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The Best of Utah Ski Country

Ah, winter in the Wasatch Range. Under a sapphire sky, you are etching nearly perfect S-curves into the buffed snow boulevards of Deer Valley. Somewhere out there in the still, shadowed canyons a red-tailed hawk circles and cries. If there are other skiers on the trail, you are not conscious of them. You round a corner, aware only of the late-afternoon sun on your face, the rush of clean alpine air, the whoosh of your skis, and the sudden presence of . . . a real estate salesman?Yes. This is Utah ski country at the end of the millennium. Why shouldn't there be a very tan man in an elegant spruce-green ski suit on this ridge, standing by a small folding table pitching Deer Valley's newest development project-- a gated community with million-dollar houses and its own chairlifts?And why shouldn't there be several equally tan people, with equally elegant ski suits, pulling off the trail to talk shop, to gather brochures and exchange business cards, to admire the distant vacant lots and freshly cut trails, to imagine themselves ensconced in some over-the-top log-and-fieldstone alpine ranchette at the epicenter of the hottest ski town in the country?

Park City, Utah, and the three major ski areas adjacent to it-- Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and the Canyons-- are ablaze with expansion and development, and last winter's extinguishing of the Olympic torch in Nagano only served to fan the flames here. Utah is the next stop for the Olympic Winter Games, of course. And while Salt Lake City prepares for 2002 by building highways, stadiums, and ice rinks, this historic little mining town up in Parleys Canyon-- which a century ago produced more than $400 million in silver ore-- is putting up condos and hotels and shopping promenades and high-speed ski lifts at a dizzying clip. Other, smaller-scale Utah ski areas, including the up-and-coming Solitude Mountain Resort and local secret Snowbasin, are following suit.

It's not just the promise of the Olympics that is fueling this frenzy. The Games, after all, last only two weeks. The fervor is partly a reflection of the intense competition that has swept the winter-resort industry nationwide. In the past five years, corporations have snatched up area after area, sinking millions into the kinds of things sophisticated travelers now demand from destination resorts: top-drawer lodging, full-service spas, quality on-mountain dining, high-capacity lifts that eradicate lines, easy access to pristine backcountry ski terrain, snowboard parks, perfect snow even in drought years, and a full complement of family-oriented off-slope activities. On top of all that, the strong stock market of the past few years and an extraordinary demand for second houses among affluent baby boomers have led to a land-rush mentality across much of ski country-- and nowhere is it more evident than in the snow-smothered mountains of the Wasatch Range.

Utah has always had two selling points for skiers: You can land at Salt Lake City International Airport and be at one of nine ski areas within an hour. And more important for fans of powder skiing, the massive Pacific-brewed storm clouds that build from the west drop some of the lightest, most glorious snow on the planet-- more than 500 inches of it in some locations. Long after the Olympics have come and gone, these factors will remain. What will be forever altered, however, if the state's face-lift is successful, is the way skiers and snowboarders think of Utah ski country-- not just as a place with world-class snow, but as a place with world-class resorts.

The approach to the Canyons, just a few miles north of Park City proper, is decidedly uninspiring-- low, scrubby hills, a 7-Eleven, and scraps of land painfully ripe for strip malls and condos. But arrive at the ski area, hop on the gondola, crest the first knoll, and, bang, you're in hear-the-angels-sing high country-- all craggy peaks, vast snow bowls, and wooded canyons. No wonder the American Skiing Co., the resort's ambitious new owner, has been swooning over this underachiever's potential. Purchased in 1997 when it was known as Wolf Mountain-- a powder-skiing and snowboarding haven favored by locals-- the Canyons quickly sprouted $20 million worth of big-league improvements, including nine new lifts and the handsome timber mid-mountain Red Pine Lodge.

The new owner also amassed enough adjacent property to double the resort's size, so that it might someday offer between 6,000 and 7,000 acres of ski and snowboard slopes-- making it one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country. Skiers and riders who venture up to the Canyons this winter will find everything from challenging expert runs that spill from the high ridgelines, to winding, groomed trails that take even the most tentative intermediates on a scenic joyride from the summit, to narrow gullies that form natural snowboarding half-pipes. Even non-skiers are welcome on the mountain, where a family snow park offers lift-served tubing and outdoor play areas.

