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SPECIAL ISSUE / WINTER GETAWAYS : Destination: Utah

Park City Powders Its Nose

The former mining town is already primping for its Olympic date in 2002

December 08, 1996|GREGORY DENNIS | Dennis, a former ski instructor, is a freelance writer based in Encinitas

PARK CITY, Utah — "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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