Firsthand Report: The Canyons, Utah
By J.R. Patten, DCSki Columnist
August 6, 2008 — Panting, tired, and a little sore, I broke free from the trees and stood on a bare slope overlooking Park City. Iíd just run up over 2,000 vertical feet, and the start of the run, at 6,800 feet, was higher even than any point east of the Mississippi. I paused in the middle of a green, wide-open field of grass painted with purple and orange wildflowers, not because I was tired (though I was), but because the view stopped me in my tracks.
Looking down at Park City, nestled into a valley dwarfed on all sides by enormous mountains, the view (and maybe the altitude) nearly took my breath away. As I stood there, pondering the unfortunate fact that I couldnít get a view like this anywhere on the east coast, another thought hit me like an avalanche: I didnít have to even drive to get here. I literally walked out of an apartment, hit the trail, and ended up with a view better than views Iíve driven hours to get to back home. And thatís what Park City is all about.
When my best friend and hiking/running partner from school graduated and got a job in Park City, Utah, I knew Iíd have to go visit him. When he told me about the slopes still covered in snow late into the spring and the open-air gondola running above his apartment (lucky son of a gun), I knew Iíd have to go there during the ski season.
But as he kept telling me about mountain peaks climbing above 10,000 feet and the blooming fields of flowers, I realized Iíd have to find a way to get out there in the summer, even with skyrocketing airline prices. So early in the morning on July 17, I drowsily hopped on a plane bound for Salt Lake City, prepared to have more fun than Iíd had all summer.
Park City may be best known for its great snow (the best on Earth, the license plates claim) during ski season, but the summer months easily hold their own in the activities department. In fact, since the slopes arenít covered with snow, there may be more you can do on them during the summer than in the winter.
The Flight of the Canyons gondola ride ($15 for adults) offers great views of the mountains and the city down below, and at the top of the ride youíre greeted by the excellent Red Pine Cafť and a 9-hole frisbee-golf course.
The foodís great and frisbee-golf is fun, but my favorite summer fun in the resort is hitting the hiking and mixed use trails. And there are plenty of them. In the summertime, the snow retreats and gives way to a series of long and beautiful trails that wind up, down, in and around the peaks in The Canyons. The trails are open to bikers, hikers, runners, and anyone else without a motor that wants to use them.
The trails vary from rugged (including quite a few tough climbs/steep descents) to semi-flat and meandering. For the most part, they are notably uncrowded, allowing for a nice peaceful run or hike, or the opportunity to fly down the hills on a bike without worrying about running into people around every turn. The bikers outnumber the hikers and runners here, but the ones I ran across were generally courteous and yielded to me running. You also may notice the trails getting more crowded (and sometimes inconveniently so) for about a 1/2-mile radius around the top of the gondola and Red Pine area, but once you get decently far away from this popular spot, youíll forget there are people nearby at all.
Back down at the bottom of the mountain, there are things afoot as well. On Saturdays during the summer, The Canyons hosts a summer concert series, with performers ranging from Jazz to Bluegrass to Reggae. Also, on Wednesdays, a farmerís market springs to life overnight in the Cabriolet parking lot, like a short-lived (and fireless) Burning Man festival.
To top off the off-mountain festivities, just a few miles down the road is Old Town Park City, an awesome little town with lively stores, restaurants, bars, and breweries. Itís great fun to sit on a mountain, enjoy the night, and look at the lights of the town down below, but it might be even more fun to be in and among the lights. The town may be small, but thereís a lot to do. A night on the town is a great way to spend an evening after wearing yourself out on the trails.
It seems like a slice of heaven, but The Canyons isnít satisfied with the current state of things. Or, to perhaps be more accurate, their new owner, the Talisker Corporation, isnít satisfied. The Canyons was the last property owned by the American Skiing Company and transferred hands to Talisker earlier this summer. Talisker is planning on big expansions in years to come, including the installation of a new lift that will make access to other peaks much more convenient. This will pave the way for new runs to open on an entirely new peak within a few years. Until then, skiers and snowboarders can pick trails across eight peaks.
As far as summertime activities go, The Canyons is planning on adding nine more holes of frisbee-golf. Thatís nice, but what Iíd really like to see are some more mixed use trails. The ones they have are great. Really, theyíre wonderful. They offer great terrain and stunning views, but the entire west half of the resort is nearly empty. Iíd love to see 3 or 4 more trails open up in the western half of the resort, which would allow hikers, runners, and bikers to take advantage of all the great mountains the resort has to offer. Opening just a few more trails to make the rest of the resort more accessible would propel the trail coverage into greatness.
