Deer Valley, Utah, Ski Trip: April 1st - 4th, 2004

Thanks to SkiVT-L, I was alerted to an on-line ski survey by Reach Advisors that promised free ski tickets to a certain number of responders. Although I figured there was little chance I'd be selected for free ski tickets, I filled it out and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Somehow it seems as though my response made the cut, because I was given a list of ski areas from which to choose my free lift tickets. There weren't really many options in our local Montana area, but one of the nearest choices turned out to be Deer Valley in Utah. Although Deer Valley wasn't really at the top of the list of ski areas I wanted to visit, I did want to ski it someday, and it looked like this would be the chance.

Although the drive to Salt Lake City is only 6-7 hours from Hamilton, it would be tough to make the trip worthwhile on a standard two-day weekend, especially with Tyler, whose schedule would probably get pretty screwed up. So, we decided to make the trip a long weekend during E's spring break from school. The first weekend (March 27th & 28th) might have been nice, when the ski areas received up to 2 feet of snow, but the April 3rd & 4th weekend worked out better logistically with work etc.

Since E is in charge of the more important family matters, I'm usually the one in charge of organizing "fun" (which is OK by me). My plan was to ski Deer Valley on Saturday, since I expected it to be much less crowded than some of the other areas. The other potential ski day was Friday, and I figured I'd introduce E to Alta, the Utah skiing classic. I wanted to avoid Alta on the weekend if possible, since previous experience has shown me what a mess that can be.

There were so many lodging options to choose from in Park City that it was difficult to decide where to go. The nice thing was that many places had begun to drop to their late season prices, so there were plenty of reasonable rates. Eventually, I just looked for a hotel with a nice pool. Since E is a long time swimmer/instructor/lifeguard, she was very excited to get in some swim time with Tyler. The Radisson Inn Park City was a moderately-priced lodging option that had a fantastic-looking indoor/outdoor pool, as well as both indoor and outdoor hot tubs. Since this was as much a family vacation as a ski trip, we knew we'd spend a good amount of time in the water. I found an even lower rate through, and our lodging was set.

This was a special ski trip, so we were going to try out ski resort day care with Tyler for the first time. If Deer Valley's day care was anything like what we'd heard about their other facilities, we expected it to be top notch. In fact, the web site said that they had added an additional 3500 square feet of space onto their Children's Center. On Tuesday/Wednesday, the Wasatch forecast was looking very exciting, with potentially another 1-2 feet of snow like the previous weekend. So, I decided to go ahead and make a reservation for Tyler at Alta's day care (Alta Children's Center) on Friday. The Alta Children's Center was independent of the ski area, but after talking to the gentleman on the phone when I made my reservation, it sounded like a nice establishment. It was also nice to hear that we could get a full refund on our money ($80) as long was we cancelled our reservation the day before using it.

Thursday, April 1st, 2004

I headed into work for the morning, and made sure to check the updated weather forecast for the Wasatch Mountains. Basically, the hopes for a snowstorm had fizzled, with 1-2 feet of snow turning into a possible few inches of "rain and white rain" with freezing levels up around 14,000 feet. Unfortunately, the mountains in Utah just don't go that high. We didn't mind spending the day at Deer Valley with the cost offset from the free ticket, but spending money for a second day of two adult tickets plus childcare wasn't worth it for crappy (or even so-so) conditions. We cancelled our day care reservation at Alta, and decided to go with our fallback plan of cross country skiing or snowshoeing unless there was an extreme change in the forecast. The cost would be minimal (if anything), and Ty would be able to spend the day with us. We started our drive to Utah after lunch, and made it to the hotel in about 7.5 hours with maybe 20-30 minutes of stops along the way. It ended up being a quicker drive than I'd thought, considering Park City was a bit further than Salt Lake City. We checked into the hotel, put Ty to bed, and then I went for a dip in the pool (just to make sure it was warm enough for Ty to try the next day ;).

Friday, April 2nd, 2004

I got up at 6:30 A.M. to check on the ski conditions and make sure that a surprise snowfall hadn't taken place overnight. One nice thing about the Radisson was that there was no charge for local calls, so by using a local number for internet access, we had at least a 56K connection for free (high-speed access was also available from the room, although there was probably an additional fee). I checked the Alta website, and they reported 2 inches of new snow, with a temperature of 40 degrees and cloudy skies. It certainly didn't sound like conditions worthy of reversing our plans, so I caught up on Email for a bit, and happily went back to bed. Eventually, we all got up and headed to breakfast. Another cool feature at the Radisson was buffet breakfast included in the price of the room. I figured it would be some baked goods and juices etc., but it turns out it was a full buffet in their restaurant.

