Bigger and Better: Park City Expands Into USA's Largest Ski Resort

Every fall around this time, ski resorts across North America start to roll out annual upgrades, hoping to woo travelers and outdo their competition. This season is an especially rich one in American skiing, with Jackson Hole, Wyo., adding a new lift, restaurant and trails, Sun Valley, Idaho, completely revamping its flagship Lodge, and Vermont’s Burke opening an entirely new hotel, along with many other improvements from coast to coast. But all of it pales beside what is going on in Park City, Utah — the opening of the largest ski resort in the nation’s history.

Skiing in Utah has been on the uptick ever since the 2002 Winter Olympic Games were held in and around Salt Lake City. While the Olympics have proved to be a double-edged sword for many cities that have hosted them, leaving a wake of unpaid bills and empty facilities, Utah was a rare exception. The number of skiers and snowboarders visiting the state has increased dramatically, up about 40% since the Games, while hotels and base lodges built for the event are still going strong.

No place benefitted more than Park City, a historic former silver mining town just 40 minutes from downtown Salt Lake and home to many skiing and non-skiing events (as well as the famous Sundance Film Festival). Park City has continued to grow and is more popular than ever, with two museums, the ski jumps, recently added attractions such as zip lines, hiking trails, high ropes courses, and the bobsled run — open for public rides summer and winter.

Now Park City is enjoying yet another renaissance, one that may well make it the top ski destination in the country. When the new Quicksilver gondola is fired up this December, it will carry skiers and snowboarders from one end of giant Park City ski resort to the other — except that the other end is what used to be the neighboring Canyons, which was already the largest ski mountain in Utah. Operating under the more recognizable Park City name, this new behemoth is a combination of the existing Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons, plus several new trails on the ridge that once separated them. The gondola and new trails are just the most visible highlights of the $50 million that operator Vail Resorts has spent fashioning the nation’s largest ski resort.

Before the merger, these were the state’s two biggest in terms of skiable in-bounds acreage, and the combined numbers are staggering: 7,300-acres of skiable terrain with 14 bowls, over 300 trails, and 17 on-mountain restaurants, linked by a 22-mile network of 38 lifts. The acreage is three to four times that of several major destination resorts in the West, such as Breckenridge, Colo., and more than seven times the size of the largest resort in the East, Sugarloaf, Maine.

The new giant will offer an unrivaled wealth of skiing and riding for all abilities, with more than enough trails, glades and bowls to easily occupy a trip — or season. But beyond its sheer size, the new resort will also greatly change the visitor experience to Park City. In the past, travelers have had to choose between staying in the charming town, filled with shops, restaurants, galleries and bars, or out at the base of Canyons, the largest of the area’s three resorts, for better access to the slopes. Now they can do either and still ski all the interconnected terrain.

Because the lifts and trails of the former Park City Mountain Resort come right down to Main Street, the sea change effectively transforms the entire town into a ski-in/ski-out base for America’s largest resort. Similar to the interconnected village model of Europe’s mega-resorts, visitors can start their day at one of three base areas, ski to another for lunch or finish up at the opposite end for dinner and après and then ride back, using the town’s extensive free bus system or the complimentary shuttles many area hotels operate.

“I think the new gondola will really open up town for people who want to ski a lot of terrain,” said David Perkins, proprietor of High West Distillery & Saloon. Immediately adjacent to the Town Lift, it lays claim to being the  world’s only ski-in/ski-out distillery. “You now can buy a lift ticket or Epic (season) Pass and instead of being locked into five days over at Canyons, you can mix it up and ski both sides. It’s a really big deal,” Perkins adds.

The new eight-passenger high-speed gondola is unusual in that it runs in both directions, with a mid-station atop the ridge between the resorts, linking three stops both ways like a subway for skiers. While most gondolas start at the base, this is up on the mountain, and riders can ski down from all three stations, none more than four and half minutes apart, while the end-to-end ride is less than nine minutes.

