For anyone with a passion for the mountains, the view that greets you as you spill from the confines of an aeroplane into Salt Lake City airport is life-affirming. The sight of the towering Wasatch range on the horizon is unlikely to be lost on even the most jet-lagged traveller.
They’re not the highest of the Rocky Mountains, but this range is impressively hewn rugged by glaciation and hammered with massive snowfalls.
I was heading just 35 minutes through these mountains from Salt Lake City to Park City mountain resort, a former mining town that is a textbook example of how a community can reinvent itself.
Having ridden the silver-mining wave from its height at the end of the 19th century, by the 1950s the Utah town’s population had dropped from 7,000 at the height of its prosperity to around just 1,000.
Then, using redevelopment grants and a whole new kind of speculation, the community developed its skiing infrastructure bit by bit.
Park City can now count itself as the USA’s biggest resort with more than 300 runs, having linked in 2015 with the neighbouring Canyons Resort to the west. Its permanent population is now back to its peak with seasonal numbers far exceeding that.
Park City’s skiing ranges from smooth ridge lines and flattering intermediate pistes feeding straight into town to dozens of challenging bowls higher up. There’s a reason the US Ski Team has chosen to base itself here.
In fact, the piste map shows 32 double-black diamond – the hardest – lines bounding the top of the ridge and the western flank of the resort as it turns into Canyons. I skied just a handful in the end but from tight tree lines to chutes there’s much here for anyone wanting to push their limits.
Many of the ski runs have mining names such as Motherlode, Pioneer and Payday. Here and there, old mining relics – winding gear, ore bins, and derelict buildings – are a further reminder of what first brought people to the mountain.
Anyway, I realised as I skied over into Canyons, it was going to take a major bonanza for me to get even a sniff of the property market here.
At the centre of the area is The Colony, a huge real estate development with pistes built around and through it.
The ambitious nature of the construction – bridges, tunnels, and heated roads – reflects the kind of properties served by this warren of runs. Huge, multi-winged wooden and stone Grand Designs-style piles are peppered across the hillside linked by pistes with names like Harmony, Serenity and Showcase. Many of the runs are only separated from the properties’ snow-covered gardens by ‘private’ signs.
They are tiny and much-ignored signs judging by the number of ski tracks crossing their lawns.
I learn on the lift that one of the particularly gargantuan copper and slate palaces is said to belong to Will Smith although most, apparently, belong to Wall Street big hitters. Whatever, most are empty and, if you miss the signs, it’s very tempting to peer through the windows as you ski by.
On the far west side of Canyons is some of the area’s best skiing.
Taking the Super Condor Express at the end of the day, a group of us dropped into Condor Trees.
If you like tight glades, then this is heaven. There’s a great pitch linking into an uncompromising rollercoaster drainage run called Canis Lupus that properly finishes the legs off.
From the base at Canyons there are regular free buses back to Park City.
After a couple of nights on the outskirts of Park City we headed east for the luxury of upmarket Deer Valley. The skiing here is excellent, with lots of fairly empty swooping runs for the intermediates and some really challenging inbound bowls and trees for anyone who’s keen.
We were lucky enough to try the resort’s ‘Ski with a Champion’ programme, which gives everyday skiers the chance to be guided around Deer Valley by an Olympian. We were joined by Kris ‘Fuzz’ Feddersen, a legend in the sport of freestyle skiing, who competed in three Olympics – 1988, 1992 and 1994. Still sporting his trademark Fuzz mop of hair at 55, he is as affable as he is knowledgeable and we had a fantastic morning trying to keep up as he unearthed a few of Deer Valley’s lesser-known gems.
The fact that you can’t ski from this resort to Park City is a shame, especially given that their pistes are only separated by a rope and a copse of trees.
But then Deer Valley has its own market. Staff are liveried, snowboarders are banned and the slopes are manicured. Plus, when the ticket office reaches its daily limit, it turns skiers away.
The legal warnings against skiing from one resort to another are testament to how keen Deer Valley’s owners are to protect this bubble.
I did, however, manage to cross this no-man’s land legally by joining a back-country tour called the Interconnect. This fabulous odyssey starts in Deer Valley and journeys through six resorts ending up in Snowbird, having passed through Park City, Brighton, Solitude and Alta.
Along the way, we passed through Little Cottonwood Canyon where the first Mormons quarried stone for the Salt Lake Temple in Temple Square, where the Church of the Latter Day Saints is headquartered.
I stayed in an apartment off Park City’s Main Street on my last night. The street was buzzing. Swanky boutiques and artisan coffee shops sit shoulder to shoulder with its dozens of restaurants and even ‘the world’s only’ ski-in, ski-out distillery.
The Park City museum is a fascinating way to join the dots between the hardships of the 19th century pioneers to the glory of the 2002 Winter Olympics and beyond.
I’m amazed to chance across a Banksy as I make my way home – a cameraman filming a flower on the wall of a side street off the main drag. I learn later that there are three around Main Street.
Apparently he did seven one night in 2010 during Robert Redford’s annual Sundance Film Festival hosted in the town. Three survived.
This is certainly a town that’s fallen on its feet.