They called us crazy for taking three kids (ages 9, 12, and 14) on a 2,000-mile road trip to Park City, Utah, in a Honda CR-V — a vehicle without a third row of seats. But, we conquered the miles traversing over parts of the Oregon Trail, munching carrots and hummus (Healthy Mom prevailed for the first half of the trip), and listening to audio books. Along the way, we discovered some quirky finds and hit the jackpot with our week in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
We rolled into Park City like we’d personally conquered the Oregon Trail, desperate to stretch our legs and eat something other than veggies and hummus. Park City is a skier’s paradise in the winter, but summer offers many great activity options, as well as some excellent lodging deals. We went all in with a Natural Retreats (formerly Resorts West) property located near the Silver Star lift base. Natural Retreats offers stellar concierge services that include everything from grocery shopping to childcare, even in-home spa treatments or culinary lessons — basically, only lift as many fingers as you desire. Our 4-bedroom “cottage” was a four-story, 4,000-square-foot, slope-side dwelling with views to the sun rising in the east and, most importantly to my kids, a private elevator (I’m fairly certain they didn’t use the stairs during our entire stay). Just down the hill, at the hub of Silver Star, the community boasts a pool, restaurants, and several shops. We took the night off and headed to the Silver Star Café, where we sat on the patio overlooking the golf course and watched the sun paint the sky while we sipped on some well-earned cocktails (probably a Shirley Temple or two for the kids), and let the vacation vibe truly begin.
But First…Avocado Toast
Before launching into the vast array of activities available in Park City, let us address how to start each day. Leisure is the recommended morning activity, and it begins with coffee (smoothies for the kids) at Atticus Coffee and Teahouse, named for Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” My favorite drink, The Finch, is a small, cinnamon-dusted Cuban-style latte. Need something that screams “nourishment”? Five5eeds is the spot — Smashed Avo on Toast with savory pickled onions and beets, feta, and mint; an acai bowl; Moroccan baked eggs. Located in the same parking lot is Wasatch Bagel and Grill — popular with the kids who aren’t as sold on the avocado toast trend. But back to avocado toast — get a great version (beet hummus, goat cheese, micro greens) plus a lovely view at Deer Valley Grocery Café sitting out on the deck overlooking the pond. A person could indulge with a plate of polenta French toast or strawberry fritters at Riverhorse Provisions, but after an order of Fresh Made Avocado Toast topped with egg, heirloom tomato, pea shoots, and chipotle aioli, who has room?
Life (or Death) Lessons on a Bike
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) named Park City its first Gold Level Ride Center, thanks to its network of more than 400 miles of public access trails. Expertly planned and maintained, these trails include a huge range of experiences, from low-angle single-track-dominated open spaces like Round Valley to lift-served downhill thrill rides at East Old Town (Deer Valley Resort). A total novice (read: scared out of my mind), I needed professional help. The experts at White Pine Touring had me fitted up with my wheeled, metal steed in no time. Normally, I hate being talked into “extras,” but purchasing my very own pair of highly unfashionable padded chamois bike shorts was the best move of the day.
I like to think of myself as relatively fit, but mountain biking kicked my padded behind. Obviously, the roughly 7,000 feet of elevation played huge role. Red-faced and white knuckled, I slowly learned to trust the bike as my patient guides repeated their mantra, “Stay loose.”
At Deer Valley, I loaded my bike onto the lift and enjoyed the scenic ride up the Wasatch Express — aspen trees fluttering, craggy peaks soaring. Downhill was going to be a total breeze compared to the agony of propelling my bike up those low-angle beginner tracks at Round Valley … says no one who has ever mountain biked before. “Let’s hit Holy Roller,” they said. “It’s brand new and super fun,” they said.
Only my guide, Scotty House, and I know the truly unholy things that escaped my mouth that day as I faced the real likelihood that it might be my last. I was one left-brake-squeeze away from careening face-first over my handlebars, probably into a granite-filled abyss. “Stay loose!” I heard from behind as I hit the rollers after a hairpin turn. When the lift base finally came into view, I practically burst into tears (OK; it was definitely ugly-face sobbing) at the sheer relief of being alive. As my imminent heart attack subsided to mere “cardiac incident” levels, House rolled to a stop, grinning and, like the world’s happiest golden retriever emerging from a lake after a game of fetch, said, “Let’s go again! This time, stay loose.” My reply may have consisted of [insert unholy language here], but I was already loading my bike back on the lift. Challenge accepted. And, I’m happy to report: Julie vs. Holy Roller Round 2 was thrilling — in a good way. Death retreated back to his lair as my bike and I became one. Optimal looseness achieved.
Later that evening, as we sat on the hillside at a Deer Valley Music Festival concert listening to the warbling remnants of The Beach Boys sing about how they “get around,” I couldn’t help but nod in agreement — loose girls really do have more fun.
