The first thing they tell you is, “Utah is not a dry state”. Oh yeah? Well, where can I buy a bottle of wine on a Sunday? Sorry, liquor stores are closed on Sunday. OK, tomorrow then? Well no – not if Monday is a holiday. Utah may not be a dry state, but a man could get thirsty waiting for the off-licence to open as many State supermarkets are not allowed to sell wine, spirits or strong beer. More of Utah’s flirtation with prohibition later, but we were there to ski and on that subject the news is better – much better.
Our friends at Ski Independence recommended the Park City area. We’d skied British Colombia, California, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, but there was a Utah-shaped gap in our North American skiing CV, which we thought we should put right. Deer Valley looked an appealing base particularly as it’s a ‘no boarders’ resort, but we listened to advice that Canyons might suit us better. Briefly, an area just 45 minutes’ drive from Salt Lake City’s airport comprises three principal ski sites, Park City, with Deer Valley to one side and Canyons to the other; they are not joined up, but you can buy a pass which provides access to all three. Each is about 15 minutes drive from Park City.
The advice was sound, Canyons is the biggest of the three and has the greatest variety. After a monster snow year in 2010-11 the locals were whingeing a bit about poor falls this season, but clearly they had never experienced a bad snow year in Europe. They’ve had an aggregate of 150 inches this season and mid-mountain depth was around 57 inches during our February trip – more than enough to keep all but the most curmudgeonly happy, and they look after it so well. There’s no waiting for bare patches before they fire up the snow canons and the groomers do a great job of shepherding the white stuff.
There are long – some very long – cruising blue runs, plenty of greens for the less ambitious and, at the other end of the scale, some double-blacks that call for max concentration. In this latter category Fear Gully is particularly well named. My main criticism is that the trails are not particularly well or consistently marked and some are not quite where they appear on the resort’s trail map. This can be frustrating when you’re putting together your own ski itinerary. In one instance the only single-black way down on the map became a double black at the top of the lift – too late to do anything about it for anyone who finds a double too daunting. Generally though a reasonably experienced skier will come across no significant problem finding his or her way around.
To sum up Canyons, it can be as steep and challenging as Jackson Hole, but at the same time the long cruising runs are almost in the Big Sky league. The nursery slopes are as good as you’ll find anywhere.
We stayed at the Grand Summit Resort Lodge, which is genuinely ski in, ski out (sorry, I just don’t do long walks) with the two principal lifts, the Red Pine Gondola and the 4-person Orange Bubble Express, just steps from the door. It’s a comfortable billet with, in our case, a one bedroom suite in the kitchen/living room of which we could have entertained half a dozen to dinner in comfort (Assuming we had been able to buy some wine). There are a couple of good restaurants in very close proximity – The Farm is excellent and the Alpine House also serves really good food in a relaxed setting.
We rent most of our kit nowadays – I got fed up with buying and carting this season’s skis, which were obsolete next year – and we have learned we can rely absolutely on Black Tie rentals. No hanging around in a rental shop while a doting mum insists her kids see every pair of skis in the shop until they find the colour they like; Black Tie collect your specifications online in advance and bring the kit to your hotel room or apartment at the agreed time. You don’t like something – no problem – they go back to the van and bring you something else.
Canyons is highly recommended as the place to go for a first experience of Utah skiing; Grand Summit is a great place to stay and Black Tie is a must for equipment rental.
So, it’s a great place to visit if you don’t want to buy a bottle of wine. Utah says it’s not a dry state and that’s true, but its relationship with alcohol is an ambivalent one. It fanfares the fact that it entered the prohibition era long before any other state and to this day all off-licence shops – liquor stores in their parlance – are state controlled. So the state is monopoly provider and that has the effect of fixing prices, which are high. You simply can’t buy a bottle of wine on Sunday or a holiday. Considering how much of Utah’s economy is tourism based it remains remarkably po-faced about the consumption of alcohol and perhaps it’s time some enterprising state politician proposed change.
It won’t stop me from skiing Utah again, but next time I’ll make sure I don’t arrive on the Saturday of a holiday weekend after the shops have closed.
John Henwood, Ski Independence Client