The Best of Utah Ski Country

The Best of Utah Ski Country

Ann Shields
Ann Shields
Why wait for the Olympic Games?Play now at America's brightest constellation of ski resorts

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 CANYONS
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.

DEER VALLEY RESORT
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.

PARK CITY
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.


SNOWBASIN
Don't worry; no one else outside of greater Ogden has heard of it either. But Snowbasin is about to become famous. Contractors have been swarming over the ski area ever since it was selected as the site of the high-profile Olympic downhill skiing events. Already, four new lifts are under construction, including two gondolas, one high-speed quad, and a tram.

Located about one hour north of Salt Lake City in the high peaks of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the mountain has 39 runs, nearly three-quarters of which are suitable for intermediates and beginners. But it's the steep stuff that won over Olympic event planners. The downhill course, designed by Olympic gold medalist Bernard Russi, is visible from the base lodge. With a vertical drop of 2,770 feet, the course is expected to generate speeds of 90 miles per hour.

There is no lodging at the mountain yet. Most skiers spend the night back in Ogden, a 17-mile drive to the west. Go 10 miles east, and you can visit the town of Huntsville-- home to both the century-old Shooting Star Saloon, where pool-playing locals swill pitchers of beer, and the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Trappist Monastery, where beekeeping monks turn out ambrosial honeys. Pick your poison.
801/399-1135, fax 801/399-1138; www.snowbasin.com.

SNOWBIRD
High up in Little Cottonwood Canyon sits Snowbird-- considered by many accomplished skiers and snowboarders to be the ultimate challenge. Nearly half the trails here are just for experts, and many involve something akin to jumping off a cliff. As if this weren't thrilling enough, the resort also offers Sno-Cat skiing into the backcountry of Mineral Basin.

Not that Snowbird is entirely for the elite. Intermediates and beginners will find plenty of fun, groomed runs, too.

At the end of the day, everyone who isn't driving the 25 miles back to Salt Lake City hunkers down in the compact Snowbird base village, a conglomeration of contemporary cement-and-glass condos, shops, and restaurants. The recently renovated 11-story Cliff Lodge has a pool, a skating rink, and even a climbing wall for those gung-ho guests who feel compelled to gain even more altitude before calling it a day.
800/453-3000 or 801/933-2222, fax 801/933-2298; www.snowbird.com.

SOLITUDE
Driving up the narrow road through the rock walls and dense pines of Big Cottonwood Canyon, you sense that you're heading somewhere magical, wild, even a little scary. Avalanche warning signs encourage you to step on the gas. The scars of old slides reinforce the message. By the time you reach the 8,000-foot-high Solitude Mountain Resort, you feel as if you've traveled to some enchanted Shangri-LaLa land-- even though the Salt Lake City airport is a mere 33 miles away.

Long revered by locals as the place to find powder, Solitude has been an underskied day-trip destination for decades. That began to change two years ago, however, when the area's first overnight lodging, the downright luxurious Inn at Solitude-- complete with spa, movie theater, fitness room, and library-- opened at the base of the mountain. Last winter, the equally attractive 18-unit Creekside condominium complex opened next to the inn, and the still-evolving Village at Solitude began to take shape.

Yet even as civilization develops at the base, the ski and board scene remains blissfully primal. A modest seven lifts serve the pristine 1,200-acre ski area, which includes a host of black-diamond hills in the awe-inspiring Honeycomb Canyon. Intermediates and beginners ply the runs from mid-mountain or lower, while snowshoers and cross-country skiers head into their own corner of wilderness via the Nordic Center's 13 miles of trails. The cross-country system is the oldest in Utah, and at 8,900 feet up, one of the most beautiful-- even more so when the center leads tours under the full moon.

Given Solitude's location, nightlife is predictably limited, but the resort lures guests out of their hotel rooms with two dinner outings. One is a ski or snowshoe tour to the Yurt, a Mongolian-style hut in the woods; the other, a snowmobile-drawn sleigh ride up the mountain to the Roundhouse, where diners get white-tablecloth service and spectacular views. Solitude's splendid isolation is so seductive you may find yourself scanning the high peaks, rooting for an avalanche big enough to close the only road out.
800/748-4754 or 801/534-1400, fax 801/649-5276; www.skisolitude.com.

SUNDANCE
While bulldozers and cranes descend on the mountains to the north, this gorgeous little ski area sits in all its quiet perfection. Sundance, of course, is Robert Redford's exquisitely realized dream, which combines austerity with extravagance-- sort of like an ashram with incredible food and leather club chairs. At the base of the majestic 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos in Provo Canyon, 51 miles south of Salt Lake City, Sundance attracts both blue-jeaned day skiers from the Provo area and an international clientele who come to immerse themselves in woodsy, eco-conscious elegance. Guests stay in one- and two-bedroom cottage suites or in larger mountain chalets-- each decorated with handmade furniture, Native American blankets, and local crafts.

While the Sundance Institute and its film festival (which takes place mostly in Park City) are becoming increasingly celebrated, the resort's slopes remain something of a secret pleasure for skiers in the know. The terrain is not vast-- just 450 acres-- but it offers thrills for everyone. Even with just four lifts, including one rope tow, lines are never long and the broad slopes are rarely congested.

Sundance's après-ski scene revolves around the upscale Tree Room and the more casual Foundry Grill, both in the rustic building that also houses the Sundance General Store, the inspiration for the Sundance catalogue. Just next door is the Owl Bar, transplanted here from Wyoming, where, at the turn of the century, it was frequented by Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall gang. The Sundance Institute screening room shows free films, and the resort's Nordic center, with nine miles of trails, offers skiing and snowshoeing by lantern light Wednesday through Saturday nights. Otherwise, guests while away the evening simply wandering the lit snowbanked paths-- and basking in the very Bob-ness of it all.
800/892-1600 or 801/225-4107, fax 801/226-1937; www.sundance-utah.com.

