One Year of Adventure in Park City, Utah

Sunrise above Park City

I take a bite then watch as a red bead of chili oil squeezes through the folds of my tightly wrapped burrito; it’s that moment we all know and dread. The oil free-falls in slow motion, landing just to the right of my crotch zipper. Shit. But before I can reach for a paper napkin, a crosswind grabs ahold of the rocketbox, threatening to toss my sister’s Chevy hatchback off the road and into Death Valley’s desert sand. It’s time to concentrate. The mountains are calling.

The story is pretty classic. Boy finishes college. Boy meets the 2010 job market. He runs away from reality as fast as possible and finds low-paying work and rudimentary housing in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) at the base of Alta Ski Area. Boy falls in love for the first time, vowing never to leave the loving embrace of LCC’s steep canyon walls and deep, dry powder. Then, boy blows out his knee and realizes knees are rather vital and quite expensive; it’s time to find a “real job.”

So here I am in my sisters “borrowed” car, broke as all hell after spending the last five months on my parents’ couch without a job, rehabbing an ACL-MCL-meniscus-tib-fib injury I had incurred the previous spring. I’m on my way to start a new life in a new, more financially feasible ski town: Park City, UT. Two weeks earlier I had secured a position at Soul Poles, the local bamboo ski pole manufacturer, and left the more daunting challenge of finding a place to live up to the moment. As with most ski towns, an affordable annual lease is tough to find. I spent my first month sleeping on friends’ couches, in the guest room of my parents’ friends’ house and on the floor of the bamboo ski pole workshop before finally finding roommates and a house to rent.

Early fall aspens

My homeless streak broke in late October when I moved into the “Daly Dump” on Daly Street, just above Main Street in Park City’s old town district. Built in 1890, the cabin was constructed on a foundation of loose rock mixed with thick, spruce pilings. After over a century of deep winters, debaucherous miners, and reckless ski bums, the structure was the definition of “character” – significantly slanted with drafty windows and floorboards so loose, the house shook when you walked. It wasn’t fancy, but it was home, and with its central location it was the perfect place to get to know Park City.

The cabin backed up to the largest ski area in the U.S. – Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) – now under the Vail Corporation’s ownership as “Park City Mountain.” Deer Valley’s Empire and Lady Morgan lifts spun just up the street. In my three seasons at Alta, just a 45-minute drive away, I had only ventured to ski the “Wasatch Back” once. Nevertheless, I had a general understanding that the skiing at Deer Valley and Park City Mountain were considered a bit more accessible for intermediate skiers and that the resorts received slightly lower snowfall than the frontside resorts of Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird. I had also heard that what Park City lacked in steep ski terrain, it made up for in small-town charm, good restaurants, fantastic nordic skiing facilities and incredible summer mountain biking. I was stoked to get more familiar with this town, the people, and the surrounding mountains and trails.

As the aspen leaves changed from green to fire red, the meadows and scree slopes of Park City Mountain and Deer Valley resorts were soon covered with blended blankets of man-made and natural snow. Winter was upon us and so were the crowds.

Like magic, December 20th marked the start of the winter season. Restaurants were booked solid, lift lines at Park City Mountain’s Payday and Crescent lifts resembled queues for Splash Mountain at Disneyland and the asteroid belt of skiers careening down the thin groomed runs was keeping ski patrol busy. Those looking for a more refined skiing experience and a bit more space headed to Deer Valley. Renowned for its premium grooming, anti-snowboard regulations, fine dining, and mountain capacity ticket sales, Deer Valley has built a name for itself as a place to ski and, more importantly, be seen skiing.  

Sprawling view from the top of the Canyons

While Bogner and Kjus ski suits, fur boots and post-ski spa treatments are commonplace at Deer Valley’s luxurious resort bases and ski-in-ski-out lodges like Stein Eriksen’s, Montage, and the St. Regis, there is still a strong contingency of hardcore local skiers who ski Deer Valley for its fresh cord, fun tree skiing, tight chutes, and sendy cliffs. On a powder day, Deer Valley is a magical place This is in stark contrast to Alta or Snowbird, where fresh powder gets skied out before lunch.

