Olympics got you yearning for snow? Head to Utah, home of 2002 Games

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 Travel
The sun sets from the deck of Stein Eriksen Residences in Deer Valley, Utah. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

When the Winter Olympics roll around, I can’t resist the itch to rocket down snowy slopes and ice-frosted tracks myself.

The United States has hosted the Winter Olympics four times — Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, Squaw Valley in 1960 and Salt Lake City in 2002. With this year’s games on the horizon, I headed to Utah recently to get a fix of gold-medal culture.

From Austin, you can catch a direct flight to Salt Lake City, and from the airport, an hour’s drive will deliver you to the base of no fewer than 10 ski resorts. I set my sights on Park City Mountain and Deer Valley Resort, where I skied, rode a bobsled, met a few Olympians, watched an American woman win gold at the FIS Visa Freestyle International Ski World Cup, checked out some trendy lodging options and got even more revved up for this year’s Winter Olympics, which continue through Feb. 25 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

At Park City Mountain, skiers and snowboarders can grab a lift from either of two separate base areas that will whisk them up and into more than 7,300 acres of pine-covered, eye-popping, ski-patrolled terrain.

But first, fuel up at Five5eeds, 1600 Snow Creek Drive, with a cup of joe made with beans imported from Australia, and a plate of shakshouka, a Moroccan dish made with eggs, tomatoes, feta and spices.

“We’re really picky about coffee,” says Gabe Chaparro, a partner in the business.

He’s not kidding. I sat down to breakfast at the popular spot with Hannah Kearney, who won Olympic gold in the mogul skiing in 2010 and tacked on a bronze in 2014. She brought her medal — thicker than a pancake and nearly as big — along for show and tell and explained a little more about the sport, in which athletes are judged on form, speed and difficulty of jumps as they barrel down a short, bumpy run.

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Kearney, now 31, competed at three Olympic games. In Vancouver, she tucked a note in her pocket that said, “I’m here to win a gold medal. I’m ready.” She did just that.

Kearney’s spirit inspired me, and after breakfast I headed to the mountain to make some runs of my own. I wanted to know a little more about the resort’s history first, though, so I popped on my skis and joined the free, on-mountain Silver to Slopes Historic Mining Tour to learn about the search for valuable silver, lead and zinc deposits.

Seventy mines once operated in Park City, half of them within the resort’s boundaries. You can still find remnants of the industry, in the form of dilapidated ore bins, old metal structures and a weathered wooden boardinghouse. Dozens of abandoned tunnels crisscross deep inside the mountain, some diving as deep as 2,000 feet beneath the snowy runs. In the mid-1960s, when the area was still known as Treasure Mountain, skiers traveled from one side of the resort to the other via a cart that rolled through a damp, dirty mine shaft. It turns out they didn’t much appreciate the subterranean trip, and today high-speed quad chairlifts do the job instead.

Mining ended here in the 1950s, and now local athletes hunt for the kind of gold, silver and bronze that comes with an Olympic finish instead.

The mountain holds plenty of reminders of their efforts. You can zip down a run named for two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, who is headed to South Korea to compete in giant slalom. Or you can stop by the free museum at the Utah Olympic Park, which hosted five events in the 2002 games.

There, you can peruse an exhibit about ski fashion trends (think stretchy pants, one-piece suits and a checkered cowboy-style number by Levi’s), learn what makes Utah snow “the Greatest Snow on Earth” (the state even trademarked the phrase) and how snowflakes are created. A display chronicling the history of ski jumping shows dapper athletes sporting bow ties, and for $2, you can try it out — on a virtual reality machine.

Best of all, you can take a run in a real bobsled, down the same track used in the 2002 Olympics.

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“It’s like putting four people in a bathtub,” one of the guides said as we climbed into the bright-red Comet, piloted by a professional driver, for the zippy trip down the bottom two-thirds of the track. We screeched through 10 turns, reaching top speeds of 62 mph in our 49.73-second run.

I wanted to meet more elite athletes, so I attended a fitness class with two-time Olympian Jillian Vogtli, who competed in moguls and dual moguls (and later competed as part of the U.S. cycling team) and now leads wellness and fitness classes in the Park City area. She showed a little sympathy for our sore quads and calves, and blended lots of stretching and yoga moves into our super fun, hourlong session.

My Utah trip coincided with the FIS Visa Freestyle International Ski World Cup, where I watched 21-year-old American phenom Jaelin Kauf win gold in the women’s moguls competition, where she rocked and rolled down the quad-burning course. She’s headed to South Korea next.

Then I packed my bags and moved 15 minutes down the road, at the base of Deer Valley Resort, which lures guests who like their ski trips wrapped in luxury. Expect ski valets who help haul cumbersome gear, perfect corduroy (the ridged snow that snow grooming machines leave in their wake), gourmet cuisine (try the cheese fondue at Bavarian-themed Goldener Hirsch Inn) and on-site child care.

To see how the other half lives, pop your head into the luxurious Stein Eriksen Residences, a ski-in, ski-out property at 6702 Stein Circle, named for Eriksen, an Olympic gold medalist known as the father of freestyle skiing. He was known for his elegant skiing style, and the same holds true of the residences, which perch on the top of a ridge. From the back deck of a posh, five-bedroom unit, you can watch the sun set from the comfort of your own hot tub.

After a visit to the amazing High West Distillery, where you can sample a flight of house-blended whiskeys (try the Campfire for its smoky flavor), I got a good night’s sleep. In the morning, I had a date to ski with Heidi Voelker, the current ambassador of skiing at Deer Valley and a 12-year veteran of the U.S. ski team.

Voelker zipped me all over, sharing a few tips but mainly showing me the mountain. She’s one of a stable of athletes available as ski companions through Deer Valley’s Ski With a Champion program.

And really, that’s what it’s all about here in Utah — snapping on your skis, riding up a lift, then blazing down some of the best terrain in the country.