Yes, Park City is still ‘America’s ski town’
The trek between the main parking lot at Park City Mountain Resort and the lift ticket windows passes briefly through an enclosed, brick-lined passageway where the clop of ski boots and whoosh of snow pants resonate loudly. A set of stairs, once awkwardly climbed while carrying skis and poles, opens to a plaza vibrating with energy. Whenever there’s snow on the ground, that same energy courses throughout the entire town.
Skiers whose context is limited to Utah alone typically fail to appreciate how anomalous the state is generally and Park City is specifically. The Utah ski area farthest from a major airport is Beaver Mountain, a two hour drive from the Salt Lake City International Airport. Driving time to the rest, including those in Park City, averages around 45 minutes. Given a reasonably early arrival, most visitors can enjoy at least a half day of Utah skiing on day one of their trip.
In contrast, Colorado’s Keystone Resort—the ski area closest to the Denver International Airport that could claim world-class status—is a two-hour drive without traffic. The town of Aspen, Colorado is more than double that.
“In addition to ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth,’ Utah has the greatest access on earth,” says Nathan Rafferty, CEO of Ski Utah. “Sure, there are regional airports in Colorado. You can fly right into Eagle-Vail airport. But unlike Salt Lake, that airport will never have a non-stop flight from Paris or Mexico City. In fact, the Salt Lake Airport is closer to Snowbird than the Eagle-Vail airport is to Vail.”
While the question of snow quality seems to have been subjectively—and occasionally acrimoniously—settled in Utah’s favor, the more objective matter of snow quantity also usually comes down on Utah’s side. The average seasonal accumulation of Colorado ski areas is 279 inches, compared with 404 inches for Utah. Normally, Colorado ski areas’ much higher average elevation and lower temperatures even out snowfall differences, resulting in season lengths that are almost identical.
Such may not be the case this year. In January, four of the five North American ski areas with the highest snowfall accumulations were Utah’s Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton resorts.
As for Park City, its two resorts—Park City Mountain and next-door neighbor Deer Valley—together offer just under 10,000 skiable acres comprised of 450 trails served by 62 lifts. The Mayflower Mountain expansion, currently underway, will increase Deer Valley’s capacity threefold, endowing Park City with around 14,000 skiable acres. Nothing in North America comes close.
Park City boomed into existence in early 1869, the year after prospectors discovered silver in the area. Three factors help predict the success of a mining venture, and Park City had all three. First, topography: the surrounding mountains had surface features hinting at conditions conducive to formation of ores below. Second, the resource itself: those hills had plenty of the right kinds of ores. And finally, accessibility: the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad and eventual Park City spur made it easy to get miners in and the products of their labors out.
Park City grew rapidly, reaching a peak population of about 8,000—a figure comparable to the number living there today—in 1898. But by 1950, a series of economic downturns coupled with natural and manmade disasters left Park City and its mines mostly emptied out. Desperate to keep the town alive, a study was launched in 1958 that examined the feasibility of latching onto the ski craze sweeping the nation by building what would be Utah’s sixth ski area.
Skiing did manage to keep Park City alive. Over the 100 years that followed Park City’s establishment, the value of the gold and silver extracted there comes to about $8.5 billion in today’s dollars and market prices. In comparison, the money added to Utah’s economy by visitors to Summit County alone now exceeds $1 billion each year.
To better understand where today’s Park City fits in the constellation of American ski towns, it’s useful to understand the history of skiing in the Rockies. At about the time of Park City’s birth, a wave of Scandinavian immigrants began arriving in northern Colorado. Many of them took advantage of the Rocky Mountains to practice their beloved nordic and alpine skiing.
Utah also saw heavy immigration from Scandinavia during that era, but the circumstances differed significantly, says Mike Childers, a history professor at Colorado State University.
“Both Utah and Colorado had northern European settlers, but skiing was established [in Colorado] a lot earlier. In Utah, the emphasis was less on recreation and more on finding water and growing crops. That’s a huge cultural difference.”
In 1915, one of those Scandinavian immigrants established Howelsen Hill—North America’s oldest ski area. Dozens more were built nationwide in the years before World War II, including four each in Utah and Colorado.