After breakfast, Ty took a nap while we decided where to go for the afternoon. During the planning stages of the trip, we had thought of doing some cross country skiing, but the potential storm reports had prompted me to bring our fat skis as second pairs in place of the cross country ones. We'd still brought our snowshoes, so that was an option. One place I was interested in visiting was Solider Hollow, the cross country ski area that was used for the 2002 Olympic events. The latest report said that they had 20 km of terrain still open, and although I wasn't sure of that, we decided to go anyway to see the Olympic venue and go for a hike if that was our only option. Our trip to Soldier Hollow took us a little east and to the south of Park City, to the cities of Heber and Midway. I was amazed at how dry and brown much of the landscape was, even though it was April and there had already been substantial snowmelt from what was supposedly an above-average snowfall season. The further east we traveled from the Wasatch, the more this was apparent. We also noted that as we headed toward Heber on route 40, there were still many huge houses in a number of places, and more being built. These were in stark contrast to most of the houses in Heber and nearby Midway, which seemed to be more representative of typical Utah communities.

We dropped substantially in altitude as we headed from Park City (elevation 6,900') to Heber City (elevation 5,593') and the snowpack that was barely existent became even more of a memory. I couldn't imagine how Soldier Hollow was going to have any snow, unless we went well up in elevation. Off in the distance, I could see some white trails snaking their way around below the hills to the west, but if they were made of snow, it looked discontinuous. It turned out that this was Soldier Hollow, and their snow was essentially gone. We spoke with a woman in the office about hiking. She said it was fine, there was no charge, and she handed us a map. She suggested staying on the paved areas since it was quite muddy (but we guessed it was probably "Utah muddy" not "Vermont muddy" and would be quite passable.

It looked like a real fun trail network, and there were a few bridges and underpasses to allow all the snaking trails to coexist. We checked out the biathlon shooting range, and then headed up to the top of the trials to have lunch. We hiked on pavement (it seems the main Olympic 5k route is all paved) snow, dirt, and a bit of mud. They do seem to have snowmaking for some of the trails, because there were spigots scattered around the area, but they weren't the type of spigots I was used to seeing at downhill ski areas. We saw a group of deer/elk near the uppermost trails, who moved a bit higher up as we approached. It was much warmer than we had expected from the forecast (temperature was 60-70 degrees) so we had an enjoyable lunch overlooking the Heber Valley area. Then we hiked down and it was back to the hotel for swimming, which was a blast. Ty was tentative at first, but then got used to the feeling of the water and had a lot of fun playing with a ball we'd brought.

During one of my previous visits to Park City, my friend Chris had brought us to a restaurant on Main Street called Texas Red's. It was a barbeque place that had some of the best ribs I'd ever eaten. They were so good that I wanted to get back there again for more, but this was my first chance in a while. When we got there, I couldn't believe that Texas Red's had been replaced by a place called Bandits' Grill and Bar. It was still a barbeque place, but it had a more corporate feel. The ribs were good, but not the spectacular ones I'd experienced in the past. It was still a great meal, and we went home ready for our ski day at Deer Valley.

Saturday, April 3rd, 2004

Heading to Deer Valley was an easy drive a few miles south of Park City. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by the famous mountain hosts dressed in green fleece and black Spyder pants. They were quick on the draw to grab our skis for us, although I threw a bit of a wrinkle at them since our skis were in bags. I removed them from the ski bags, and our hostess immediately whisked them off to the complimentary ski check area (also used for overnight ski storage). We unloaded the rest of our gear, and I drove the car down to the parking lot, which was close, and FREE as well. I was worried that Deer Valley would have pay parking like many places, but they didn't. There was an underground parking garage at the top of the parking areas, which is probably not free, but all the regular lots were still relatively close. I think there was also a shuttle bus to catch a ride from the parking lot, but I was so close it didn't matter.

After parking the car, I met up with E at the unloading area. Our next goal was to bring Ty to the Children's Center, and one of the hosts was immediately there to provide directions for us. He also offered to watch our bags while we took care of getting Ty registered, and we gladly accepted the offer. The Children's Center is conveniently located off to the left side of the main Snow Park Lodge (Deer Valley's immaculate main base lodge). I'm not sure how other child care facilities run their operations, but they seem to have a variety of security measures at Deer Valley. You have to be "buzzed in" through a secure door to get into the main child care area, and to obtain entry you also have to have a special stamp on your hand that only shows up under some sort of UV light. Inside, there are a number of half-height doors that separate the individual play and age group areas. They required two hands to operate, which is probably useful for keeping the little ones in, but makes them difficult to open with anything in your hands. Tyler's area (~1 to 2 years old) was near the back, and we found a few children eating and a couple of nice caregivers. After a brief discussion about details, we felt quite comfortable leaving Ty with them for the next few hours, and headed off to get suited up for the slopes.