But the trails in The Canyons are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trail awesomeness in Park City. An organization called the Mountain Trails Foundation is responsible for a massive network of trails in and around the Park City area. The Foundation improves and maintains existing trails, while acquiring easements and new land to build additional trails. As it stands now, the trail network in Park City comprises more than 335 miles of non-motorized trails, and that number is growing daily.
Let me state that again: 335 miles of trails. Just in the Park City area. To put it into perspective, the entire Shenandoah National Park boasts 500 miles of trails. This town is a trail-loverís paradise! All the trails I ran on were very well-maintained, and the Foundation publishes an extraordinary map detailing the trail network in Park City and runs a website with an interactive trail map of the area.
Carol Potter, Executive Director of the Foundation (and her entire staff) are committed to the goal of having your doorstep be your trailhead. She mentioned many times that ultimately, she wants everyone in the Park City region to be able to literally walk out their front door and be able to take a trail to anywhere they want to go. And from what Iíve seen, theyíre not too far off.
There are trails to almost everywhere from nearly anywhere, and theyíre used, too! The whole town loves the trails. Everyone I talked to made use of them nearly every day. Itís just part of the culture of the city. As a trail runner and backpacker who runs and hikes anything he can find that even resembles a trail, I felt like I was being called home. I canít stress enough how impressed I was by the work of the Mountain Trails Foundation and the web of trails permeating Park City.
But theyíre not stopping there. The Foundation is working on an even grander plan: The Wasatch Loop Trail. When completed, the trail will be a 230-mile non-motorized haven connecting an even vaster area of land than the Park City trails cover now. It will extend west into Salt Lake City and approximately 30 miles north and south of Park City.
The trail network will serve over two million people, a little over 77% of Utahís population. The effort is immense, but the majority has been completed. As of now, 58% (132 miles) is finished or funded, another 26% (61 miles) is planned and 16% (40 miles) is envisioned by the Wasatch Loop Committee. This is truly a trail-loving town, and Iím looking forward to seeing how they continue to grow. If they keep on like theyíre going now, before you know it the town will turn into one huge spider web of non-motorized trails. Itíll be awesome!
Thereís a lot to love in Park City itself, but part of what makes it such a great place to me is its proximity other great places. In a little more time than it takes me to drive from Maryland to Front Royal down to Big Meadows in Shenandoah, you can drive from Park City to the Grand Tetons, then on to Yellowstone, not much further away. In less time than that, you could drive to Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park. In fact, there are as many national parks in the state of Utah alone as there are along the eastern seaboard.
But, perhaps more telling than that: in Utah and the states directly bordering it, there are more national parks than in the entire country east of the Mississippi River. And heck, itís only 6 hours from Vegas.
But national parks alone donít quantify pure wilderness and amazing countryside. Much of the area in Utah is undeveloped and untainted by cities and cars. Drives to any of the various destinations in the state are gorgeous and varied, including deserts, mountains, grasslands, canyons, and more.
The western part of the country has an enormous amount to offer an outdoor enthusiast, and Park City is almost exactly smack dab in the middle of it all. I canít imagine a better place to set up ďbase campĒ if youíre looking to see all that the western half of the country has to offer.
I loved my time in Park City and the Canyons. I could spend all day on the well-groomed and visually stunning trails, and every night soaking up the town. When the end of my trip rolled around, I very seriously pondered quitting my summer job just to stay an extra week (well, I tell myself I was serious, anyway). And I wasnít even there for ski season!
Donít get me wrong; I love the east coast. I grew up exploring the Appalachian Mountains and lounging on the beach. Some of the best times in my life were spent in the North Carolina countryside, but thereís just too much to do out west. From wide open plains, rugged mountains, and high-alpine passes to bone-dry desert and chiseled canyons, all the things Iíve dreamed about are out west, and all within an armís (or fuel tankís) reach of Park City.
The people I met there told me ďthe winter brings you, but the summer keeps you.Ē Well, it didnít even take winter. The summer brought me, and it nearly kept me from coming back east at all.
Know Before you Go
- The Canyons offers summer activities Wednesday through Sunday until Labor Day, and weekends after Labor Day through September, weather permitting.
- Popular activities in the summer include a 9-hole disc golf course, gondola rides, mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing, hot air balloon rides, and free summer concerts.
- Summer gondola lift tickets are priced at $15 for adults and $10 for kids 7-12 and seniors 65+. Kids six and under ride free.
- During the winter, The Canyons boasts a vertical rise of 3,190 feet, with 163 trails, 17 lifts (including one gondola and five high-speed), eight mountain peaks, five bowls, six natural halfpipes, and two terrain parks. Total skiable acreage is 3,700. Terrain is rated 10% beginner, 44% intermediate, and 46% expert.
