Firsthand Report
Firsthand Report: Weathering Utah’s Record Winter of 2023 4
Author thumbnail By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist

I spent the better part of the last five winters personally researching the veracity of Utah’s claim to the greatest snow on Earth. The winter of 2023 was the best evidence yet and delivered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Alta ski area saw a record 903” of snow, topping its previous high by more than 150”. Snowbird set a record of 838”. The ski areas of Brighton, Solitude, Snowbasin, Sundance, Nordic Valley, Woodward Park City, Park City Mountain, and Deer Valley also set all-time seasonal snowfall records.

However, there’s an old saying that goes something like this: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it! With big snow came big crowds, tight parking, snarled traffic, and exhaustive avalanche mitigation work. I logged a total of 62 ski days in Utah in 2023 while enjoying a dozen or more legitimate powder days, but at times the Wasatch Mountains were a madhouse. I heard from a Snowbird employee that the access road up to the resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon was closed for all or part of 39 different days during the 2022-23 ski season.

It was truly a standout season and unprecedented in a number of ways. I wasn’t there for the entire winter, but I caught a good chunk of it, residing in the Salt Lake Valley for over four months. I started skiing in Utah on January 21, 2023 and my last ski day there was May 29, 2023. This report contains the highlights and lowlights of my four month Utah powder immersion.

Massive mid-winter snowbanks in Solitude Village on March 5, 2023. Photo by Jim Kenney.

My first ski days after arriving in Utah were January 21, 22, and 23 at Snowbird ski area. The existing snowpack over the entire resort was mind blowing that weekend, but so was the traffic and parking congestion. During that initial three-day stretch my son already had me skiing one of Snowbird’s steepest runs, Great Scott. I didn’t ski Great Scott a single time the previous winter because a decent amount of snow is needed to make the sketchy entrance sufficiently user-friendly for a recreational skier such as myself.

On the morning of Saturday, 21 January the parking lots at Snowbird were totally full when I attempted to go skiing with my son and daughter. After a long search for a spot my daughter volunteered to drop two of us off while she returned home with the car. It was the first time I’d ever experienced a true “shut out” situation at a ski area due to a lack of parking.

Good January snow in Hanging Bowl. Photo by Jim Kenney.

The first of many one+ foot powder days during my time in Utah occurred on January 25 when my son led me down Hanging Bowl under the upper tram line at Snowbird. I’d never skied this particular run before. Normally, mandatory air is required in one or more places to get into Hanging Bowl, but by late January, 2023 it was so filled in with snow that it was doable by earth-bound geezers.

February 6 was another one foot powder day and my friend John from Virginia joined me for a great time at Snowbird. By this point the storms were coming so frequently that in-bounds terrain wasn’t getting fully tracked out before the next dump. And even when it wasn’t snowing, the temperatures remained cool in Utah for much of the winter of 2023. The abundant snowpack stayed well preserved.

John skiing near Snowbird’s Gad 2 chairlift. Photo by Jim Kenney.

I went skiing with John again on the afternoon of Friday, February 10 and the experience was considerably less pleasant! We arrived at Brighton ski area about 12:45 p.m. and got turned away by attendants due to a full parking lot. Usually that day and time is good because many early bird skiers depart for home after lunch. But this was the first sunny day in a while and it brought out hoards of folks getting a jump on the weekend.

After being turned away at Brighton, we drove to nearby Solitude, but all parking was full there too. We yoyo’d back to Brighton without luck. Finally, at 2 p.m. we were permitted to enter Solitude’s Moonbeam parking lot. It took another 10 minutes to find an open spot near the Eagle chair. We squeezed in seven runs before closing time at 4 p.m.

Brighton traffic on February 10, 2023. Photo by Jim Kenney.

Strangely, despite all the cars in the lot, the lift lines were small to moderate and the drive down the Big Cottonwood Canyon access road afterwards was fairly normal. Maybe everyone left while we got our late afternoon ski runs? The whole mess had us scratching our heads. Catching the 972 UTA bus from down in the Salt Lake Valley might have been a decent alternative. Friday had definitely become the new Saturday in the crazy Utah winter of 2023.

