Visit Park City

Shattering Expectations at America’s Most and Least Obvious Ski Destination

How can it be that I hadn’t been to Park City in so long? There’s no more convenient destination in North America and yet it had been since the late ’00s that my skis had slid on the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” With so many new, direct ski flights popping up out of the NYC metro area, I had satisfied my wanderlust over the past decade or so – with mixed results. In my quest for the new, I had forsaken the obvious.

Park City is popular for many reasons, but perhaps none more so than its convenience. No where in the world can you land at such a large airport in such close proximity to such tremendous skiing. For those of us who recall watching the broadcasts of 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, this fact became a practically a governing law of the ski universe: Utah = easy to get to…no, really easy to get to. At some point, that ease of access transitioned from a positive to a nonsensical negative for me. As if there was a correlation between the difficulty of reaching a destination and its overall quality. (If that were true, everyone would vacation in Saskatoon.) Three days in Park City reminded me that very popular things can often be very popular for the most obvious of all reasons – because they’re simply very good. And make no mistake about it – Park City is very good.

Park City Winter Mountains

If you, like I, have neglected to visit Park City in the last few years, you may recall the town as having three ski resorts – The Canyons, Park City and Deer Valley. However, the Canyons and Park City merged in 2015 to create a massive, combined resort now simply known as “Park City Mountain Resort.” Just across the valley, you’ll find Deer Valley. Together, PCMR and Deer Valley offer a staggering almost 10,000 acres of skiable terrain, all of which is less than 45 minutes from Salt Lake International Airport and just minutes from downtown Park City.

While the skiing is the reason to visit, the town of Park City is the reason to come back year after year. Nestled at 7,000 ft. above sea level, it’s one of America’s largest and best ski towns. Few ski towns outside of the Alps can offer the diversity of restaurants, shops and bars that Park City does. None combine that with a whole host of Olympic-related off-slope activities sure to please both skiers and non-skiers alike. If your last recollection of Park City was as the host of those 2002 Olympic Games, you’ll also probably be pleased to know that Utah has liberalized its alcohol laws. Park City has a lively nightlife and one would struggle to notice any difference in laws governing bars in Utah versus Colorado.

My three days in Park City reminded me that it is a place where contrasting forces collide in the most alluring of ways:

  • Easy to get to, but feels a world away.
  • Big mountain skiing, but small town charm.
  • Popular, but not overcrowded.

One thing is for certain – it won’t be another decade before I’m back!

Deer Valley Resort

If my visit to Park City made me take a hard look at some of my ill-founded ski assumptions, my visit to Deer Valley made me feel a little silly for having them in the first place. It seems an odd thing to one of America’s top ski destinations is controversial, but Deer Valley is. Few ski areas draw a more diametric set of opinions. People love it or hate it. In the love to hate it camp, the complaints center around the resort’s reputation for a well-heeled clientele: too posh, too luxe, too few snowboarder (zero, to be precise). After a day on snow at Deer Valley, it became clear to me that none of those people had ever skied here.

Deer Valley Drone

After spending a few minutes looking around for those much-heralded boot valets that I assumed every skier dragged to the slopes like a knight with an attendant squire to armor up, I realized everyone was actually putting on their own equipment. A second quick glance around the base didn’t reveal anyone wearing a full fur coat or an outfit that would’ve made the Microwaves of Aspen Instagram account (look it up…). No – all I saw were lots of smiling faces and people taking in a beautiful spring day.

My first day at Deer Valley rid me of a lot of preconceptions that simply didn’t square with reality. Yes – the hotels are extremely nice and no – they aren’t generally inexpensive. But the clientele is here to ski and the average skier level is quite solid. It’s the type of place where you’re as likely to see a teenager struggling to keep up with his grandfather as vice versa.

The resort is spread out over a number of interlinked mountains and transiting from one to the next is relatively easy. More cozy and less sprawling than anticipated, you’ll feel at home quickly. The trail map can be a bit intimidating at first glance, but prominent signage makes learning the mountain doable in a day, if not a morning.

One stereotype that turned out to be spot on was the quality of Deer Valley’s grooming. It’s as good as advertised. While there’s plenty of ungroomed snow as well (and it’s often under-tracked because so many of Deer Valley’s skiers are looking to carve the perfect arc into fresh corduroy), this is a groomer’s paradise. Growing up on a steady diet of East Coast ice, these are the groomers you dreamed of. There are plenty of fast, high-speed runs beckoning to be skied on edge. Moreover, with so few skiers to share the runs, you’ll find yourself easily able to pick your own line and tempo.

When the ski day is over, the clientele retreats to a number of exceptional lodging properties. For my trip, I was treated to a stay at the brand new Goldener Hirsch Residences. My editor will doubtless yell at me for sharing such a superlative opinion (it’s hard to unwind any “-est” opinions in future work), but I have been fortunate to ski at literally hundreds of resorts across several continents and the Goldener Hirsch Residences takes the cake as the best ski hotel I have yet seen. Frequent Deer Valley guests may be familiar with the original, Tyrolean inspired Goldener Hirsch hotel. The residences up the ante, adding a noveau take on an old world classic. While the original hotel would feel right in character at any number of quaint villages in the Austrian hinterland, the residences are evocative of the new wave of chic, European ski hotels one might find in places like Gstaad, St. Moritz, or Courchevel. But all the little details scream authentic Austrian – from Tyrolean cowbell accents to thoughtful alpine-inspired fabrics throughout.

Another Deer Valley surprise was the free, on demand shuttle service into Park City. I had wrongly assumed that staying at Deer Valley meant an insular experience in one’s hotel. Not so. A dial-a-ride service takes hotel guests to town in roughly 5 minutes to enjoy all of the shops, dining and nightlife.

My visit left me with a singular thought about the place I had misjudged before my visit – “there’s absolutely nothing to dislike.” And that’s where I came out on Deer Valley. There may be some things that Deer Valley doesn’t have – heart-pounding steeps or rowdy apres – but everything it does have is done in a truly first class manner. Far from detracting from the experience or making it prissy or snobby, one couldn’t help but think that all that Deer Valley has to offer is what makes is such a perennial favorite amongst those that love it so. As for the haters, it’s awfully easy to hate a winner.

Park City Mountain Resort

My discussion of PCMR must begin with a caveat. I’m a sucker for places where you can ski right into town. There’s just something unique and special about the culture produced by the fusion of ski trails and town square. Judging by how many American skiers flock to the few ski resorts where this is possible, I think most agree with me.

Park City Base Area at Park City Mountain Resort

Unlike some ski towns, however, skiing isn’t truly central to Park City’s identity. The town sits at a corner of the resort – a convenient access point for the resort, but far from the only such access point and arguably, not even the main one. The skiing adds much to the town and the town much to the skiing without either being central to the other’s personality. PCMR is much bigger and more varied, while Park City existed long before the lifts. As evidenced by its volume of summer tourism, one needn’t be a skier to love Park City.

In combination with the former Canyons resort, the 7,000 acres of terrain is unrivaled. It’s America’s largest ski resort and unlike Deer Valley, where one might become comfortable with the layout almost immediately, it feels like a season would only scratch the surface of all PCMR has to offer. That makes it a great place for those that like to explore a trail map. It seems like almost everyone has a different favorite nook or cranny. For some it’s the imposing steeps of Jupiter Bowl along the resort’s rear boundary. Others prefer the long groomers on the front side. While still others prefer the long runs on the former Canyons side under the Super Condor or Orange Bubble Lifts. Relative beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there are gorgeous runs everywhere the eye travels.

In that sense, PCMR is the ultimate American megaresort. Lots of big, fast, modern lifts transport skiers to boatloads of the type of terrain that flatlanders dream about all offseason. It’s the type of terrain that makes you want to pick up and move to a ski town just like Warren Miller always implored.

Around Town

The town of Park City is built around its Main Street. Up and down this main drag and adjacent side alleys, one will find literally dozens of restaurants, bar and shops. While parts feel authentically Wild West, the sheer size and scope of development in town makes it feel equal parts new and old West. As discussed above, it is possible to ski directly into the bottom of town. However, walking up Main Street in ski boots to have lunch in town isn’t recommended. It’s a better place for apres than midday and even then, one will find more cowboy boots than ski boots.

Park City Historic Main Street During Sundance Film Festival

There are restaurants for every taste along the lengthy thoroughfare. But if your group can’t decide, try The Eating Establishment. With a menu ranging from breakfast to burgers, no one in your group will go home hungry or disappointed.

Main Street’s shops sell everything from t-shirts to fine art, cowboy hats to Lululemon, and moccasins to Helly Hanson. A stop into Southwest Indian Traders just off Main Street is a must for anyone who wants an authentic piece of the Wild West side of Park City. While you’re down there, be sure to check out the High West Distillery – the only ski in/out distillery in North America – and makers of some of the best whiskey in the country. Tours are available and the saloon is open 7 days a week (yes – you can even buy liquor on Sundays…how’s that for breaking a Utah stereotype!).

While Main Street is the main hub, no trip to Park City would be complete without a little exploration just outside the historic downtown as well. Just a few minutes outside of town is Utah Olympic Park, home to the Alf Engen Museum and sliding center. The museum tells the story of Utah’s snowsports past in a provocative and modern way. Unlike many ski museums where visitors pass row upon row of old skis and poles with little in the way of interactive exhibits, the Alf Engen museum lets guests dive in to the region’s ski history with engaging multimedia interfaces and even a ride. The museum is a surefire hit with adults and kids of all ages.

For around $200 pp, visitors can also be passengers on a guided ride down the Olympic bobsled course. This once-in-a-lifetime experience is a thrill, but not for the faint of heart. A trip down the track is enough to seriously increase one’s respect for anyone brave enough to make this sport their life’s calling.

If you’ve managed to keep down your lunch on the bobsled descent, skip the long ride into town and stop off at Kimball Junction instead. While planned retail developments and great dining don’t often go hand in hand, there are surprising number of excellent restaurants that shouldn’t be overlooked as a great (and less expensive) alternative to dining on Main Street. Our favorite is Hearth and Hill, which offers one of Utah’s best cocktail menus paired with eclectic American fare with a fusion twist in a hip, modern setting.

Park City is an alpine destination in the western United States, located 32 miles (40km) east of Salt Lake City, Utah. The region hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Deer Valley, just a 5-minute drive from Park City, is well-known for its upscale amenities and is consistently ranked among the top ski resorts in North America. Visit Park City.

David B. Cronheim’s North American Editor

Photo credits: Visit Park City

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