We picked up our bags at the car unloading area, and our host directed us to the changing area. We headed back into the impressive Snow Park lodge facility, this time heading down a spacious flight of stairs below the first level. The changing area was an expansive room with hundreds of coin-operated ($2) storage lockers, as well as a basket-check facility ($4) that gave you unlimited access to your checked items throughout the day. We opted for the locker, since we didn't expect to be back before the end of the day. There were plenty of benches provided for changing into ski gear, and soon we were on our way back up to get our skis from the ski storage facility. I have to say that with all the support from the hosts and other employees, our preparation went very smoothly for a ski resort we'd never visited.

If you'd like to take a look at a trail map for Deer Valley or follow along as I describe the skiing, click here to open the Deer Valley trail map page in a new window. Open the large map for best viewing.

I had heard that Deer Valley was not really overwhelmed with expert terrain, but the Empire Canyon area sounded like it offered some challenging steeps. Empire Canyon was at the other end of the resort, which meant it would take a couple of lift rides to get there, but it also meant we would get a good tour of the terrain on our way over. We had a choice of two high-speed quads that took off from the main base area (7,200'), and we chose the Silver Lake Express, since it seemed to get us further in our desired direction. The lift took us to the top of the main face above the lodge, and then back DOWN into the next valley (8,100'). All through the ride, we passed one amazing piece of lodging after another. There must be hundreds of slope side residences. Many are so huge that they seem to be multi-unit residences, but some looked like there were just incredibly large single unit properties. All I can say it that they were amazing. Think of the coolest slope side lodging you've ever seen or thought of, and it probably exists at Deer Valley.

After exiting the lift, we skated across a flat area in the valley and got on another high-speed quad, the Quincy Express, which took us to the top of Flagstaff Mountain (9,100'). From the top, we just meandered down some green terrain to get us to the Empire Canyon Lodge (8,300') at the base of the Empire Canyon terrain. We had no prior knowledge of the area, so I figured we'd hop on the lift and ski where our eyes took us. Soon after boarding the lift (Empire Express) I could see that there would be more than enough challenging terrain to keep us happy for a while. Looking off to the left, I could see a cornice-rimmed expanse of steep terrain, which was nothing like one might expect from Deer Valley's reputation. It was gnarly-looking enough that I wasn't even sure it was standard in-bounds terrain.

We got off at the top (9,570') and headed right over to the interesting terrain. After all, we'd already had the green run for a warm-up. There was a gate of sorts to pass through, but it mostly warned not to pick up unexploded shells and try to take them home as souvenirs. We also met up with another gentleman who was curious about the area (on vacation from upstate New York), and he asked if he could join us in checking it out. We were happy to give him some company, and the three of us headed off through a piney traverse towards "Daly Bowl". The traverse split and gave the option to head above or below the cornice, and although E said she was fine with either option, I though it best if we started below the cornice before we'd taken a closer look at the terrain and snow surface. The terrain actually wasn't too bad. The hardest parts would certainly be a jump off the cornice (although it's not mandatory) and the terrain just below it, but the rest of the bowl was probably at a pitch of 30-35 degrees. The sun was out, and the snow was nice corn, so I basically chose the most challenging line I could find. It was an open area off to the left of the main lines in the bowl, above some trees and a few rocks that had melted through the snow. We shot a little video, and then the terrain funneled down into slightly tighter chutes that were very bumped up. Both E and I were challenged by the bumps, since we'd skied little if any throughout the season. The bumps were big and the terrain was steep, and I have to admit I wussed out for the last few bumps and straight-lined it into the terrain below.

E was feeling way off in the deep bumps, so we spent the next few runs on some slightly milder bumps in Empire Bowl below the lift. I fired up the head cam and we worked on trying to film with the 8 mm lens which is challenging because it has a very narrow (36 degrees) field of view and the image is jerky. We got some quality footage, but I now have a good feel for the limitations of the lens. It will work out best for following someone in large turns on smooth terrain. Although the surface was questionable in the trees, we did jump into some Aspens off the left side of the bowl, and found that the snow was in great shape.

