Salt Lake City, Utah — known to snow riders around the world as Ski City, USA — should be on every winter road tripper’s itinerary. The major airport hub (less than an hour from myriad world class ski resorts spread throughout the Wasatch Mountain range) is always a great starting point. No matter where you call home, Salt Lake is quick and easy to get to. After all, there isn’t an airport in North America more than a five-hour flight from the SLC International Airport.
Once you’ve arrived, take advantage of the reasonably priced 4x4 rental cars (ruggedrental.com) and leave the airport in an ultimate winter road trip rig like a new Nissan Armada, Chevy Suburban or Jeep Grand Cherokee. It also helps that this part of the country routinely has the lowest gas prices found anywhere in the world. If you jam straight to one of the nearby ski resorts like Park City from the airport — which takes around 40 minutes — and show them your airline ticket, they’ll give you a free lift pass for the rest of the day.
Base yourself in a ridiculously nice and shockingly affordable Airbnb pad inside Salt Lake’s city limits to take advantage of all the live music, amazing restaurants, craft breweries, indoor rock climbing gyms and other metropolitan delights of this vastly underrated city. Trust us, you’ll be shaking your head at how rad and downright affordable everything in Salt Lake is, even the local Whole Foods seems slightly more reasonable in Ski City.
Use those saved dollars to sample the bounty of world-class ski resorts within an hour in either direction … from the legendary Little Cottonwood Canyon with Alta and Snowbird’s iconic steeps and deep snow, to the impressive terrain that resorts like Snow Basin and Powder Mountain offer to the north.
If it really starts snowing (something that happens quite often in the Wasatch) try to stay “up the canyon” at one of the resort’s hotels or a rental cabin. If you’re lucky, it will snow so much that they’ll be forced to close the canyon road and you and a few other lucky souls will feast on the powdery bounty while everyone else sits in a traffic jam. This is also a good option if the dreaded inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley. That’s when a cold dark pollution ladled cloud covers the city like a blanket; meanwhile it’s sunny and glorious up in the mountains.
After a few days riding in the Wasatch and exploring Salt Lake City, head north up I-15 for four and a half hours to Wyoming’s Grand Tetons and the Jackson Hole Ski Resort. A proving ground for skiers and riders around the world, Jackson Hole’s terrain is second to none. Test yourself on Corbet’s Couloir, a steep chute off the very top and the resort’s most famous run. Buy a few locals some beers at the Mangy Moose Saloon after a day on the slopes and they might just let you follow them through their favorite tress stashes for as long as you can keep up with them.
If you’ve got the cash, stay at the luxurious Omni Hotel near the base of the resort. Otherwise there are a couple of clean and affordable Super 8s in town. Don’t leave Jackson before checking out the Granite Hot Springs. It’s down a dirt road a few miles outside of Jackson in Teton National Park, so you’ll be happy you rented a 4x4. But the views and naturally warm water will ease those aching legs. The abundant wildlife in the area is also a highlight. The National Elk Refuge is a great place to see Bighorn sheep and large herds of, you guessed it, elk.
From Jackson, it’s another hour and a half up and over Teton Pass, linking Wyoming and Idaho, where some great and easily accessible backcountry skiing is on offer. The road is plowed all winter long and while it will occasionally close during big storms, it usually opens within a day.
After that, it’s into the mountains of Idaho and Sun Valley Ski Resort. The first destination ski resort in North America, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain is known for its impeccable grooming, wide-open bowls and top-to-bottom speed runs. Nearby Dollar Mountain has an insane terrain park. And between the two lies Ketchum, one of the last best ski towns on Earth, with views of Bald Mountain from every street corner and a long history of entertaining the world’s best skiers and biggest stars.
Book an Airbnb in the base of Warm Springs, spitting distance from the lifts, and take the free bus into town for the night’s festivities. Or take advantage of the newly remodeled Sun Valley Lodge and its beautiful outdoor hot pools. There’s a great little pedestrian village that can make you feel like you’re in winter wonderland with nostalgic touches inspired by the resort’s 80-year history.
For a day trip, drive north out of town to Galena Lodge and go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Or keep on driving north up and over Galena Summit and into the Sawtooth Mountains. Stop at Smiley Creek Café for a hot meal and rent some snowmobiles to ride.
Complete the triangle by driving an easy four and a half hours south on Highway 75 and then east on the I-84 back to Salt Lake. Return your rental car and catch your flight home after one hell of a road trip.