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EASY SLIDER (Observer 19/3/06)
Alf Alderson heads in search of Rocky Mountain powder in a big RV
After a hard day of high altitude skiing in Utah’s legendary powder it was easier to pull our RV over to the side of the road for the night and park beside the piled up snow outside the resort of Snowbird rather than drive for 45 minutes to a campsite in Salt Lake City.
However the local sheriff felt differently, and let us know by pounding on the door at six am next morning with threats of citations for illegal parking. Our pleas of ignorance succeeded largely because they came on the back of British accents, and our brush with the law was but a distant memory three hours later as we scrambled out of the Solitude cable car onto the 11,000-foot summit of Hidden Peak for the ‘Interconnect Tour’.
The prosaically monikored ‘Interconnect’ is actually a wonderful guided ski tour linking the resorts of Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude and Alta in a 20-mile plus circuit. With around 16,000 feet of descent, several hundred feet of climbing through the backcountry areas, and the chance to ski untracked Utah powder, this is the quintessential Utah ski experience.
After two more days of skiing in Utah’s magical powder we got our trip properly under way and hit the road for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Although we’re seeing much bigger motorhomes on British roads these days, the American version is, of course, even bigger and better. But despite their 25-foot-plus length, driving them is nowhere near as daunting as you might imagine – in the Rockies freeways, parking lots, gas stations etc. all have plenty of space to accommodate an RV, town and city streets are also wide and easily navigable (the centre of Salt Lake City, for instance, was built wide enough to allow a wagon and team of horses to perform a U-turn), and there’s almost always space to park your RV on the roadside, even downtown. Our main worry was encountering heavy snow and ice, but on the few snowy roads we travelled the sheer weight of the RV prevented it from sliding around as long as it was driven sensibly. And let’s face it you won’t be going on unploughed backroads in an RV.
Inside, the vehicle was better appointed and more comfortable than some ski chalets I’ve stayed in, with two king-size beds (and the potential to make up another double) a bathroom and shower, a fully equipped kitchen and enough storage space for Victoria Beckham’s wardrobe. And most importantly of all, there was a powerful blown air heater, which ensured we were always snug and warm.
Indeed, it’s actually quite a luxury to be able to ski almost to the door, clamber into the RV, crack open a beer and flake out on large, soft bed or sofa. Our normal routine would be to leap into the shower after finishing the beer, maybe get some food on the go (or a cuppa at the very least) and then decide where to stay for the night. Options may include the ski resort you’re at, an RV park or a lay-by on top of a mountain pass – whichever we chose we were always as comfortable as in any ski chalet, and once chilled out with a big meal in your belly, a good book in your hand and a decent malt at your side it’s quite easy to forget all about exploring the après-ski options (which were actually quite limited anyway in most of the resorts we visited).
Apart from our run-in with the law on day one we were never disturbed anywhere we stayed, and the limited number of RV parks that remain open through the winter are invariably quiet and have excellent facilities. In essence you’re travelling in a house on wheels, with all the facilities of the average American home (although we thankfully had no TV). The biggest hassle is filling up with water and emptying the ‘dump tanks’, but this being America the latter is done with (thankfully) as little contact between you and dump tank contents as is humanly possible.
In Jackson Hole it also seemed like we might end up having as little contact with the mountain as humanly possible as we plummeted over its precipices – at least if the hyperbolic warning signs on 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain were anything to go by. ‘Our mountain is like nothing you have skied before!’ they scream. ‘It is huge…you could make a mistake and suffer personal injury or death’ you are further advised. So it was with some trepidation that we set off from the summit of Rendezvous only to discover that anyone who has skied somewhere like Chamonix, Verbier or even Avoriaz won’t have any problems here.
That said, for all the hype Jackson Hole is pretty special, with some incredibly challenging off-piste skiing (as well as some equally fine if less daunting pisted runs), a positively Artic feel to its wild and exposed summit and tremendous views of the magnificent Teton Range and Teton Valley.
It was whilst enjoying a beer in the excellent Snake River Brewery after our second day in Jackson that we decided to take full advantage of our RV and change our travel plans. Our schedule had us heading north the next day to Big Sky in Montana, but the snow reports were poor. However, on the west side of the Tetons the much vaunted powder stash of Grand Targhee was enjoying good conditions and was only an hour away, so why not take our mobile ski chalet there?
The journey involved a slow crawl over 8,429-ft Teton Pass, then the almost equally slow descent into Idaho and the homely mountain town of Driggs, six miles below Grand Targhee. Here we pulled up for the night beside the very fine Royal Wolf Pub and enjoyed another of the advantages of RV’ing – park outside your pub of choice and walk 20 yards home after a few beers with the locals.
The following day we shared sparsely populated slopes and brilliant sunshine with more of the locals after which we spent a night in an RV park in nearby Idaho Falls, then continued five hours west to glitzy Sun Valley to park up in the town’s Meadows RV Park, just south of the resort.
Sun Valley offers 3,400 feet of constantly pitched vertical so it’s a mission to get from top to bottom in one go, but when you do you can stomp into the most opulent ski lodges in the Rockies for lunch, all huge timbers and river rock fireplaces with deep pile carpets and marble clad ‘rest rooms’. Next day came a diametrically opposed ski experience, with a minor backcountry epic in the Smoky Mountains, some 20 miles north of Sun Valley, which saw one of our number being helicoptered off the mountain after injuring his knee.
A couple of days later I sat behind the wheel of our RV on the six hour drive back to base in Salt Lake City and considered our ski experience. Seven resorts skied in fourteen days, holing up in either convenient campsites, beneath the slopes or next to the pub, and a road trip that took us through classic American landscapes. It certainly beats the snow train to the Alps…
Alf Alderson is co- author of the Rough Guide to the Rocky Mountains
Two weeks rental of a five-berth motor home out of Salt Lake City costs 50 with full insurance, 1,960 prepaid miles (we did just under 1,200 miles) and sales tax. For more information contact Cruise America 08705 143607,firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cruiseamerica.org.uk
We booked flights and accommodation with AmeriCan & Worldwide Travel 01892 511894 www.awwt.co.uk Flights to Salt Lake City cost from £335.00 plus £65 tax. You can’t pick up your RV on arrival due to concerns over jet lag and general tiredness, so we stayed in the atmospheric Peery Hotel on our first night where rooms start from £60 per night.
You’ll need to be comfortable with driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road. You should also be comfortable in charge of a large vehicle – the average North American RVs will be as big if not bigger than the largest campervan you’re likely to see on European roads.
You’ll be given a full ‘tour’ of the vehicle before taking it away and shown how to ‘hook up’, fill and empty water and waste tanks, etc., and you’re provided with an owner’s manual, bedding, cooking utensils etc., but don’t worry about breakdowns – you get an emergency number to call, even for flat tyres.