Peter O’Dowd saddles up at a luxury ranch where riding, shooting and fishing meet friendly competition
Out here, in Utah’s eastern Summit County, my old boots hook into the stirrups just like they’re supposed to. I’m on the back of a stubborn golden mare called Oakley. Jeff rides Pobre. And David’s struggling with a beast whose name I can never remember.
“It’s Cherokee,” David tells me for the fifth time. The three of us are old friends, normally scattered by a thousand miles or more. But on this unusually hot day, we’re finally together again at Blue Sky Utah, a 3,500-acre ranch of mostly undeveloped wilderness.
All three of us are a little shaky in our saddles as we climb a ridgeline in the Wasatch Range. The Kamas Valley is laid out below. The Rockport Reservoir, recently thawed, shimmers in the distance. When our retinue crosses Alexander Creek, Oakley dips her nose into the swollen stream to drink. I dig my heels into her flank. Nothing. She must know I live in the city.
From this vantage point, Blue Sky is laid out like an aerial map. Just behind us, we can see the first of several yurts that are under construction. David has a vision for when they’re finished: coming back to use them as home base for a winter alpine touring expedition.
Down below, past a carpet of sage and scrub oak and along the banks of the creek, is where the 46-room boutique hotel and spa will go. Spread over 35 acres, the design elements will be a sophisticated reflection of the resort’s surroundings: rock, glass, steel and leather.
“No elk antlers. No Navajo rugs. No saddles,” says Stuart Campbell, Blue Sky’s chief operating officer. “This is not a dude ranch.” Campbell describes it as an alternative to Park City. Just two exits away on Interstate 80, the famous mountain town is becoming a victim of its own success.
Last winter, nearly 40,000 tourists packed into Park City and surrounding areas for the annual Sundance Film Festival. The place is undeniably gorgeous, but it has also learned to dish out Western kitsch as if it were a commodity, packaged and sterile. “It’s a ski area and a cowboy bar,” Campbell says. “That’s not a real mountain experience. But up here, it’s wild and huge.”
This sounds right to the three of us. We’re not exactly Marlboro men and that’s why Blue Sky’s formula of rugged luxury works for us. Tonight we’ll drive into Park City in an SUV, eat braised pork ribs and rip through the cocktail menu. Time has not yet been unkind, but miraculously our 20s, and now most of our 30s, have vanished. We are forging careers and starting families. Life has accelerated and it’s sent us on divergent paths.
Up here, things feel strangely back to normal.
“Don’t shoot!” David’s 20-gauge is pointed skyward when a hummingbird flits over to inspect the opening of the barrel. Just as quickly, it’s gone.
“Pull!” Now two clay pigeons are sledding through the sky. One overhead. The other slipping away to David’s right. He has to pull the trigger soon. Boom! One clay explodes. The other falls limply to the ground. Blue Sky’s sporting clay range is designed to take advantage of the terrain.
The shooting platforms are dug into the mountain — hidden in the valleys between small outcroppings — to keep shotgun blasts from bothering guests.
We’re at the course’s marquee stop, the Five Stand, where up to five competitors can test their shooting skills at the same time. In the winter, the flaps come down over the structure’s frame and a wood stove keeps the trigger finger warm.
Campbell, whose career has included stints with casino magnate Steve Wynn and Aman Resorts, is a man trained to cultivate the right details. “Go to a luxury chain hotel anywhere in the world, and I guarantee the bellman will be trained to greet you in exactly the same way using the exact same words,” he says.
But Campbell’s mission is to incorporate the experience with the place. To that end, Blue Sky has staked a claim on one of Utah’s fastest-growing brands. The High West Distillery opened in 2009, becoming the state’s first legal distillery in more than 130 years. With its Park City headquarters booming, it partnered with Blue Sky to build an expansive new tasting room and distillery on resort property.
High West’s operations manager, Evan Ross, shows us the new 1,600-gallon copper still and then brings us into a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with barrels. The air is pregnant with something called the angel’s share. I had never heard of this, but the noses on my more refined drinking buddies knew it instantly. As the whiskey ages for a minimum of two years, it takes on the deep caramel colors of the wood. But a small amount also slowly seeps through the permeable American white oak barrels and evaporates toward the heavens. “It’s our tax to the angels,” Ross says.
In fact, the distiller’s Rendezvous Rye does feel inspired by the spirit gods. In the High West saloon, our bartender pairs it with reposado tequila, lime juice and ginger beer to make a cocktail that’s aptly named Dead Man’s Boots — drink too many of these and you’ll lose your shoes.
The next morning we shake off a high-altitude hangover. The clouds hang low and gray. We’re at an outfitter called Fins & Feathers about 30 minutes outside of Park City. The adventure company arranges snowmobiling and dog-sledding treks in the winter and fly-fishing tours in the summer. The company works closely with Blue Sky.
The creek out back is too wild with snowmelt today, so Fins & Feathers club member Joel Vanderhoof brings us to the banks of a private pond. He teaches us to pull out the slack on the reels and sling his perfectly tied lures at the open mouths lurking below the surface. Miraculously, David quickly pulls in a rainbow trout. “Damn it,” I mutter to myself. “He’s done this before.”
The fish are biting, but Jeff and I can’t keep them on the hook. When the rain starts, we happily give up and retreat to the warmth of the ranch house. In a few hours, we’ll head back down the mountain, back to our separate, distant cities. But for now we have beers to drink and mud to scrape off our boots.