Utah: Spring Skiing & Fly Fishing
By Cathie Arquilla
I am a graceful skier. I like to make pretty turns on groomed runs that are not too steep, not too bumpy. As for powder skiing, I have very limited experience with it. But there’s no reason to concern oneself with powder skiing at the beginning of April in Utah. Not true. On April Fools Day I was at the top of Park City Mountain Resort in knee-deep powder and I was scared.
The dialog in my head went something like this; I should lean back a little, no forward – make more turns, no less, point skies down hill. Where are my skies? No sharp turns. Go straight, too fast. Stop. Oh my God, I’m on my ass. Meanwhile my pals on their big board powder skies are gliding down the mountain like tinker bell throwing snow dust. They are local to the Wasatch front.
Utah’s Wasatch Mountains boasts 28000 acres of skiable terrain, 500 inches of snow per year and 11 BIG ski resorts. With non-stop airline service from the east and west coast the promise is that you can fly in the morning and ski in the afternoon. On a good day PCMR (Park City Mountain Resort) is a 35-minute drive from Salt Lake City airport.
I was there for spring skiing, but the weather was changeable and we had plenty of snow and some sun too. Eventually I started to get that gliding feeling of skiing in powder. I couldn’t quite relate to the way experienced powder skiers wax poetic about “bottomless turns,” like surfers talking about “the green room” or “shooting the tube,” but I could appreciate their passion.
Ski Utah’s slogan is “The Best Snow On Earth” and this week in April they should have added, “No Kidding.” I’ve been eastern skiing for the last several years. Missing was the broken blender sound of snowboards edging and my own skis carving.
The plan was to get out of the deep freeze of a harsh New York winter and enjoy some spring skiing along with a few other sports and sights available near by. Skiing this late in the season is risky. If the weather or snow conditions weren’t cooperating, we could switch gears and do something else. So each day was a fun equation of things to do, ever changing, depending on the weather, our stamina and our mood.
PCMR + Park City Museum + High West Distillery
As I mentioned the snow conditions the day I skied PCMR were very fluffy! It was clown day and there was silliness on the slopes. PCMR is celebrating its 50th year and skiing that day felt like a birthday party.
Originally dedicated to mining, Park City mountain still has remnants of old mine shafts here and there. The Mid-Mountain Lodge, now a restaurant, was originally a miner’s dining hall with upstairs bedrooms and offices for The Silver King Mine’s executive staff. The 1901 building was lifted from its foundation in 1987, pushed up the hill and restored. It still looks like a boarding house from Silver mining days.
PCMR has two interesting concepts to be aware of–Signature Runs and My Mountain Planner. Signature Runs are groomed expert runs that allow intermediate or “almost advanced” skiers an opportunity to tell that black diamond who’s boss. These groomers change and are posted on the PCMR website. My Mountain Planner is just that. Clicking through three questions on the PCMR My Mountain Planner webpage, you’re given a ski plan tailored to your ability, the terrain you want to ski and your mood–energetic or relaxed. But say you loose your plan, your friends or your nerve. There is a green trail down from any lift on the mountain. Phew.
Park City has A LOT of lodging at every price range– ski in, ski out membership condos, world-class hotels, luxury condos, B&Bs, boutique hotels, massive chalets. We stayed a Resorts West ski in, ski out condo. Resorts West is an outfit that manages privately owned luxury condos at Dear Valley, PCMR and Canyons. Our place was grander than I’m used to for a ski condo, but I wasn’t complaining. The décor was western largesse–vaulted beamed ceilings, cowhide rugs and throws, large abstract prints of horses and cows. The only evidence of personal ownership was one locked bathroom cabinet. With hotel niceties like shampoos and complimentary coffee, it didn’t seem like a typical vacation rental by owner. Also, Resort Wests acts as on site concierge helping out with anything guests might need or want.
Park City’s Main Street still has the feel of an old west miner’s town, but with a Hollywood patina courtesy of the now famous annual Sundance Film festival. What I didn’t know is that Park City also was a wildly attractive destination for hippies (or ski bums) in the late 60s and early 70s and apparently the local population was none too welcoming of said longhairs. There is an entertaining video of testimonials about the Park City hippie era at the Park City Museum. This museum is small but informative and interactive. Kids won’t realize they are learning and most adults will walk away awestruck by the vast web of mine tunnels that are depicted in various installations. If you are skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, you are skiing on top of mine tunnels.
So ingrained in Park City’s history and culture is mining that visiting a mine tunnel, taking the elevator down several hundred feet and traipsing through tunnels used to be a typical field trip for local school children. The Museum also has what’s know as the first “Skier Subway,” which was a dinghy mine train–wet, rusty, probably sour smelling, with hanging cage lights, that took you through a tunnel to an elevator that rose to open at the foot of a PCMR ski slope. It didn’t last long.
The High and Low of a Ski Town Saloon
High West Distillery restaurant is barn-like yet rather swank for a saloon. We shared a sweet and salty starter that I’m still thinking about; bacon, bourbon, cashew caramel corn and BBQ homemade potato chips. This being a distillery, be sure to imbibe. The sweet/salty snack paired great with the Dead Man’s Boots Cocktail – Rendevous Rye, El Jimador Resposado Tequila, limejuice and simple syrup.
At No Name Saloon the clowns from the slopes were doing shots. The place had every manner of street sign refuse and junk hanging around. A local beer selection put an authentic stamp on the place, not to mention the cowboy hard rock musac. It’s a loud, sloppy, fun mess of a bar.
Solitude + Golfing
I thought Dave DeSeelhorst might give me lots of stats about Solitude when I asked him what makes this ski mountain unique. Instead he talked about its natural beauty. He thinks it’s prettier than the rest and I would agree. Surveying the landscape from our chair lift, he seemed like a gardener assessing his day’s work. DeSeelhorst co-owns and operates Solitude with his brother. So in a way he is the gardener. We skied by a roped off area where a clump of trees have been planted to break up a too large swath of white space, the result of logging years ago. DeSeelhorst said, pointing to some towering pines, “In 40 years this will look like those. You have to start somewhere.”
Still, Solitude does have some stats to brag about. The Challenger ski run is the steepest run in the Wasatch and Serenity/fis is a certified giant slalom run. The day I skied Solitude I thought the snow was near perfect, then I corrected myself, it was perfect–one very good reason out-of-state and international visitors add $1,076 billion to the states annual economy.
There’s an idea afoot to give ski tourist even more excuse to ski Utah. It’s called ONE Wasatch. DeSeelhorst is a big fan of the plan, which is to connect seven central Wasatch ski areas using lifts and runs. The result would be the largest ski circuit in North America, providing a European style of skiing from one mountain to the next–breakfast at one resort, lunch at another and après ski at a third, covering oodles of terrain in between. DeSeelhorst is evangelical about the plan, “It will be a European experience with better snow. I think we owe it to the world to do it!” He thinks the resorts will maintain their own personalities and that the monetary complications of lift ticket revenues and what not can be managed. Imagine, Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbird and Solitude all on one ticket. What access, what skiing!
Off The Slopes On To The Green.
Slated for the afternoon was golfing at Old Mill, a public course off I-215 at the base of the Cottonwood canyons. It seemed like a good plan until a menacing snow cloud made its way across the valley to us and started spitting wet snow. I can now brag, I’ve golfed in the snow. But why would you want to? We quit after five holes, but not before crossing a little bridge with a rock stream below and winding our way through some sort of spring brier patch on golf carts. I’m not really a golfer, so sometimes driving the cart is the best part and this course had a driving path to rival Disney’s Autopia.
Across the highway from the golf course is the Hyatt Place, Salt Lake City/Cottonwood, which has extended stay suites including full kitchens, living and dining areas. Besides a better than average complimentary breakfast, Hyatt Place offers some ski and ski & golf packages. At the mouth of the Cottonwood canyons, you’ve got access to Alta and Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton. And you don’t necessarily need a car. There’s the UTA public ski bus to take you to the resorts and you can walk to several restaurants within the same complex.
Fly fishing + Brighton
Fly fishing was next on our docket. After two days of skiing, my thighs were talking to me, and I welcomed the change of sport, if just for the morning. Meet Ken and Jen of Park City On The Fly. We followed them to Heber, about twenty minutes east of Park City, where we pulled off the road to gear up. From the back of their truck they pulled out folding sports chairs and feet mats. They provided us with waders and boots and taught us the best method for putting them on. We hiked about 10 minutes through reeds and brush on a boggy path to the Provo River, a place called Postcard Bend. Jen talked to us about the whole circle of life of the bugs or flies, explaining how the different fishing flies work and why at certain times of the year in certain conditions the fisherman chooses different flies. Ken gave us a short lesson on casting and correcting your line and then we were led into the river.
On my second or third cast, I caught a little tiny fish, my first and only. Twice I had a big one on the line (what every fisherman says, I know) and they, well I, snapped the line. I learned about giving the fish line, letting him run a little, allowing him to swim back and gently, after he’s had enough, pulling him out of the water. To anyone who has done fly fishing before this must sound obvious, to me it was absolutely novel.
It’s not painful to be a beginner at fly fishing. With just a little practice, you can make a decent cast and you don’t have to be terribly athletic. It is peaceful, almost meditative, to watch your little float move down river. Yet the excitement of the sport is there when you’ve got a fish on the line. It’s like the thrill of skiing your fastest, the moment right before you’re scared enough to slow down.
I’m sure fun on the river depends heavily on your guides. Ken had a relaxed vibe, but straightforward approach, he is wiry and task oriented. Jen was an enthusiast, seemingly about everything. She is a merry outdoorsy type who is instructor, administrator and boss. Together they make an awesome team I highly recommend.
Out of the River on to the Runs
Locals like Brighton Ski Resort and Brighton likes its locals. This isn’t to say that tourists aren’t welcome. Both tourists and locals alike appreciate Brighton’s value (lift tickets are $68) coupled with the terrain and snow quality, it can’t be beat. It’s the oldest resort in the state, however nothing seemed dated. On the contrary, with five terrain parks, Brighton provides boarders and skiers with new stuff for stunts they like to do. The resort isn’t suffering from a want-to-be identity crisis. They’re not thinking of adding a fancy mid-mountain eatery or spa. Public Relations guy Jared Winkler was one of five kids and Brighton is where he learned to ski. His mom would “drive and drop,” lunch would be sack or tailgate. I guess because of this lack of pretense the feeling of the resort is very laid back and authentic.
The day I skied Brighton the groomers, rolling, pitching and weaving through trees, were ski runs epitomized. Having come from fishing we didn’t get on the mountain until about 3pm, no worries, we had night passes and could have stayed until 9pm. We were up and down the mounting three times in the span of 30 minutes–and these were long runs!
I suppose if you’ve ventured to Utah to ski, that would be your top priority, but isn’t it nice to know there are a lot of other sporting options. Say Grandpa has had enough ski excitement, why not golf. Or maybe you want to give your feet a break from the vice grip of ski boots, don some sneaks and go for a hike. Now that I almost caught “the big one,” I think every ski trip should include a day of fly fishing.