Learning Cartography at The Canyons

A Map of Creation

The Canyons A trail map of The Canyons ski area lay before me on my lap, and it was like a map of a faraway country.

I continually looked from the map up to the surrounding mountains, trying to get a reading. I looked down and back up. The mountains - canyons - gleamed in the January sun and seemed to stretch for miles.

I knew this much: I was on the Dreamscape lift and had to go to the bathroom.

The Canyons is about as big as some of the smaller European countries, and the way the place is laid out is that you basically start at one end and move to the other, then make your way back. All morning I hopped one lift after another working my way southeast toward Dreamscape, which is the resort's newest hill. I got to Dreamscape and found what I liked: open evenly-pitched runs with the occasional tree or two, catching beautiful sunlight and casting short accentuating shadows. I skied one two three four five runs on Dreamscape, and sort of lost track of time.

Now, riding alone up the lift, I opened the map and craned my neck backwards. There, like a hopeful dot on the horizon, lay the resort's towering base village. That was where I started this morning. On the near horizon was Ninety-nine Ninety, the resort's highest peak and the one with the most jaw-dropping terrain. Over from that was Tombstone, a big expert and advanced slope. Beyond that was Saddleback, an intermediate area. That led to Lookout which led to Condor which led to Murdock, the resort's other high peak. I knew there was a lodge I could seek refuge in somewhere near Saddleback. But I had to take at least one lift to get there, ski a multi-mile trail and negotiate my way through a neighborhood of million dollar homes.

The Canyons is big.

Wolf Canyon West?

Trail Map Though resort brochures say it is one of the newest ski areas in the nation, The Canyons actually had its genesis in 1968 as ParkWest and for years operated as a decidedly lowbrow alternative to Park City and, later, Deer Valley. The resort seemed to find new meaning in the late 80s and early 90s when snowboarders, the sport still new, found the original hill full of natural half pipes and terrain parks; adding to its popularity with this new set, lift tickets were cheap. I once got my whole family to ski there by getting discount tickets at the 7-Eleven. I think the tickets, even in 1991, were $14.

Despite this, the mountain had some drawbacks. There were flat spots, the front of the mountain would grow a big bare brown patch by the first of March, several black diamond runs never seemed to open, and the lifts were suspiciously old. In 1995 the mountain was purchased by new owners and named Wolf Mountain; the aging chairlifts were painted and all the trails were named after endangered species. In 1997 skiing conglomerate American Skiing Company, who owns huge resorts from one coast to the other, bought the mountain and named it after its most defining topographical feature: its canyons.

American Skiing immediately invested millions at the resort. They planned a pedestrian base village and installed a beautiful gondola that led up to a day lodge and a new mid-mountain beginners' area, which took skiers away from the main base's congestion and put them on more dependable snow. Then one lift after another either replaced old Park West chairs or broke ground east and south toward Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City Mountain Resort.

With all the changes, American Skiing probably really can call The Canyons the newest resort in the nation. While it was much more aesthetically pleasing, the mountain retained much of its old layout - like Deer Valley and Sundance, one can not really ski from the top of the mountain to the bottom without taking a lift up a stray hill somewhere in the middle. (Actually, you can ski top to bottom, but if you're not careful you end up on a beginners' trail called 'Walking Required.') However, there were no more gas station $14 lift tickets. Some season pass holders charged that the resort was so busy developing real estate and mammoth hotels that they could not get around to opening the resort's killer upper bowls. Soon, the place was being called Wolf Canyon West, and the phrase was not being used nicely.

I will also have to admit that my perception of the mountain, too, has not always been so great. Back in college I took a class called Snow and Avalanche Dynamics and in the class was a Park West patroller named Jeff. He was a great guy, and always set me up with free passes (at the time I could barely even afford to drive my old LandCruiser up the mountain, let alone fork over money for a pass). Jeff died in an avalanche a few years later, and for a long time I could not look at The Canyons and not think of him. Then, when The Canyons started building lifts into backcountry areas where I had used to hang out, I felt another twinge of pain. This morning I skied across a few rocky trails and paid $3.82 for a medium cola and a (brittle) cookie at the mid-mountain lodge.

But Wait!

Warning Sign Sitting outside the Sun Lodge, I was contemplating what to do. It was about 1, and I was thinking about heading home. I had tickets to a Sundance movie festival screening and wanted to have dinner and scrub the sunblock from my cheeks before I went out. But from where I was I had to take at least two more lifts to get back to the base (or face the dreaded 'Walking Required' ski trail). So I took the Snow Canyon Express, one of The Canyons' plethora of high speed lifts, and from there skied over to the Red Pine Lodge. I was going to take the Lookout lift to the Lookout Cabin and ski down from there, but as I was skiing towards the lodge I noticed the terrain park. A terrain park! How often does a telemarker get to hang out in a terrain park? It was empty, so I took the Saddleback Express, another high-speed lift, and headed in to the park.

If ParkWest made a name for itself by being a favorite with snowboarders, then The Canyons seems to have done nothing to change that. Though now the resort may be catering to boarders with a little more discretionary income, the place is still chock full of wall hits, half pipes and prime shredding terrain. Now, my 185 cm Tua telemark skis are not exactly terrain park material, but with no one watching I was able to fool myself into dip, roll and jump banditry.

After a few runs I totally forgot about going home. Soon I rode lift with a guy named Dave, who teaches snowboarding at the resort. Dave led me off a moguled run into a loose aspen forest blessed with shin-deep untracked snow. A few runs later, he showed me another treed powder run.

'What do you like about The Canyons?' I asked him. 'This lift,' he said.

I lost track of Dave for a few runs and went back to the terrain park, which by now had a handful of zit-faced teenagers that I had to elbow my way past to get to the jumps. Then Dave and I met again and we tackled a different mogul slope that led into more trees. He would ride ahead and point discreetly to where we were headed. Twenty turns later we would pop out of the trees onto the High Meadow beginner lift, covered with snow, panting and grinning from ear to ear.

Later I shared a lift with a man from New York, then a man from Los Angeles, then a Park City couple who had recently moved here from New York. We talked about our common love, The New York Times. They said Park City was a much better place to raise a family than Manhattan, snow notwithstanding. The other New Yorker and Californian said The Canyons was a true treat. They loved the place!

'You'd never find anything like this in California,' said the Californian. 'And if you did it would cost twice as much, be hours from an airport and be so crowded you wouldn't think you could breathe.'

Lift Ride 'You want me to compare this to Hunter Mountain,' asked the New Yorker incredulously, when I asked how the skiing was back in the Empire State. 'Have you ever skied in New York? It's not skiing, compared to this. I'm not even sure it's skiing.'

I headed back to the Saddleback for my 25th run of the day and as I got on the chair alone the liftie, who recognized me by now, said: 'Last run, right?'

It was 4 p.m., and the mountain was closing. I realized, as I rode up, that in the span of three hours I had had a complete attitude shift. The Canyons, after all I held against it, had won me over.

The Canyons, Collectively

At least 15 lifts including a people mover, a custom-painted gondola, and 5 high-speed four seaters
A plethora of on-mountain restaurants
Plenty of non-ski activities including ice skating
Spectacular on-mountain lodging

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