Vail Resorts’ $50 million endeavor to connect Utah’s two largest resorts last summer was one of the biggest infrastructure investments at a U.S. resort since American Skiing Company created The Canyons in 1997. That summer twenty years ago, ASC bought so many lifts for The Canyons (8!) they had to split the order between three lift manufacturers to get them all done in time for the 1997-98 season. It’s hard to even imagine that happening today. Still, Vail did manage to build a two-stage gondola, add a six-pack, move a detachable quad, construct a mid-mountain lodge and re-brand an entire company over the last eight months. I got to check out the results this week.
Park City Mountain is now the undisputed largest ski resort in America with 37 lifts and 300+ trails spread across 7,300 acres (it’s worth noting that Big Sky Resort still owns, and seems to have no problem using, the Biggest Skiing in America® trademark.) The first thing I noticed is Vail did its best to remove all references to Powdr’s old Park City logo and the Canyons name, replacing them with the red infinity branding. Despite these efforts, everyone still seems to call the northern half of the complex Canyons, or perhaps worse, The Canyons. Thousands of signs were changed over the summer and every employee got a new uniform. Most of the lifts were painted red although a few remain in black and orange.
The flagship of “One Park City” is the Quicksilver Gondola and neighboring Miners Camp lodge. Vail Resorts took the design they used for the Tamarack Lodge at Heavenly and Zephyr Lodge at Northstar and brought it east, demonstrating how the company excels at standardizing everything across its resorts. (Pepsi, never Coke, and safety bars on every chair at every mountain are other examples.)
Quicksilver, the resort’s fourth gondola, is a stunning machine connecting the heart of Park City to the southern edge of Canyons in 8 1/2 minutes. As easy as Quicksilver makes the connection, skiing between the two sides is still nearly impossible. Skiers are permitted to exit the gondola on either side at a mid-station on Pinecone Ridge. There are two short runs into The Colony (Canyons side) while the Park City side is akin to backcountry skiing with nowhere to go at the bottom. You end up on an endlessly flat road and even after conquering that you can’t get back to the base of Quicksilver without riding either Motherlode or King Con. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Bill Rock and company settled on siting the gondola at Silverlode rather than at the base of King Con. Because the skiing is so limited on both sides, I’d estimate 90 percent of gondola riders were downloading rather than skiing off the mid-station this week. In poor snow years it won’t even be an option. That’s okay when the gondola flies hundreds of feet in the air at times with panoramic views of the Wasatch.
Another quirky thing about the Quicksilver angle station is you cannot easily cross over from one side to the other. There’s a primitive footpath around and under terminal that few people wanted to negotiate. The whole area around the angle station feels like no man’s land, as if a company came in and said “we want to put a lift here,” built one in six months and opened it without really figuring out the skiing part.
Lost in the hoopla of Quicksilver are two other lifts that got major upgrades this summer. The six-pack at King Con was desperately needed even before Vail came to town as it serves a huge drainage with no other way out. The lines for Con were still huge this week but much better than they would have been with the old quad. King Con was also my first experience with a loading carpet on a detachable lift. From what I saw it helped a few and confused many, causing slows and killing capacity when it was needed most. The new Motherlode Express (old King Con) is a welcome upgrade on that part of the hill.
If anyone thought this summer’s $50 million campaign would fix Park City once and for all, they were mistaken. Egress from the southern half of Canyons still plagues the combined resort. From the drive terminal of Quicksilver, you still have to ride three lifts at a minimum to get “home” to Canyons Village or two to the Park City base area. Even with the gondola closing at 3:30 it’s an operational challenge trying to get thousands of skiers out of White Pine Canyon in anything less than hours. The crazy thing is the entire drainage is full of roads, just not public ones.
So what’s next? I see three big needs. First, upgrade the remaining insufficient lifts across the resort. Saddleback Express is the only quad that still needs to be a six-pack. Move the quad equipment to Dreamcatcher, which remains the only real skiing in that part of the mountain but with a 10+ minute ride. The Pioneer and Town lifts also could be replaced with detachables. Second, build a lift to the ridge somewhere between Jupiter and Ninety-Nine-90 (people go to a ski resort to reach the top of a mountain, after all.) This could be an extended Day Break, a new lift above Flat Iron or ideally both. Finally, there needs to be a better way to get out of the middle part of the mountain. I would advocate a gondola from the base of Tombstone to the Cabriolet parking lot, although I don’t think Talisker owns all of the land in between. A lift from the base of Tombstone to just about anywhere would help. With these three changes, Park City would be closer to being the perfect mountain in addition to the largest.
If you’d like to see more pictures of Park City’s three new lifts, click here.