- By Mauri Elbel Special to the American-Statesman
Tiny flurries flutter and dance before a winter white sky like the morning breath of last night’s snowstorm that blanketed Sundance Mountain Resort with more than a foot of freshly fallen fluff.
My skis glide silently down sifted-sugar slopes as I make my first run of the season. I always seem to forget how freeing and fun downhill skiing is until I’ve clicked back into my skis, dusted off my self-doubt with a warmup run and surrendered to the serenity that flourishes between these powder-pregnant pines and snow-capped peaks. But up here, on the slopes of Mount Timpanogos in Utah’s Wasatch Range, the feelings return in an instant.
My husband and I arrive at Sundance Mountain Resort for a rare weekend getaway without our kids. Surrounded by this majestic mountain beauty, it’s hard to believe just this morning we tiptoed out of the house leaving our three slumbering children behind with their groggy grandparents to board a 5 a.m. direct flight from Austin to Salt Lake City. Although it’s our first time at Sundance Mountain Resort, this is our third year in a row skiing in Utah because of the ease and convenience it offers destination skiers. Once you land at Salt Lake City International Airport, 10 world-class ski resorts sit less than an hour away, which means you can leave Austin before sunrise and be riding a ski lift up the mountain shortly after breakfast.
But once you arrive at this Provo-area resort, located about 55 minutes from the airport and 45 minutes from Park City, it doesn’t take long to realize Sundance is a bit different from the rest. Sure, Sundance’s mountain stats — 45 runs spread across 450 acres of skiable terrain — are impressive for a resort of its size. So are the 300-plus annual inches of snow the resort averages each season, which coat its gentle groomers and steep slopes with what Utah ski enthusiasts claim to be “the Greatest Snow on Earth.” But there’s something else here that isn’t as easily quantifiable. At Sundance Mountain Resort, where the skiing is undeniably top-notch, it’s not all about the downhill thrills.
Sundance Mountain Resort is one of those destinations where it’s easy to escape from it all. Time seems unhurried, the noise of the rest of the world seems to fade, and recharging and reconnecting come naturally at this secluded sanctuary located on nearly 5,000 acres of protected wilderness beneath the breathtaking 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos. It’s a place that blends art and nature, good food and rustic charm and quiet moments with on- and off-the-slope adventures.
The resort, like the Sundance family in general, owes its fame and vision to celebrity founder Robert Redford, who purchased the property in 1969 and has overseen its conscious growth. While I, like many, had always associated Sundance with the annual independent film festival that now spills across Sundance, Park City and Salt Lake City each January, here at the resort, things are quieter, lines are nonexistent and the setting is postcard-worthy. Picture an Alpine wonderland dotted with private wooden cottages tucked into an unspoiled mountainside, a handful of dreamy vacation villas sprinkled on the slopes and an intimate base village that blends into its landscape with a few rustic Western buildings linked by footpaths and bridges straddling a babbling creek.
“Sundance is all about the place itself,” says marketing manager Trevor Hudspeth of Redford’s “develop a little and preserve a great deal” philosophy. “Sundance sits at the base of this gigantic mountain and it’s been very consciously developed. Everything has been built low, below the tree lines, so when people find out we have over 100 cottages, they are blown away — it doesn’t feel like that. You’d really have no idea.”
Out here, guests can make their days as diverse as the desire. Serious skiers and snowboarders can fill their days — and nights — logging runs. But those wanting a more well-rounded experience can tap into their creativity at the art studio, book rejuvenating treatments at Sundance’s nature-inspired eco spa or partake in activities spanning fly-fishing on the Provo River, one of the world’s premier Blue Ribbon trout fisheries, or night-owling with a wildlife expert on a guided snowshoe tour. Although we only have a weekend here, we plan to dabble in as much of it as we can.
Following a wintry morning of downhill skiing, today’s agenda includes cross-country skiing at the Nordic Center and a pottery class at the Art Studio, where single-session workshops range from jewelry- and journal-making to painting and soap-making. Fun fact: Sundance makes all of its soaps on property using natural ingredients and, once guests check out, the soaps are recycled and purified through a third-party company and then donated to countries in need of hygiene kits. Another fusion of art and the environment unfolds at the glass blowing studio, where recycled wine and glass bottles are transformed into decorative art and housewares by resident glass blowers from Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara. Sundance’s glassworks kiln uses up to five 30-gallon barrels of discarded glass each day to create works of art, vases, wineglasses and pitchers that are used throughout the resort.
