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The rivalry between Colorado and Utah is nothing new. Whether it’s for jobs and trade shows, tourism dollars, or Olympic bids, the neighboring states have been competing with each other in the outdoor recreation space for decades. But at least one debate has never really been settled. Between two of the country’s most popular skiing states, which has better snow—Colorado or Utah? It’s a hot topic, and one that skiers (and resorts) are sensitive about.
You may remember back in October 2018 when Snowbird shamelessly threw down the gauntlet before the ski season began, tweeting that “Utah has better snow than Colorado.”
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Utah has better snow than Colorado. https://t.co/kWS8EikkfC
— Snowbird (@Snowbird) October 4, 2018
Unsurprisingly, mountains in Colorado fired back. Steamboat pointed out its snow is of such high quality it actually possess the trademark “Champagne Powder.” Arapahoe Basin chimed in, too, noting that its snow sticks around much longer than anywhere else in Colorado or Utah.
— #SteamboatResort (@skisteamboat) October 5, 2018
Wrong. Plus, we get to enjoy our snow longer. Guess it's time to update our hashtag to #LongestSeasonInColoradoANDUtah. Because June. And October.
— Arapahoe Basin (@Arapahoe_Basin) October 5, 2018
As the Twitter scuffle illustrates, determining the status of “better” snow is tricky. Does “better” mean more snow? Or lighter? More consistent? Longer lasting? All of the above? If you want to get technical, we asked a few experts (from both states) to weigh in.
“There really is no argument,” says University of Utah professor of atmospheric science Jim Steenburgh, avid skier, and author of Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, which dissects the science behind Utah’s abundant powder. “Alta and Snowbird get more snow than any resort in Colorado and have more deep powder days. Did I mention they are steep, too?”
Steenburgh coined the term “Goldilocks storms” for storms typical to Utah’s Wasatch mountains yielding just the right amount of powder for a perfect, bottomless float experience—not too little and not too much.
“If you’re talking purely scientifically, defining the best snow as the deepest and lightest powder, it usually goes to [Utah’s] Little Cottonwood Canyon,” says Colorado-based forecaster and OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz. “The snow in Utah and Colorado is roughly the same quality. Little Cottonwood is closer to the moisture source at the Pacific Ocean, so it can pull out a little more. But every storm is different.”
OpenSnow forecasters use Z Rankings as their go-to for data. The site ranks North American resorts for “best snow” based on average winter snowfall, elevation, vertical, percentage of days with more than six inches of powder and monthly snow depth. Alta is ranked number one, averaging 517 inches every winter. Snowbird is second with 497 inches. Colorado holds a single spot in the top 10 with Wolf Creek at number seven, averaging 387 inches. Winter Park lands at 11, Loveland at 12, and Vail at number 14.
Evan Thayer, an OpenSnow meteorologist and powder hound who grew up in Tahoe, California, spent six years living and skiing in Colorado before relocating to Utah, where he’s lived for the past 10 years.
“I’d always wanted to live in Utah. It was the opportunity to move closer to skiing and—spoiler alert—better snow,” he says, adding that Utah’s snowfall is not only more bountiful than Colorado’s but easier to forecast, the flow generally moving from west to east. “In Colorado, there are specific flows in certain directions, so some areas get skunked. Utah’s small to moderate storms are six inches to a foot. Colorado’s are three to six inches.”
Thus, while Coloradans might feel defensive when we see Utah license plates boasting “the Greatest Snow on Earth,” we can’t say it’s entirely untrue.
However, before Utahns claim their crown, there are a few factors the Centennial State has going for it—one of which is elevation. Utah’s tallest ski area, Alta, tops out at just over 11,000 feet, while Colorado has several with summits over 13,000, as well as the highest chairlift in North America at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“Colorado is at a higher elevation and generally has lighter, fluffier snow,” Thayer says. “It just doesn’t get as much.”
All powder enthusiasts also know crowds and traffic can make or break the ski experience. And while I-70 can be a nightmare on weekends, skiers in Utah sometimes have it even worse.
“Even though the snow is amazing, there is one road in and out of Little Cottonwood,” Gratz says. “There are days when avalanches can completely close access.”
Steenburgh agrees. “The Cottonwood Canyons and I-70 have a common problem with traffic and powder days,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would say that Utah lacks crowds. On a powder day, it can be a very long trip up a relatively short canyon.”
Utah is home to 14 ski areas, 10 of which can be accessed within an hour of the Salt Lake airport. However, Colorado has nearly twice as many ski areas as Utah, and thanks to Arapahoe Basin—which is often the first resort in North America to open for the season (October 11 this season) and the last to close (July 4 in 2019)—Colorado skiers enjoy a much longer ski season.
So, is there a conclusive answer? Probably not, because “the best snow” doesn’t always depend on science. Factor in crowds, elevation, and the length of the season, and you can see why Coloradans boast about being the center of the ski universe.
“It totally depends on what you love,” Gratz says. “Some want steep or deep, some want just steep. Some want quaint villages or cruise-y skiing. I think there’s a little more variety in Colorado in terms of villages and towns. Snow and terrain can only take you so far. I’m a scientist, so I caveat everything. Basically, no matter what, you’ll have a wonderful time if you are with good people and doing something that makes you happy.”