Richmond, a 20-minute drive north of Logan. Cherry Peak is the first new resort in Northern Utah since Deer Valley opened in 1981. Built by local resident John Chadwick, on land owned by the Chadwick family since the 1960s, the resort is just what you'd expect from a little mom-and-pop venture. Its two triple-chair lifts access a modest 200-acres of terrain, and between 800 and 1,200 vertical feet, depending on who you're talking to.

Cherry Peak is opening to mixed reactions from local residents, some of whom brought lawsuits against the resort out of concern over limited backcountry access and impacts to the water supply, local roads, wildlife and hunting (the resort sits between the Richmond Wildlife Management Area and the Mount Naomi Wilderness). But the Chadwick family persevered, and is now welcoming skiers, for a $49 day lift ticket, to check out their slopes. Don't come on Sunday unless you want to hike for your turns; Cherry Peak is closed "for religious reasons" on the Sabbath.

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