In what state will you find the largest ski resort in America?
Sorry, Colorado, but it’s Utah!
And the best place in Utah for skiing? I vote for Park City and here’s why:
Leave San Diego in the morning, and you can be skiing in this resort town by early afternoon. Just a two-hour plane ride to Salt Lake International Airport and a 35-minute drive puts you smack dab in the center of this former mining town where three world-class ski resorts — Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), Canyons and Deer Valley — are at your doorstep. Last September, PCMR was purchased by Vail Resorts, which also manages Canyons.
Just a few days before I visited Park City in December, Vail announced one of the most ambitious capital programs in U.S. ski industry history to upgrade and unite PCMR and Canyons via a high speed, two-way “Interconnect Gondola,” thereby creating the largest ski resort in the country with more than 7,300 acres of skiable terrain across 17 peaks with 296 trails.
To those in the ski industry, merchants along Park City’s historic Main Street and the town’s citizens, the excitement in the air is palpable.
“This place is red hot,” said Larry Warren, general manager of KPCW, Park City’s radio station and who is also an author and local historian.
The infusion of cash and industry expertise by Vail, which owns nine other U.S. ski resorts, Warren predicts, will take Park City to new heights. “These people know what they’re doing,” he said. “Vail is spending $50 million — and that’s in the first year.”
The plan will designate $5 million in “catch-up” maintenance at PCMR and upgrade its lifts, build a 500-seat restaurant near the Interconnect Gondola terminal, upgrade and expand two more restaurants, and fund advanced snowmaking at Canyons’ Iron Mountain area.
Next season, Vail plans to operate the two resorts as “Park City Mountain Resort;” the Canyons base area will be renamed “Canyons at Park City.”
Moreover, locals refer to Vail’s plan as bringing the area one step closer to “ONE Wasatch,” a concept promoted by Ski Utah, a nonprofit trade organization comprised of resorts, ski operators and ski industry supporters, to unite all seven ski resorts in the eastern Wasatch range. “People are calling it ‘the Vail effect,’” said Warren. “It would just take three more lifts.”
Indeed, all signs point to Park City’s snowballing success. When the city hosted the Nordic events of the 2002 Olympics, about 3 million skiers annually skied the “Wasatch Back” of the Rocky Mountains. Now it’s 4 million and growing. Park City property values values and the construction industry are booming. “Where else can you live in a ski resort and work in a big city?” queried Warren, noting that I-80 is the region’s “bread-and-butter” and therefore meticulously maintained highway.
Park City’s 7,962 year-round residents care deeply about its quality of life. One reason is that “Park City was a full-fledged town before it became a ski resort, said Warren.
That may be why Park City’s schools are tops in the nation, code enforcement of signage for big box stores is stringent and why in 2013 Outside magazine named Park City the “Best Town in America.”
In the 1860s, Federal troops were sent into what is now Park City, ostensibly to guard the U.S. mail but really to keep an eye on Brigham Young and his Mormon followers, whom the U.S. government feared might side with the Confederacy. While there, the troops spent some time prospecting and struck silver at the first mine, named Flagstaff. In 1872, a second mine called Ontario opened. George Hearst, the father of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst bought it for $27,000; the mine churned out $50 million in his lifetime.
Park City incorporated in 1884 and by 1898 the population grew to over 10,000. Mining supported the town’s economy until the Great Depression and two world wars took a toll and silver prices plummeted. In 1949, the mines shut down. Park City was on thin ice. In 1951, the population dropped to 1,150. With its 1,000 miles of underground mines abandoned, United Park City Mines began to look above ground for revenue. In 1963, the town received a federal redevelopment loan, which allowed it to open “Treasure Mountain Resort” (now PCMR). Five years later, Canyons opened.
In 1981, Deer Valley Resort opened and introduced first-class service to the ski industry. I experienced it first-hand when, upon arrival, I was greeted curbside by several uniformed ski valets who carried my gear and escorted me to meet my instructor, Jeff.
