Park City Powders Its Nose

Dennis, a former ski instructor, is a freelance writer based in Encinitas

"There are no friends on powder days," goes the old skier axiom. But this particular morning at Park City Ski Area, three friends and I are doing our best to disprove it.

Feeling magnanimous, we stop above each new pitch and offer one of our companions first shot at the next stretch of unskied powder. It's easy to be friendly on powder days in Park City, where three mountain resorts record annual snowfalls of up to 350 inches, and there's often another unskied line right around the next tree.

An hour after the lifts have opened, our group of four--including my brother Kevin and our Park City pals, Mary and Mike Wilson--is still skiing untouched portions of the 18 inches of fresh snow that have fallen on the lower slopes overnight.

We're waiting for the upper mountain to open, and the distant booming of explosives--launched by the ski patrol to clear avalanche danger--tells us we won't have to wait long. Soon, a lift attendant alerts us to the imminent opening of the double chair in Jupiter Bowl.

Leaving the rest of the resort behind, we glide through woods dotted with 19th century mine shafts and make the half-mile run to the base of Jupiter. We grab one of the first chairs and ascend to the mountain summit.

It's still snowing up here; the hushed white world is unmarked by tracks. The accumulation is so deep that only the steepest slopes provide enough momentum. Straight down is the way to go.

Our hoots of delight pierce the storm. We traverse farther out with each run we take to find unskied snow. Eventually the adrenaline rush eases. Amid a section of tall pines on the west side of Jupiter Bowl, thigh-deep in snow, we stop for a moment. "This is goddess skiing," Mary sighs. I smile and nod in agreement, certain that Jupiter, Roman king of gods and goddesses, would approve.

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Park City is only 30 miles from Salt Lake City's airport, making it possible for Southern Californians to ski on the day they arrive and the day they depart. And Park City has recently gained an additional measure of status: It will host many of the outdoor events for the Winter Olympic Games of 2002, which will be based in Salt Lake City.

Skiing vacationers might well plan to visit Park City in the next couple of seasons, before it starts to get overrun by Olympian hype, hoopla and high prices. So far, Park City offers the best of both worlds. Prices haven't yet gone through the roof, while many Olympic facilities are already in place.

Beginning in mid-January at the Utah Winter Sports Park, adventurous visitors will be able to take a ride on the new Olympic bobsled run. The sports park, tucked in the hills off Interstate 80 about 10 minutes from downtown Park City, also offers recreational ski jumping. By the end of a two-hour lesson, the bravest souls are launching themselves off the 38-meter hill. Visitors can also watch aerialists practicing flips and ski jumpers training on the giant 90-meter jump.

All told, venues in and near Park City will host 26 of the Olympic's 70 medal events. The town is already home to the U.S. Ski Team, and most of the infrastructure to hold international ski and snowboard competitions has long been in place.

Like Aspen and Telluride in Colorado, Park City was saved from ghost-town status by skiing after the town boomed and then went bust as a mining center.

Mining is no longer a source of income in Park City, although several mines are still maintained in hopes of a rise in the price of silver, and one old mine is now a tourist attraction.

With a population of 6,900 in the fast-growing county of Summit (population 22,300), Park City lies in a long, flat valley on the eastern edge of the Wasatch Mountains, about six miles off Interstate 80. Park City and the interstate are connected by Utah Highway 224, which is, alas, increasingly blighted with discount superstores and housing developments.

The town's three mountain resorts are within four miles of each other. Driving in from the interstate, visitors first come upon Wolf Mountain, then Park City Ski Area and, a mile beyond the center of town, Deer Valley Resort.

It doesn't always snow so heavily in Park City as it did on my most recent visit there early last spring. But storm patterns are consistent enough in most winters to regularly bring fresh snow. Visitors can usually expect good or excellent conditions between early January and mid-April at higher elevations.

Measured strictly by depth of snowfall, Park City is less desirable than other ski resorts such as Alta or Snowbird both within a 45-minute drive. But if you factor Park City's three mountain resorts, its accessibility, its historic downtown and its off-slope activities, then you end up with one of the country's better ski destinations.

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Other parts of Park City's appeal have nothing to do with skiing or the Olympics. At the top of my list is Main Street, built during the town's 19th century silver mining heyday and restored over the past two decades. It's the heart of the place, providing the aesthetic and social fabric that holds the community together.