- The Canyons is located five miles from Old Town, Park City; 25 miles from downtown Salt Lake City; and 32 miles from the Salt Lake City International Airport.
- The winter ski season normally runs from late November through early April.
- Other ski resorts near Park City include Snowbasin, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, Brighton, Sundance, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird.
About the Author
J.R. Patten is an ultramarathon runner, backpacker, skier, and general outdoor nut. And he shows up to class at Georgia Tech from time to time. To read other articles by J.R., click here.
There are 10 reader comments about this article. To read them, or add your own, scroll below or click here.
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Sprawling ... but National Parks a must - posted by KevR
August 6, 2008 at 11:33 pm
Ok another quick one -- half-day a few years back, I found the place to be sprawling and ... snow was good but not great, but hey, half day at the end of a trip I was already exhausted from... perhaps not the best way to sample. I'd skip for others nearby but that's me. Some swear by the ninety-nine-90.
Now for the Parks -- we've hit: the arches (you can drive down and back in 1 long day from SLC), bryce, zion, capital reef, the escalade staircase area... I HIGHLY recommend the drive up the scenic by way that goes by "aquarius plateau" in the escalade-staircase, starts or at least you can pick it up by Bryce and then follow up the through the Spanish Forks area and onto Salt Lake. If you hit it right you'll have feet of snow at bryce, then be in desert, and aquarius will be covered, then you'll pass through Boulder Mountain area which may be covered in snow with large elk lurking... amazing. All those places you COULD ski, or snowmobile or whatever... why do we live on the east coast again?
- ok that did it - - posted by Crush
August 7, 2008 at 9:04 am
... you just made me so homesick for my Red Pines condo there off the base I may have to take sick leave from work today - as I sit here writing software in Alexandria I can't think of anything better than having that every day as I used to ... (sigh) ...
Park City - posted by SkiBoarder
August 7, 2008 at 12:47 pm
We have a few friends who moved from MD and PA and live in the Park City area. We have been there skiing - nice base camp to get to Briton, Alta, Solitude, etc. And have been there in the summer. Running, MTB, and horseback riding in the mountains is amazing. Always tempted to move there. This just reminds me why . . .
Welcome on board - posted by Connie Lawn
August 7, 2008 at 8:56 pm
Excellent writing, and admire your stamina. Welcome to "the greatest snow sport writing team in the business!" Yours, Connie Lawn
The Danger - posted by Scott
August 7, 2008 at 10:45 pm
The danger of great stories like this is that J.R.'s going to have us all wanting to move west. (Crush: Why did you move back east again?)
Well, Utah is only ever a plane ride away.
Why...? - posted by J.R. Patten
August 8, 2008 at 1:57 am
"why do we live on the east coast again?"
I've asked myself that many times. The only good answer I can think of is... well, I'm not really sure I have one. ;-)
Crush: That place must be awesome. I saw the condos there at the base of the mountain and daydreamed about living there. I'm jealous.
Connie: Thanks! I'm looking forward to more stories. If they're all as fun as this one, it's going to be a blast.
Home is where the heart is - posted by Betsy Devore
August 13, 2008 at 8:03 am
Well, after reading this most vivid and glowing description I see that JR is not only a seasoned biker/hiker and writer but that he sounds like he has found his Heaven on Earth place. That is gift to treasure.
Weather - posted by DCSki Reader
August 24, 2008 at 6:46 pm
What is the climate like in Park City during the summer? Does it stay relatively cool and dry because of the elevation, or is it hot?
Canyons - posted by Josh P.
September 18, 2008 at 6:55 am
I went on a ski trip there mid-january this past year. The college kids were back in school and it was a week before Sundance Film Festival. The place was hardly crowded, and no lift lines, even on the "front" sides. We stayed at the Red Pine Condos, they were very nice and easy walking distance to the Gondola. The trails were awesome and the snow couldn't have been better.
the canyons - posted by the woodskier
October 28, 2008 at 6:23 pm
the only thing better than the canyons in the summer is the canyons in the winter. the rap on the ski area is the effort it takes to go from side to side; but in truth if you are a good skier, every area on the mountain has really interesting terrain, so you can work your way from one area to the next and get quality while you are doing it. the tree skiing is some of the best and certainly the most of any area i've ever been to, and the snow on these runs is excellent powder. 3 days after a snowfall, we had tracked and untracked powder in the trees and open areas of steeper pitch that lasted for the 3 days we skied there. it's one of those places thats feels remote no matter where you are on the mountain because it spreads skiers out, and the degree of challenge is excellent-no fake double-black runs. and if you like to hang out in the sun and take liquid refreshment or whatever, go to the sun lodge or the grill at the base of dreamscape lift and kick back. i'll be doing that this january.