Off the Beaten Ski PathOgden, Utah, offers all the amenities of a high-profile winter destination while holding on to the small-town charm

By Jack Macaleavy 

There was a time not too long ago when St. George Island and the Emerald Coast were virtually unknown gems on the Florida coastline – places where you could find a value vacation and enjoy all the amenities that Florida’s beaches can provide without the concentration of people and the world of franchises.

If you have a passion for winter sports and the natural wonders of mountain living, then Ogden, Utah, is a destination you must experience before it becomes another Vail, Park City or any of the high-profile winter destinations that draw the masses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld.)

With many dinner flights from Atlanta, Orlando and Tampa to Salt Lake City, Ogden is a brief 45-minute drive north into the mountains that surround the host city of the 2002 Winter Olympics. A friendly mountain city with approximately 75,000 people, Ogden is historically known as the hub of the cross-continental railroad system of the late 1800s.

At its peak, the city’s Union Station served a railroad track system that transferred the U.S. population to and from the East and West coasts. Not far out of town is where the Golden Spike was driven in 1869, completing the first transcontinental railroad route. At the doorstep of Union Station is the infamous 25th Street – a street that once housed speakeasies, saloons, brothels and juke joints from the 1800s to the mid-20th century.

Today, 25th Street has experienced a renaissance, with many fine restaurants, retail establishments and funky saloons. Ogden also is home to Hill Air Force Base and a wonderful aerospace museum that houses more than 75 planes and memorabilia of the history of our airborne branch of the U.S. military.

Let’s get down to what people seek from winter mountain destinations – skiing, skiing and more skiing. There are two outstanding ski resorts just a 20-minute drive from the upper valley outside Ogden, and they offer completely different experiences.

Snowbasin was the location of the Olympic downhill events. It is privately owned by a visionary entrepreneur whose philosophy is “If you are going to do it – do it first class.” He completed a luxurious lodge at the mountain base with design, structure and service of a quality that compares with the Ritz Carlton. Impeccably decorated inside, the 24-karat gold chandeliers make you feel like removing your ski boots before entering. A state-of-the-art gondola and moving sidewalk system transports skiers and snowboarders. I believe all staff members went though the Disney training program. Each, in his or her own way, makes guests feel like they are VIPs. The lift line is very short on weekends and practically nil during the week. There are 104 designated runs, one with a vertical drop of 2,959 feet.

Want virgin snow? Take a short hike up the mountaintop and choose your way down over untouched, ungroomed terrain. Snowbasin has Nordic trails, cross-country tracks, a Superpipe for the snowboard aces, a tubing hill, and miles of snowshoe trails on U.S. Forest Service land.

Now, if you are a purist, Powder Mountain resort is just around the mountain. Also privately owned, this facility is very laid back, very unpretentious, and the place where the locals hang. Utilize one of the seven lifts to reach the top and choose one of the 113 trails down.

Or, consider spending $75 for a helicopter that ferries up to five people on a five-minute trip to a place that no lift can reach. From here (if you have experience on the more difficult Black Diamond trails) you can swoosh through virgin powder for up to an hour as you descend down the mountain to base camp.

Want some more options? Then a day trip to Ogden’s George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park – America’s largest research and educational dinosaur park – is a must for adults and children.

There are more than 100 life-size reproductions of the many species that roamed the earth a few million years ago. You can observe paleontologists as they carefully clean and examine real remnants of these vast creatures.

The area also is home to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Trinity monastery, where you can visit anytime and sit in on one of the brothers’ daily prayer ceremonies. Brother Davis will be glad to provide a 15-minute slide show and explain what life is like on an 1,800-acre working monastery where, each year, the farming and production of exquisite honey products supports more than 600 charities throughout the world.

I predict the short lift lines and undiscovered charm of the Ogden area slowly will disappear over the next decade. So if an out-of-the-way destination and the value a place like this can offer sounds appealing, get out there before the corporate world changes it into one of the predictable winter destinations the masses flock to each year.