The entire month of February featured great snow conditions. But the mega passes and the mega snowfall continued to spawn unpredictable crowding and volatile traffic patterns. Even the drive on “normal” weekdays elicited stressful anticipation of what awaited on access roads for the 8 a.m. ascent or the 4 p.m. descent. Like a maximum capacity day on Washington, DC’s Capital Beltway, one wreck could snarl ski resort traffic for hours.

Logistically, every day was a roll of the dice, but once you clicked into your bindings the skiing was awesome. Generally, weekdays were easier to ski as might be expected. However, I skied over Presidents Weekend at Snowbird and it was superb. The mountain was crowd-free due to the holiday weekend being blacked out on the Ikon base pass. Go figure!

Snowbird’s Mineral Basin remained lightly tracked at 3 p.m. on the Sunday of President’s Weekend, 2023. Photo by Jim Kenney.

I had some personal matters to attend to in mid-late February and missed some time on the slopes. When I returned, the all-natural Wasatch snow machine was still cranking and the crazy-good skiing got even more intense. February 27 was another one foot powder day in the Wasatch. This time I was at Alta with a bunch of friends. I had a great time riding the Supreme chair and getting fresh tracks while lapping Catherine’s Area.

Alta powder on February 27. Photo by Jim Kenney.

It continued to dump all day on the 27th and after Alta’s lifts stopped spinning at 4 p.m., I spent three hours in the Gold Miner Daughter’s Lounge waiting for the traffic to clear on the access road. I was stuck there with about 20 friends, but fortunately I had a fifth of Irish Whiskey in my boot bag and a designated driver to take me down the hill. When we finally left Alta, it took two more hours to slowly drive seven miles and arrive at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon at 9 p.m. Good thing too, because UDOT closed the road at 10 p.m. for overnight plowing and avalanche mitigation work.

On March 1, I made a short day-trip for my first ever visit to Sundance Mountain Resort near Provo, UT. It was one of the deepest and most exhilarating days of my winter. The best thing about it was no crowds, no lines, and no traffic! The weather report said five to seven inches of new overnight snow, but it kept coming down during the day. And because the previous few days had also been stormy there was a cumulative effect that skied more like 15 inches of light, fluffy powder. As much as I love the conditions and terrain of the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon resorts, the day at Sundance might have been my highlight of the season.

Sundance powder shot. Photo by Jim Kenney.

At Sundance there are no Epic or Ikon passes. It’s not even on the Indy Pass. It’s a true independently run ski area, like the old days. The mountain features 2,150’ vertical, five chairlifts, 50 runs, and 500 skiable acres. It’s those 500 acres that make Sundance ski very big on a powder day. The entire mountain came into play, with numerous gullies, bowls, ridges, and tree shots in and around the designated runs. And most importantly, there were only a few hundred other people to help slay the pow.

Sundance’s Lookout Lodge buried in snow. Photo by Jim Kenney.

The stellar skiing continued in March with perhaps a few less overcast days and more sunny moments on the slopes. March 9 was a very nice blue sky day after a 6” snowfall. It was not the deepest snow, but I didn’t have to struggle with the phone to snap photos while snow dumped all around. March 14 was a similar sunny day with good snow conditions. I skied at Solitude that day with two friends who knew the mountain well. The great 2023 snowpack allowed them to take me to places on the mountain I had never skied before, even though I’ve probably visited Solitude 30 times in the last five years.

Snowbird’s Ski Patrol Gully on March 9. Photo by Jim Kenney.
Friends lead Jim on his first ever run down Solitude’s Cathedral Cirque on March 14. Photo by Jim Kenney.
Skiing powder in the world class trees of Brighton on March 20. Photo by Jim Kenney.
Smilin’ John on another one foot powder day at Solitude on March 22. Photo by Jim Kenney.
Creative parking at Snowbird on March 25. Photo by Jim Kenney.
Tele-friend with 15” of powder in Solitude’s Memorial Chute on March 30. Photo by Jim Kenney.

