Utah ski officials hoping for big year with strong economy, renewed buzz about state resorts

Buoyed by an improving economy and renewed buzz about Utah's ski scene thanks to Vail Resort's recent purchase of the state's largest resort, ski officials are expecting one of the best seasons in recent memory when lifts turn on later this month.

Bookings at ski resorts are up about 4 percent from the same time last year, said Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah. After two straight subpar years of snowfall, resorts are optimistic they're due for at least an average year.

"Crossing fingers that Mother Nature helps us out a little bit, we're on tap for an excellent ski season," Rafferty said. "Our goal for this season to have a record year."

The record was set in 2007-2008k, when the state recorded nearly 4.25 million skier and snowboarder days. Last year, Utah resorts registered 4.16 million, up for the third straight year.

Utah's unemployment rate is at 3.5 percent, well below the national average, fueling optimism that people will be willing to spend money for expensive lift tickets to hit the slopes.

Out-of-state visitors tend to make plans regardless of snowfall totals, but local skiers and snowboarders often need fresh powder days to persuade them to get off the couch and go up the mountain, Rafferty said. The last big snow year was 2010-11, but that came during a down year for the economy.

Most of the state's 15 resorts are expected to open later this month with Solitude, Brighton, Alta, Snowbird and Park City Mountain Resort jostling to be the first.

For the time in decades, Utah will have a new ski resort this year. Cherry Peak Resort opens north of Logan, about four miles south of the Utah-Idaho border. It will have three lifts for skiers and snowboarders as well as a three-lane tubing hill and ice skating rink.

The resort hopes to survive and thrive in the competitive industry by offering something for skiers and non-skiers alike, said Forest Fackrell, general manager. They offer adult lift tickets for $42, among the lowest in the state.

"We want to be the kind of resort where a family can be comfortable there as well hard-core ski enthusiasts," Fackrell said.

While Cherry Peak looks to establish a foothold in the industry as a small resort, the presence of one of the industry's biggest companies will be larger than ever in Utah this year.

Vail Resort's recent acquisition of Park City Mountain Resort, for $182.5 million, resolved a legal battle between the two companies and paved the way for the creation of what could be the country's largest ski area.

The adjacent Canyons Resort, already owned by Vail, and Park City Mountain Resort won't be connected by a ski lift this year — that's planned for the following season — but skiers and snowboarders can buy one pass for the two resorts this season.

Skiers who buy an Epic Pass through Vail, $769 for adults, will also now have two Utah resorts where they can use the pass that's good at 22 resorts around the world. An Epic Local Pass that offers access to a smaller list of U.S. resorts is being sold for $589 for adults.

"A lot of people will be looking at Utah who maybe hadn't thought about Utah before for their vacation," said Andy Miller, Park City Mountain Resort spokesman. "It will get some exposure to Park City and Utah in general."