After a morning on the mountain, an artsy afternoon and a serious cardio-pumping evening cross-country ski session, we’re famished. We walk to dinner at the Tree Room, Sundance’s award-winning fine dining restaurant that got its name from the living 65-foot pine tree that stretches up through its wood-surrounded dining space. As our server places a Tree’s Bees Knees, made with Beehive gin, lemon and fennel-infused honey, in front of me and hands my husband an Old West Manhattan, she informs us that we are sitting at Redford’s favorite table. Surrounded by the actor’s personal collection of Native American art and Old West memorabilia, we indulge in a foodie-worthy procession of creamy Meyer lemon gnocchi with Alaskan king crab and black trumpet mushrooms, sea scallops swimming in coconut chowder and the signature Tree Room pepper fillet sitting atop a bed of sauteed spinach, buttermilk mashed potatoes and mango chutney. After dinner, we saunter over to the Owl Bar, a cozy, wood-surrounded watering hole that houses the original 1890s Rosewood bar relocated from Thermopolis, Wyo., that was once frequented by Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang. We sip a nightcap and listen to a local band — as the resort’s après ski and nightlife hub, the Owl Bar serves up live music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday alongside craft beer and cocktails and hearty seasonal fare.
We awake the next morning ensconced in the warmth of our romantic cottage, where a fire still crackles in the stone fireplace and our big-window views showcase a spectacular mountain sunrise to replace the starry sky we gazed at the night before. Winter has unzipped the frosty coat she wore yesterday and a bluebird sky has the snow outside glittering like crushed diamonds in the sunshine.
Before heading to the slopes, we fuel up with the Foundry Grill’s legendary Sunday brunch, which boasts a decadent display of traditional breakfast staples set beside indulgent spreads of carved meats, creamy cheeses and sinful desserts. We gather at the base of Ray’s Lift to meet a mountain host — Sundance offers complimentary mountain tours daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for intermediate skiers like us who prefer to test out new terrain with an expert guide. Plus, it’s a great way to learn a more about the mountain. Trailing behind our friendly mountain host and just ahead of two rookie snowboarders who’ve joined us, we glide down gentle trails like Bear Claw and test our limits on a few steeper runs while soaking in a bit of Sundance’s history. Somewhere between the repeat runs and on-the-lift banter, we learn Sundance Mountain Resort as it exists today began when Redford discovered a side road through Provo Canyon and stumbled on the inspiring view of the mountain. A few years later, Redford purchased 2 acres of land for $500 and built a small cabin for his family. In 1969, Redford bought the property now known as Sundance — formerly called Timp Haven, a modest ski resort with several chair lifts and ski runs owned by the Stewart family — and saw his newly acquired land as a place for environmental conservation and artistic experimentation.
Full of knowledge and plagued by burning muscles, we trade in our skis and boots for robes and slippers and head to the Spa at Sundance. Here we soak our frostbitten feet in warm rose-petal baths before getting pampering massages that melt all of our cares and aches away and set the tone for another relaxing evening at the resort.
On our final morning, one more snowy adventure awaits before we have to return to reality: Sundance’s Alpine Winter Zip Tour. Securely tethered to a parallel cable next to my husband, we dangle side-by-side above snow-sprinkled aspens and try to summon enough courage to speed 3,870 feet at 65 miles per hour. I begin to second-guess this adrenaline-inducing activity, but I know there’s no turning back, so I pull down hard on the handlebar and zoom full speed ahead. It’s a thrill like no other, and after it’s over I realize that there’s something unexpectedly romantic about braving a new adventure with the person you love — even when safety helmets and thousands of vertical feet are involved. As we depart for the airport and Sundance starts to fade into the distance, I already miss the magical moments we discovered somewhere between the silence and the snow-laced thrills. But, more than anything, I am grateful for the memories that will follow us home.