It’s hard to describe the chaos of the huge Utah winter of 2023. There were crowded, but massive powder days that were great if you had the savvy and patience to overcome tricky logistics. There were sunny days in between storms that were quiet and sublime. There were absolute madhouse days with avalanches and resort interlodges (slopes closed and no one allowed outdoors) where I just plain stayed home.

But then came the snowmageddon that pummeled the Wasatch from the evening of April 2 to the morning of April 5. Approximately 60” fell in 60 hours and by April 5th all four Cottonwood Canyon resorts, Sol/Bright and Alta/Bird, were closed due to heavy snow and avalanche mitigation efforts.

Massive blanket of snow atop Solitude’s Moonbeam Lodge on April 6. Photo by Jim Kenney.

I finally got up to ski again on April 6 at Solitude and noticed a strange thing. The five feet of snow skied like only about 10” of new snow. They used a term I was previously unfamiliar with: pancaked. This early April snow was somewhat dense and so deep that it compacted upon itself. Only the last 12 hours of snow skied like soft powder; everything underneath was compressed like old packed snow. Still, it was very fine skiing.

Friends don’t let friends ski alone at Solitude on April 6. Photo by Jim Kenney.

The early April storm was so extensive that even many much lower elevation suburban areas around Salt Lake City received two feet of snow. By this point in time seasonal snowfall records were being broken throughout Utah ski country. There was a very scary in-bounds avalanche at Snowbird on April 6. After several hours of frantic probing and searching, no casualties were reported.

My personal luck ran out when I caught an edge trying to speed along a flat area at Solitude on the 6th. I went down hard on my left shoulder. X-rays showed no break, but a mildly sprained ACL kept me off the slopes for about a week. As it turned out, it was not a bad time to take a break from skiing in Utah.

During my recovery period there was a great deal of wet slide activity in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons that caused numerous road closures, some lasting for days. Avalanches were reported widely throughout Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. This also resulted in partial or full ski area closures for a week or more. All the snow had just become too much of a good thing.

The extreme avalanche threat and road closures eased just about the time I returned to skiing on April 12. Spring had finally arrived and sunny ski conditions began to dominate. The constant powder days were a thing of the past. While I hate to admit it, the stability and predictability ushered in by the mild weather was a pleasant respite.

Brighton’s parking lot beach scene from April. Photo by Jim Kenney.

The snowpack remained monumental through the end of April and into May. Snowbird built (with the help of experts from Woodward Park City) a pair of huge tandem terrain parks in Mineral Basin. This section of the resort served by the Baldy chairlift is usually closed by May, but not in the record setting year of 2023. One park contained especially huge features and was built for pro athletes. A slightly smaller park was built next to it for the general public. I enjoyed several afternoons watching hundreds of folks “go big” in the parks and dabbled a little in them myself.

Snowbird’s Woodward Peace Park. Photo by Jim Kenney.

I believe the Woodward Peace Park situated beside Snowbird’s Baldy chair operated nearly seven weeks from approximately April 1 to May 21. The construction of such humongous park terrain was unprecedented at the resort in recent years, and the area quickly became one of most popular parts of mountain. In my opinion it was a huge win for the public, but I’m not sure how the finances worked out for the resort. A lot of manpower and machinery were devoted to the project. The snowmageddon in early April messed up the Little Cottonwood Canyon access road for two weeks and reduced visitation to both Snowbird and Alta.

The Woodward Peace Park built in Snowbird’s Mineral Basin was a big hit. Photo by Jim Kenney.

Even towards mid to late May the Wasatch remained very white. But the temperatures went from cold to mild without an extended period of in-between weather to allow for good corn snow conditions. I skied 16 days in May, but many were cut short due to the snow often only skiing well for a couple of hours per day. Ullr’s blessings were finally running out.

On May 21 my son and I did a fun double. We skied at Snowbird in the morning and then we went for a picnic and some afternoon skiing at Solitude. It was Solitude’s closing day of the season and they had all slopes open with deep, if mushy, coverage.

Solitude’s closing day on May 21, 2023. Photo by Jim Kenney.

As I approached the end of May and the end of my time in Utah, only Brighton and Snowbird remained open with limited hours and reduced terrain. I skied Brighton on May 25 for a Milly Meltdown session. At that point only the Millicent chairlift was operating. It was a fun spring day and it was great to have two close by ski areas still in operation at that late stage of the season.

