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PARK CITY – Premier Ski Town in the U.S.


Bob Goligoski

PARK CITY, Utah – The morning clouds have lifted and I'm sitting in this beat-up city bus in Park City. Now comes the tough part – where to ski today.

All three choices – Deer Valley, Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort – are about 10 minutes away. Will it be the big daddy, Canyons, Utah's largest ski resort with 4,000 skiable acres, 182 runs and even a heated chairlift.

Or perhaps go for the luxury pick, Deer Valley, with its impeccable grooming and a plush day lodge that reminds one of a ritzy golf country club. And we skiers will have the place to ourselves as snowboarders are banned.

And that leaves Park City where I can ski all day and return at night for more runs under the lights. And when I need a break from the slopes, there is time to explore some of the old, abandoned mining structures that hover close to the runs.

SKI magazine conducts an annual, wide-ranging survey of thousands of skiers and riders and asks them to rate winter resorts around the country. Last year, Deer Valley, Canyons and Park City all finished in the top ten.

After skiing the three resorts for a week in February, it is hard to argue with those results. At the center of these three resorts is the old mining hamlet of Park City, just a 35-minute shuttle ride from the Salt Lake City airport.

Park City is one of the top ski towns in America. More than 100 bars and restaurants line the quaint, old streets and some 100 hotels, motels, lodges and B&B's are sprinkled around the area.

There is no need for a car here. An excellent free city bus system has tentacles everywhere and it is a breeze to get around. We never waited more than 10 minutes for a bus to whisk us to the slopes or to any place we asked to go.

You could easily spend more than a week here and not get bored. The three resorts combined have 9,000 skiable acres, more than 400 trails and runs and 56 lifts.

And the action off the slopes is non-stop.

There are hot air balloon rides and sleigh rides. Ponds to skate across. Zip lines to fly across. Not to mention snowshoeing, tubing, snowmobile jaunts, cross country skiing, museum hopping, trap shooting, shopping, fishing and visiting art galleries.

One don't miss attraction here is Utah Olympic Park on the outskirts of Park City. This was the site of many Olympic events when the winter games came to Utah in 2002, and it is still used today as a training site by many top caliber winter athletes.

For true adrenaline junkies, there is the $200 bobsled ride. Ride with a professional bobsled driver and hang on for a 60-second journey through 15 turns at speeds of up to 80 mph. Or for $50, slide down the Olympic track on a skeleton sled. The park also boasts two museums about the Olympics and winter sports.

Much of the talk around town was about two major projects in the planning stage by Deer Valley. In about two years, the resort will break ground on a $50 million expansion that will open up a new mountain, add numerous runs and 1,000 acres of new ski terrain, all tied together with a new network of five or six lifts.

About the same time, work will start on a $10 million gondola that will link downtown Park City with the slopes at Deer Valley.

We didn't find Park City especially expensive. Walk-up adult lift tickets were going for about $105 with cheaper discount deals available. And once you are on the mountain, all three resorts offer free guided tours to help skiers and riders of any ability find their way around to the best runs on the peaks.

The restaurant choices are mind-boggling. We had good luck at spots like Wahso, Zoom, Shabu, Goldener Hirsh and Stein's. My two favorites were the amazing ribs at Zoom and the eclectic mix of Asian dishes and flavors at Shabu.

Winter travelers bothered by high altitude have few worries here. Virtually all the slopes are between 6,500 and 9,500 foot elevations.

Now, a closer look at the three resorts starting with the Canyons. \

About a year or so ago, Vail Resorts took over operation of the Canyons. This vast area sprawls over nine mountains and boasts 19 lifts, three terrain parks, more than 20 restaurants, two spas and numerous slope-side accommodations. One Utah skier recommended Lookout Cabin as the best food on the mountain combined with stunning views and a Euro ambience.

Not a great deal of bunny skiing here as only about 10 percent of the terrain is rated for beginners.

A number of the runs stretch on for two to three miles. Powder hounds usually head for Murdock Peak. You will find some tight tree skiing through the aspens just off the Dreamcatcher lift.

Motoring down some of the runs is like turning the pages of Architectural Digest. Tasteful, elegant homes line a number of the runs. We did not see a single for sale sign so I guess these lucky folks are quite contented.

The Canyons also has an engaging network of snowshoe trails hidden among the 4,000 acres of skiing and riding. Check out the various guided tours that are offered on the trails.

Nearby Deer Valley is a fine counterpoint to the Canyons. Deer Valley, I think, has had a bit of an elitist reputation, although we encountered nothing but down-home friendliness from the staff and lift operators. It is said to have about the most expensive ski-in, ski-out accommodations in the U.S. Bedding down at the St. Regis and Montage hotels can easily run you $800 to $900 a night.

The 101 runs are fairly evenly split between all classes of skiers. And there are only skiers here because Deer Valley is one of the last holdouts that does not let single plankers on the slopes.

The lift system is a marvel. With 12 high-speed quad lifts among its many lifts, Deer Valley can haul 50,470 people up the slopes every hour. One other factoid that makes Deer Valley a bit different – it sells no more than 7,500 lift tickets a day.

But, as the story goes, there are exceptions. Basketball icon Michael Jordon showed up one day about noon with a friend. The clerk at the ticket window said all the tickets had been sold for that day. Jordon then asked, “Do you know who I am?” She gave him a blank look and retreated to a back room to find her boss

Well, the boss came out a couple minutes later, took one look at Jordan, and said, “We normally only sell 7,500 tickets a day but today we are selling 7,502.” Jordan reportedly does not ski as well as he plays basketball.

Deer Valley also has a number of so-called “real estate runs” with fabulous homes popping up around every turn.

Thigh-burning runs abound. It is some five miles from the top of the Empire lift to the bottom of the Jordanelle gondola Deer Valley has many comfortable runs but it also boasts the steepest World Cup mogul course, Champion, which is open to the public after the annual competition in January.

I come back as often as I can for a signature Deer Valley treat – the turkey chili. Another on-hill favorite is the Royal Street Cafe where the ahi-tuna tacos have quite a reputation.

You only have to spend a couple hours at Park City Mountain Resort to realize that this 50-year-old resort differs markedly from the Canyons and Deer Valley. It has more of a wilderness feel because you notice trees besides the runs, not multimillion dollar homes.

Plus, you feel you are skiing through history. The Park City area boomed in the 1800s because of the many rich veins of silver that were discovered. A number of picturesque mining buildings populate the slopes and some well-placed signs give you a bit of a history lesson and tour as you glide by.

Shortly after the resort opened in 1963, guests were given an option to riding a gondola that usually had very long lines. They could board retro-fitted mining cars and travel for three miles through tunnels formerly used by miners.

At the end of the tunnel, they were 1,800 feet underground. So they hopped on an old elevator and got off at the Thaynes lift to start their day of skiing. 

 Park City also has a balanced mixture of of 114 runs for skiers and riders with varying talents. Several Olympians live in the area and they can sometimes be found in the three terrain parks and two half pipes at the resort.

One cool aspect of the place is that you can ski right down to the city streets.  A large plaza filled with cafes, bars and shops lies at the base of the resort.

In a normal snow year, the three Park City resorts accumulate about 350 inches of snow. But all three also have extensive snow-making systems just in case Mother Nature does not come through.

If you are a movie buff, try coming to Park City in January for the Sundance Film Festival. On the other hand, if you want to avoid the crowds and probably higher lodging prices during festival time, make your plans to come during a different week this winter.

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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