Deer Valley is a ski-only facility, a fact I appreciated since this was the first time I had been on skies in over 20 years. I didn’t need some young whippersnapper on a snowboard cutting in front of me at breakneck speed.
Like riding a bike, the art of skiing came back to me after a few runs down the bunny slope. Jeff then took me up the Silver Express lift to the mid-mountain area for some intermediate runs.
It being mid-December, the snowfall had been light, but Deer Valley (as well as the other Park City resorts) had excellent groomed snow, a blanket of ripples, made possible by their snowmaking equipment and skilled operators.
Utah snow is rated at a low 8.5 percent density, meaning it is lighter with less water content and frequently results in a light powder. Deer Valley particularly is known for its exceptionally groomed slopes of “corduroy.” It’s a result of a staff of 36 groomers and 18 snowcats that work 16 hours a night.
After a few runs on an intermediate slope, Jeff said, “OK, now we’ll do Ontario,” and we took the Quincy Express to Flagstaff Peak, at 9,100 feet. I wish I could tell you that it was all downhill from there. Well, it was downhill, come to think of it, but fatigue was setting in for me, and I fell more than once, especially on a steep leg of the run, but I kept getting up and plugging on. Jeff took pity on me and picked an easier path back down to Silver Lodge and my knees and legs were plumb worn out from snowplowing. But, wow, what a rush it was … totally worth it!
At Deer Valley, you’ll find 2,026 acres of skiable terrain across five mountain peaks. When you stand at the base of Deer Valley (or PCMR or Canyons for that matter) you see only a portion of the resort. But as I rode one of Deer Valley’s 21 lifts over hills and valleys, the picturesque vistas of trees, hills, condominiums and private homes tucked inside canyons unfolded below me. Many of the condos and homes can be rented through Deer Valley Resort’s Lodging and Reservations, which also handles reservations for the resort’s full-service hotels.
At Canyons, I watched as friends ziplined through snow-covered trees (two courses, 800 and 2,200 feet, are offered), I was impressed by its “Resort Village” atmosphere, where nine hotels including the only Waldorf Astoria in a ski setting are just steps away from the only heated-seat, enclosed chairlift in North America, the Orange Bubble Express.
Families will be at home at the resort, where one staff position is titled “Director of Animation.” The job is to ensure that a flurry of family-friendly activities take place daily at the Resort Village. There are snowman-making kits, balloon artists, magicians and Saturday s’mores. Each Wednesday, kids and their families can meet the “best ski patrollers in the industry” — Canyons’ Avalanche Dogs.
Rows of orange sling-back chairs face the slopes at sunny “Ski Beach,” where “folks can catch some rays, read a book or watch the skiers come down the slopes,” said Caitlin Martz, the resort’s communication manager.
Deer Valley boasts several superb restaurants, and I met my public relations hosts for lunch at one of them, the Royal Street Café, where I walked in wearing my ski boots and collapsed before a table spread with delicious appetizers.
One of the best dining experiences in Park City can be found at The Farm at Canyons. Named Utah’s best new restaurant in 2012 by Salt Lake City magazine, The Farm offers fresh, prepared-from-scratch, sustainably raised fare, sourced wherever possible from local farms and purveyors. The food is prepared in a demonstration kitchen.
And here’s a sweet deal: Southern California residents can hop on a morning flight, get a guaranteed early noon check-in at any Canyons Resort lodge and hit the slopes at either Canyons or PCMR the same day they arrive. For every two nights of lodging booked, they get a third night free. The promotion deal is good through April 15 (with a few black-out dates). Guests must mention SOCAL Promo Code, have a California zip code, and must purchase one two-day lift ticket for each adult in their party.
This year’s famed Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 22-Feb. 1. “It’s an excellent time to hit the slopes because everyone’s down in the town,” advised Jim Metherall, my volunteer guide/ski instructor at PCMR on day two of my trip. On a gondola ride up to the Summit House, Metherall described himself as a “late-blooming ski bum.” Turns out that he also holds a Ph.D. and MBA from Yale and was part of the team that mapped the human genome a couple of decades ago. Yup, my volunteer guide also is president and CEO of a genomics firm.
