Growing up snowboarding on the East Coast can feel like having a starting position on a AAA baseball team. Sure, there are some decent facilities, and the tickets are cheap. But tell a real powder hound you cut your teeth on the mountains of North Carolina, and you’re bound to get a confused expression.
“Wow, there are slopes there?” they will say in wonderment, followed by the requisite, “You really have to go out West.”
The true believers don’t stop there.
“There’s nothing like the fresh pow,” they’ll cue.
“The runs are sick.”
“And the black diamonds are actual black diamonds.” Not like the fake ones we’ve been pretending are challenging trails, apparently.
On occasion, the polite ones will slip in my favorite pearl of wisdom:
“Well, if you learn on all that ice in the East, you can snowboard anywhere.”
So by the time my family and I headed to Park City, Utah, for our first big Western adventure, I was convinced that I’d be flying down runs that were hundreds of yards wide, cutting through feet of fresh snow on my nearly hour-long descent.
And I’d be good. Because, according to conventional wisdom, I had essentially trained in the worst imaginable conditions. Like a cyclist riding in the Alps to experience lower oxygen levels, I’d spent my formative years mastering my edge changes on sheets of ice at Appalachian Ski Mountain. (I still love you, App, and your “ladies ski free” nights.)
According to conventional wisdom, I had essentially trained in the worst imaginable conditions.
Cara Kelly, who learned to ski in North Carolina
Oh, how naive I was.
Although I had one of the most memorable trips of my life, it was not without a few mishaps and unmet expectations. I did, however, glean several helpful tips for other first-timers.
DON’T EXPECT PERFECT CONDITIONS
One of my grand delusions about snowboarding out West was that the weather would always be exceptional — nothing but dry powder and crisp 28-degree days. No sleet or ice.
Imagine my horror when we touched down on a 57-degree February afternoon in Salt Lake City. Fantasies of bounding through fluffy snowdrifts disappeared like ice melting in the balmy air. We had unwittingly booked a trip during a notably warm season.
Our spirits lifted, however, as we drove the 30 miles from the airport to Park City, an old mining town nestled in a canyon in the Wasatch mountain range. The temperature dropped steadily during our ascent, and we were happy to learn once getting settled that nearly all the slopes were open.
Monday morning, we found freshly blown and groomed snow, which made for fine conditions during the first chunk of the day. Our Sunday night arrival also paid off — we enjoyed a fairly empty park for the first few days, devoid of weekenders. This helped conditions, which were worse on heavily trodden slopes but relatively good on back hills.
The overall experience felt more like a spring trip than full winter, and was decent once we embraced it.
A thick fog and light rain had us worried Tuesday night. But, to our delight, we discovered that the rain at the base had turned to snow on the peaks. I found a noticeable layer of fresh powder on the back of the Summit House along the Silverlode Express lift the next morning.
7,300 acres of skiable area at Park City, America’s largest ski resort
Our childlike grins returned. We hopped around and glided down the Mel’s Alley and Hidden Splendor runs. My brother Michael, a fellow snowboarder, tapped in after a few runs. We stumbled upon Short Fuse, which meandered through the tree line and also held some fresh powder. We stopped and laid in it, feeling the few inches absorb our weight without melting or dampening our clothes.
“Yes,” I thought to myself. “This is what the hype is about.”
DO CHECK OUT THE TOWN
As with many families, not every member of mine is a winter sports enthusiast. Dad, Michael and I are enamored. Mom hates it. This was not a surprise — she’d been postponing this particular trip for years, going as far as bribing us with European vacations to divert our attention.
But her general disdain came into clear focus midweek, as we discussed the day over heaping bowls of pasta at Buona Vita Cucina in downtown Park City.
“I’m scared to turn my skis straight,” mom said, recounting her day zigzagging across the bunny hill. “I don’t like feeling like I’m sliding down a mountain.”
Wisely, going into our trip, we had made it a top priority to find a resort that had more to offer than rustic lodges.
Park City was perfect. There are about a dozen art galleries and boutiques, as well as the famed Egyptian Theater, offering a range of activities including screenings and stand-up comedy.
