Panting, tired, and a little sore, I broke free from the trees and stood on a bare slope overlooking Park City. I’d 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 couldn’t get a view like this anywhere on the east coast, another thought hit me like an avalanche: I didn’t 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 I’ve driven hours to get to back home. And that’s 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 aren’t 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 you’re greeted by the excellent Red Pine Café and a 9-hole frisbee-golf course.
The food’s 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, you’ll 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 farmer’s 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. It’s 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 there’s 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 isn’t satisfied with the current state of things. Or, to perhaps be more accurate, their new owner, the Talisker Corporation, isn’t 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. That’s nice, but what I’d really like to see are some more mixed use trails. The ones they have are great. Really, they’re wonderful. They offer great terrain and stunning views, but the entire west half of the resort is nearly empty. I’d 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-lover’s 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 I’ve seen, they’re not too far off.
There are trails to almost everywhere from nearly anywhere, and they’re used, too! The whole town loves the trails. Everyone I talked to made use of them nearly every day. It’s 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 can’t stress enough how impressed I was by the work of the Mountain Trails Foundation and the web of trails permeating Park City.
But they’re 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 Utah’s 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 I’m looking forward to seeing how they continue to grow. If they keep on like they’re going now, before you know it the town will turn into one huge spider web of non-motorized trails. It’ll be awesome!
There’s 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, it’s only 6 hours from Vegas.
But national parks alone don’t 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 can’t imagine a better place to set up “base camp” if you’re 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 wasn’t even there for ski season!
Don’t 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 there’s 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 I’ve dreamed about are out west, and all within an arm’s (or fuel tank’s) reach of Park City.
The people I met there told me “the winter brings you, but the summer keeps you.” Well, it didn’t even take winter. The summer brought me, and it nearly kept me from coming back east at all.
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.