While the 2010 Winter Olympics roar ahead in Vancouver, Canada, it's easy to forget how dramatically the last North American Winter Olympics played out on the white slopes and stunning landscape of Park City, Utah, in 2002. The Utah Olympic Park is still there on a mountainside outside of town, now the U.S. training center for American winter Olympic athletes and one of the best destination bets in winter and summer both
Some of the fun is pricey -- $200 per person to ride in the four-man Olympic bobsled at speeds of up to 80 mph with up to 5 G's of force in the 15 curves. The sleds of course are driven by professionals including Pat Brown, a former Olympian and famous as the Jamaican bobsled team protrayed by John Candy in the movie Cool running (the clownish amateurism of the Jamacian athletes, the slobbish obesity of the Candy character and much of the rest of the story completely fabricated, according to Brown).
In summer, the bobsleds run on wheels and go a mite slower, up to 70 mph and 4 G's. Winter and summer, the public can also ride the world's steepest zipline, the Xtreme Zipline, 1,454 feet down above the Olympic slopes; or the Quicksilver Autoboggan, rocketing down the mountainside on a stainless steel track.
Nobody has to go Xtreme to enjoy the park, of course. Admission is free to the park's Joe Quinney Sports Center, including the Alf Engen Ski Museum, the 2002 Eccles Olympic Winter Games Museum, with a museum shop and theater.
The park's 45-minute guided tours (just $7 per person for adults with price breaks for the young and old, families and groups) are often guided by former Olympic athletes who know what they're talking about and have plenty of illuminating "war stories" to share. Visitors are bused to interesing points on the tour, where they get out to take a closer look, at the top of the bobsled, luge and skeleton track, for example, fastest on Earth until the 2010 Olympic track in Vancouver (which only beats it by a second or two anyway).
The tour visits the giddy heights at the top of the world's highest Nordic ski jumps and the bottom of the freestyle aerial jumps, and at all of these points visitors may see athletes in training for Olympics and other compeitions. In summer, for example, the Nordic ski jumps are still busy, with athletes skiing and landing on slopes of synthetic material suffused with running water. The bobsled, luge and skeletons used for training in summer run on wheels. And the aerial freestylists end their flight in a pool of water.
Frestyle aerial jumping was once banned from the Olympics because of all the hideous spinal and other injuries that can happen when the athletes soar tumbling and spinning up to 60 feet in the air before slamming down on the slope. Now it's back, thanks to the ability to train by landing in a pools like the 750,000-gallon splash pool at the bottom of the freestyle jumps at the Utah Olympic Park.
It's hit or miss whether visitors get to watch the awe-inspiring sight of these athletes in training, but in summer the public can make sure to see a good show by attending the Flying Ace All-Stars Freesyle Show on Saturdays.
Best of all, the Utah Olympic Park is just one of the attractions in one of the nation's most scenic venues. Park City itself, home to the famous Sundance Film Festival when celebrities swarm like cockroaches, is an old mining town with quaint and narrow streets lined by 19th Century buildings. The historic streets today are gussied up to an unearthly level of old-western charm, fine dining and fancy shopping.
And of course, there is the skiing. When people talk about winter fun in Park City, Utah, they're really talking about a tight cluster of 11 ski resorts within one hour's drive by car -- or by the regular-running buses from the airport -- from Salt Lake City up into the Wasatch Mountains.
Park City is especially congenial for folks from the Denver area, since it's at most a 7-hour drive, up to I-80 and along the bottom of Wyoming, so Coloradans don't have to suffer the hell of winter holiday air travel. And they can bring along a lot more junk than on a plane.
Skiiers and snowboarders come here for the famous "Champagne Powder" snow of this dry air environment, where the westerly winds winds come up the mountains from the Great Salt Lake desert basin. There's cross country skiing, huge tubing hills and plenty of other winter fun.
Summer may be an even better time to visit Park City, especially for those who don't care that much for snow and winter sports. Even at the Utah Olympic Park, it's a lot more fun riding the Xtreme Zipline when the wind isn't driving snow in one's face.
Summer lodgings, for one thing, can drop as much as 75 percent from the winter peak prices. Visitors can still ride the ski lifts in summer for the views and mountain-top hiking, or just the pleasant experience of hiking downhill and not up. At three of the ski areas -- Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley Resort and The Canyons Resort -- mountain bikers can take their bikes up the lift with them for a one-way downhill ride or a selection of high-altitude biking trails
Park City knows how to provide plenty of events for summer as well as winter visitors, with bike races or cross-country runs nearly every weekend and relentless festivals and cultural events.
Utah has come along way from its alcohol-prohibiting past, a development owing much, some say, to the cries of outrage from European and other visitors to the 2002 Winter Olympics. People driving from Denver no longer have to stop in Wyoming on the way to load up on beer and wine and booze.
If one is in Park City's restaurants scanning the beers on the menu, however, it's a good idea to ask which are alcohol-weeak 3.2 beer and which are real beer. People are often surprised when they order a familiar beer and find it's watered down. Of course, up there in the mountains, it's always good for visitors from sea level to take in plenty of extra water.