ETERNAL ALTA
Alta fans will be thrilled to learn that developers haven't left their mark on every mountain in Utah. With no plans for speed-of-light lifts or fancy-schmancy hotels, the focus here remains ski, ski, not chichi.

In the 60 years since the area installed its first lift in the shadows of 11,068-foot Mount Baldy, generation after generation has made the pilgrimage to Alta, passing the experience along like a treasured heirloom. The five clubby, rustic overnight lodges at the base of the mountain are filled with repeat guests who cherish the fact that snowboards are banned here, and that management limits the number of skiers allowed on the hill. Two of the lodges don't accept credit cards, adding to the area's mystique.

Though justifiably famous for steep terrain, Alta's 2,200 acres also offer wide, groomed runs and gentle pitches for less-accomplished skiers-- all for just $31 a day, surely the best deal in America for big-mountain skiing.
Reservations 888/782-9258 or 801/942-0404, information 801/742-3333, fax 801/799-2340; www.altaskiarea.com.


Alta
Hotels
Rustler Lodge Little Cottonwood Rd.; 888/532-2582 or 801/742-2200, fax 801/742-3832; doubles from $250, including breakfast and dinner, no credit cards. A touch of slope-side luxury, with 85 well-appointed rooms and a spa.

Deer Valley
Hotels
Stein Eriksen Lodge 7700 Stein Way; 800/453-1302 or 435/649-3700, fax 435/649-5825; doubles from $475. This mid-mountain Norwegian-chalet-style hotel has 128 rooms, suites, and condominiums.
Goldener Hirsch Inn 7570 Royal St. E.; 800/252-3373 or 435/649-7770, fax 435/649-7901; doubles from $200. A 20-room slope-side château inspired by Salzburg's fabled hotel of the same name.
Restaurant Mariposa Silver Lake Lodge, 7600 Royal St.; 435/645-6715; dinner for two $100. Risotto cakes and rack of lamb. Rated the region's best. (Reopens December 4.)

Park City/The Canyons
Hotels
Washington School Inn 543 Park Ave.; 800/824-1672 or 435/649-3800, fax 435/649-3802; doubles from $195, including breakfast buffet. Twelve rooms and three suites in a handsomely restored 1889 schoolhouse a block off Main Street.
Silverking Hotel 1485 Empire Ave.; 800/331-8652 or 435/649-5500, fax 435/649-6647; doubles from $105. Sixty-four well-stocked suites, about 100 yards from the Park City ski lifts.
Restaurants
Chimayo 368 Main St.; 435/649-6222; dinner for two $70. The Southwestern-cum-French menu features great chipotle barbecued spareribs.
Grappa 151 Main St.; 435/645-0636; dinner for two $90. Osso buco in a Tuscan farmhouse setting.
Wasatch Brew Pub 250 Main St.; 435/649-0900; dinner for two $30. Lagers and ales made on-site, and pub fare such as bratwurst.
Zoom Roadhouse Grill 660 Main St.; 435/649-9108; dinner for two $50. A Robert Redford­owned establishment in a former Union Pacific Railway depot. Order the trout with borracho (drunken) beans.

Snowbasin
Hotel
Historic Radisson Suite Hotel 2510 Washington Blvd., Ogden; 800/333-3333 or 801/627-1900, fax 801/394-5342; doubles from $80. Twenty minutes from the slopes, 144 stately rooms and suites built around the 1890 Reed Hotel. Ask about ski packages.
Restaurant
Shooting Star Saloon 7350 E. 200 South St., Huntsville; 801/745-2002; dinner for two $10. Thick and juicy burgers in a classic 1870 saloon-- Utah's oldest.

Snowbird
Hotel
Cliff Lodge Spa & Conference Center 800/453-3000 or 801/933-2192, fax 801/933-2119; doubles from $159. A modern hotel in Snowbird's pedestrian village, with 532 one- and two-bedroom Mission-style suites and a full-service spa.
Restaurant
Aerie Restaurant Cliff Lodge; 801/933-2160; dinner for two $50. Californian-French fare, and a sushi bar-- all with knockout mountain views.

Solitude
Hotel
Inn at Solitude 12000 Big Cottonwood Canyon; 800/748-4754 or 801/536-5700, fax 801/535-4135; doubles from $160. Forty-six rooms-- many looking onto the mountain, some with kitchens-- steps from the lifts.
Restaurants
Creekside at Solitude 801/536-5787; dinner for two $45. Wood-oven pizzas and fresh pasta. The deck is the place to be for lunch.
Solitude Yurt 801/536-5709; dinner for two $70, including equipment rental.
The Roundhouse 801/536-5709; dinner for two $60. Reservations are a must for both; no previous skiing experience required.

Sundance
Hotel
Sundance North Fork, Provo Canyon; 800/892-1600 or 801/225-4107, fax 801/226-1937; cottage doubles from $325. Suites are in handsome timber town houses with fireplaces or woodstoves; some have balconies, with stream or mountain views.
Restaurants
Foundry Grill North Fork, Provo Canyon; 801/223-4220; dinner for two $40. The ranch-style recipes include grilled pork chops with molasses-fried apples.
Owl Bar 801/223-4220. Order from the Foundry's menu (it's next door) and listen to local musicians.
Tree Room 801/223-4200; dinner for two $80. Exceptional, eclectic food, such as pepper steak with mango chutney, served amid Native American artifacts and Redford-film memorabilia.

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