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Four Reasons Why Park City is America's Quintessential Mountain Town

Forget what you know — or what you think you know — about Park City. The idyllic city, nestled in the Wasatch Mountain Range of Western Utah, is the picture-perfect amalgam of American past and present, of classic and contemporary. In spite of its relatively small year round population, it’s rife with abundant culture, a palpable sense of community and a lore all its own. Beyond Sundance Film Festival, a days-long spree of cinematic revelry and Hollywood-tinged pomp and circumstance, Park City sports a well-rounded array of sights, activities, luxuries and flavors, which work in tandem to create America’s quintessential mountain town. Here’s why:

The Skiing is World-Class

Every mountain town, from Aspen to Stowe, proclaims that their snow is the best for skiing and snowboarding. The Great Salt Lake plays a pivotal role, providing lake effect snow since the air over the lake is warmer than winter storm air. As these two climates converge, storms are intensified and produce more snow, which also tends to be lighter and fluffier due to the region’s high elevation and low humidity. This means as you’re skiing down the slopes of Park City, you’ll glide right over the powder like silverware through butter.

All of this, coupled with the fact that Park City is home to two massive ski resorts and located a snowball’s toss from several more (such as Snowbird, Sundance, Powder Mountain and Snow Basin), means that the slopes aren’t as congested, since there’s plenty of space and options. And the numbers speak for themselves: between Park City Mountain and Deer Valley resorts, the area boasts 59 lifts, 401 runs and a whopping 9,326 skiable acres. The town also has the largest assortment of ski-in/ski-out accommodations on the continent.

When it comes to ski resorts, Deer Valley is the timeworn champ. It’s the kind of majestic, awe-inspiring vista that world-travelers fantasize about, with its top-tier amenities, five-star service, sprawling grounds, gourmet restaurants and myriad slopes. The resort was an industry game-changer when it first emerged, marking the first North American resort to hit such first-class service. Numerous lifts traverse six mountains, whisking skiers of all skill sets across a dizzyingly beautiful landscape of pristine, powdery snow. Clocking in at a cumulative 2,026 acres with 101 trails and a vertical rise of 3,000 feet, Deer Valley is a beautiful behemoth. It’s got something for everyone, too, with 27% of its runs divvied into the “easier” category, 41% categorized as “more difficult” and 32% as “most difficult.” It’s also great for families with kids, with its comfy bunny slopes and its state-licensed childcare facility on-site (you know, for when the parents are looking to zip down one of those black diamond runs).

The other local juggernaut is Park City Mountain Resort, located right next to historic downtown and designated as the largest lift-accessible ski resort in the nation. With nine hotels, a revered ski and snowboard school and more than two dozen restaurants, it’s quite a Mecca in its own right. The resort really boomed in 2015, when it combined with Canyons Resort to create the largest ski and snowboard resort in the country, consisting of more than 300 trails, 41 lifts, eight terrain parks, 7,300 acres, 19 lifts and a vertical rise of 3,200 feet.

The History is All-American

As modern and progressive as Park City is, it’s the town’s rich history that really lays the foundation and rounds it all out as one of the most uniquely American mountain towns in the country. Long before families visited from all over the world to hit the slopes, Park City was a silver mining town. The area got its start in the late 1860’s, with a population boom drawn to the gilded promise of precious metal in the mountains. The city itself was incorporated in 1884, as the silver veins plied the pockets of 23 eventual millionaires. Altogether, the height of the silver boom yielded a local wealth of $400 million.

While mineral prices dissipated in the 1930’s, so to did Park City’s mining practices, as the town’s bread and butter began shifting steadily from silver to snow. You can experience some of that history for yourself at the Park City Museum on Main Street, where much of the area’s mining past is on display.

The Restaurants Are Top-Notch

For a town of just several thousand regular residents, Park City’s restaurant scene is on par with heavy-hitters like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans. Outside of larger cities with world-famous dining reputations, it’s rare to find such quality, precision, talent and diversity in dining style and options. With nearly 150 restaurants, the quality food per capita is pretty astonishing.

Maximizing the bounty of locally harvested ingredients and meats, chefs all over town put their own stamps on not only rustic “mountain town” cuisine, but cuisines inspired by cultures across the globe.

The Farm is an essential stopover, especially for dinner. Located in the Resort Village of Canyons Resort, the cozy restaurant showcases modern American cuisine with a rigorously local, seasonal tilt. As the name suggests, farm-fresh ingredients take top billing, as the kitchen spotlights products sourced primarily from farms within 200 miles of Park City. Start with the braised oxtail onion soup, a masterfully meaty French onion that’ll ruin you on all other French onion soups going forward (worth it), before tucking into entrees like Colorado bass over saffron risotto, chimichurri-splashed veal T-bone or the herbed spaetzle, an ode to Eastern Europe with Emmenthaler cheese, caramelized onions and black chanterelles.

This wouldn’t be the mountain town that it is without a bevy of fireplaces and fireside dining, and no single restaurant captures that ethos quite like Firewood (pictured above). One of many worthy dining destinations on downtown’s Main Street, this toasty crowd-pleaser celebrates all things wood-fired. Using different types of wood for different blazing ovens, chef John Murcko imbues a range of dishes with different flavors and aromas. It’s a glorified exploration of wood-fired cookery, a style of dining intrinsically tied to mountain town pastimes, and Firewood serves to catapult that tradition into a contemporary era through bold, bracing preparations like smoked duck breast paired with grapes and mostarda; coal-roasted beets with cinnamon and sherry vinaigrette; juniper-spiced elk loin with cauliflower cream and duck confit gratin; and coriander-crusted salmon with sweet potatoes, leeks and kale.

