SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- This could be the next great leap forward for Utah skiing: Hopping from one resort in the Wasatch Range to another, with seven resorts already clustered so closely together some neighbors are separated by only a rope line.
It would make for a Euro-style experience in in the mountains that loom over Salt Lake City. By combining 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of terrain, the Utah resorts could offer North America's largest skiing complex -- three times the size of Vail and twice as big as Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.
Canyons Resort has given the concept new attention with a proposed first step: a $10 million gondola traveling two miles (3.2 kilometers) over the 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) Wasatch ridge and dropping into Solitude Mountain Resort for customers of both resorts.
Many skiers are delighted at the prospect of open travel along some of the best skiing terrain in the West, with the reliability of dry Utah snow.
"It would give Utah the marketing edge it needs," says Jon Weisberg, a retired Bristol-Myers Squibb executive from New York who moved in 2000 to Utah for the skiing and redrock canyons. "Stringing these jewels together will make it even better."
It's not clear Canyons will succeed, but the Park City resort has opened a debate that lay dormant for decades. The discussion could bring in other resorts, and it's already spurring studies of transportation and route options involving rail, cable cars or dedicated bus lanes.
"The whole idea of connecting resort has taken on renewed discussion and debate. We're happy to be a part of it," said Mike Goar, managing director of Canyons. "It's consistent with the bigger picture of connecting resorts."
Going over opposition from the U.S. Forest Service, Canyons asked Congress earlier this year to sell a corridor of land for the gondola, raising an avalanche of protest from backcountry skiers, wilderness advocates and municipal water officials.
"We need to curb development and keep the pristine beauty of the Wasatch mountains that draws people to this place," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, a preservation group that says it's open to lower-impact options for resort connections.
Solitude recently stated that it hopes to see construction of the inter-resort gondola begin in summer, but aides to Utah's Republican Congressman Rob Bishop don't expect any action until the new Congress is seated in January.
Skiers don't have to wait for the politics to settle. It's already possible to ski between some neighboring resorts in the snowy Wasatch mountains.
Solitude and Brighton offer a joint pass, along with Alta and Snowbird in a neighboring canyon. In addition, the trade group SkiUtah offers an underappreciated but somewhat taxing Interconnect Adventure Tour of all seven Wasatch resorts.
The daylong tour with a stop for lunch tour is led by backcountry guides who keep an eye on avalanche danger. The longest out-of-bounds stretch on the tour is barely two miles (3.2 kilometers), the distance Canyons would connect with an express gondola.
Plenty else has changed since the 2002 Winter Olympics remade Utah's ski industry. Utah officials are looking to possibly make another Olympic bid for the 2026 Games in a decision due this month.
The 14 resorts have invested in roughly $1 billion in improvements, adding terrain, high-speed lifts and bubble chairs. Park City now has a handful of five-star hotels, from the Waldorf Astoria to the Montage Deer Valley.
Some of the latest improvements came in small packages, like a tiny ski area in southern Utah that offers big adventure.
Just beyond Eagle Point's gates are hundreds of square miles (kilometers) of untrammeled powder snow under the volcanic-shaped peaks of the Tushar mountains. Skiers can take endless backcountry loops with little effort using the resort's lifts.
Managers of a New York-based hedge fund brought the former Elk Meadows ski area out of dormancy and are running it as a family operation for a third year. Revenue is thin for Utah's most remote ski area, outside the ranching town of Beaver, but that didn't stop the owners from offering free skiing.
Anyone can ski Eagle Point at no charge Thursdays in January, and for California residents skiing is free all season. Meanwhile, nearby Brian Head is slashing prices for skiers who buy a punch pass of five lift tickets for midweek use, at $159.
Adventure also is on tap at northern Utah's Powder Mountain, which grew from one of the smallest to arguably largest Utah ski resort, although it involves some walking or snowcat rides to reach distant slopes. The effort is worth it, with deep powder outlasting other Utah resorts for days at a time after a storm.
A look at what's new at Utah resorts this year:
-- Alta is celebrating 75 years with its own anniversary beer, produced by Wasatch Brewery. Alta opened in 1938 with rope tows and a year later added a chair lift, the second in the West after Idaho's Sun Valley.
Alta plans to mark the Jan. 15 anniversary with fireworks and a torchlight parade. It's publishing a picture book and will roll out a series of short films digitized from 8 mm color shots taken as early as the 1940s. What's more, Alta is partnering on a $349 pass for two days of skiing at each of four destinations, including Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows. That works out to $43.60 a day.
-- Beaver Mountain has leveled and cleared out its base area for easier skier access, after adding a triple-seat chair last year.
-- Brighton opened first for the season among Utah resorts Nov. 13 with a 36-inch base (nearly a meter). The boarder-friendly resort is rolling out a new mobile app for snow reports and a yurt for ski school.
-- Canyons Resort introduces the Ultimate Mountain Experience, with six Olympians and six other athletes coaching guests for three-day sessions under the direction of Phil McNichol, former U.S. men's alpine coach.
-- Deer Valley replaced the fixed-grip Deer Crest chair with a high-speed detachable quad as part of $8 million in improvements. The resort also boosted snowmaking, bought five new Prinoth snowcats and renovated Snow Park Restaurant.
-- Park City Mountain Resort offers a new terrain park, Neff Land, and a three-day freestyle camp for children.
-- Snowbird replaced the 1980 two-seat Little Cloud chair lift with a high-seed quad. Instead of a ride of eight minutes "that felt like 20," the new lift delivers skiers to the top of Snowbird in 3½ minutes, said Dave Fields, vice president of resort operations.
-- Solitude expanded snowmaking for earlier season openings.
-- Sundance adds a new chair lift from an upper parking lot with direct access to a terrain park. It also expanded snowmaking capacity by 40 percent.
-- Snowbasin is expanding a terrain park and its snowcat fleet.
-- Wolf Mountain, under new ownership and management, runs Utah's smallest ski area with three lifts, night skiing, and a magic-carpet conveyer for children.