Firsthand Report: The Canyons 7
Author thumbnail By J.R. Patten, DCSki Columnist

In a hideous turn of events, ski resorts in the east received a ton of snow early this season.

Yep, hideous.

Yes, this site is about skiing in the east. But, see, I went out west this year. I assumed that since the ski season in Utah starts around November, and ski season means lots of snow, I would go in late December and there would be, you know, snow.

How foolish of me.

As it turns out, the mid-Atlantic (and the east coast in general) had a record cold early season this year, and many areas in the east received tons of snow. Utah, in the meantime, was unseasonably warm, and received precious little. Thank goodness I flew all the way across the country to enjoy “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Then, as soon as I left, a huge storm hit Park City. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Riding the Cabriolet towards the base of The Canyons, covered by only a light coating of the “Greatest Snow on Earth” in mid-December, 2008. Photo provided by J.R. Patten.

It’s hard for me to really paint a true picture of the Canyons in its prime, since it was so far from its prime while I was there. The best I can do is tell you what it was like while I was there. And the best way I can think to put it is, well, somewhat “eastern.”

The first day I skied, December 13th, 2008, there were four short runs open, including one to-the-side terrain park. It was more like one run that split into two parts and met back up. The lines were a little long (longer than you normally find out west, anyway, and I’m sure longer than the Canyons expects) and the slopes were a bit crowded.

The second day, December 14th, was not tremendously better, though there were a few more runs open, and the lines seemed a bit shorter. But, overall, it seemed a lot like an east-coast day (short runs and long lines), just a few thousand feet higher and a lot farther away.

On neither day could you actually ski all the way down the mountain. The only way to get down was to take the gondola.

One thing (besides the lack of snow and long-ish lines) that bothered me, particularly on the second day, was my hunch that much more terrain seemed ready to open. I could see slopes that were completely covered, and some that even had tracks (ski patrol’s, I’m sure). It seemed a bit scrooge-like of them to not open slopes they could have. Granted, I’m no snow condition expert, and they may very well have had good reason for leaving them closed, but it seemed like a strategic business decision rather than one made to please paying (and surely disappointed) customers.

However, like I said, this was a far cry from The Canyons in its prime. As you can see from their trail map, the resort is huge. It’s the biggest resort in Utah, in fact, and it keeps getting bigger. They’re opening up an entirely new area (the Iron Mountain area) and at least one new lift. Tree skiing will be increased thanks to planned grading (thinning of trees) in areas of the resort, and they plan to triple their lodging capacity within the next 5 years. One of the expansions is a new lodge managed by Waldorf-Astoria, so it seems they are bumping up quality as well as quantity.

If conditions were perfect, and everything was open, The Canyons is big enough to take up an entire vacation. The sheer quantity of terrain available at The Canyons makes it the best deal in town, even though there are three ski resorts nearly within walking distance. Park City Mountain Resort is close to The Canyons, and though I have not skied there, the locals have a nickname for it. I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “City” and it isn’t pretty.

When fully open, The Canyons offers 163 trails and an expansive 3,700 skiable acres. Photo provided by J.R. Patten.

Also nearby is Deer Valley Resort (which DCSki recently covered, and which had more terrain open than The Canyons while I was there). Deer Valley is quite nice, but is known more for its elegance and service than variety of skiing (which is not to say the skiing is sub-par - it isn’t. Deer Valley is known to have some of the best groomed runs on the planet.) The lift tickets at Deer Valley cost about the same as The Canyons, and the resort is not as large, so The Canyons may be the best bang for your buck if you’re looking to maximize skiing possibilities.

If you’re looking to ski The Canyons this winter, the resort has a number of great accomodations, including three beautiful ski-in, ski-out lodges and hotels. But, Park City is a cool town and it could certainly be fun staying downtown. As I mentioned in my summer article about the resort, Park City is a great town to hang out in. When I wasn’t spending my nights jamming on my banjo, I was downtown enjoying the nightlife and brewpubs (even if they can only serve 3.2% beer). After all, downtown is only a few miles away from The Canyons, and Park City has a shuttle bus system that runs between resorts. It costs about $3 per person per trip.

Nearby Salt Lake City received one of its first major snowstorms of the season on December 13, 2008, providing a necessary shot in the arm to Park City ski areas. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

If you happen to hit the resort at a less than ideal time, there’s still plenty to keep you happy. There are more National Parks in Utah and surrounding states than there are east of the Mississippi. Should you find the conditions not phenomenal (say, only having 4 runs open) it’s a quick ride down to southern Utah where you could get in some fantastic winter hiking at Canyonlands or Arches National Parks. Those places can get overbearingly hot in the summer, but in the winter they are very cool and temperate. The hiking there is wonderful during the winter.

I certainly did not find “The Greatest Snow on Earth” at The Canyons while I was there. I’d love to go back when the conditions are better and experience such a seemingly fantastic resort at its best. Plus, shortly after I left they received multiple feet of snow and have opened 84 more trails and 9 more lifts.

I guess timing really is everything.

Know before you go:

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About J.R. Patten

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.

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Reader Comments

Josh Matta
December 26, 2008
should of went to snowbird they actually had terrain during those dates much more than 4 trails.
December 26, 2008
This isn't too unusual for The Canyons. Their lower altitude usually means they're the last to have fully open terrain and the first to start losing it.

