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Finding white gold and black diamonds in Park City, Utah

Heading west to the mecca for our annual ski vacation, we found ourselves in a winter wonderland — hundreds of groomed and powdery trails snaking down rugged mountains with peaks poking into the clouds.

The Orange Bubble Lift whisks skiers and snowboarders up the mountain at Canyons, a section of the Park City resort in Utah. The seats are heated, and a plastic shield  keeps the wind off riders.
The Orange Bubble Lift whisks skiers and snowboarders up the mountain at Canyons, a section of the Park City resort in Utah. The seats are heated, and a plastic shield keeps the wind off riders.Read morePark City Mountain (custom credit)

Go west, skiers and snowboarders, go west, in search of white gold and black diamonds.

That’s the advice my wife and I got from relatives, friends, and fellow skiers, while we contented ourselves year after year with some of the best conditions in the Northeast.

Boy, were they right.

Venturing to Park City, Utah, a ski and snowboard mecca, for our annual ski vacation, we found ourselves in a winter wonderland — hundreds of groomed and powdery trails snaking down rugged mountains with peaks poking into the clouds.

There was snow galore, but just on the slopes, since it was the first week of March and the start of the spring season. Every trail and bowl beckoned, with dozens of chairlifts and gondolas ready to whisk us up and across the mountainsides.

Park City was enjoying a banner year — it got 328 inches for the season, from Nov. 21, 2018, through April 7, 2019. It snowed all seven days of our stay — 38 inches total — so we were treated to some of the most amazing conditions we’ve ever had.

“This was the best snowfall I’ve seen, and I’ve been here 21 years,” said Connie Nelson, executive director of the Alf Engen Ski Museum Foundation at the Utah Olympic Park.

The locals were on a Rocky Mountain high after a dreadful 2017-18 season, when they got only half that much.

We definitely hit the jackpot.

With all that snow, we had hundreds of trails to explore at the sprawling Park City ski area and the cozier Deer Valley Resort, instead of the mere dozens of trails at our go-to resort, Smugglers’ Notch in northern Vermont.

The Park City ski area is the largest in the country, and the historic town — site of the annual Sundance Film Festival in January — adds a picturesque collection of shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars, complete with a chairlift to the slopes.

Plus, Park City is just a convenient 50-minute drive from Salt Lake City International Airport.

When our grown daughter, Rebecca, who started skiing at 3½, heard us talking about the trip two years in advance, she blurted, “Count me in.”

Instead of lugging our skis, boots, and poles, we chose to rent newer equipment. (We did pack our helmets.) The staff at Park City Sport on Main outfitted us with shorter, wider skis better-suited for deep snow and powder and fitted us for painfully snug boots that, as promised, loosened up on the slopes. They also recommended a few of their favorite restaurants to boot (pun intended).

There were a few other perks: free overnight storage of our rentals, and no charge for days we took off from skiing, so long as we turned in the equipment by 9:30 that morning. We handed over our gear for a day of sightseeing and saved $91, which nearly paid for lunch and dinner on Main Street.

The Park City ski area is supersized, because it’s two resorts in one, merged in 2015 by Vail Resorts. Park City is more modern and groomed, while Canyons is more old-school and rugged. Combined, their 314 trails and 41 lifts stretch across 7,300 skiable acres.

As we headed to the Park City resort on Sunday morning for our first day of Western skiing, a traffic advisory alerted us that all those parking lots were full. No problem — we easily detoured to Canyons’ base area.

With all the fresh snow, skiers and boarders were out in force. Yet, the lift lines were relatively short at the base and practically nonexistent up the mountain. There was just so much mountain and so many trails and lifts to absorb and disperse the crowds.

That was one of the biggest differences for us — multiple lifts starting up the mountain. We were accustomed to lifts picking us up at the bottom and dropping us off at the top, but to reach trails near or at the top of these 10,000-foot peaks, we needed to take a series of lifts.

These mid-mountain rides caused some confusion when we split up and planned to meet at a specific lift.

It also required some planning, or we could find ourselves facing black diamonds — the steepest and most treacherous trails — as the only way down. As intermediate skiers, Valerie and I made sure we didn’t make that mistake.

Not so much for Rebecca, who, after sticking with us the first morning, headed off for more-challenging terrain. She handled an assortment of groomed and powdery single black-diamond trails and then moved on to double-blacks, including wide-open bowls and mogul-pocked slopes.

It’s not advisable to ski alone, so we kept in touch via walkie-talkies and cell phones.

Resort hosts stationed at many of the lifts were extremely helpful, patiently answering questions and tracing routes on the billboard-size trail maps. And, because they rotated regularly, they would return from a few runs with real-time reports on the conditions.