At the bottom of Main Street is the White Pines Touring shop, which features a good selection of outdoor gear and friendly, knowledgeable salespeople. Nearby is the Kimball Art Galley, the best of the town's 12 galleries and worth a visit for its selection of works by regional artists. Farther up the narrow street lies a collection of excellent restaurants and the old Egyptian Theater, a popular venue during the annual Sundance Film Festival.

The Robert Redford-produced festival, begun in 1981, brings thousands of the glitterati to town for independent film premieres (this winter's festival runs Jan. 16 to 26). The town gets crowded during festival time with overdressed outsiders who spoil Park City's characteristically casual feel. So unless you're a film buff, it's a good idea to avoid visiting then.

The top of Main Street features two locals' favorites. The Wasatch Brew Pub serves pretty good food, but the real draw is the excellent beer that is brewed on site. Next-door is the Morning Ray Cafe, a Victorian-style cafe that serves the best breakfast in town. It's worth the extra effort to get there before you hit the slopes, to fill up not just on the tasty egg dishes and pastries, but also on the local gossip.

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For most winter visitors, Main Street and the Olympics are just sideshows to the main attractions in Park City, which remain skiing and snowboarding.

Park City Ski Area is Utah's largest, at 2,200 acres. It's characterized by relatively short lifts accessing an ascending series of ridge lines. With only 16% of the terrain rated "easier," there are plenty of challenging slopes for intermediates and experts.

The resort can be accessed from downtown Park City via the Town Lift, but most skiers begin from the main base lodge, about a mile north of Main Street. Beginning skiers and boarders typically start on the First Time chairlift, soon stepping up to the easier trails off the Three Kings and PayDay chairlifts.

To access the middle and upper mountain, avoid the outdated gondola. It makes a stupefyingly slow trip up the mountain, though some people prefer it on snowy days because it is marginally warmer. Instead, launch off the backside of the Ski Team lift down to the Silverlode six-seater.

Park City has opened its slopes to snowboarders for the first time this year, after years of banning the board. While snowboarders can now access all slopes previously open only to skiers, the resort has so far resisted making any improvements to cater specifically to the fast-growing number of snowboarders, as most resorts already do.

Still, the resort will host all of the snowboarding events at the 2002 Olympics, as well as the men's and women's giant slalom skiing competition. To view the racing areas on Clementine and C.D.'s Run, take the Eagle lift from the base area and look to your left. These trails are rarely open to the public, but the Eagle lift does provide quick access to popular intermediate trails service by King Con, a high-speed quad chairlift.

Expert skiers and boarders have their Park City playground in the skiing off the Jupiter double chair. Those willing to hike a few minutes from the summit ridge can access even more challenging terrain. At the base of the Pioneer lift, the Mid-Mountain Restaurant offers lunches in a nicely renovated building that once provided housing for 19th century miners. The setting and architecture make it a pleasant, if crowded, place to recount the morning's adventures.

At nearby Deer Valley Resort, by comparison, the cuisine is one of the main attractions, and each of the resort's six restaurants serves distinctive food. The resort's pastry chef, Letty Flatt, is something of a local celebrity, and the resort's promotional materials feature the food almost as prominently as the skiing.

About one mile up Deer Valley Drive south of downtown, Deer Valley has the least lift-served terrain of the town's three resorts, but it cultivates an atmosphere of affluent elitism that is virtually unrivaled in the U.S. The resort has developed an international reputation for pampering its guests; Ski and Snow Country magazines have regularly given the resort top honors for service and cuisine.

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Deer Valley has several sophisticated and high-priced lodges for the affluent clientele who stay slope-side. Among these is the Stein Ericksen Lodge, named after the Norwegian gold medalist who is the resort's resident ski celebrity.

Many of us who remember when skiing was only for hardy souls can appreciate the "Deer Valet" treatment--but it is sometimes also symptomatic of the resort's shortcomings.

