The Insider's Guide to Park City
Skis are on the roof. Johnny Cash is walking the line on the radio. There’s hot coffee in the console. The drive to Park City’s first entrance is 25 minutes from my garage door in Salt Lake City and today I’m counting every second. Last night, a monster winter storm passed through and left a 12-inch carpet of fluffy, dry Utah powder: the “Greatest Snow on Earth” as proclaimed by my license plates. And, like so many Wasatch storms, it quickly cleared out, polite as a preacher on Sunday. I’m racing to a perfect powder day under a bluebird sky.
I crank up the Cash, step on the gas, and Jennifer, my partner, and I start plotting our day like NYSE commodities traders before opening bell. It’s essential to have a plan on a powder day at Park City, or any day really. It is, after all, the largest resort in the United States of America. With 7,300 acres of skiable terrain, its only rival on the continent is its Canadian cousin (by Vail Corporation marriage) Whistler-Blackcomb, which is 700 acres bigger. Park City has four base areas, one high-speed gondola connecting its two halves, and 41 lifts accessing more than 300 trails (and that’s just counting the trails they label on the trail map).
“Town Lift,” Jennifer says. “Today is made for Town Lift.”
This is why I love this woman. Jennifer, a transplanted New Yorker, still thinks like she’s moving upstream in midtown Manhattan at 4 p.m. on a Friday. Town Lift is a back-pocket trick we deploy sometimes, but it is a gamble. It’s farther up the road—it’s the last of four base areas as you travel to Park City Mountain from Interstate 80—and requires we ski a throwaway run to get to the good stuff, and it’s a slow lift. Today, however, all these drawbacks mean nobody will think of it. It’s like taking the G into Brooklyn while all the hipsters are packed onto the L train.
We blow past the hundreds of people lining up at the main base areas, Park City and Canyons Villages (holdover names from when the resort was two separate entities) and pull into a parking garage on Park City’s Main Street that I’m not going to tell you about. (Sorry, a local must keep some secrets.) From here we walk onto the Town Lift right as it’s opening. To reiterate: we don’t walk to stand in a line (like the masses of skiers at the lower base areas), but onto the lift. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Of course, not every day in Utah is a powder day. Amazingly, it’s when there isn’t a foot of fresh, dry snow that Park City really shines. The Greatest Snow on Earth falls at all 14 of Utah’s ski resorts, but it’s only Park City that has this much lift-served terrain, this much choice of terrain, and a historic mining town at its base. Other ski resorts have ski-in, ski-out access to homes and hotels. Park City’s downtown is ski-in, ski-out. Park City Mountain is the kind of sprawl—across four 9,000-plus-foot peaks—you want: the quantity and quality of the terrain means there’s always good snow somewhere. And if you get a little lost along the way? High West Distillery, which claims to be the world’s only ski-in, ski-out distillery and whose much-loved Rendezvous Rye and innovative bourbon-rye blends have won almost as many awards as Park City Mountain has runs, is 25 steps from the base of the Town Lift. (If you’d rather a glass of pinot, Old Town Cellars, a local blender, beckons from across the street, as does the whole of Park City’s central strolling, eating, and drinking district.)
Sadly, Park City’s awesomeness long ago ceased being a secret. Last season, the resort accounted for more than one-third of the lift tickets bought at all of Utah’s ski resorts combined. Just 35 minutes from Salt Lake International Airport, the town of Park City is a famed destination in and of itself, having been part of the 2002 Olympic Games and also thanks to the annual star-studded Sundance Film Festival in February. Also, visitors love that Park City is an actual place where actual people live. Venturing beyond the resort confines and out of the well-trodden Main Street area will easily lead you to friendly pockets of mountain-town life. Stop into White Pine Touring and get some gear and advice to access Park City’s extensive Nordic skiing trail system. Meet the local ski moms (and dads) and drop into a class at Park City Yoga. Take the kids bowling at swanky Jupiter Bowl at Kimball Junction and finish with New York-style pizza at Maxwell’s.
“I moved here because it’s a real town and a ski area grew up around it,” says 60-something Dottie Beck, a 28-year veteran ski instructor at Park City resort who skis year- round thanks to a “summer” job as an instructor in New Zealand. “Even in a lean year, you can find good snow. I grew up in Colorado but this is where I wanted to live.”
As an instructor, Beck likes that her students benefit from a diverse portfolio of terrain. At many resorts, learners are limited to one or two areas, but not at Park City. “I’ve got lots of options for every level and we’re not confined to one itty- bitty area, we can go all over,” she says, “That makes my job easier; it’s a great teaching mountain.”
But still, as many of Park City Mountain’s terrain secrets you unlock, you want at least one of your days here to be a powder day. After our throwaway run—Treasure Hollow—from the top of the Town Lift, Jennifer is still in a New York state of mind: chomping to get up to the top of the resort, the big daddy peaks Jupiter Peak (9,998′) and Ninety-Nine 90 (9,990′). Both of these summits reward hiking from their access lifts (McConkeys and the eponymous Ninety-Nine 90) with fresh lines in high alpine bowls. I talk her down though, and instead we opt to hang back and work the Crescent Lift, a high-speed four-pack that, on powder days, is almost as overlooked as the Town Lift. I learned this Crescent trick from Bagel Boy or, as some call him, Adam Fehr. Fehr is the 35-year-old proprietor of Park City Bread & Bagel (hence the nickname) whose townie status as the king of carbs allows him to average 100-plus days every season.
“On a powder day, it’s important to have patience,” Fehr once imparted to me. “Everybody is racing to get to Pioneer and McConkeys [the lifts that service the Jupiter Peak area]. But they’ll just have to wait for those chairs to open while ski patrol clears things out. Meanwhile you can sneak in a few laps on Ski Team Ridge.”
Thanks, Bagel Boy. Crescent doesn’t disappoint. While the sound of avalanche guns echo from higher up, we take laps on Silver King, Willy’s Run, and Erika’s Gold, steep black-diamond runs that we’d skip on a groomer day but are forgiving in the deep Utah powder. At the bottom of each lap, we practically ski right back onto Crescent. Maybe later we’ll join the lines of skiers and boarders crawling around Jupiter and Ninety-Nine 90 peaks. Or not. Park City’s immensity makes it easy to get pleasantly sidetracked and it’s one of those blue-sky days where our best- laid plans dissipate like the smoky powder under our skis. Following Bagel Boy and Beck’s best advice, our ramblings take us from boundary to boundary.