A Fine Line Between Fun and Paralyzing Fear
The Utah Olympic Park was constructed for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. During the summer, ski jumpers practice their flips and twists, finishing with a splash into a large pool at the bottom of the runs. We toured the interactive ski museum and rode the zip lines. For an additional fee, we could have taken a run down the bobsled track. But once the kids spied the ropes courses, the family bobsled dreams were abandoned. Weighed and fitted with helmets and harnesses, the kids and I climbed up into the intermediate-level Discovery Adventure Course. My older kids blazed the trail (though fire metaphors on a ropes course seem like the wrong literary direction). Some of the sections were a breeze; others had us assessing our convoluted decision-making skills that considered walking a tightrope, as a good way to spend the morning. Of course, that quirky flaw of selective memory (that can also be credited with the decision to go through childbirth a second time) prevailed, and we immediately ascended to the advanced-level Summit Course upon survival victorious completion of Discovery. Fear and adrenaline burned as many calories as our straining muscles. Fortunately, Riverhorse Provisions delivers when you call ahead. Once again, I found myself celebrating the miracle of not having died, which incidentally makes BBQ ribs taste even more amazing.
Life Elevated: Hiking the Uintas
After conditioning our sea-level hearts to the rigors of mile-high activities at full throttle, we slowed the pace and upped the altitude with a hike in Utah’s Uinta (pronounced you-IN-tuh) Mountains, about 40 miles east of Park City on UT-150. The highway first passes Kamas, then its counterpoint Samak, where we stopped to grab our pre-ordered boxed lunches at Samak Smoke House — home of amazing sandwiches; jerky; signature smoked trout; and the best hiking snack on the planet, known as Samak Stickies (homemade bars loaded with peanut butter, honey, and granola). Starting at 10,000 feet above sea level, the Crystal Lake Trail is a beautiful 7-mile loop with moderate elevation gain, making it family-friendly. Views of The Notch, sweeping vistas, flower-carpeted meadows, and lakes rewarded us at every turn.
Splashing Down with a SUP Lesson
We peeled off our sweaty socks and traded our dirty clothes for swimsuits in the Jordanelle State Park bathrooms located on the western shore of the Jordanelle Reservoir, just 10 miles from Park City. We were going to wash off some of the hiking dust with an afternoon SUP boarding lesson taught by Mountain Vista Touring’s Alisha Niswander. We slathered on another layer of sunscreen and found her pumping up the inflatable boards by her truck, looking nervously out at the whitecaps blowing in from the east. Sometimes it gets windy in these parts during the afternoon — like, very windy. I barely powered my board around the swim area and glanced back to see the rest of the family struggling against the gale. The lifeguard was pointlessly reminding us to stay out of the swim area as if my kids were somehow capable of directing the boards elsewhere. The relentless wind eventually blew us all into a little sandy cove, where everyone was just as happy to soak in the warm shallow water. SUP Board Lessons: nailed it!
And Finally…the Silent Stranger
Utah may be high and dry in some respects, but Park City claims more than 100 bars and one well-regarded distillery, High West. Flights of the award-winning whiskeys are a great way to go, but I was in the mood for a Silent Stranger — a refreshing summer concoction of High West American Prairie bourbon, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, kabosu juice, ponzu, cucumbers, and watermelon. Some menu items rotate seasonally, though the shishito peppers seem to be a mainstay, served as a duo of roasted and tempura fried with honey glaze. The rest of the menu is a combination of elevated comfort food (elk chili, bison burger, chicken schnitzel) and “wine country” classics like the cheese and charcuterie boards. No avocado toast in sight.
Well-versed with Riverhorse Provisions, we also had a wonderful meal at its upscale mothership, called Riverhorse on Main. Other standout restaurants include The Farm at Canyons Village and Handle located on Heber Avenue downtown.
Stops and Roadside Attractions
First coffee break: North Town Coffeehouse in Yakima, with lots of space to stretch out and Italian sodas for the kids (yes; even at 9 a.m. — this is vacation!). northtowncoffee.com
Teapot Dome Gas Station: Zillah’s National Historic Site, the iconic red and white teapot-shaped building was constructed in 1922 during the Harding Administration Teapot Dome Scandal. Yeah; we don’t remember that one either, but the Zillah Teapot is definitely worth a quick stop. cityofzillah.us/teapot.html
Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: Remnants of the Oregon Trail abound in Eastern Oregon (really; it is the ONLY thing in the vast expanse of Eastern Oregon), but this is the museum to visit, complete with re-created wagon circle, ruts from the original trail, and indoor life-size depictions of life on the trail. Don’t forget your commemorative bonnet in the gift shop. trailtenders.org
Boise Greenbelt: Consider an overnight stay in Boise to take advantage of 10 miles of paved pathways lining the Boise River. Rent some bikes from Boise Bike Rentals, and download the Bike Scavenger Hunt to keep the kids engaged. parks.cityofboise.org and boiseriversidebikerentals.com
Idaho Joe’s: We were looking for a lunch break after we crossed the stunning Perrine Memorial Bridge into Twin Falls, Idaho, and we found what can only be described as the most authentic diner in the state — Idaho Joe’s. Yes; there are potatoes on the menu. And pie — lots of it. idahojoes.com
Middle of Nowhere Gas Station: About 25 miles north of the Utah border in Malta, Idaho, we stopped at the aptly named Sinclair fuel station, filled up the car, and fed the llamas. Are we there yet?