We were pleasantly surprised that most of the intermediate trails and some of the black diamonds were groomed. With fresh snow falling throughout the day, we skied confidently, knowing our edges would grab on every turn. No sign of the “hard pack” surfaces that Eastern skiers and boarders know so well. (“Ice is what you put in your drinks,” instructors like to rationalize.)

We planned on taking it easy the first day, to get acclimated to the altitude, but the long and winding trails were too inviting, and there were so many to explore. We hardly took a trail more than once.

The lifts, while not as modern as we expected — only a few gondolas — were efficient and user-friendly. The chairlifts, mostly three-, four-, or six-seaters, slowed to a crawl to pick us up and drop us off. At the Canyons, an “orange bubble lift” had a plastic shield to block the wind, and all the seat cushions were absolutely comfy.

As usual, I overdid it on the first day and expected to pay for it the next — if not the rest of the week. But a tip from a doctor friend who skis out West was a godsend: Starting three days in advance through the second day on the slopes, take three ibuprofen pills three times a day — yes, nine pills a day. I was skeptical, but the anti-inflammatory pain reliever sure worked. On our second day, I felt fresh and rarin’ to go, and that energy remained through our fifth and final day.

We also followed two other tips to avoid altitude sickness: Refrain from alcohol for the first two days, and drink plenty of water. We never suffered the symptoms of altitude sickness — headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, reduced appetite, or shortness of breath.

The four days at Park City were snowy, cloudy, and foggy, which, for me, sets the mood for wintry adventure. Visibility was extremely limited at times; once, we resorted to following a snowboarder to the lift.

The trail signs also proved challenging, often pointing to a lift instead of identifying the trail. Even with explicit directions from the resort hosts, there were some trails we never found.

Our one sunny day was at Deer Valley, considered the crème de la crème of ski resorts. The 103-trail, 21-lift resort is for skiers only — no snowboarders — and limits the number of lift tickets to avoid overcrowding. That means buying an Ikon pass in advance to avoid getting turned away, but it’s worth it.

The resort seemed to think of everything to pamper its guests. After I dropped off Valerie and Rebecca and their gear within steps of the base lift, attendants directed me to the closest parking lot, where a flatbed shuttle picked up a bunch of us.

Deer Valley is known for its grooming, and Valerie and I took full advantage of the perfect conditions on the long, picturesque trails, managing to reach the three main peaks: Flagstaff Mountain (9,100 feet), Bald Mountain (9,400), and Empire (9,570). Rebecca attacked blacks and double-blacks, including the gladed Ontario Bowl — where she saw avalanche warnings — and Solace, a sea of moguls.

For lunch, we stumbled upon the Royal Street Café, a restaurant complete with an indoor firepit to dry out gear and warm up skiers. We enjoyed a delicious lunch (a grilled Reuben and mac-and-cheese) for roughly the same price charged at the crowded cafeteria-style lodges at most ski areas.

The crowning example of Deer Valley’s attentiveness came on our last run.

We had arranged to meet Rebecca at one of the most-remote lifts, which provided access to the only trail we could ski back to the base lodge. But, Valerie and I reached the lift five minutes after closing time. Rebecca and the lift attendant were waiting for us, and he pleasantly allowed us on.

On our non-ski day, we strolled Park City’s Main Street, browsing the stores and galleries, picking up souvenirs, and marveling at photography of the West’s natural beauty. Eating brunch at the Bridge Café and Grill, we watched skiers and boarders glide up to the restaurant’s outdoor tables or to stairs to Main Street, while the chairlift scooped up others for the 13-minute ride to the base lodge.

A few miles outside town, we toured exhibits at the Utah Olympic Park, built for the 2002 Winter Games. Americans captured a record 34 medals, and photos, videos, and displays depict such highlights as American speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno’s dramatic silver- and gold-medal wins.

The complex remains an official U.S. Olympic training site, while also offering civilians a “winter bobsled experience” on the 2002 track, piloted by a pro driver, for $175 per person. Unfortunately, it was completely booked, so we settled for indoor simulators of bobsled rides and ski-jumping for just $5 per person.

The area’s first ski-jumpers were actually young daredevil miners. But, when the silver boom that started in the 1860s went bust by the 1930s, a group of Salt Lake City businessmen turned to another bountiful resource — snow — and used an old aerial mining tram to build Utah’s first chairlift.

A new boom snowballed from there and is still going strong, built on white gold and black diamonds.

Park City:

Park City Mountain:

Deer Valley Resort:

Utah Olympic Park: