CERCA: Skiers’ haven Park City also offers summer thrills

Park City, already a favorite winter ski resort for Southern Nevadans, has lately been diversifying into a year-round destination for fun-seekers. The former mining town in Utah’s scenic Wasatch Mountains offers plenty of activities for lovers of the outdoors as well as summer temperatures that rarely climb above the 70s.

Plus, it’s easy to visit. Many Nevadans drive there, but current airfares make it nearly as cheap to fly — especially if you place any value on the time you save by doing so.

Once there, a rental car isn’t necessary, because most of the town is easily walked and public transportation to and from the airport is easy to use.

Following that plan on a recent three-day visit, a friend and I were able to ride some of the West’s better bike trails, marvel at the slopes that the 2002 Winter Olympians braved, dine in distinctive and memorable restaurants and soak up a lot of history and a little locally distilled whiskey.

It took us only an hour and a half to fly to Salt Lake City and then less than 45 minutes to reach our lodgings aboard the Park City Transportation van.

Summer lodging rates here are great bargains. Our two-bedroom, two-bath condominium in the heart of town — surrounded by historic buildings, art galleries, shops and some of Utah’s finest eateries — had a full kitchen, a fireplace and views of the town chair lift. In summer, the lift offers scenic rides and carries mountain bikers up the slopes.

It was noonish, so we headed immediately to one of Park City’s newest restaurants, The Farm. As its name implies, the idea here is farm to table with few detours.

“The menu is based on availability, buying locally,” chef Steve Musolf explained.

It worked quite well that day. The grass-fed beef oxtail onion soup was one of the best pottages I have tasted. The soup was part of our “tasting lunch,” an option offering small portions of several of the restaurant’s specialties. It also included another soup, two small entrees and a corn-bread pudding.

The Farm is at the Canyons Resort, one of the largest winter-sports spots in the country. Its summer offerings include scenic gondola rides, an 18-hole disc-golf course and an extensive system of biking trails.

These well-fed visitors, however, took a rain check on those strenuous activities and headed back to town to visit the Park City Museum.

The museum has always been a great place to visit, but it’s better than ever following a recent $8.95 million renovation and expansion. The main exhibits focus on mining and skiing.

As a skier, I particularly enjoyed the exhibit on the world’s first underground ski lift, which was used briefly in the 1960s. An electric mine train took skiers more than 3 miles into an old mine tunnel and then they rode an elevator 1,800 feet up to the slopes.

Silver was discovered here in the 1860s, and the mines were highly profitable from the 1880s to the 1920s, producing $400 million in silver overall.

Around the turn of the 20th century, about 10,000 people lived in Park City, but by the 1950s, the population had dwindled to about a thousand and the place seemed destined to become a ghost town.

Thankfully for Park City, it had copious amounts of another natural resource: winter snow. The city reinvented itself as a ski town and today boasts three world-class ski resorts: Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley Resort and The Canyons Resort. All of them now offer summer attractions as well.

We took a brief self-guided walking tour of Park City’s historic area, home to more than 250 businesses, restaurants and shops.

One of the best times to visit is the first weekend of August, when Main Street closes to vehicle traffic and fills up with vendors for the Kimball Arts Festival. The three-day event has been held annually since 1969 and these days features more than 200 artists in 12 categories. It’s a juried festival, which ensures exhibits are high quality. Make advance reservations if you plan to go that weekend.

Many people think it’s hard to get an alcoholic beverage in Utah, but that certainly isn’t the case in Park City. Several restaurants augment good food with good spirits, but three places deserve special mention:

The High West Distillery and Saloon, opened in 2009 as Utah’s first legal distillery since 1870, occupies a former livery stable and a Victorian home. It’s fashionable to order a sampler of four different whiskeys; each small glass holds about half an ounce. The distillery offers six aged ryes, two silver whiskeys — which are not aged — and two vodkas. It also makes some of the best food in town.

The Wasatch Brewery opened in the 1980s and has become a locals’ favorite. One of its popular brews is Polygamy Porter, marketed with the motto “Why Have Just One?” It also serves classic pub food.

If you enjoy a Bloody Mary, then the Easy Street Restaurant is the place to go, and in the summertime, the outdoor patio is the place to sit. The restaurant has a Bloody Mary salad bar of sorts, complete with a vast array of garnishes.

Our second morning, we headed to the Utah Olympic Park, home to many of the Nordic events in the 2002 Winter Games. The venue still hosts competitions in the winter and all summer long serves as a training ground for athletes.

You can easily keep busy here for hours. The highlight of our guided tour was standing at the base of the park’s largest jump, the k120, and watching athletes hurtle off it in the total absence of snow. A special plastic surface mimics the snow that would cover the jump in winter.

After our tour, we rode the world’s steepest zip line, a quick 50 mph ride that wasn’t as scary as I thought it might be, and watched the Flying Ace All-Stars Pool Show. The half-hour show features Olympic-caliber athletes doing aerial jumps and flips like the tricks they perform on snow, but here they land in a 750,000-gallon splash pool.

Folks seeking some real adventure can bobsled down the Olympic course, on a sled fitted with wheels for summer training. You will be given a helmet, a brief orientation and one of three cozy seats behind a professional bobsled pilot. This is a four-story drop, where speeds reach more than 60 mph with 4 G-forces.

For more fun, especially if you’re traveling with children, the Park City Mountain Resort features a lift-serviced 3,000-foot-long alpine slide, one of the nation’s longest zip lines (2,300 feet long) and — my favorite ride — the alpine coaster. New this summer is the Adventure Zone, which gives children 36 to 54 inches tall their own place for fun, whether they want to try bouldering or tackle a spider web in the climbing zone.

Deer Valley Resort has some of the finest lift-accessed mountain biking and hiking trails around. There are more than 50 miles of trails accessed here and some of the best far-reaching views the area has to offer. The Resort also is famous for its concerts at the Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater. Concerts planned this summer include The Utah Symphony, Rosanne Cash, Melissa Etheridge and the Goo Goo Dolls.

On our final morning, we went to White Pine Cycling to take a 1½-hour guided mountain bike ride with Charlie Sturgis, the executive director of the Mountain Trails Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to the area’s hiking and biking routes. There are more than 350 miles of them, with elevations ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. We started off on the popular and paved historic rail trail and then rode over to a single track through the sagebrush and scrub oak in the rolling hills of Round Valley, a place that has nearly 700 acres of preserved space.

It was a good morning’s workout, but Charlie still had breath enough to tell us about the midmountain trail that travels between Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons Resort — 23 miles of single track in Utah’s agreeable high country.

That certainly piqued our interest, but my wristwatch piqued my desire not to miss our flight home, so we bid hasty high-fives and left — already planning a return for further travels with Charlie.

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