HEBER CITY, Utah - This is a place that truly lives up to its motto: "European charm. Western adventure." It's where Swiss Miss meets Buffalo Bill. You can stay at a Swiss-style luxury lodge and catch a cowboy poetry jam after dining on wild boar at a local restaurant. Or you can ski or snowmobile in the "Utah Alps," as the surrounding mountains are called, ride an old steam train through ranchland, and take a dip in a thermal crater.
Sleepy Heber Valley, ringed by the Uinta and Wasatch mountains in north-central Utah, lies 15 minutes south of trendy Park City and 20 minutes north of Provo. Most of the area's 15,000 residents live in Heber City, a 3 1/2-square-mile community that's known for its railway, cowboy events, and award-winning burger and shake joint called Dairy Keen. Midway, a Swiss-settled village three miles down the road, is home to a Swiss festival each fall and to Soldier Hollow, the Nordic venue for the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
By the locals and the relatively few visitors who have discovered it, Heber Valley is known for its access to the outdoors and its affordability. You can reach eight of Utah's top ski resorts within an hour - including Deer Valley, Park City, The Canyons, Sundance, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, and Brighton - while spending significantly less on meals and accommodations than in neighboring resort towns. Even the Zermatt Resort and Spa, a new four-star property in Midway, has nightly rates as low as $150 in winter.
Although Heber Valley may be worlds away from Park City culturally, only a few miles separate the two. Ten minutes north of Heber City is the Deer Crest entrance to Park City's Deer Valley Resort, where the Jordanelle Express Gondola whisks skiers (no snowboarders allowed) to the summit of 7,950-foot Little Baldy Peak, one of the resort's six mountains. It may feel like you're slipping in through a back door since it's rare to see a line at the ticket window or gondola, but this typically quiet entrance is open to the public.
From Little Baldy summit, you can follow intermediate trails around some of the area's multimillion-dollar mountainside homes or traverse the heart of the resort along beginner runs, and then take your pick of trails around the area's many peaks, canyons, bowls, and chutes. You'll find groomed and ungroomed terrain, easy cruisers, open glades dotted with aspens, and black-diamond runs that were the stage for several Olympic events in 2002.
Midway's Soldier Hollow has 31 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiers and a biathlon range. Visitors can test their skills as biathletes by skiing or snowshoeing around a 300-meter course and then shooting pellets at a target with air rifles that were used in the Paralympic Games. During a lesson, participants learn how to load and operate the rifles and how to hit a target after a sprint around the course.
"We like them to know what it feels like to shoot a target when their heart is pumping at 150 beats a minute and their rifle is bouncing up and down," says Gary Pierce, 63, a biathlete and Soldier Hollow ski instructor. "That's the whole trick to biathlon, getting that rifle steady when your heart rate is up so high."
Those who appreciate the thrill of sledding can head to Soldier Hollow's snow-tubing center next door. Here, a tow lift pulls riders and their inflatable tubes to the top of a 1,200-foot hill, where they have their choice of six lanes to descend.
You can reach Soldier Hollow in a car or on the Heber Valley Railroad, a train affectionately known as the Heber Creeper.
"The original locomotive went so slow, back in 1899, the joke was that a couple got married [on the train] in Provo and had their first baby before they made it [to Heber City]," says Craig Lacey, the railroad's executive director.
Today, a century-old steam engine pulls restored coach cars, dating from 1909 to 1930, between Heber City and Provo Canyon year-round, a 16-mile trip each way. The journey offers stunning views of the Provo River, Deer Creek Reservoir, Mount Timpanogos, and the glacier-carved canyon.
For higher-speed action, tour the area by snowmobile. Heber Valley has hundreds of miles of groomed trails and more than 100,000 acres of off-trail playgrounds. You can explore forested routes, buzz around alpine meadows, or climb to many of the area's scenic peaks. The terrain suits all abilities, offering everything from wide-open, level paths to steep, narrow ridges with plunging drop-offs.
Four snowmobile operators run guided tours in the valley, although Lofty Peaks Adventures is the only licensed operator in Wasatch Mountain State Park. The company leads one-hour to full-day tours for beginners and experts in this 60,000-acre wilderness, offering information about the area's wildlife and mining history. All outfitters provide helmets (bring your own goggles or sunglasses) and rent snowmobile suits, bibs, and boots.
You have several options for soothing weary muscles after a rigorous ride in the wilds of the Wasatch range. The Homestead Resort in Midway runs an Aveda spa, where you can revitalize yourself with a deep-tissue massage. Or you can float, soak, swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in one of the area's most unusual spots: the Homestead's thermal crater. This natural mineral water "hot pot," as it's called, measures 65 feet deep and 60 feet wide, and is located inside an 11,000-year-old, chiseled-out rock dome that's reached through a tunnel. The water inside the crater remains between 94 and 98 degrees year-round and contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other healthy minerals.
Don't skip town without a visit to Dairy Keen, a family-owned Heber City landmark that boasts arguably the best burgers and shakes in Utah. As the story goes, in 1968 the restaurant's owners wanted to turn their property, a former Dairy Queen, into a fast-food restaurant, but they didn't have the money to buy a new sign. Their solution: Change the "Qu" to "K" and call the place Dairy Keen.
It is known for its thick shakes in flavors like banana cream pie, pi??a colada, and chocolate-dipped strawberry (think chocolate fondue). Even Dairy Keen's menu reflects the area's blend of Western and European: You can get a hearty ranch burger smothered in melted Swiss cheese, or a big bowl of cowboy chili with a side of some of the tastiest Swiss bread in the valley.
Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at email@example.com.