After the Christmas rush, Park City doesn’t take much of a break, in fact it speeds up. January brings Sundance Film Festival in Park City. The festival’s ten days of mayhem turns Main Street into a winter-themed Sunset Strip. Despite the traffic, it’s an amazing time to be in Park City. The all-day independent film screenings and relatively empty lift lines mean you can ski your legs out, catch an indie flick, then hit the town with the film industry elite to enjoy the fabulously decorated clubs and private parties.

With the holidays and Sundance frenzy out of the way, February and March in Park City get back to the basics: sleep, ski, drink, eat, repeat. Park City averages 350 inches of the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” and despite some relatively shallow seasons in recent years, you are almost guaranteed to score if you spend some time in the area.

Now, six months into my stay in Park City, it’s starting to feel like home and my basic needs are being met (some in excess). I found the best burritos in town at El Chubasco. For Après drinks and fish tacos, I learned that Davanza’s can’t be beat. And the waitstaff at Yuki Yama Sushi quickly learned my name and order. When it came time to hit the town, I even logged local status at a few bars on Main Street. For the uninitiated, here’s my biased perspective on where to go out on Main Street.

No Name Saloon and Bistro 412 are the best bars for those looking for a fun crowd. No Name is strictly drinks and a mostly terrible music playlist. Bistro 412 is more hip and has fun DJ nights on the weekend. If you’re looking for live music and delicious craft cocktails, look no further than OP Rockwell. And lastly, no visit to Park City would be complete without a whiskey sampler at the famous High West Distillery.

As the season of late nights and early morning skiing came to an end, my friends and I dressed up in our best neon onesies for closing day. Accessorized with wigs, whiskey and portable speakers, we hot dogged our way down the hill until the lifts stopped spinning. I was starting to feel like this could be home. Sure, Park City has hectic winters, there’s no doubt about that. Also, the traffic is bad and getting worse and the lift lines can be a bit unseemly, but time it right and you will discover a town overflowing with passion for winter sports and the mountains to satiate.

When the trails turn from mud to tac and the aspens assume their fluro-green canopy, summer starts in Park City. The official kickoff is the 4th of July, when the town gathers for a parade down Main Street, followed by a public barbecue and relaxed open container laws. With big blue skies, hot days, cool nights, and an endless lineup of live music, summer in Park City rivals the magic of winter. Turns out I’m not the first to think this; as it was my first full year, every Utah transplant took the opportunity to tell me their story, which almost always began, “I came for the winters and stayed for the summers…”

Once I got my bike dialed in, the summer morphed into a blur of dusty trails and the whiz of my freewheel. Mountain biking in Park City is unlike anywhere I’ve ever ridden. The access is unbelievable. From the Daly Dump, I had my choice of over 150 miles of public trails, all within riding distance of my front door. But where to start? Luckily the Mountain Trails Foundation develops a detailed annual map of Park City’s trails. It can be picked up at White Pine Touring or any of the other bike shops in town.

To support the event-packed calendar, steady flow of visitors and environmentally aware residents, Park City made the wise choice to delegate tax dollars to support free public transportation. Park City buses will take you, your bike or your skis anywhere you need to go within the city with regular frequency. Over the course of the summer, I became well acquainted with the purple Empire line. The bus picks up at the Main Street station and drops you off at the top of Empire pass, giving mountain bikers and hikers easy access to the central artery of Park City’s trail network, the Mid-Mountain trail. From Mid-Mountain, you can choose to climb to the Crest Trail, drop down to the bike parks at Deer Valley, Park City Mountain, and Canyons Village resort bases or cruise the widened route as it traverses along the Wasatch Back.

It’s been one year in Park City and as the aspens resume their fiery red blaze and the ski movie premier circuit stops through town, the question arises – should I go for round two? Well, I think to myself, maybe those Utah transplants were right…

I came for the winters, but I’ll stay for the summers.

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