Skiing and snowboarding. It’s why people flock to Park City, for both vacations and, eventually, to live. But there’s another contingent of snow enthusiasts who prefer getting out there via horsepower versus chairlifts: snowmobilers. Last winter, we dispatched Austen Diamond to Daniels Summit Lodge, a snow machine–focused retreat located just 45 minutes from Park City, to find out more about snowmobiling’s allure. The weekend, which he describes in part as “equal parts G-force adrenaline dumps and doses of natural beauty,” is recounted in the following pages. Fair warning: after reading Diamond’s piece, don’t be surprised if you find yourself hanging up your boards and setting out on your own full-throttle adventure.
There are two important reasons to push your snow-munching hunk of metal, the Polaris 550 snowmobile, to full throttle. First, as you traverse the trails behind Daniels Summit Lodge at what feels like warp speed, the faster you go—ironically—the safer you are. (Be prepared, however, for your knuckles to whiten and your butt cheeks to clench while doing so for the first time.) And, second, when riding at a crawl, you’ll skunk anyone who might be fool enough to travel behind you. But I wouldn’t blame you for slowing down. The 40 miles of daily-groomed trails through aspen and pine forests surrounding Daniels Summit Lodge are chock-full of awe-inspiring nature moments and camera-worthy vistas at 10,000 feet above sea level.
Prior to last winter’s weekend excursion with my partner and another couple to Daniels Summit Lodge, none of us had ever hopped on a snowmobile. As avid skiers and snowboarders, we were rather ambivalent about the whole concept. What’s more, I have always preferred recreation that’s calorie-fueled rather than powered by dinosaur bones. So needless to say, I never thought I’d find myself in the mountains shredding pow on a motorized snow missile versus my skis. But now I see the allure, especially when it’s a weekend sabbatical that includes spa amenities, an on-site restaurant dishing out home cooking, and lots of cozy cabin vibes.
The midafternoon sunset gives way to a panoply of stars dancing over the Uinta Mountains as we arrive at Daniels Summit Lodge. The large log cabin resort rests high on a hill, poking the velveteen sky with an array of welcoming lights. A platter of still-warm chocolate chip cookies sits on the reception desk counter. We gratefully help ourselves as we wait for a large family from eastern Utah and a couple celebrating their anniversary to check in ahead of us.
The main lodge’s mountain-regal entryway sets the tone for the fun and relaxing weekend to come. The lodge’s common areas are decorated with an assortment of delightfully gaudy taxidermy, uncountable wooden bear carvings, and Native American–inspired trinkets. It’s not five-star swank but does provide an upscale rustic ambience brimming over with rural charm. After checking in, we sit by the great-room fireplace sipping whiskey out of mugs and playing checkers. Life is good. To ensure the appropriate alertness required for our Saturday snow day, we retire for the night far too early.
Hitting the Snow
The morning light creeps in through the glass balcony door. A thick blanket of fresh snow leads the eye to an aspen grove 100 yards away. The room is not short on views, and the comfy bed is hard to leave. But we dress and hastily head across the parking lot to the lodge’s general store to gear up and get the lowdown.
Snowmobiling, as it turns out, is a big deal in Utah. An estimated 26,000 snowmobilers in the state take to the trails from mid-November through April. The daily-groomed loop trail accessed from Daniels Summit welcomes beginning and advanced riders alike. Also accessible from the lodge are 200 more miles of trails and unbeatable off-trail riding throughout the Strawberry Valley.
We receive a paper map with highlighter marks to guide us and are given an instructional talk for approximately three minutes, and that’s it before we are thrown to the wolves on these massive machines. But we soon find out that’s all it really takes to get going.
After climbing up the first hill and taking a few turns on the freshly plowed cat track, I feel like we’ve basically graduated from novice to intermediate as we amp up to 30, then 40, and eventually 50 miles per hour. In the open glades, we fully open up the engines, unleashing all the horses. Ripping through a field of fresh powder, sliding out on a power turn, and hopping a little jump come quickly for our first time on snowmobiles. It feels so easy … until we get stuck.
As we head into our second field of fresh powder for the day, we realize that the advice about going fast to be safe is, in fact, accurate. Three members of our party go a little too slowly at one point, and their machines quickly get augered into the snow. After an hour of deliberation, problem solving, team building, snow digging, and taking advice from several other recreationists, we are free and in the clear. Onward!
That’s part of the fun of snowmobiling, I guess. There’s a camaraderie in the sport where people help others and freely give advice and pointers. It would be miserably cold and difficult to get stuck without help.
Time flies by almost as quickly as the scenery. Two hours feels like too little time to learn the mechanics of riding a snowmobile and to fully appreciate the scenery. (That, and we get stuck. Again.) We’re running way behind schedule and maybe less than halfway through the loop with only 30 minutes to go before we’re supposed to return the machines, so we decide to stick to the trails and put the pedal to the metal, so to speak. No stops for photos or diversions, just hair-raising speed to get back on time, foregoing the entire loop. All in all, we do cover a lot of ground, and it’s obvious that the guided and unguided rides at Daniels Summit make the inaccessible accessible for many people who wouldn’t otherwise head out into nature.
