At first glance, Park City is intimidating for a mountain biker because the scale is so grand that around every corner there seems to be more lifts, lodges, hotels, condos, restaurants, stores more of everything.
And thats because there is, but thats part of the fun.
If youre doing a mountain biking road trip, you get to go big, and when your legs wear out, and I assure you they will, the next phase of the trip begins.
MOUNTAIN BIKING DESTINATION
Park City is a town that has three resorts nearby, and to make matters a little confusing, one of them is named Park City Mountain Resort. The other two are Deer Valley and Canyons.
Throughout the vast expanse of terrain collectively known as Park City is an extensive network of trails that earned the International Mountain Bike Associations first and only Gold Level status in the world.
The rating is based on more than trails. It takes into account how well the trail networks fit together and how other amenities, such as restaurants and entertainment, complement the mountain biking.
It all stems from a commitment to master planning, IMBAs website says. The sheer miles of trails are fantastic, but whats really important is that they function as a cohesive network, with signage and trail connections that create a model riding area.
While the scale can be intimidating, getting started riding in Park City doesnt have to be.
CONSIDER A GUIDE
Id never hired a guide for mountain biking. Its typically not my style, and in Idaho, rarely an option.
But riding with guides has benefits, especially if its your first time to the area.
Scott House, a mountain bike guide for White Pine Touring, recommends starting at the Round Valley Trail System near the town of Park City. It includes about 20 miles of singletrack in the rolling sagebrush hills at lower elevation.
The trails will also give you a good feel for the kinds of trails you will experience elsewhere.
You can get directions to Round Valley trails and a map at mountaintrails.org.
The value of a guide is their knowledge of the vast trail system, and if youre honest about your skill level and fitness, they will take you on a ride thats a good fit for you.
I say honest because Ive been riding for about 20 years and trained hard before my trip to Park City earlier in August, so I checked expert on White Pines questionnaire.
To put that in perspective, I can ride more than 20 miles of trails and tackle fairly challenging terrain that includes several thousand vertical feet of climbing.
But when House, who is a tireless and highly skilled rider, described himself as an advanced intermediate, I quickly realized I was trying to fight above my weight class.
House took our group on trails that were well matched to our skill and fitness level. They were challenging, but not overwhelming.
House said the guides are not trying to keep their favorite trails a secret. He and his fellow guides will take you on cool trails and learn your riding preferences, and then recommend other trails you should ride when youre on your own.
They want you to enjoy Park City, and equally important, come back and bring your riding buddies.
House led the way on our first ride in Park City on a trail called Flying Dog, a public trail near a neighborhood.
It was a cool introduction considering Park City has three world-class resorts that cater to mountain bikers. It showed you dont have to do the resort scene to enjoy some great mountain biking in the area.
We rode a 15-mile cross-country loop that was similar to Boises Foothills riding, but with more trees and more character.
The trail covered a mix of open slopes and aspen groves with equal parts sun and shade.
It was more rocky than Foothills hard pack, but it had that magical word mountain bikers are uttering these days flow.
You could lay off the brakes for a few turns and get into a groove, but it was technical enough you didnt just mindlessly let your bike wander.
Afterward, we hit Park Citys Trailside Park, a riding area similar to the Eagle Bike Park.
It had jumps, bermed corners and a pump track adjacent to covered picnic areas and playing fields.
SAY GOODBYE TO DIRTBAG CAMPING
A ski vacation has long been a tradition, and it usually includes renting condos or rooms at lodges, dining out and living the good life.
The tradition of a mountain biking vacation tends to be a bunch of guys (or gals) loading a vehicle with bikes and gear and camping near prime mountain biking trails.
Resort mountain biking blends the ski vacation with the mountain biking road trip.
You get to leave the camping gear at home, and you can take a shower after every ride, get a good meal, and if the mood suits you, ease into a hot tub or swimming pool when youre done riding.
Park City is a pretty posh place, and at first glance, it may not seem a good fit for dirty, dusty mountain bikers. But dont be deceived.