After a number of runs in the Empire Bowl area, we decided to head to the Daly Chutes for some steeps. This meant going above the Daly Bowl that we had skied on our first run, to some further chutes that looked like they had no bumps. I saw one that looked absolutely delicious from the lift, so we tried to make a note of the landmarks and see if we could get there. Getting to the further Daly Chutes required a bit of uphill traversing in order to get above a rise of land, and in fact we had to take off our skis because some of the area was devoid of snow. We did get some nice pictures from the top of the rise, and our route-finding was a success because we hit the exact chute we wanted. The snow and slope angle looked good for jumping in, so E set up below with the camera and got my entrance. The snow got a bit sticky at the bottom of the chute, but for the most part it was my favorite terrain of the day so far. E did a nice job of ripping it up as well, even after we'd done many bump runs earlier. The extra little distance required to get to the chutes in this area seems to keep the traffic (and bumps) at bay.

It was now getting near 2:00, and we decided that we should start working our way back to the main base. But, we still wanted to get some lunch while were out, since we'd heard such great things about the food at Deer Valley. We ate right down at the Empire Canyon Lodge, and even this furthest point of the resort had fantastic dining. Knives, forks and spoons are all metal, not plastic, and the food is gourmet. We got a soft drink, E got a salad from the extensive and varied salad bar, and I got a half of a roast beef sandwich (with various gourmet toppings etc.). The bill came to $17, but actually, that's equal to or less than what I'd expect to pay at a restaurant that served such quality food. I won't go into further details about the food, but basically it's just top notch and you shouldn't miss out on the chance to try some if you go to Deer Valley.

After our lunch break, we began our trip back to the main base. For the trip back off Flagstaff Mountain, I was interested in hitting Ontario Bowl, which looked like nice steep terrain. Ontario Bowl faces south, so we had to navigate around some bare areas to get in, but once we did it was great. The bowl basically consists of a number of big open tree-lined chutes on slopes of around 35 degrees. It must be fantastic after a dump, because it has that sort of pitch that would keep you moving in deeper snow and let's you just fall away with gravity. It's not hair-raising steep, just really nice advanced pitch. I'd say the Ontario Bowl terrain was a close second behind the Daly Chutes for terrain that I enjoyed.

The final part of the resort that we were going to explore was Bald Mountain (9,400'). There were a couple of bowls (Perseverance Bowl, Mayflower Bowl) on the map that looked really interesting, but unfortunately time was running short so we didn't dare take them. We would have ended up down at the Mayflower Lift at the far edge of the resort, and with time added in for photography, we would be pretty late getting back to Ty. So, we headed down the front face of the mountain near the Sterling Lift, and got in some good slushy spring cruising. We took the small Homestake Lift to get us back out of the valley in the middle of the resort, and cruised our way down to the main base. Things were getting quite slushy way down at the bottom, but it was great fun plowing through the corn mush and sending up some spray.

We checked our skis, changed out of our ski boots, and picked up Ty, who'd had a very happy day at the Children's Center. I was having difficulty carrying two sets of skis and poles back to the car at once, and no sooner than I'd set one pair of skis down for a second trip, a nice host (a fellow with an Australian or Kiwi accent) appeared and said he'd take care of them. It really was impressive how quickly he moved in. I can't say enough good things about our Deer Valley experience. If you've ever debated about going, just do it. The ticket price ($69) isn't much more than many areas (actually less than some) and the level of service (and complimentary perks) you get is very high. There's also enough steep terrain to keep most advanced skiers happy for at least a day or two. It may not be the kind of resort you visit everyday, but if you are in the Park City area, it should certainly be experienced at least once. We didn't run into any pretentious people during our day, and I don't think anyone cared that my ski pants had some duct tape on them. I totally agree with a quote that Erica had near the end of the day. Although they had many luxuries at Deer Valley to enhance your experience, she felt in the end that, "It's really about the skiing". I totally agree with her statement, everything else is really a backdrop to make your ski experience more enjoyable. I'll certainly go back to Deer Valley again if the right opportunity comes up. Hopefully I could hit a powder day, since they say you can get fresh tracks longer at Deer Valley than many of the Park City/Cottonwood areas.

That evening we did some more swimming with Ty, and got takeout pizza (woo!) from Park City Pizza. I went out to fetch it, and was amazed to find out what a zoo the intersection near I-80 (Kimball Junction) could be. Basically, there are just a lot of people that spend time in Park City. I can't blame them, it's a fun place.

Sunday, April 4th, 2004

Sunday was our departure day, so after catching our usual free breakfast at the hotel, we headed back to Montana. In Pocatello, we stopped at a local park (Ross Park) to have lunch and let Ty get out and stretch his legs. We had a nice time, especially since the weather was so great: some clouds in the sky and a temperature of about 70 degrees. Even though we didn't catch a Utah Powder dump, we still had a nice spring ski trip in which to remember Deer Valley.