For breakfast, you’d be remiss not to fuel up at Five5eeds (i.e. “five seeds”). The restaurant’s founders hail from Australia, bringing a distinct taste of their homeland to a nondescript outpost in Park City. This means very good coffee, the fluffiest hot cakes that taste more like a buttery Dutch baby than a typical flapjack, piled-high avocado toast that looks like a veritable avocado sundae and shakshouka, a traditional baked eggs dish, simmered and served in a cast-iron pan with feta and dukkah. Even the most basic breakfast classics, like yogurt and granola, get elevated in the form of a silky-smooth panna cotta strewn with toothsome granola and fresh berries.

Another good option for breakfast, or a more leisurely brunch, is The Eating Establishment. Located back on the Main Street drag, the homey haunt dates back to 1972, although it was renovated and expanded a bit in 2017. Here, wholesome comfort food reigns supreme, from chicken-fried steak sandwiches, pork hash, thick wedges of French toast topped with lemon curd and loaded baked potato omelettes (yes, these arm-length omelettes are indeed filled with bacon, cheddar and fried potatoes).

For lunch, hang up your skis at Deer Valley and stop into the Goldener Hirsch, an Alpine sanctuary known for its cheese fondue and tire-sized wiener schnitzel. Smoked trout, bratwurst and lamb chili are a couple other highlights, all hearty options for bolstering an afternoon on the slopes.

Just down the way from the Goldener Hirsch is The Mariposa, a real show-stopper of a dinner restaurant. Known for its acclaimed seasonal tasting menus and hifalutin preparations and techniques, you can expect to find some masterful cookery here. The restaurant gets whimsical and crafty with dishes like foie gras and waffles, kombu-cured pork belly, guinea hen saltimbocca and the fan favorite: the aged Gruyere soufflé.

The Olympic Legacy

The 2002 Winter Olympic Games were the biggest boom in Park City history since silver was discovered in the mountains. When they took place in Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas, including Park City, the world watched, putting the town on an international pedestal like never before. Many people were already privy to the incomparable snow and skiing potential, but the Olympics cast a spotlight that endured well beyond 2002. Ever since, people all over the world regarded Park City as a top-tier winter destination, and the history of those revolutionary Olympics can still be felt prominently when you’re visiting.

Not only are the Olympic rings, symbols, flags and statues still intact around town, but Park City is still a prominent training ground for national winter sports teams, and the five venues built for the Olympics are accessible to athletes and guests alike. These include the Olympic Ice Oval, Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain, Soldier Hollow and Utah Olympic Park. The latter is a veritable Olympic wonderland, home to numerous ski slopes, ski jumps and a bob sled track that allows visitors to climb aboard and rocket their way along an icy track at upwards of 70 MPH.

The Park is a year round training site for athletes, so you’re likely to see Olympians practice ski jumping, freestyle skiing, bobsled and luge. Inside the main visitor center, meander around the Alf Engen Ski Museum to dive deep into Utah’s rich skiing history, covering everything from olden ski fashion and avalanche safety to simulated ski rides and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The Park also has summer activities like a zip line and adventure course.

The Town Looks Like a Fairy Tale

Whether you happen upon a horse-drawn sleigh ride in Deer Valley or you’re strolling down Main Street under twinkling Christmas lights, Park City has the perpetual look of a real life dreamscape. Impossibly picturesque and enchanting, it’s the town’s tasteful balance of preserving history and tradition with modern amenities and luxuries. It’s a tough line to toe, and Park City does it to a tee, outfitting its most storied avenues and streetscapes with chef-driven restaurants; and complimenting enduring inns, theaters and watering holes with stylish boutiques, distilleries and cafes. In addition to quaint sleigh rides, public transit in Park City is free, which is such a pleasant nicety it almost seems like fiction. There’s also a charming trolley that roves back and forth along historic Main Street for people to hop on and off — the street can feel quite hilly and long, so it’s not a bad idea.

A big piece of that photogenic puzzle is the lodging. While Park City features more than 100 lodging properties, ranging in scope from private homes and quaint bed and breakfast inns to castle-sized hotels, the common thread is that all of them look like something out of a Disney movie. From the gorgeous Stein Eriksen Lodge, an elegant spot for apres-ski luxuriating with rum-infused hot chocolate by the fireplace, to the Grand Summit in Canyons Village, these pastoral locales fit in perfectly with their majestic backdrops. In particular, Grand Summit recently polished off a $15-million renovation, resulting in a multi-level complex that looks like a dream-come-true mega-mansion in the Swiss Alps. Complete with a massive heated pool, three hot tubs, a heated “orange bubble” chairlift, multiple dining outlets and unparalleled views from every room, Grand Summit really raised the bar.

From the perfectly powder snow and the high-caliber culinary stylings to the Olympic lore and storybook setting, “world-class” is a common thread throughout Park City, a small mountain town with a deservedly huge reputation.

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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