Cruising at Brighton on May 25. Photo by Jim Kenney.

I skied three straight days at Snowbird from May 27-29, and then it was over. Snowbird remained open sporadically for several more weeks, but my wife and I needed to return East. I choose Memorial Day (May 29, 2023) as my final ski day of the winter. I skied 64 days (62 Utah, 2 Colorado) in the 2022-23 season, a personal record for me. Partaking in lift-served skiing on May 29 was also a record late date for me. I’m super grateful to be able to enjoy this wonderful sport in my retirement years.

Heading out of Little Cloud Bowl at Snowbird on May 27. Photo by Jim Kenney.

When weighing the pros and cons of a monster snow year, I’m obviously glad to have been a part of it, but maybe I don’t want it every year. Normally, April is my favorite time to ski in Utah with small crowds and nice snow. In 2023 the crowds didn’t die down until nearly the end of the month and a quick and extended warm-up turned the promisingly deep spring snow pack into glop much faster than expected.

I saw an estimate that visitation to Utah’s ski resorts exceeded 7.1 million in the winter of 2022-23, a 22% increase over the previous record. I didn’t really suffer from long lift lines, but the traffic and parking were at times simply terrible. The UTA bus system struggled to keep up with demand and several resorts instituted parking reservation systems to try to cope. I believe the massive crowds were driven by two factors related to the abundant snow: many extra out-of-state tourists flocked to Utah to partake in the record snow conditions, and even more impactful, the number of permanent local Salt Lake Valley skiers and boarders has grown significantly in recent years, and they skied more frequently than normal.

Even the greatest snow on Earth ain’t much fun if you don’t have friends to share it with. At Brighton on March 2, 2023. Photo by Jim Kenney.

In the end it is the snow that I will remember about the year of 2023. Ski Utah, the state’s winter promotional organization, issued 44 powder alerts last winter signaling at least 12” of new snow in a 24-hour timespan. The average powder alerts of this type for a season is 19.

In my mind, however, the statistic that is most emblematic of Utah’s record winter is one registered by the Alta ski area. Dividing the 903 total inches of snow the resort received this winter by the 177 ski days it was operational yields the incredible average of 5.1” of snow for each and every day Alta was open in the 2022-23 season!

About Jim Kenney

Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.

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Reader Comments

Crush
6 months ago (edited 6 months ago)
Member since 03/21/2004 🔗
1,271 posts
Niiice! Man I miss that action! @Scott - OK time to fess-up the last three article hero images look like they were AI generated? Don't be shy I actually think it is awesome my boss plays bass in a metal band in the DMV and he generated their new cover art using DeepAI. 
Scott - DCSki Editor
6 months ago
Member since 10/10/1999 🔗
1,249 posts
@Crush: What, you don't think I've been taking evening classes in graphic design to up my artistic skills?  :)  Generative AI certainly helps even the playing field for solo publishers, even as the bots mine and freeload off our painstakingly created content.  It's a pretty exciting (and scary) time.
johnfmh - DCSki Columnist
6 months ago
Member since 07/18/2001 🔗
1,987 posts

Jim,

Very nice article. We skied Snowbasin for a midweek at the end of February, and took the bus to and from the resort every day. The bus was standing room only on many days and on at least one, it had to turn away some people at Rainbow Gardens. Snowbasin is establishing a separate employee only bus next season—hopefully that takes the heat off the UTA busses. I would say at least 50% of UTA riders were Snowbasin employees—great people and they certainly need to get the mountain. Hopefully the new system will be better for them as well.

Once we got out of the base area, people spread out and we didn’t experience much in the way of crowds. Snowbasin limits Ikon pass holders to a certain number of days depending on the type of pass and that probably helped.  The snow was good and plentiful but not the blower pow I have experienced in past years. 

JimK - DCSki Columnist
6 months ago
Member since 01/14/2004 🔗
2,976 posts
Here's a link to a fun video about what it was like at Alta, UT during the big dump in early April 2023:  see here.

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