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Experience Park City, the ideal American ski town

SmarterTravel

It’s morning in Park City and life is good. I’ve just awoken to clear sapphire skies and 14 inches of feathery powder. I’ll be on the slopes in an hour. I rush to get dressed and grab a bite before heading out into some of the best ski terrain in the world.

Park City, Utah, a former mining town, has seen its share of ups and downs over the years, but it’s definitely on the upswing now. The Olympic torch lit up the city for the world to see at the 2002 Winter Games, and the Utah Olympic Park is still an inspiration to many visitors, but its world-class skiing and superior snow conditions draw the crowds. “Park City has fantastic skiing because it has more snow and better, lighter, and drier powder than other big resort towns,” says Kevin Valaika, executive chef and co-owner of Park City’s “freestyle Asian” restaurant Shabu. Park City has three huge resorts (The Canyons, Deer Valley, and Park City Mountain Resort) that offer a vast array of ski options and great conditions over a long winter season, ensuring that skiers and riders of all abilities and interests will thrive here.

Valaika adds that it’s not just the snow that’s superior, but the overall atmosphere, which he likens to “a country town where people like to have fun and are really very happy in general.” Also, Park City’s convenient location, excellent services, and après-ski scene provide for a superlative winter sports experience.

The convenience factor

Unlike some other popular ski resorts that are located far from a major airport, Park City is just 35 miles from Salt Lake City’s international airport. If you are flying into Salt Lake, you may find good fares from Delta, which along with its commuter affiliates, runs 247 flights per day and counts Salt Lake City as one of its hubs. Among the low-cost carriers, JetBlue and Frontier have a small presence, but Southwest operates 40 daily flights at the airport, so it shouldn’t be hard to find decent fares from many cities. “Park City is great because of its proximity to [ski area] competitors, which keeps prices from being completely outrageous, unlike Aspen or Sun Valley,” says Jill Adler, editor-at-large of the Sports Guide, which covers outdoor recreation in Utah. Adler adds that “There are seven major ski areas within an hour of each other.”

It’s not necessary to drive to town, as Park City Transportation offers a $72 passport that provides round-trip shuttle service from Salt Lake City to Park City, as well as a week’s worth of in-town taxi service.

Park City also runs a free bus service that is great for skiers and riders because it stops at all the ski areas and provides space for equipment storage.

Speaking of equipment, if you don’t want to drag your skis and poles across the country or wait in a long rental line, Skis On The Run is the place to go. Book online before your visit and your equipment will be delivered to your hotel. And don’t worry about getting the wrong-sized boots, Skis On The Run has plenty of backups. I used this service during my visit and was very pleased. Prices for equipment packages start at $38 per day.

A ski-rental delivery service I didn’t try, but which works much like Skis On The Run, is Ski Butlers. At the time of publication, Ski Butlers’ advance-booking rates of $31.50 were even better than the standard prices at Skis On The Run.

So just what is Park City’s skiing like, anyway? I explored each of the resorts this past March, and here’s my take, along with some advice from local experts.

The resorts

The Canyons

The Canyons is the choice for many hardcore skiers and snowboarders, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for the rest of us mere mortals. Its vast size facilitates this great mix. Boasting 152 trails across eight mountain peaks, the Canyons is the largest resort in Utah and one of the five biggest in the entire country. Seventeen lifts are in place and the summit reaches almost 10,000 feet.

An expert skier, Adler enjoy the Canyons’ “long, tight, narrow bump runs” and finds that the resort is better set up for “snowboarders who want to access tough terrain” than Park City Mountain Resort, its crosstown rival. Another Canyons fan is Valaika, who appreciates the lack of crowds at the Canyons, as well as the quality of the snow. As he puts it, “you can get there late and still find fresh powder.” My own experience backs up this claim. The night before I skied the Canyons saw 18 inches of fresh powder and I floated across fields of white all day.

The Canyons is such a large resort that it’s possible to find untouched trails well into the day, especially if you explore the lifts that serve the far sides of the mountain. Toward the middle, it’s likely that you’ll get more crowded runs, though there is an abundance of unmarked, tree-lined glades trails to dip into when you’re slowed by traffic.

The Canyons is known for its extreme terrain and has a lower percentage of easier trails than the other two Park City resorts, but more than half of the trails are marked in green (beginner) or blue (intermediate), and the sheer number of slopes means there are plenty of options for all levels to explore. My only pet peeve about the resort is that its immense size and somewhat awkward layout make it hard to get from one side of the mountain to the other without ascending lifts and skiing down slope after slope. This can present a challenge when it’s time to meet up for lunch and you’ve only got 15 minutes to get there.

Adult lift rates at the Canyons were $59 per day at the time of publication, but are subject to change as the season progresses.

Deer Valley

Deer Valley’s number-one ranking by readers of Ski magazine in both 2001 and 2005 is a testament to how far the resort has come in its 25 years. The youngest of Park City’s resorts, Deer Valley has a reputation for luxury, and it’s well deserved.

