Winter gets all the love in Utah’s ski capital, but it’s got fall down to a fine art, too.
On the roughly 40-minute drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to my hotel in Park City, I have one gleeful thought: “Mountains!” The mighty Wasatch Range – the western edge of the Rocky Mountains – stretches about 160 miles from the Utah-Idaho border through central Utah. In this little pocket, they are up close and personal, framing the serpentine road like craggy sentries. I’m no stranger to mountains – we live in a Valley created by a bunch of them, after all – but these hulking beauties are breathtaking.
It’s mid-September, and summer is fading into fall. The maples and aspens are ablaze with burnt orange and marigold-colored leaves, and a blustery wind whooshes through stately pines and alders. It’s my first time in Park City and, to be honest, my knowledge of it is limited to my partial viewing of the 2002 Winter Olympics and my 2001-2007 subscription to People magazine and its glowing coverage of the Sundance Film Festival (and those legendary swag bags, R.I.P.).
There are no Olympians or celebrities in sight, but I don’t mind – I’m staying in a celeb-worthy resort with a re-creation Olympic bobsled, and I’m psyched for my impending Cool Runnings photo op, flanked by fall foliage.
Park City is compelling because of its central dichotomy: It is both very outdoorsy and very ritzy. It’s as if Ralph Lauren invaded Flagstaff, banished all the hippies and installed a “hiking chic” dress code. Walking around downtown, you might even draw the conclusion that REI, Moncler and Pendleton outfitted the entire town. The people are pretty and preppy, too – like someone hocus-pocused a J.Crew catalog and the models sprang from the pages to populate the place.
The mountain god/goddess aesthetic carries through to the luxurious ski lodges in the area. I have the good fortune of staying at the swankiest, the Waldorf Astoria Park City (2100 Frostwood Dr., 435-647-5500, waldorfastoriaparkcity.com). It’s the kind of place where every staff member remembers your name and greets you with every passing (“Good morning, Ms. LeMoine!” never gets old), and the director of hospitality reads up on you prior to your arrival to surprise you with little custom goodies – a favorite snack, perhaps, or themed treats for special occasions like bachelorette getaways. The hotel radiates comfortable luxury, from its massive lobby fireplace hewn from cream-colored stone and surrounded by plush couches to its fire-pit-dotted balcony and patio, where you can roast marshmallows for complimentary s’mores each night.
Olympics nuts: Seek out Waldorf Astoria marketing and PR coordinator Meghan Bubel, who is a treasure trove of Olympics tidbits. She can give you just as much information as the guides at the nearby Utah Olympic Park (3419 Olympic Pkwy., 435-658-4200, utaholympiclegacy.com), but she’s such a humble sweetie and such an Olympics enthusiast herself she’ll insist you visit it, anyway.
Visiting in the fall precludes flying down Park City’s famed ski slopes, but it opens up opportunities to enjoy the ski town infrastructure in other ways. Chairlifts provide the perfect perch to photograph fall leaves, and there are alpine slides and coasters that whiz you down the mountains – a ride that is just as scenic and fun with a backdrop of umber foliage as it is with fresh powder. Our planned coaster time is thwarted by rain, so instead we pop into Escape Room Park City (136 Heber Ave., 435-604-0556, escaperoomparkcity.com), where our group is “locked” into the Travel Room to solve a series of globetrotting riddles and puzzles to “escape” the room before the allotted time is up. We make it out in time, which is more than I can say for the escape rooms I’ve tried in Phoenix.
The friendly guides at All Seasons Adventures (435-649-9619, allseasonsadventures.com) will take you on just about any outdoor excursion you can think of, from mountain biking and whitewater rafting in the summer to dog-sledding and snowshoeing in the winter. I shimmy into a pair of waders and big rubber boots for my maiden fly-fishing voyage, which turns out to be much more fun than I anticipated. Our guide Joe is a lanky, bearded fisherman from Massachusetts whose zeal for the sport is contagious. He’s determined to help me catch a fish, but I find the repetitive movements and gently rushing water of the Provo River meditative and satisfying enough. No actual fish needed.
I have another transcendent experience as I soar between and above the majestic mountains of Park City in an unwieldy wicker basket lifted by a red, orange, yellow and black striped hot air balloon, one of dozens in the city’s annual Autumn Aloft (autumnaloft.com) balloon festival. According to my balloon pilot, Park City’s airspace is typically pretty tight, and hot air balloons are usually verboten, so the festival is a rare treat for pilots, passengers and observers. The event is free for the latter. If you’re interested in going up, reach out to organizers to facilitate contact with a participating hot air balloon company to inquire about availability and pricing. This year’s event is slated for September 15-16.
Surprisingly for a town with so many well-heeled residents, Park City’s restaurant scene was sorely lacking until the last five years or so. Before then, it was glutted with “bad ski shack grub,” to quote a salty local I meet at High West Distillery (see Boozing In Mormon Country below). The Farm at Canyons Village resort (4900 Canyons Resort Dr., 435-615-8080, parkcitymountain.com) has been a glimmering exception, and its farm-to-table menu and superb wine list are definitely legit. Powder at the Waldorf Astoria Park City is also a worthy fine dining destination, with a stellar selection of wine and craft beers (including one brewed exclusively for the resort), a gorgeous crustacean tower and the finest cuts of steak and wild game. Twisted Fern (1300 Snow Creek Dr., 435-731-8238, twistedfern.com) does “creative, conscientious New American cuisine,” aka fancy-ish food in a cute, casual setting – my favorite. Chef Adam Ross’s roasted chickpeas with garlic and sesame are the best chickpeas I’ve had in my life. I take down half of a “shared” bowl before ordering another for the table. These are too good to share.
More casual, but just as good, is The Eating Establishment (435-649-8284, theeatingestablishment.net), a longtime Park City diner purchased and revamped by Modern Family star Ty Burrell and his business partners. My Belgian waffle and locally made sausage hit all the right brunch buttons. Two other local spots are killing it at brunch: Five5eeds (1600 Snow Creek Dr., 435-901-8242, five5eeds.com), a bright and airy hipster haunt owned by Aussie expats who are serious about their coffee (order the daily pastry and an espresso), and Riverhorse Provisions (221 Main St., 435-649-0799, riverhorseprovisions.com), an even more hipster joint (it’s downstairs from a chichi mercantile and deli shilling artisanal local products) serving seriously delicious biscuits and gravy and crispy polenta bites with fry sauce, Utah’s signature dip.
Foodies also flock to the Park Silly Sunday Market (780 Main St., 435-714-4036, parksillysundaymarket.com), a weekly farmers’ market on Park City’s historical Main Street. It’s where I see the most diversity in this largely white, wealthy city – in clientele and in cuisine. I pass a booth proffering pita wraps, one selling tamales and another serving Korean fried chicken and waffles. I settle on a Jamaican patty, an empanada-like pastry stuffed with spicy ground beef, and head back to the Waldorf for one last autumnal bobsled photo.
BOOZING IN MORMON COUNTRY
Despite its proximity to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stronghold of Salt Lake City – and Utah’s conservative liquor laws – Park City has a sinful streak. Our favorite watering holes:
High West Distillery and Saloon
Order a flight of High West’s award-winning whiskey or try it mixed in a quirky cocktail. Even whiskey haters will be wooed by the refreshing whiskey sangria, with rosé, strawberries and green apples.
703 Park Ave., 435-649-8300, highwest.com
Old Town Cellars
Two childhood friends opened this casual hangout to share their “ski bum wine” with their hometown. They buy quality wine from producers in the Pacific Northwest and create their own blends, like the Mountain Town Red, Snowbunny Syrah and Townie Rosé.
890 Main St., 435-649-3759, otcwines.com
The cheeky brewers at Wasatch play on the LDS church’s historical hanky-panky with the Polygamy Nitro Porter, the “sister-wife” of their classic porter. “It’s OK to love them both,” the menu assures.
250 Main St., 435-649-0900, wasatchbeers.com