Deer Valley takes such great pains to make snow and meticulously groom its slopes, for example, that the skiing surface often turns rock-hard if it hasn't snowed for a few days, as the firm artificial snow is packed even tighter by Sno-Cats. When skiers' cars sport bumper stickers that say "Stop the brutal grooming," they're thinking about places like Deer Valley. Deer Valley will also be a busy place during the 2002 Olympics, when it will host the slalom, aerial and mogul events in skiing on the Big Stick and Know You Don't trails above the resort base at Snow Park Lodge.

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Underrated Wolf Mountain will never be confused with Deer Valley. Even with this season's new construction, the resort is an appealing throwback to skiing's simpler days.

Formerly known as ParkWest, this large resort operates in the figurative shadows of the town's two larger areas. But Wolf Mountain has long been a local's favorite for its wide-open, uncrowded slopes and low prices. (A single-day ticket, for example, is $32, $20 less than at Deer Valley.)

It's the kind of place that still plays music on the loudspeakers, with a heavy emphasis on old Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers tunes that make us aging baby boomers feel young again.

This year the resort unveils its first expansion since 1969, debuting two new lifts, two new restaurants, and 300 acres of summit bowls and glades. The higher of the new lifts will access the Saddleback Peak ridge, an area that has long been a favorite for helicopter skiing.

While the Olympics give Park City world-class cachet, they will probably also bring world-class price increases. Already, some of the town's mid-priced hotels this winter are pushing their average room rates toward $200 a night.

But there are still deals available that cover lifts, lodging and transportation, including flights. Park City condominium prices are a bit less than those in Aspen, and they compare favorably with Snowbird. For example, two people can ski for five days and stay for six nights in an upper-end, one-bedroom, slope-side condominium at Park City Ski Area for about $2,000, at Aspen Mountain for about $2,300 and at Snowbird for about $2,800.

The gentrification of this old mining town--including its growing status as a suburb of Salt Lake City--hasn't proved altogether popular with the locals. For example, my friends Mike and Mary--who moved to Park City 20 years ago from Southern California--have just relocated to Moab, Utah, seeking a slower pace.

But compared to most of the country's other top-of-the-line mountain resorts, Park City will probably remain a reasonably affordable destination for several more years.

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GUIDEBOOK

Olympic Hopeful

Getting there: Delta and Southwest offer nonstop service to Salt Lake City from LAX, restricted advance-purchase fares beginning at $112 round trip. There's a shuttle van from the Salt Lake City Airport for $38 round trip. Park City has free buses that connect the town and resorts (with the exception of Wolf Mountain, which runs a free shuttle of its own).

Where to ski: Park City Ski Area, P.O. Box 39, Park City, UT 84060; telephone (800) 222-7275. Open through April 20; 2,200 lift-served acres. Three days lift ticket, $140; one day, $49. Kids 12 and under, $22. Deer Valley Resort, P.O. Box 1525, Park City, UT 84060; tel. (800) 424-3337. Open to April 6; 1,200 lift-served acres. Three-day lift ticket, $144; one day, $52; kids 12 and under, $28. Wolf Mountain, 4000 Parkwest Drive, Park City, UT 84098; tel. (800) 754-1636. Open to April 6; 1,700 lift-served acres. Three-day lift ticket, $116; one day, $32; kids 12 and under, $19.

Where to stay: Chateau Apres,1299 Norfolk, Park City; tel. (800) 357-3556; $69 per night, double occupancy. Within walking distance of Park City lifts. Olympia Park, 1895 Sidewinder Drive, Park City; tel. (800) 234-9003; $115-$275 per night for two. The hotel is comfortable with rooms built around a heated atrium pool. Where to eat: (Note: Restaurant prices below are for two people, food only). Cisero's, 306 Main St., Park City; tel. 649-5044. Decent Italian food; $30-$50. The Mariposa, 2250 Deer Valley Drive South, at Silver Lake Lodge (Deer Valley Resort); tel. 645-6715. Cozy atmosphere, American-Continental cuisine; $60-$80.

Off the slopes: Beginning mid-January, Winter Sports Park has bobsled rides (about $100), jumping lessons ($20); tel. (801) 649-5447. Cross-country skiing at Homestead Resort, 700 N. Homestead Drive, in nearby Midway; tel. (800) 327-7220; and at White Pine Touring Center on the Park City Golf Course; tel. (801) 649-8710.

For more information: Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitor's Bureau, P.O. Box 1630, Park City, UT 84060; tel. (800) 453-1360.

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