Kelley Davidson runs the Austrian-style Goldener Hirsch Inn, a luxurious, 20-room boutique hotel that looks more like a place you would spend your honeymoon than crashing at after a dusty day of mountain biking.
Lots of people feel that way, but we really make it a point to connect with all our guests, Davidson said. We talk about bikes, and we talk about riding.
He will store your bike in a safe place, and even provide a place to wash and work on it.
The silver-gray, 67-year-old might even show you his favorite trails because hes also an avid mountain biker.
RIDING THE RESORTS
While it will cost more than camping, there are other advantages to dropping your coin on a mountain bike vacation at a resort.
Because Park City is a ski town that gets the bulk of its visitors during winter, summer is technically the off season.
Rates at resorts reflect it, and they offer lots of lodging-and-lift deals, and some also include discounts on dining and other activities.
Resorts may also offer free shuttles and other perks for guests.
Unlike winter and its unpredictable weather, you dont have to pray for a powder day or worry about icy slopes.
Trail conditions are pretty consistent during summer, and the weather is usually predictable. If you get hit with an unexpected rainstorm, its short-lived, and it brings welcome cool temperatures and knocks down the dust.
Lift-served biking means you dont have to be in top shape, and if you are, there are plenty of places to ride where you dont need a lift ticket.
Pass prices for biking are a fraction of what you would pay for skiing.
Park Citys trails are far from crowded, even during summer. With fall approaching, there will be even fewer riders there.
THIS IS GOING TO BE EPIC
Epic may be an overused term in the mountain biking world. It describes a long ride, a hard ride, or maybe just a really scenic ride.
But when you really ride an epic trail, you know it. You swoop through the forest like a guided missile, your bike rolling the contours without brakes or pedaling, and you catch yourself going effortlessly faster until a tight corner comes up.
Hard right, House yelled, and he meant it. The trail doubled back on itself, as he had forewarned, and then the fun began all over again.
The trail was called Ewok Forest, and it was the kind I had hoped to find there. Its not that the other trails we rode were boring, or too rough, or too anything else.
But a trail like Ewok recalibrates your fun gauge and raises your expectations.
Park Citys vast trail network means you can expect anything, and at least a little of everything.
Its mountainous, so you will encounter some steep, rocky, technical sections. Youre in a dense forest, so you will encounter roots in the trail, and there are tree trunks on tight corners that try to snag your bars.
The slopes are covered with ridges and draws, so even though you may be losing elevation, you will still climb some short pitches.
The combination means even if youre riding the lifts, dont always expect a downhill cruise.
Deer Valleys mountain bike manager Steve Graff describes its terrain as lift-assisted cross country riding, and its a pretty darned accurate description.
In three days of biking, we covered about 55 miles of trails, and we only rode chairlifts twice and did one shuttle.
If youre interested in strictly gravity riding, you have that option, too. Ride the gondola at Canyons and go to Red Pine Lodge.
It provides riders who prefer long-travel suspension and full-face helmets and pads a place to let those bikes scream downhill, as well as hit jumps, drops, berms, etc. without worrying about encountering hikers.
You can get a single-ride on the gondola at Canyons for $15, or a full-day lift pass for the bike park for $29. Park City Mountain Resort charges $12 for a single ride and $21 for an all-day pass.
PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER
With a trail system so vast and linked, you can be creative with your riding. You can park a vehicle at the base of one lift, ride it up the mountain, ride into a different drainage, drop into an entirely separate resort, or even into Park City itself, then ride a free city bus back to where you started.
Just make sure you know the route. You could get stuck in no-mans land and wonder how youre going to get out of there.
Its unlikely youre going to be completely stranded, but dont expect a patroller to come riding to the rescue. Did I mention there are 400 miles of trails?
When youre out there, youre mostly on your own, so make sure you know where youre going.
On the other hand, most trails are well-marked and have good bail-out options. There are numerous roads that intersect trails. If you get lost, jump on a road and head downhill. Civilization is never far away.
Park City means you get to roll your own mountain biking adventure. If you want to ride cross country, bomb your downhill rig, dine on the slopes midride, or go explore trails in the suburbs or backcountry, the vast trail network gives you all those options.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors