ike many Western ski towns, Park City, Utah, started out as a silver mining boom town. The miners dabbled in skiing, of course, first for transportation and then as a recreational diversion.
But it wasn’t until the mining bottomed out that these picturesque hamlets resurrected themselves as outdoor recreation meccas.
Today, three world-class ski resorts — Park City Mountain, Deer Valley and Canyons Resorts — surround the town, part of a high concentration of prime ski areas within a short drive of the Salt Lake City airport.
In the mid-1800s, Mormon settlers and California Gold Rush dreamers passed through the Park City area on their way west. In 1868, as winter was threatening, soldiers discovered silver and the town was on its way to riches.
An early silver baron was George Hearst, whose son, William Randolph, would later found a media empire. A relative few would become wealthy, though, and many literally scratched out a living in the dangerous labyrinth of tunnels and shafts honeycombing the depths under the town and hills.
Park City has had its share of boom and bust cycles, and bad luck in the form of a devastating fire in 1898, numerous mine disasters and avalanches.
The city’s future savior, skiing, began to catch on by the 1920s, as miners took the ore train up to Thaynes Canyon and skied back down. In 1928, young Norwegians with the Utah Ski Club built a ski jump at nearby Ecker Hill and began hosting jumping events, highlighted by a world record in 1931 by Alf Engen. Right after World War II, the first ski lift was installed at Snow Park ski area, which later became Deer Valley.
Mining began a serious decline in the late 1940s, and by the late ’50s, the writing was on the wall. The last big mining operation began plans to diversify, and by 1963, with federal help, it built Treasure Mountain Resort — predecessor to Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) — with a gondola and two lifts.
Around this time, perhaps to use sedentary equipment, the ski area set up the curious and unique Skier’s Subway, where customers were transported by mine train through a dark, dank tunnel, then up a 1,750-foot shaft to the surface. Arriving cold and wet from mineshaft drippings, one skiier described the voyage as “slow, creepy, but memorable.” Needless to say, it only lasted a few seasons.
Perhaps the zenith of exposure and pride for Park City was the hosting of events for the successful XIX Olympic Winter Games in 2002. PCMR featured snowboarding and giant slalom; Deer Valley saw the slalom and freestyle skiing events; and the Utah Olympic Park hosted the bobsled and sliding events along with ski jumping.
Today PCMR, celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, boasts 3,300 skiable acres on eight peaks, with 16 chair lifts — including four high-speed six-packs — and a superpipe and two terrain parks for riders and talented skiers. The mountain caters to all experience levels, with half of the runs intermediate in nature. The resort is presented to the public in seven bite-sized color-coded “Mountainzones,” starting down below in the Payday/Town Lift zone and ending at the top, at the steeps and powder bowls of Jupiter.
Throughout the resort are the colorful names of its mining heritage, such as Silver King, Detonator and Powder Keg. At first, the ski area downplayed its mining history, even demolishing old structures in favor of a modern look. But now preservation is the norm, providing a truly special skiing landscape of mine buildings, giant equipment and ruins. The resort even went so far as to commission a fleet of bulldozers to drag the 1901 Silver King miners dining hall up the ski hill to become the Mid-Mountain Lodge. (To learn more, check in at the main lodge for information on free daily historic ski tours.)
Just a few miles away, sharing a boundary rope with PCMR, is Deer Valley Resort. Opening in 1981 on the site of the defunct Snow Park ski area, founder Edgar Stern, fresh from his success with the tony Stanford Court Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, knew what to do to impress customers. He instigated complimentary extras for his new resort, including ski valets and storage, valet parking and hosted mountain tours. Deer Valley quickly became synonymous with impeccable customer service, great food, ballroom-groomed slopes and luxury, earning almost unanimous and continuous No. 1 rankings in skier polls.
Stern enlisted the expertise of famed Olympic skier Stein Eriksen to help design a mountain layout with primo north-facing snow runs for every level of skier — enabling even the least experienced to enjoy the views and then ski down from the top of the mountain. Don’t bother bringing a snowboard, though. Deer Valley (along with nearby Alta and Vermont’s Mad River Glen) remains among the last of the U.S. holdouts that ban riding.
Deer Valley has evolved into a six-peak experience, with 3,000 feet of vertical accessed by 21 lifts, including 12 high-speed quads. The resort limits the skier count to 7,500 per day to ensure happy campers, and it prides itself on having beginning groomers on five of its six mountains, enhancing the family experience.
To get the best view at Deer Valley, you need to be a strong intermediate. But your reward is the view of the Uinta Mountains, Jordanelle Reservoir and the Heber Valley from Stein’s Way on Bald Mountain. Luxury lodgings abound here. If you want a splurge, check in at Stein Eriksen’s Lodge and receive what you’d expect from Utah’s only five-star, five-diamond hotel and spa. You might even catch Eriksen, the 1952 Winter Olympics gold and silver medalist, hanging out in-house or skiing his smooth, stylish turns on-slope.
A few miles away, Canyons Resort continues to get bigger, better and bolder.
Starting out in 1968 as primarily a local day ski area called Park City West (later becoming ParkWest, then Wolf Mountain) had a loyal fan base busting the abundant powder. But the area was too good to stay small, and after 1997, a rapid expansion ensued. It became The Canyons under the ownership of the American Ski Company.
Today the resort, now part of Vail Resorts and its Epic Pass, is the largest in Utah (and No. 5 in the United States) with 4,000 skiable acres, nine mountains, three terrain parks and 21 lifts — including the enclosed, heated-seat Orange Bubble Express and the stand-up Cabriolet, which transports day skiers from the parking lots.
Canyons, with its 182 runs and 3,200 vertical feet, is so vast that you could spend an entire day just skiing one section. Former World Cup and Olympic skier Holly Flanders, an instructor at the area, loves the natural feel of the mountain. “There’s nothing quite like it in the Park City area,” she observed. “Especially 9990 peak, with its natural half-pipes and beautiful glades.” Local skier and public relations guy Christiaan Boer has one word for 9990: “Legendary.”
Looking for more big-time action? Hoof it for 20 minutes from the Super Condor Express up to Murdock Peak for some serious bowl skiing.
If you’re longing for some delicious blue cruisers, take Upper and Lower Boa from the aforementioned chair and be prepared for possible loneliness on this lightly traveled trail. The wide and perfectly fluffed Alpenglow run off of the Dreamscape chair is perfect for your long and wide giant slalom turns
Finish off the day going back to the base village on Lookout Ridge and enjoy the sublime views along the way. Or catch the Orange Bubble for a repeat performance.
Since Canyons is a pretty serious mountain, there isn’t much beginner terrain. The Orange Bubble, Sunrise and High Meadow chairs have some green runs, so make a few turns and improve your game — then hit the abundant blues after lunch.
For reasonably priced dining, try Southern-style Tombstone Barbeque on-slope or Murdock’s in the village. Also try Draft’s for the tater-tot nachos, subbing for tortilla chips, and wash it down with a beer while taking in some sports TV.
Canyons has upped its game in lodging accommodations with the addition of the world-famous Waldorf Astoria hotel and spa. Other top inns include the Grand Summit Hotel and Hyatt Escala Lodge.
Signature foods are trendy at ski resorts these days. In Park City, S’mores — that campfire treat of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers — are the go-to champ. Share one with a friend at Hyatt’s Escala Provisions Company.
Want a short break from the downhill? Park City resorts offer a lot of diversions, such as snow tubing, zip lines, sleigh rides, snowshoeing and a large network of cross-country ski trails. A must-see is the Utah Olympic Park. Tour the vertigo-inducing ski jumps and the Alf Engen museum, and ride the bobsled if you dare.
The town of Park City offers a great base for your ski vacation, but it’s also a fun place to hang out after the slopes close. There is a free transit system to get you around town and to the ski areas. With its 100-plus lodging properties and more than 100 restaurants, any pocketbook can play, which some western mining town counterparts cannot claim. The old town area, completely rebuilt after the horrendous fire of 1898, retains its early 20th-century charm. Get a feel for what it was like in the early days of mining and skiing at the wonderful Park City Museum on Main Street.
Stop in at the High West Distillery and Saloon, a former barn where whiskey is king and whiskey-laden grub and pairings are featured. For fine dining, I sampled Robert Redford’s new Zoom Restaurant and Chimayo’s southwestern cuisine. I found both to be quite satisfying.
For inexpensive but great food, locals highly recommend El Chubasco for delicious Mexican fare. Or hit Davanza’s for pizza and fries served with Utah’s traditional ketchup and mayo “fry sauce.” The No Name Saloon showcases buffalo burgers, and drop in at the Wasatch Brew Pub for fine suds and specialty beers.
If you have more time on your hands, take in the multitude of other world-class ski areas within a short drive from your Park City base. Little Cottonwood Canyon is home to Alta and Snowbird. Big Cottonwood has Solitude and Brighton. Snow Basin is closest to Salt Lake Airport, and Powder Mountain, northest of Ogden, isn’t too far away.