BRIAN HEAD, Iron County — It's just days before the ski and snowboard season opens here at Brian Head Resort, and Todd Boyer of Cedar City has brought his 5-year-old son, Jacob, to the slopes so he can get acquainted with his snowboard.
"We figured this was a good chance to warm up," says Todd, "before the crowds get here."
So to speak.
Welcome to the best-kept secret in Utah skiing and boarding — and just maybe the best-kept secret in the entire world of skiing and boarding.
Should you happen to enroll in the witness protection program, this is where they send you to ski.
Mountain-wise, Brian Head has it all. Huge, imposing peaks (Brian Head Mountain rises to 11,307 feet and the resort's base elevation is 9,600 feet, highest in Utah). Plenty of snow (400-plus inches a year). Ample lifts (eight of them, servicing 53 runs). A nice variety of terrain (40 percent beginner, 30 percent expert and advanced).
But what it does not have are a bunch of noisy neighbors.
The nearest town is Parowan (pop. 2,601), 13 miles almost straight down on the valley floor. Cedar City and St. George are next in line. They're larger than Parowan, but no one's ever confused them with the population centers of the Earth.
You have to go quite a ways farther south before you run into the biggest reason Brian Head is alive and well and set to open for its 48th consecutive season this Saturday.
"A lot of our business comes from there," says Henry Hornberger, Brian Head's vice president and general manager, who cites surveys that show 45 percent of the resort's customers are from southern Nevada, while 27 percent come from southern California.
Utahns account for 15 percent of the traffic, almost all from the southern part of the state.
"We really appeal to the drive market, especially from Nevada," adds Hornberger. "Someone can get in their car on the strip in Las Vegas and in not much more than three hours, they're here on the lift."
No matter where you're coming from in the world, then, after you land at the airport in Las Vegas, 200 miles from Brian Head, just add three hours or so and you're at the slopes.
In brochures Brian Head's marketing department distributes liberally in southern Nevada, they helpfully spell this out, strongly suggesting that part of what happens in Vegas can easily be skiing in southern Utah.
And you can use them as a cover.
"Tell them you're going for a nice quiet ski vacation," says the brochure. "We won't tell them about Vegas."
(Incidentally, at 230 miles, the airport in Salt Lake City isn't much farther from Brian Head than the Las Vegas airport, but the fact that there are nine world-class ski resorts within an hour of Salt Lake City pretty much destroys the northern Utah market. The chief Brian Head lure for northern Utah skiers and boarders is being able to hit the slopes one day and golf or mountain-bike in St. George the next).
But if all the talk of Las Vegas conjures up images of Brian Head skiers in velour warmups with gold chains around their neck, think again.
"Our main appeal is to families," says Hornberger. "We're very kid-friendly. We have an entire mountain that is completely green (beginner) runs. Plus, we're a good value."
A non-holiday Brian Head adult day pass is $49, about half that of northern Utah prices.
And if you pull in for gas at Maverik stations in southern Utah or Terrible Herbst stations in southern Nevada, you can pick up a voucher that reduces the price of a midweek day pass to $25 — a campaign that has been going on for the past three years, dating to the beginning of the recession.
"What we've found is it attracts a bunch of people who had given up skiing because they couldn't afford it anymore," says Hornberger. "And another thing we've found with our Nevada market is they'll come for Friday and stay over for Saturday."
That said, the mountain remains uncrowded. There's always more than enough to go around.
"We don't have high-speed lifts and some of the other things you'll find at a larger resort," says Hornberger. "But if you like to make a powder run in the morning and come back at three in the afternoon and cross your own tracks, this is the place."
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: email@example.com