On a recent trip to Utah (my umpteenth, by last count), I finally pinpointed what makes this place so special that people, myself included, keep coming back, again and again. Here it is: There’s a magic about it that doesn’t diminish with time or familiarity — or even change. And there’s been plenty of that, especially in recent years; Utah has topped the list of the country’s fastest growing states since 2010. But that, too, is a testament to its popularity.
Even if now it’s a measurable hike to baggage claim from my arrival gate in the updated Salt Lake City International airport, even if it boasts a ski resort (Park City) that is among the top ten largest in the world, and even if what used to be little insider favorites are no longer happy secrets (the line for ice cream at Java Cow on Park City’s Main Street can, at peak times, be a 20-minute affair), it still has all the allure it did in decades past. Why? It’s that oft overused word nowadays, but it applies here: This little corner of Utah is truly authentic. Even in its ever-changing, ever-growing state, a visit here is a back-to-basics, people-pleasing trip that brings all the good things about Utah — and there are a lot of them — to the forefront. People, scenery, luxury, food, and fun all share space here.
The resort areas that dot either side of the state’s Wasatch Mountainsjust a short drive from Salt Lake City are known for having such incredible snow that it’s billed as “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” And though they share a mountain range, each has its own unique personality. The western slopes that sit in Salt Lake County are admittedly a bit sleepier but offer spectacular, powder-laden conditions at four resorts. The largest, Snowbird, boasts a 125-person aerial tram that zips riders to the summit in seven minutes. In summer, it features a rooftop balcony for those who don’t suffer from a fear of heights wanting veritable bird’s-eye views. Only slightly smaller at 2,200 skiable acres to Snowbird’s 2,500 is Alta. A mecca for dyed-in-the-wool skiers as one of only two ski-only resorts in Utah, Alta was tapped by PeakRankings as Utah’s No. 1 ski resort in the 2022-23 season for its conditions, terrain, and overall vibe. Brighton and Solitude, the more diminutive two of the four, still deliver the challenging conditions this side of the range are known for with a fraction of the crowds found at the bigger resorts. A bonus for Ikon pass holders: all four resorts are Ikon destinations.
Without a bustling town to draw you off the mountain after a big day, lodging right at the base is the way to go — advice that stands for all seasons on this side of the Wasatch Mountains. At Alta, Snowpine Lodge is a new option that opened in 2019 in a beautifully remodeled historic building that has been a mining building, general store, and even a post office. Some of the original building’s walls are still visible in parts of the lodge, but the hotel is crisp, bright, and modern, with warm, inviting common sitting areas that are unique on every floor, gorgeous curated artwork by local artists throughout, a full-service spa, game room, restaurant, bar, and outdoor pool and spa. Ski rentals and storage are available in the winter, and skiers need only to step outside the back of the resort to hit Alta’s slopes. Because of its unfortunate opening just prior to the pandemic, the hotel feels even newer than its four years, giving those who’ve discovered it a sense of being the first to know. Still, everyone here seems just as enthusiastic to welcome guests to the property in its modern form as they are to share its deep connection with the region’s past.
Of course, Park City and its next-door neighbor, Deer Valley, are resorts that are synonymous with Utah skiing, and they await on the back side of the Wasatch Range. Though farther than the Salt Lake resorts found on the Wasatch Front, eager skiers catching the first direct flight out of San Diego can still easily be on their favorite run here well before lunchtime. Both have undergone or are undergoing massive expansions (the ski-only Deer Valley is in the process of adding 3,700 skiable acres to more than double its current size) that make these two the behemoths of Utah ski resorts, and with crowds swelling year-over-year despite lift ticket prices that rise in step, who’s going to complain about more terrain to explore?
Off the slopes, Park City’s historic Main Street has always been the place to go for a true taste of mountain life, and it’s as charming today as it’s been in the decades I’ve been coming here. As this former mining town’s one-time basecamp, Main Street offers a peek back in time, with historic buildings whose façades hearken to its wilder days. Dining options are abundant, as are boutiques offering everything from luxurious furs to kitschy souvenirs. And in some cases, old and new face off in oddly amusing ways.
For instance, Burns Cowboy Shop, purveyor of Western attire and accessories, looks directly across Main Street to Alpine Distilling. Though Burns has a deep history here, operating for nearly 150 years, it’s found new esteem as the hatmaker of many of those worn in the hit series Yellowstone, which was, in part, filmed locally. The hats are works of art, and after selecting the proper size and color, an associate will then customize each one for the perfect brim shape, hat band, decorative detail, and even add a brand so that every single one is destined to become an heirloom.
Meanwhile, just across the street, the entrance to Alpine Distilling aka Park City Social Aid & Pleasure Club beckons visitors to a decidedly new side of Park City life. In a state whose quirky liquor laws are widely known, it might be surprising to learn that the country’s preeminent distiller, Sara Sergent, is based here. Sit down with Sergent in her below-street-level establishment under moody lighting as the space buzzes with live music, and she’ll enthusiastically offer a history lesson/science experiment/gin making masterclass, then encourage you to combine what she’s taught you about her craft with your own tastes and preferences to custom create your very own gin. There’s nothing not to love about the experience, or Sergent, for that matter; just make sure you’ve come with plans to check your baggage on the trip home because there’s no shipping option for your private label creation.
Away from the bustle of Main Street and just a short drive east to the nearby Heber Valley, I discovered the wonder of fly fishing. Here, with the assistance of experienced guide Nikki, I nabbed more than one trout from the Provo River for a quick selfie before returning him to his home, but it was enough to sell me on the sport — a zen antidote to the thrill of racing down a ski slope. (GoHeberValley.com offers links to guides and outfitters to book your own experience.)
At the end of a long day, there is no better place to lay your head here than Stein Eriksen Lodge. Created to emulate the traditional European alpine lodge, this mid-mountain resort on Deer Valley is the embodiment of luxury. Spacious rooms miss no detail, and private outdoor spas beckon you to come soak and soothe weary muscles while taking in the breathtaking night sky which, due to Utah’s Dark Sky Ordinance, offers a glimpse of the Milky Way with the naked eye. A couple nights of this, and you just might be tempted to be another of the many who decide to make Utah home.