While new ski area construction almost came to a halt during the war, that changed as members of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returned to their base in Leadville, Colorado, aching to ski as they had while in Europe. These vets launched some of Colorado’s most important ski areas, including Keystone, Aspen and Vail.
In the mid 1950s, skiing skyrocketed in popularity nationwide, sparking a ski area building explosion. This was actively encouraged by the US Forest Service as it worked to bring more recreation to public lands. During that time, the rate at which Colorado added new ski areas outpaced Utah two to one. This disparity was enabled by completion of the Denver to Cove Fort, Utah portion of Interstate 70, thanks to some lobbying by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, a Denver native.
"In addition to ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth,’ Utah has the greatest access on earth."
“The building of I-70 was to support Colorado’s ski industry. There’s no other reason to build a four-lane freeway through the heart of the Rockies,” Childers says. “It’s really expensive and the terminus is in the middle-of-nowhere, Utah. And Utah didn’t even want it. But Colorado had the ear of President Eisenhower.”
By 1981, as the dust of the ski area building boom settled, the ski area count was 24 in Colorado compared to 13 in Utah. And while New York, Michigan and California were all home to more ski areas than Colorado, the Centennial State nonetheless emerged the undisputed first name in skiing in North America.
But Utah scored some notable victories during the boom as well. In 1969, six years after Park City Ski Area began operations, the resort succeeded in hiring Stein Eriksen—the first globally-recognized skiing celebrity—away from Aspen. With that, Park City gained an international ambassador and an unusually weighty endorsement. Five years later, the US Ski Team followed Eriksen and moved its headquarters from Denver to Park City. These two events hit the skiing establishment like an avalanche and put Park City firmly on the map.
Park City West opened in 1968, followed by Deer Valley in 1981. Park City West would undergo several name changes over the years, eventually merging with what today is called Park City Mountain Resort.
Today, the ski area tally is Colorado: 30, Utah: 15. Those numbers correspond roughly with the relative proportion of each state that sits within the Rocky Mountain Range: 39 percent of Colorado versus 16 percent of Utah.
Given the nature of mountains, Rafferty doesn’t realistically see Utah closing that gap.
“Utah had more room to grow in the 20 years following the Olympics because Colorado was already a more mature ski destination,” he says. “Utah has seen more rapid growth over the past decade, but the Rockies in Colorado are much bigger places than our Wasatch Mountains here, which feel big when you’re in them, but they’re not the scale that Colorado has. Utah can’t expand by building new ski areas today. There just aren’t that many places left to build here, and there are so many regulations and land issues and I don’t see that as feasible.”
That last part merits some attention.
Just as in mining, the confluence of three factors weighs heavily on a terrain’s suitability for skiing. The first is topography: do the mountain’s grades span ranges accommodating beginners, intermediates, and experts in a roughly 1:2:1 ratio? Second, the resource itself: does enough of the right kind of snow consistently fall there? And finally, accessibility: how easy is it for skiers to get there?
1981’s end-of-the-ski-area-building boom was predestined by the prior decade’s rise of the modern environmental movement, which introduced that fourth ski area suitability factor alluded to by Rafferty: regulations.
“You can have a long-term lease on Forest Service land, and before , that’s how about 60 percent of ski areas did it,” explains Kurt Krieg, EVP of resort development at Extell, the firm behind the massive Deer Valley expansion. “But from a complexity standpoint, today, getting a lease from a private party is a lot less challenging.”
Deer Valley was the final world-class public US ski resort to be built in the boom, likely because it—and its forthcoming expansion—sits entirely on enormous swaths of private land long ago purchased by United Park City Mines. The combined skiable acreage of the 18 US ski areas built in the 16 years immediately following 1981 still fall short of Deer Valley’s.
As Kreig explains, the average size of post-1981 ski areas is so much smaller than what came before because it’s become too difficult to build on Forest Service land, and private land tends to be accessible in much smaller quantities. That means the opportunity to build a true rival to Park City passed more than four decades ago, and there will likely never be another.
Today, Park City is home to 30 percent of Utah’s skiable acres but well over 40 percent of all Utah skier visits. In 2001, there were 1.1 million skier visits spread across Park City’s skiable acreage. Today, there are more than two million skier visits sharing the same space.
This imposes a burden on more than resort infrastructure and skier patience. It also doubles the demand on Park City’s municipal infrastructure and the patience of the 8,000 resident “Parkites” trying to live their lives.
Today, Park City is home to 30 percent of Utah’s skiable acres but well over 40 percent of all Utah skier visits. In 2001, there were 1.1 million skier visits spread across Park City’s skiable acreage. Today, there are more than 2 million skier visits sharing the same space.
To complicate matters, Park City is among the few ski towns that were a town long before the arrival of skiing. This 150 years’-worth of history and charm is part of what draws people there, but that also means many central roads were originally designed for travel by the occasional horse, not a steady torrent of rental cars and Ubers. In contrast, Vail, Aspen and other ski towns were incorporated and designed with modern growth in mind—well after their resorts were built.
This has left many Parkites feeling frustrated. In a 2022 survey commissioned by the Park City Chamber, residents expressed deep concern over the state of transportation and environmental degradation caused by what they perceive as “overtourism.” A consistent theme of the study was the concern that Park City may be America’s ski town, but it’s feeling less and less like their own.
Those tensions reached a boiling point over the summer when residents successfully lobbied to delay upgrading two lifts at Park City Mountain Resort. For its part, the resort says increasing lift capacity will reduce lift lines and improve the skier experience, while residents argue that inviting more skiers without expanding the means of accommodating them further deteriorates the resident experience.
These are complex interests to navigate.
Dan Howard, VP of communications at the Park City Chamber, says that allowing Park City to retain its authenticity is in the interest of residents and visitors alike.
“When big city people come to our town, they feel the history and the charm. We have a distinctive character,” Howard says. “Other ski towns really lean into the uber-luxury, exclusionary aspect of skiing—that skiing is just for a certain subset of people. Park City pushes back on that. Globally, we want to be known as an inclusive and welcoming place.”
Indeed, the same Chamber survey that quantified Parkites’ concerns about overtourism found that visitors value the town’s authenticity to an identical degree. Howard says the Chamber got that message loud and clear and is helping find creative ways to keep Park City true to its authentic self.
“There’s a difference between traffic and tourism. Nobody likes traffic. We’re developing innovations to encourage car-free visits, and that’s a real possibility,” he says. “Park City is the rare ski town with a city-wide free transit system that you can get to very easily on a shuttle from a huge international airport. We remind visitors: ‘You’re going to rent a car at the airport, drive it to Park City, and leave it in the garage for three or four days and drive it back to the airport,’ and that doesn’t make sense.”
Of course, Park City’s overtourism challenge is a problem wrapped in undeniable success, with both Park City and Utah logging record high skier visits in the 2021-2022 season. Not only was last season a record-breaker for Utah and Park City but also for Colorado, the Rockies and the United States as a whole. Many in the industry attribute this uptick in participation to the surging popularity of multi-resort passes and, of course, the pandemic.
“Historically, the percentage of skiers in the US has been right around three percent of the population. While this growth is tracking [with population growth], recently we’re starting to exceed that three percent,” says Adrienne Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. “The pandemic brought a lot of people back to skiing. Outdoor recreation saw a boom. But even before the pandemic, wellness culture in the US saw a focus on returning to the outdoors. You started seeing record visitation to national parks in the summer, as well.”
Consistent with Isaac’s assessment, a comparison of Utah skier and national park visits shows both entering a new growth phase in around 2015. This revived interest in being outside has put Utah—and what some call “America’s Ski Town”—in a very enviable position.
“Park City is the tip of the spear of the winter sports business. Some of the leading winter and outdoor brands are in Park City,” says Nick Sargent, president of the Park City-based SnowSports Industries America (SIA). “It’s seen nationally as a really wonderful lifestyle city and state. SIA is here because we wanted to be at the center of activity, and that’s what Utah and Park City are.”