With 13 eateries, Deer Valley makes food an integral part of its guest experience. My personal favorite is the fireside dining at the Empire Canyon Lodge, a log cabin with high-ceilings and roaring fireplaces, each of which is actually used for preparing the lodge’s sumptuous meals. Main courses range from melting raclette cheese to slow-roasted venison and “simmering stews” of lamb or chicken, and the dessert fireplace features delectable chocolate fondues complete with strawberries, bananas, and other tasty treats for dipping. While it isn’t super-cheap (prix fixe adult prices are $48 and children $20), it’s impossible to leave hungry and the classic alpine atmosphere makes this splurge the perfect way to unwind after a long day on the slopes.

Speaking of slopes, Deer Valley has some great ones spread across its four peaks, the highest of which (Empire Canyon) tops out at 9,570 feet. Conveniently—and Deer Valley is nothing if not a resort dedicated to convenience—each of its mountains has been designed to suit different levels of ability. (For example, Bald Eagle Mountain is where novices can safely practice their turns while Bald Mountain will provide more vertical terrain for intermediate and advanced skiers.) When I say “skiers,” I do mean skiers, because one of Deer Valley’s hallmarks is its no-snowboarder policy. This makes for a somewhat more old-fashioned and traditional resort, which likely appeals to the wealthier set that Deer Valley caters to, though it certainly excludes a large segment of winter athletes as well.

The many groomed runs tend to draw what Adler calls the “terminal-intermediate crowd”. That is, intermediate-level skiers content to ski only the groomed runs, at high speeds and therefore have a false sense of their ski ability and of their ability to avoid high-speed collisions. To avoid potential run-ins, you might want to steer clear of the Northside Express area between 10 and 2 and the Success run after 3 p.m. on a weekend or holiday. However, the fact that Deer Valley has a cap on the number of skiers allowed per day (6500) should reduce overcrowding. Unlike most resorts, which try to crank through as many paying guests as possible, Deer Valley’s goal of a higher-quality experience for fewer skiers supersedes its desire to maximize profits in the short term. The place might have an air of snobbery about it, but it seems to be a price worth paying for all you get in exchange.

In essence, Deer Valley’s beautifully groomed trails and more than 20 lifts complement its range of culinary options to offer a truly luxurious skiing experience.

Deer Valley’s 2006-2007 daily lift passes will sell for $77 during the regular season.

Park City Mountain Resort

Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) stands out not because it can boast the luxury of Deer Valley or as many off-piste adventures as the Canyons, but because it embodies both the spirit and history of its namesake town.

PCMR is a big resort with an abundance of trails for all levels of skiers. Many of the lifts lead to the same summit area, so it’s easy to explore different territory and return to wherever you like. The Old Town Trail leads skiers right into Park City’s main thoroughfare, ending as you ski over the bridge that spans Park Avenue. At the bottom of this slope, you can either choose from myriad options for lunch, or hop on the lift and head back up the mountain if you prefer to keep skiing.

While PCMR has all of the modern conveniences you’d expect in a major resort, the area’s history is also very much a part of the skiing experience here. Scattered throughout PCMR are abandoned mines, the remnants of a golden, or in this case, silver, age gone by. These relics have become an integral part of the resort’s identity. For example, the Mid-Mountain Restaurant once housed miners. According to a popular local story, if the price of silver ever rose to a certain level, the mines could be reopened in a matter of weeks.

But PCMR is not just for history buffs who happen to be skiers; the skiing stands on its own. Much of this is due to the fact that the resort is both family-oriented (the mountain’s Kids Signature 5 Program means a maximum of five children per ski lesson) and still has excellent bowl skiing for the more skilled. If you fall somewhere in between beginner and expert, there’s no need to worry about slope shortages, as 50 percent of the trails are intermediate.

Park City Mountain Resort’s lift rates are set at $60 for the early season, but will likely rise as more snow falls.

No matter where you choose to ski, consider Park City’s Quick Start program. Any of the three resorts will allow you to ski for free on the day that you fly into Salt Lake City. Just print out the voucher from the Park City Information website and save your boarding pass. Present both at any Park City resort on the day you arrive and ski the rest of the day for nothing. This is a particularly good value at Park City Mountain Resort because you can stay out late for night skiing, which runs until 7:30 daily starting December 25.

Après-ski

Park City has been discovered by the wealthy and hosts prestigious events throughout the year, such as the Sundance Film Festival, and the restaurant scene reflects the town’s nouveau riche tastes. However, there are enough local favorites that frugal ski bums need not be left out in the cold. Harry O’s is a great spot for live music. The No Name Saloon is an all-American bar that boasts a buffalo burger and assorted sandwiches. If you’re in search of more international cuisine, Taste of Saigon is an affordable Asian alternative. Or, for authentic Mexican food, area residents rave about El Chubasco in Prospector Square.

For an upscale experience, try the Japanese Sushi Maru, the Southwestern flavors of Chimayo, or the more traditional American menu at Riverhorse on Main.

Because of its three top-notch resorts, prize location, complementary services, après-ski choices, and much more, I consider Park City to be an almost-perfect ski town. But there’s only one way to confirm this statement: Hit its slopes for yourself!

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