Travel

Utah: Now you can easily toast the sensational snow

PARK CITY, Utah — This is an old silver-mining town that struck gold with ski tourism.

It and its neighbor resorts in Parley's Canyon — Deer Valley and The Canyons — were a perfect destination for our "Quick Hits" ski survey.

About 2 ½ weeks after returning from Vail, I was headed for Utah. I tried a slightly different strategy by taking a flight after work, trading the free half-day of skiing that the Utah resorts offer for one fewer day away from the office. (Ah, the sacrifices I make for this job.)

This flight was 3 hours, 22 minutes, and the trip to my hotel in Park City was 33 minutes. I had arrived about 36 hours after a storm dumped almost 2 feet of powder on the mountain. The long day meant it had to be an early night, so I could catch as much of the leftover powder as possible.

I arrived at the Town Lift in time to catch one of the first chairs up the mountain, only to learn it wasn't working (one of the few glitches encountered over the two trips), so I had to take a bus over to the Silver Queen lift.

It wasn't as early a start as planned, but the snow was nothing less than sensational — soft everywhere, with stashes of powder just off the groomed trails — and there were no crowds.

Park City's is an easy mountain to navigate because most of the runs in any one portion fit the same skill level. For example, as a skier gets off the King-Con lift, most of the runs to his left are intermediate, most to his right are advanced.

With 51 percent of the mountain rated intermediate, the average skier will be challenged to sample all of them in a single day. But advanced skiers can find plenty of terrain to challenge their abilities off the Jupiter and McConkey's lifts. Much of this is expert terrain. I love to visit Deer Valley on my second day of a trip to Utah. The soft snow and superb grooming always result in a great day of cruising that takes the edge of the inevitable soreness after the first day. This trip was no exception.

The 10-minute shuttle ride from the Park City transit center drops skiers off at the Snow Park Lodge, where they can buy lift tickets. Then two quick lift rides zip you to the top of Bald Mountain, one of Deer Valley's five peaks.

Groomed intermediate trails spread out before you like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. Choose one — Nabob perhaps — and cruise down to the Wasatch lift, then ride back up and choose another. It is easy to spend the entire morning on Bald Mountain, but you would miss a lot of fine skiing and superb views.

One of the most spectacular intermediate runs is Jordanelle, which runs along a ridge down from Little Baldy Peak. One word of caution: Don't take this run too late in the day. You need to be able to take the lift back up so you can ski down to Snow Park to catch the return shuttle to Park City.

The biggest surprise from my trips was The Canyons.

I had skied the area once before, but that was more than 25 years ago, when it was still called Park West. That probably was a mistake.

The Canyons is a huge area that encompasses six peaks crisscrossed by narrow trails, mostly below the tree line. This is alpine skiing in its truest sense without totally intimidating the average skier. The only downside is that the skiing spreads across an expanse that isn't easily negotiated by the lifts.

For example, if you want to ski the mother lode of intermediate runs served by the Dreamscape and Day Break lifts, you need to leave enoughtime to get back to the mountain base at the end of the day. That problem should be alleviated when the Iron Mountain lift is completed.

Other parts of the mountain, such as Ninety-Nine 90 and Peak 5, offer some of the most difficult terrain in Utah, with deep powder stashes framed by sheer rock faces. For those who haven't visited the resort, yes, The Abyss is just what it sounds like.

There is one drawback to skiing these three resorts: They do not offer an interchangeable lift ticket. That makes the cost a bit higher because you must buy a single-day ticket to ski each area. Because each mountain has more than enough terrain to keep all but the most gung-ho skiers busy for three days, personal preference should dictate what lift package you buy.

Off the mountains, the resorts have been battling an incorrect perception that the social scene is backward, to say the least. When I visited, you still had to either buy food to get a drink or join a "club." It was amusing to see that a small plate of nachos satisfied the legal requirement, so four adults could polish off two pitchers of margaritas. Fortunately, the state got rid of its more restrictive liquor laws over the summer.

Perhaps the brightest sign of the change is the unexpected sight of High Mountain Distillery. It wasn't open when I was in Park City, but it is now. And it should be viewed as a symbol of change in Utah. High Mountain Distillery isn't bottling its own whiskey yet; that still needs time to mature. But it does sell two blends of rye whiskeys from outside suppliers. The Rendezvous blend is a fine whiskey.

The dining choices spread among the Parley's Canyon resorts are not as extensive as Vail's, but they are far more than adequate. Shabu in Park City serves exquisite Asian food; don't miss the bourbon hoisin chicken.

To satisfy hearty appetites and a flair for the unusual, try Fireside Dining at the Empire Canyon Lodge in Deer Valley, where raclette, stews and roasted meats are cooked on open fireplaces.

The Cabin, at The Canyons resort, is a meat-eater's joy. Excellent beef and game accompanied by a superb wine list.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: The Utah ski resorts must be the world's most accessible. All Resort Express is one of several companies providing shuttle service to the resorts. The cost is $34 each way. (800-457-9457; allresort.com)

WHERE TO STAY: Whenever I visit the Parley's Canyon area, I try to stay in Park City because it offers the broadest spectrum of lodging and dining options. I can recommend the Galleria condo complex in the moderate price range. It has all the requisite amenities and is very close to the Town Lift. If you want to splurge, check out the Sky Lodge, a modern boutique hotel where many of the units have hot tubs. If you want to stay at The Canyons, the Grand Summit Hotel is an excellent choice. Located next to the Flight of the Canyons Gondola, it is perfect for skiers who want the earliest possible start to the day. In Deer Valley, there are two primary lodging locations — one closer to the Snow Park base area and the other at Silver Lake Village, partway up the mountain. At Silverlake Village, the skiing access is closer and the prices are higher, but if you are splurging, try the Stein Eriksen Lodge. At the Snow Park area, the Lodges at Deer Valley are a good choice. You can check out all the options and search for deals at skiutah.com/winter or go to the individual resort Web sites: deervalley.com; parkcitymountain.com/winter and thecanyons.com.

WHERE TO EAT: Dining options in the area are growing increasingly sophisticated. Shabu serves spectacular Asian cuisine on Main Street in downtown Park City, while Zona Rosa offers excellent Mexican fare and great margaritas just up the street. The Mariposa in Deer Valley is home to some of the most delicious and sophisticated food in the state.

SKIING: There is plenty of skiing to keep all but the most die-hard skiers busy for three days at any one of the three resorts, but if you want to ski more than one, you will have to buy individual lift tickets. A three-day pass for Deer Valley is $246; for Park City, $258; for The Canyons, $219.

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