We primarily focused our non-slope time on our collective favorite activity: eating. On our first night, we hit the High West Distillery & Saloon, a throwback to the town’s raucous mining days. The 100-year-old livery stable and two-story Victorian house are connected by a glassed-in walkway prominently displaying the facility’s copper stills.
The food, a hearty selection of elevated bar staples with a Western focus, is surprisingly complex. The bison burger is a crowd favorite, along with the roasted peppers and charcuterie, and there’s a whiskey tasting flight.
Later in the week we treated ourselves to a feast at Wahso, a French-infused Asian grill on Main Street with an almost discordant antique Shanghai style. The wagyu beef and pork short rib ramen hit the spot, however, and we left fueled for another day on the snow.
DO SLEEP SLOPESIDE
Perhaps there are perfectly synced families or friend groups in the world, those who can impeccably coordinate their comings and goings. If these miraculously attuned bands of humans exist, I’ve never been a part of one. Perhaps because I’m the one who is constantly late.
This is, in my opinion, the most compelling reason to find lodgings slopeside. Coordinating schedules is hard enough. Add to that varying skill levels and massive amounts of gear, and it becomes a recipe for public meltdowns.
We found the perfect condo through VRBO in the Lodge at the Mountain Village, which overlooks the PayDay lift and a half-dozen shops and restaurants. The convenient location freed us from having to designate a meeting place or forcing someone to hold down a table for dinner.
It also helped us get an earlier start, sauntering out to the lift early in the morning without having to pack up the car or wait for a shuttle. And in the later afternoon, we hit the hot tub and watched experienced riders on the Merrill Mini halfpipe and Three Kings run and terrain park through the giant windows.
TRY AS MANY RUNS AS YOU CAN
The best part of snowboarding in a place such as the Wasatch Range vs. the Blue Ridge is the scale: Everything is bigger, longer, more intense. This is especially true in Park City, which became America’s largest ski resort, with 7,300 acres of skiable area, after being acquired by the company Vail Resorts and linked to Canyons by the new Quicksilver gondola.
The best part of snowboarding in a place such as the Wasatch Range vs. the Blue Ridge is the scale: Everything is bigger, longer, more intense.
The number and variety of runs could have kept us entertained for weeks. With only a few days, we decided on a taster’s menu, trying a run once or twice before skipping to the next. It took us three days to experience nearly every run within our comfort zones at Park City. A remarkable experience for Dad, Michael and me, who are used to limited options and lifts that last longer than the runs.
We started with Mom on the First Time lift and got our bearings, then moved to PayDay, a solid blue (medium difficulty) run along the western side with impressive views across the mountain.
Then back up to where Town Lift comes in, and up Bonanza, then west to McConkey’s, where we got our first real glimpse of some fear-inducing bowls, made all the more outrageous-looking with little snow cover. The next two days were spent along various blue runs, and so on, until we had covered the park.
We took the same sampler approach for our day at Canyons, jumping on the Cabriolet and Red Pine gondolas. The High Meadow area was a treat for Mom, providing a trio of beginner runs up in the middle of the mountain with a beautiful view. The Red Pine Lodge is another brilliant spot, with bunches of tables and chairs outside offering a break that was lovely, given the springlike conditions of our trip.
For Michael and me, the best were the adventure runs — marked with funny metal sculptures — which wove briskly but steadily through tree cover. A radically different type of ride than anything we’d experienced.
As the lifts were closing and sun was setting on our last day at the resort, I followed the entirety of Home Run — a green (beginner’s) run — from the top of the Pioneer lift all the way to our condo back in Park City. It was one of those dreamy rides — so smooth your mind is lulled into a meditative state, focused only on the picturesque surroundings and that weightless, gliding feeling. It has become a precious memory, one you pull out while staring out an office window at snow showers, daydreaming about the trip of a lifetime.
Going to Park City
Park City Mountain Resort, 1345 Lowell Ave., Park City; 800-222-7275; www.parkcitymountain.com.
Lodging on the property ranges from $180-$1,000.
Lift tickets and lessons: One-day lift tickets are about $100. Epic passes, which grant access to all Vail Resorts properties, start at $619. Group lessons for children and adults start at $215, with private lessons extending to $550.