Along the way, two of us take a wrong turn behind the others and make it to the peak. Breathtaking, expansive views of the valley below include the wondrous ridges of the Wasatch Back and the Uinta Mountains. While speeding along and swerving on snow was fun, it’s here that the experience really comes together and makes it all worthwhile. We take it in and then push it extra hard to rejoin the group and be on time for our massages.
The Icing on the Cake
You come to Daniels Summit for the snowmobiling and stick around for the … spa treatments? Indeed, two masseuses are on hand for our couples’ massages when we arrive at the on-site day spa that afternoon. In addition to a full menu of treatments from massages to body wraps, there’s a heated indoor pool and hot tub for further relaxing. After a soak, I highly recommend donning a robe and sipping a cold one on your room’s balcony as the sun casts a golden glow on the mountainous forest behind the lodge.
Now, here’s a true confession: The second-most fun we had all weekend was playing old-school arcade games in a game room below the bar. We made quick work of a roll or two of quarters, gleefully playing the shoot ’em-up games of our youth, along with Mortal Kombat, billiards, and more. Since we didn’t get in enough snowmobiling during our two-hour session, there was, luckily, a snowmobile arcade game, too. We could have stayed for hours, but the dinner bell was ringing.
Generous portions of hearty, no-nonsense fare sums up the lodge’s restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try a chili-topped omelet to warm up before venturing out in the morning, a salmon Caesar salad for a lighter lunch, or a massive rib-sticking rib eye for dinner, which our server said is the house special.
Sipping on a cold draft beer and indulging in a satisfying dinner, we relive the moments of our snowmobiling breakthrough, chuckling at the silly moments and clinking glasses to future adventures. It’s a wonderful way to end a fun-filled weekend. Did I expect to have such a good time snowmobiling? No. A better question is, did I think I’d ever go snowmobiling in the first place? Again, no. Would I go back? Heck yes!
Know Before You Snow
Make the most of your weekend trip with these helpful tips.
Pack your second-string snow gear. Your high-performance, technical alpine clothing will be overkill for this sport. What’s more, you’ll probably leave smelling of exhaust, which won’t be fun next weekend at Deer Valley. So pack your old jacket and snow pants, so long as both will keep you warm and dry, and leave the good stuff at home.
Don’t forget a book and games. While snowmobiling is fun and exciting, you’ll likely hit the trails for only a few hours during one day of your trip, which leaves lots of downtime in a cozy, remote setting; a rare opportunity to catch up on R&R, read a book, and play board and card games with the fam.
Bring your own booze and snacks.
While the on-site restaurant does serve a limited selection of wine and beer, room service is not an option, so bring your craft brews and bubbles to enjoy on the deck during sunset. Also, the store has typical gas station fare, so if you’re picky in the slightest or a health food fanatic, bring your own snacks.
Plan for a snowshoe or cross-country ski. Enjoy more time outdoors by venturing out onto the ample trails in the nearby Uinta Mountains. Daniels Summit does not rent snowshoes or cross-country ski equipment, so gear up for the weekend at a Park City–based outfitter before you come, who can also direct you to the best trails for your adventure.
Daniels Summit Lodge (17000 US Route 40, Heber City, 800.519.9969) is located about 35 miles from Park City. Take US 40 eastbound toward Heber City. Drive through Heber and then continue up a moderate incline for about 30 miles. Daniels Summit Lodge is at the top of the mountain on the right and is hard to miss. Self-guided snowmobile tours are $169 for two hours, $199 for a half day (four hours), and $249 for a full day (nine hours); reservations required. Guided two-hour tours leave at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and cost $189; reservations required. Check the website for stay/snowmobile packages and individual room rates, which vary throughout the season.
Park City–area Snowmobile Outfitters
Daniels Summit Lodge isn’t the only outfitter and guide service in the area. Following are a few more options to choose from, both nearby and farther afield.
- Backcountry Snowmobiling, Coalville, 435.336.7669
- Destination Sports and Adventures, Park City, 435.649.8092
- Lofty Peaks Adventures and Snowmobiling, Midway, Snowbird & Park City, 435.654.5810
- Midway Adventure Company, Midway, 435.657.2008
- Rocky Mountain Adventures, Oakley, 435.645.7256
- Red Pine Adventures, Park City, 435.649.9445
- Rocky Mountain Outfitters, Midway, 435.654.1655
- Summit Meadows Adventures, Deer Valley Resort, 435.645.7669
- Thousand Peaks, Park City, 888.304.7669
- Uinta Recreation, Heber City, 801.613.0288
- Wasatch Adventure Guides, Park City, 435.200.4885
- Wasatch Excursions, Wasatch Mountain State Park, 435.729.9595