Among several new lifts is a high-speed quad chair to the top of the Ninety-Nine 90 Peak (at 9,990 feet, the second-highest summit in the Canyons' domain), affording non-hikers access to 800 gladed acres. Snowboarders will get to try out the new Crazy Eddie's Playground, the largest terrain park in Utah, as well as a new half-pipe. These additions are just a small fraction compared with the projects on the drawing board for the next five years-- plans that include a pedestrian village at the base of the resort. Ground has already been broken for the 360-room slope-side Canyons Grand Summit Hotel & Conference Center-- slated for completion by next November-- and the Sundial Lodge, a combination of shops, restaurants, and a 150-unit condominium hotel set to open by December 1999. In July, 139 of these condo units went on the block and sold out in 10 hours; buyers camped overnight outside the real estate office to hold a spot near the front of the line. The take-- $42 million-- represents the largest real estate transaction ever recorded in Utah. Eventually, the village will have a commercial main street and, as its focal point, the Forum, a sunken 2,000-seat amphitheater and skating rink. Those who visit the Canyons this winter will find that the base area is very much a work in progress, but the mountain itself, with its network of spanking-new high-speed lifts and a nearly endless maze of trails, already feels quite complete.
888/226-9667 or 435/649-5400, fax 435/649-7374; www.thecanyons.com.

It is tempting, on a fine day at Deer Valley, to spend the entire afternoon hanging out at the Beach, the sunny expanse in front of McHenry's restaurant at the mid-mountain Silver Lake Lodge. From here you can watch the parade of gorgeous women and men in wraparound shades and Bogner ski ensembles as they head from lunch to lifts to lattes to lounge chairs. But be warned: The impulse to pull out a cell phone and make a call will be almost overwhelming-- everyone else seems to be on the horn.

Opened in 1980, back when the idea of providing complimentary tissues at every lift line seemed revolutionary, Deer Valley raised the bar for all resorts by offering service and style no skier had ever encountered. There were valets who helped unload your gear, heated sidewalks to melt away pesky snow and ice, a fleet of ferocious Sno-Cats that groomed trails daily, and six uniformly wonderful mountainside restaurants, including the widely acclaimed Mariposa and the Seafood Buffet. Charismatic, ageless Norwegian ski legend Stein Eriksen added European-style panache to the resort with his elegant Stein Eriksen Lodge-- and with his very presence on the slopes. Wealthy fun-seekers built trophy houses and adopted Deer Valley as their personal playground. The fact that the resort limits daily ticket sales to 5,000-- and prohibits snowboarding-- adds to the feeling of exclusivity.

Deer Valley's reputation as a cushy, extra-groomed, intermediate skiers' enclave lives on, but visitors this season will also find two new quad chairlifts and 500 new acres of open bowls and tough chutes in Empire Canyon, on the resort's western edge. Another 60 acres of beginner, intermediate, and advanced skiing opens this year in the Deer Crest expansion area. The trails are served by a chairlift and a four-passenger high-speed gondola, which embarks from the back of the resort in the Heber Valley-- providing access for the first time to Deer Valley from Route 40. The gondola base terminal and parking lots are in Jordanelle Village-- yet another future retail and real estate hub. And to top it all off, the Ritz-Carlton organization signed a letter of intent last summer to operate a deluxe $165 million hotel at Deer Crest, which, pending approvals, will be open by 2000-- well before the resort hosts four of the Olympic alpine skiing events. Maybe all those people on cell phones are calling their brokers.
800/558-3337 or 435/649-1000, fax 435/645-6939; www.deervalley.com.

Walk among old Park City village's Western storefronts and restored Victorian houses, and you'll be only vaguely aware that there is a huge ski and snowboard complex up there somewhere. It's not until you gain some elevation that you see what draws people here-- Park City Mountain Resort's 3,000-plus acres of trails so varied that no one, no matter his or her level of expertise, gets bored. Advanced skiers will find a new six-passenger high-speed chairlift in McConkey's Bowl-- opening up prime high-altitude mountainside. Intermediates will find miles of wide, groomed cruisers, and beginners have plenty of runs too, including a 31/2-mile glide from the summit.

Visitors can stay at the resort's own complex of condos, hotels, and shops, slated for major expansion in the next few years. But Park City's soul remains downtown, where there are dozens of mountain-chic shops, restaurants, funky galleries, and B&B's. The bustling village reaches its partying zenith in mid-January when the Sundance Film Festival brings in hyperkinetic producers sporting great haircuts, and world-weary 20-year-olds who have just signed deals with Miramax-- or imagine that they have. Staying in town, by the way, doesn't consign you to driving-- or taking the free shuttle bus-- to and from the lifts. An under-utilized triple chair rises up from old Park City, and two trails allow you to ski to town when it's quitting time.

In 2002, the mountain will be the scene of the Olympic giant slalom and all snowboarding competitions. When American racers take to these courses they'll feel right at home: the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is based here. Other Olympic events, such as the luge, bobsled, and ski jumping, will be held at the nearby Utah Winter Sports Park (800/658-4200 or 435/658-4200). When the facilities aren't in use by athletes-in-training, you can sign up for ski-jumping lessons and luge and bobsled rides.
800/222-7275 or 435/649-8111, fax 435/649-0532; www.parkcitymountain.com.


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