From ski tourism to local politics, and from winter road conditions to dicey weather forecasts, we take a broad look at how Colorado deals with the sometimes sloppy issue of snow.
Who's got the better powder—Colorado or Utah?
Colorado boasts some of the most highly rated ski resorts in the world, we have the highest-elevation lifts in the country, and our slopes host about 12 million skiers each year—more than any other state. Colorado certainly has the American ski tourism market cornered, but do we have the best snow for it?
It's an age-old argument among all snow-producing states, but the question of who has the best snow is a major point of contention between we square-staters and our next-door neighbors to the west. It's a pride thing—and neither Colorado nor Utah is willing to admit defeat. In truth, there will never be a definitive answer to end this debate, no matter how much we may want one. But there is some qualitative evidence—and a mountain of anecdotal substantiation—that gets us close.
For the most part, the debate has centered around two important aspects of snowfall: the quantity and the quality. Although these two terms may seem unrelated, the crux of the snow battle can be found in the combination of these characteristics. And, although Coloradans may not like it, Utah may have the upper hand.
Meteorologists, climatologists, and atmospheric scientists—both Colorado- and Utah-based—agree that snowfall at Utah's key ski resorts is better built for powder skiing. "Quality snow is indeed a matter of opinion," says Dr. Jim Steenburgh, a professor in the University of Utah's department of atmospheric sciences. "Many skiers, however, equate the water content of the snow with quality, and this is somewhat true. Most skiers will agree that high-water-content snow is heavy and difficult to ski." But Steenburgh also says that "dry snow" isn't the only necessary ingredient for great powder skiing. In Steenburgh's "Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth," a September 2008 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, he finds that the quantity of lower-water-content snow is just as important as the anatomy of the snow itself. And it is this crucial amalgamation of factors that gives Utah resorts their edge.
"Keep in mind that our moisture in the winter comes from the west," says Nolan Doesken, Colorado's state climatologist. "Utah gets dibs on that weather before us. Their mountains are nice north-to-south ranges that rest sort of perpendicular to the flow of the storms, and they wring out a lot of moisture." Which means Utah gets, in its concentrated ski areas, low- to moderate-density snow just like Colorado does, but it tends to come in bigger dumps. On the flip side, Colorado receives very few monster snows, instead relying on a lot of little ones. And that favors Utah's ski areas, especially if you're a powder hound.
It's a nasty dose of reality for Colorado die-hards who swear by our powder. But keep in mind there's a good reason—more than one, actually—our hills draw more visitors than Utah's: Beginner and intermediate skiers often like snow with a little more body on a more solid base; we have much more lift-served terrain; and our slope-side lodging, dining, and entertainment options far surpass most Utah resorts. And it's not like our version of the white stuff leaves a lot to be desired. Ever heard of champagne powder? —LBK
Colorado's Snow Breakdown
The meteorological rule in Colorado is the farther south one goes, the higher density the snow will be. But there are other factors to consider: Areas with higher altitudes but lower winds will have lower-density snows. Regions with higher winds will have higher-density snow because wind breaks snow crystals, which land more compactly with less air between the flakes. Resorts that reside in the south of the state but catch the southern end of storms that hit the northern part of the state often have moderate-density snows. Of course, snow quality is also all about quantity—which varies wildly across the state. Here, we take a look at some of the more popular resorts:
- Winter Park
low- to moderate-density snow, 349 inches
- Wolf Creek
higher-density snow, 465 inches
low- to moderate-density snow, 300 inches
- Steamboat Springs
low-density snow, 334 inches
low- to moderate-density snow, 350 inches
moderate-density snow, 300 inches
moderate- to higher-density snow, 309 inches
- Arapahoe Basin
moderate-density snow, 350 inches