I just got back from a week in Park City. Like usual, I visited PCMR and Deer Valley. The Canyons doesn't even register due to what I just stated, as well as the degree of cross traversing necessary to reach a lot of the terrain. Not to mention the heavy boarder presence. They have a chip on their shoulder which I think is warranted. No wonder they poke fun at PCMR.

Finally, keep up the comments on DV being too one dimensional. It's not. Something Ski magazine somewhat uncovers in this month's issue. But it keeps their steeps and bowls relatively untracked.

But I hear you on missing snow. It snowed every day I was there, but I just missed the 2' they got on Christmas Day.
December 26, 2008
I remember reading the recent Ski Magazine article on Deer Valley with some bemusement, because the reputation of having "civilized, approachable, well manicured" terrain is not something Deer Valley has been afflicted with -- it's a marketing message they themselves have driven home for many, many years. So I have little sympathy if they now act like they've gotten a bad rap for being too "easy." The illustration on the front of their current trail map even drives this message home, showing gently sloping trails being delicately groomed by a very large groomer, in a style meant to evoke a Japanese Zen sand garden.

Yes, they have some steep terrain, but I can't imagine someone making a trip explicitly to Deer Valley for the steeps or bowl skiing. Not when there are so many places that excel in that area (including many in Colorado, that you fly over on the way to Utah). It certainly is nice to discover, though.

I've been a bit surprised by the opinion many people seem to have with respect to Park City Mountain Resort. About a decade ago, I was on a group ski trip in Colorado and mentioned to a fellow trip-goer that I was thinking of going to Park City Mountain Resort. He had just returned from a trip there. He looked at me as though I were crazy and discouraged me from going there, saying it was crowded and nothing special.

When I was in Salt Lake City recently, I asked some locals where they would recommend skiing, and they all steered me away from PCMR (and not based on current conditions). I ended up skiing at Deer Valley. I've gotten the sense that PCMR is more of a "locals" resort, but am still a little curious why I've encountered this attitude so many times -- you often see the same expression on peoples' faces.
December 26, 2008
sorry you missed the storms. Booking early season is dicey in UT. In Park city early season is anything before about Xmas.

Deer Valley has the reputation for manicured groomed slopes and extreme luxury. It delivers on both counts. However it is also a real ski area with decent terrain and good tree skiing once you get off the groomers.
December 27, 2008
i'd have to agree with josh - man big or little cottonwood canyon instead of The Canyons would have been way better - when the season would start that is always where i would head - the skiing around thanksgiving in PC usually is more like what you saw, but is not atypical - then again in 2005 Brighton was fully open on Oct 29 and I skinned/hiked up in The Canyons on Nov. 4 and had about 2 feet deep all to myself - but those are exceptional.

PCMR - it's funny i've skied there and for some reason i always tend to prefer other places. i believe it has something to do with the feel of being a very "family vacation" place which is fine if you are a family on vacation but it seems to lack a "character" i guess.

Deer Valley - i always associate this with two things - fun times skiing with friends in a group and enjoying, and going to somewhere where you can pull lots of g's on a good carving ski. i go there for laughing and enjoying company and blue skies and the groomers - not really anything outside of that. it's a good relaxing time.

The Canyons - i guess i like it because it is so varied like a buffet - i can get most anything i want, plus it tends to have lots of "secret spots" that can be your little find, plus it's so uncrowded most of the time and also i used to live off the base so it was convenient. but like a buffet it has no one thing it does well.
Eric Hoffman
December 27, 2008
I have to agree w/Ryan & Scott in that perceptions are not necessarily reality, particularly in terms of how some people perceive PCMR. Aside from that, I think you did a great job in your review, considering the completely unflattering conditions of a few weeks ago.
Hopefully you'll make it back to PC at some point in the future, and if you you need someone to show you some of the goods at PCMR please drop me a line. ;)
December 28, 2008
So far this season has been 'bony' in the Northwest and West in general. The reason those slopes weren't open was because they probably didn't have enough coverage. The Utah Wasatch range is famous for it's fluffy, light powder. Guess what fluffy, light snow isn't good for? Building a base.

We've experienced a similar situation in the PNW (I moved out here 3 years ago to go to college, much to the relief of the Timberline ski patrol) so far this season. We got a whammy of a snowstorm in mid-December but the temps were so low and the snow so light that the first week of the season you could expect at least one coreshot per day. Since then, the snow's gotten heavier and become more like the 'Cascade concrete' we're used to (of course, this has triggered very high avalanche danger... nothing like heavy snow on top of severely faceted depth hoar). As I type now, the snow's coming down hard in the hills with the prospect of storms rolling-in every couple of days. Still hard to believe everywhere was 100% open and had been for weeks this time last year (Dec. 30th was my best day of riding last winter, fluffy powder up to your chest. The stuff I dreamt about shredding in high school. sigh).

Anyways, cutting to the point: Resorts in the west generally don't manufacture snow. They might a little if they have lower elevation bases, but don't expect much before January. In fact, your best bet for good snow conditions is MLK weekend through Presidents Day. After that the storms tend to taper-off (though December is a wild month, often with seemingly bottomless powder, but often with trees, shrubs and rocks sitting just inches under the snow waiting to teach you a lesson). However, if you want pretty much guaranteed coverage and lots of terrain open (though a lower probability of faceshots) head out west in March. You'll be treated to comfortable weather, superb coverage, and if you're lucky, even a powder day.

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