And that’s the thing about Park City. Lots of the residents are overachievers who now want to enjoy the best life has to offer.
“It’s the winters that get you here, but the summers that keep you,” Martz said. Her family, originally from Southern California, spent ski vacations in Park City. When her parents retired 10 years ago, they moved to the town.
Park City’s charming Main Street has a western motif among its 65 historic Victorian buildings and a bevy of restaurants and shops that feature high-end clothing, jewelry and art. My favorite restaurant: High West Distillery, where I sashayed up to the bar one late afternoon and sampled a trio of signature whiskey drinks, the best I’ve had anywhere.
Away from the town center at the foot of the Silver Star run at PCMR is the Silver Star Café. There I enjoyed a fall-off-the-bone Niman Ranch pork osso bucco served upon chipotle grits, made all the more delightful while listening to the bluegrass duo of Jake and Rebekah Workman. (Silver Star features live music, including folk, Americana and jazz, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.) Owners Jeff and Lisa Ward had to scratch their heads when Silver Star Cafe was chosen to be featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” none of which describe this cozy haven. “They really were looking for secret places that locals frequent,” Lisa Marks shared.
I stayed at the Torchlight Inn Bed and Breakfast, just a block from Main Street and the Transit Center. (No need to rent a car here: Park City has year-round free buses.) The inn was opened just a year ago by chef-owner Chris Munro, who moved from Boston, after selling her catering firm. She extensively remodeled and updated the property. The gas fireplace in my room warmed my toes and the rooftop hot tub soothed my aching bones after a day on the slopes. Chris personally whipped up scrumptious breakfasts daily. Yes, I recommend it!
For the traveler seeking ultimate luxury in the heart of Park City’s Old Town, there’s The Sky Lodge, part of the “Sky Wellness” community that also includes Sugati Spa & Wellness (on property) and “Just Organic Juices.” The property also includes SkySilver condominiums, which updates the former Silver Queen hotel and SkyStrada industrial lofts, and several of Park City’s fine restaurants, including the Tavern and TableOne.
Sky Lodge residences of one to three bedrooms feature fully equipped kitchens, dining areas, gas fireplaces, decks with hot tubs, washer/dryers, and Bose stereos. Larger residences offer family rooms and pool tables. Master bedrooms each have a gas fireplace, bathroom with a deep-soaking tub, walk-in shower and double vanity.
Owners Ken and Kitty Abdalla are former investment bankers who have turned their eyes toward wellness and sustainability. Kitty became trained as an osteopath, and today the Abdalla’s LEED-certified properties feature non-toxic products (paint, furnishings, even the glue used) that are not only good for the environment, but promote healthy living as well.
Not to be missed on a trip to Park City is the Utah Olympic Park. Entrance is free, but I recommend a guided shuttle bus tour as the best way to explore the venue and learn about the amazing stories of Olympic achievement.
Like all things going on around Park City and Salt Lake this century, the Olympics were another success story. “They were the only winter Olympics held anywhere to make a profit,” said Warren. Park City (and Salt Lake) are making a bid for the 2026 Olympics.
My bet is they’ll get it.
If you go…
Park City Chamber of Commerce and CVB visitparkcity.com
Deer Valley Resort deervalley.com
Park City Mountain Resort parkcitymountain.com
Canyons Resort canyonsresort.com
Utah Olympic Park utaholympiclegacy.com
(All three resorts listed above have excellent ski-in, ski-out accommodations). Additionally:
The SkyLodge theskylodge.com
Torchlight Inn Bed and Breakfast torchlightinn.com
Recommended good eats:
Royal Street Café (at Deer Valley) (435) 645-6724
Legends Bar & Grill (at PCMR) (435) 658-5812
The Farm (at Canyons) (435) 615-8080
Squatters Roadhouse Pub & Grill (435) 649 9868; squatters.com
High West Distillery (435) 649-8300; highwest.com
Silver Star Café (435) 655-3456; thesilverstarcafe.com