The mid-station sits atop Pine Cone Ridge, which used to divide the two resorts. On the old Park City side, the mid-station accesses an experts-only area called Thaynes Canyon, which used to require a lengthy hike. On the old Canyons side, three new trails have been cut down from the mid-station in Iron Canyon, with a mix of advanced and intermediate terrain, plus new snowmaking to ensure reliable access. A large new lodge, the 500-seat Miner’s Camp, was constructed for the gondola, while the existing Red Pine Restaurant added 250 seats.

With the new lifts, trails and snowmaking, Vail’s $50 million investment is most obvious on the slopes, but this summer the resort also opened a brand new 18-hole golf course at the Canyons base area, and is building an extensive new summer mountain bike park.

“As a local, I am certain our town will change, and slightly concerned that we will lose some of its character, but for tourists it is all positive,” said Eric Kent, a software executive and full-time resident who moved here from San Francisco seven years ago with his family for enhanced quality of life. “This will up the game for the entire on-mountain experience, lifts, food, lodges, après, and terrain.”

The resort now sprawls uninterrupted between the separate Canyons base area and town, with three entry points for visitors, and a wealth of lodging and dining options at all price points. The old base of Park City Mountain Resort sits just a few blocks above Main Street, with limited parking but lots of shuttle bus access, anchored by a pedestrian mall with shops and eateries. The Canyons gateway is a modern, purpose-built ski resort base area, with a gondola-style people mover connecting a large parking lot to the lifts, and several ski-in/ski-out hotels. A pedestrian village at the base of the slopes was completely redone just a few years ago, and is flanked with shops, restaurants, bars and a sunny, outdoor “ski beach” area.

The third option is the Town Lift, which serves the hotels and rental properties in historic downtown Park City. “We are extremely excited to (offer guests) walk-in, walk-out access to the largest resort in the U.S.,” said Michael Gregory, general manager of Washington School House Hotel, an upscale boutique hotel near the Town Lift.

One of the biggest appeals of skiing in the greater Salt Lake City area is ease of access. Six major resorts in the Wasatch mountain range are less than an hour from the airport, which is reliable even in winter. While on a map these seem split into three separate clusters in Park City (Deer Valley, Park City), Big Cottonwood (Solitude, Brighton) and Little Cottonwood Canyon (Alta, Snowbird), in reality they almost all neighbor each other, mostly separated by ridgelines just as Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort were until this winter. For this reason, there has been a long-term plan in the works to interconnect all seven — now six — resorts into an enormous European-style ski network, a project dubbed ONE Wasatch.

“The merger of Park City Mountain and Canyons, making the biggest resort in the United States, is not only an unprecedented project in the history of skiing, it is one step closer to the completion of ONE Wasatch,” said Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah.

The plan requires just three new connections — one of which is the Quicksilver gondola.

If you go

The town of Park City is less than 40 miles from the Salt Lake City Airport, and there are numerous shuttles, car services and shared-ride vans available. It is home to two large ski resorts, the newly formed Park City (merging former Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons, parkcitymountain.com) and Deer Valley (Note: Deer Valley does not allow snowboarding, deervalley.com). Both Deer Valley and the Canyons base area at Park City have significant ski-in/ski-out lodging with hotels and rental homes and condos.

The town of Park City also has extensive lodging in both hotel and vacation rentals, as well as direct access to the Park City resort from both its Main Street and the Park City base area in town. Extensive visitor information is available at its site, visitparkcity.com.

Budget lodging, restaurants and shops are also available in Kimball Junction, seven miles from Park City, and closer to Salt Lake, with some hotels operating ski resort shuttles, plus free public bus service.

Ski Utah also offers extensive tourist information on visiting the area, as well as specials, packages and the six-resorts-in-one-day guided Interconnect Tour, skiutah.com

The new Park City resort utilizes Vail’s Epic Pass, the nation’s bestselling season pass, priced to pay for itself in just five to six days of skiing and good at a dozen resorts in six states and two countries. For visitors coming from home resorts that use the Epic Pass, such as those in California, Michigan or Minnesota, trips to other participating resorts are essentially free.

Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY

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USA Today Fri, 11/13/2015 - 11:45