’Tis the season to hit the slopes. Who better to guide you through America’s most enchanting ski towns than the Winter Olympians who call them home? Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female alpine skier in history, takes us on a snowy walk through Park City, Utah, and gets a little obsessive over both boots and ice cream. Gold medal hockey player Hilary Knight shows off the charms of her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, where the skiing is world-class and so is her favorite dive bar. And Steamboat Springs native (and snowboard Olympian) Taylor Gold brings us to an old-school diner with the best pancakes in town, as well as a snowboard shop where he used to lounge about with a scruffy crew who’ve all gone on to athletic stardom. Each town—and each Olympian—is full of surprises.
Olympic and World Cup Ski Champion
Park City, Utah
Dawn at 9,500 feet is cold—10 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact—and cover star Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female alpine skier in history, looks a little chilly. The photographer suggests she warm up in her nearby Land Rover Defender. “I’m fine. As long as I don’t have to pose in my racing suit! That’s like wearing nothing,” she jokes, before adjusting the skis on her shoulders. “I don’t want people to see me holding my skis wrong and think I’m a gomer [a novice skier trying to look like a pro].”
Vonn is anything but a gomer. Raised carving aggressive turns down the slopes of tiny Buck Hill, Minnesota, she made the U.S. Ski Team by age 14, and went on to win four women’s World Cup overall championships, three Olympic medals in downhill (one gold and two bronze), and more World Cup victories (82) than any other female skier in history. Only Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark has more (86).
Her specialty was speed—the downhill—where competitors reach 80 mph and fight through five g-forces or more in turns. “That is the thrill for us as racers—the risk factor. It’s an adrenaline sport.” Vonn retired in 2019 at age 34, her knees—now bone on bone after myriad crashes and ensuing surgeries and rehabs—unable to carry her to her goal of besting Stenmark.
When the sun fully clears the teeth of the Wasatch Range, the light is too harsh for portrait photography. We wrap and agree to meet 2,500 feet below in Park City for the afternoon.
Fog and wafting snow have enveloped the valley by the time Vonn and friend Karan Mitchell meet me at one of her favorite hangouts, Atticus, a coffee shop filled with used books and quirky gifts. Foraging through the goods, Vonn squeals with delight upon finding a makeup bag with an illustration of a girl hugging a horse and the caption “I hate everyone, too.” She buys it for Mitchell, along with a few tongue-in-cheek stickers: “Summit County Ordinance: This is a designated Karen-free zone”—one for Mitchell, and one for her sister Karin Kildow, who’ll meet us later.
After downing Atticus’ delicious red-velvet-cake hot chocolates, we stroll up Main Street, the hub of this charming, updated Old West silver mining town, replete with both Porsches and pickup trucks. The town—now home to the annual Sundance Film Festival—went bust after WWII, and was even listed in the guidebook Ghost Towns of the West. Skiing brought the village back, first with Park City Mountain in 1963, a few hundred yards from Main Street, and then the nearby Deer Valley, where Vonn does most of her skiing. “Every place around here has excellent skiing. Utah in general has great snow—it’s just lighter because of the altitude. But Deer Valley feels more private, and I like going incognito. Plus, it’s all corduroy [groomed slopes]—my knees kill me if I have to ski moguls.”
We pop into Cake, a hip women’s boutique, and Vonn, who also lives part-time in Los Angeles, browses through the fashion, casually sizing up a handsome Vince overcoat. “With shopping, you can get kind of stuck in ski towns—sometimes there’s nowhere to go. But Cake is like a bit of L.A. in Park City,” she says. Her eyes lock onto a pair of sleek RtA boots with a hint of Western detailing. She seems smitten, but we leave empty-handed.
Though Vonn only moved here from Vail in the past year, buying a property outside of town, she lived here off and on from ages 16 to 27, while training with the U.S. Ski Team. “I like the feel of it. It doesn’t feel old—it’s more classic,” she says of the preserved historic buildings on Main Street. She also chose Park City because her best friend, Claire Brown, whom she babysat at age 10, now lives here, and they run a production company together. “I really want to tell the story of ski racing. American women have a pretty incredible history—we’ve been dominant. Claire and I are on a mission to tell those stories.”
As we window-shop our way up Main Street, Vonn’s younger sister, Karin Kildow, shows up and Vonn confides that she can’t stop thinking about those boots. It’s decided we must return to Cake. Amid the store’s goods, Kildow wonders aloud why she feels the need to buy cute stuff. “Because you’re single and ready to mingle,” chides Vonn. “Make sure you put that in the article.” The sisters soon get down to the business of the boots. Kildow loves them, adding they’ll go well with boyfriend jeans. Purchase achieved.
For dinner we head to Riverhorse on Main. Though there’s been some restaurant turnover in town, Riverhorse has been a local favorite for 33 years, plating seasonal American cuisine on the second floor. Over Argentine Malbec, local Hefeweizen and buffalo short rib, talk turns to her transition from adrenaline-based racing to civilian life. “I have the analogy that ski racing was like my sun and everything in my life revolved around it. Then I woke up and the sun was gone. I had all these planets but they didn’t know where to go. Now I feel I have them moving in the right direction again, but still there’s no sun. Where’s the damn sun?” she says with a smile. The planets she’s lining up include her production company, her eponymous fragrance—which comes out this year and smells “like success, like boss-ness”—and her nonprofit Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which focuses on teaching girls grit. As she puts it, “All girls struggle. No matter who you are, being a teenager is so hard.”
Before the night is done, Vonn insists on hitting one last spot, Java Cow, for ice cream. It’s filled with vintage ski photos and gag gifts. “This is definitely a locals spot. We used to hang out here when I was on the ski team. It’s fun.” Before I can dig into my scoops, Vonn stops me. “You have to wait a minute until the ice cream gets a little bit melty, then you swirl it up. Or you put in the microwave for 15 seconds and it’s perfect!” We wait in the warmth of the shop until the ice cream is just right, then swirl. She’s onto something. As we step outside with our treats, snow still drifts down from the night sky. “I talk about ice cream all the time, and my agents are like, ‘Lindsey, please stop talking about it—we don’t have an ice cream deal.’ I’m like, ‘I know, but still, everyone needs ice cream!’”
Olympic Ice Hockey Gold Medalist
Sun Valley, Idaho
Hilary Knight and I sip steaming mochas at Java on Fourth, her go-to coffeehouse in Ketchum, a few miles down the road from her hometown of Sun Valley. She tells me she was born into a “ski family” (her cousin Chip Knight is a three-time alpine Olympic skier).
There were lots of childhood adventures. “One brother ended up skiing off a 20-foot cliff in Big Sky and another bit a ski-school instructor in Steamboat Springs,” she says, chuckling into her mug. When they visited Sun Valley, “we fell in love,” she says. “It’s special here.” So much so that the family relocated when she was 10 years old.
Knight was 2 when she first put on skis and 5 when she took to the hockey rink for the first time. The oldest of four, with three brothers, she was fast and strong and didn’t flinch when the boys checked her during hockey lessons. When she announced, in elementary school, that she wanted to play hockey in the Olympics, her grandmother scolded, “Girls don’t play hockey.” “My mom pulled her aside and told her to get with the times,” Knight recalls.
More than two decades later, the 31-year-old forward is one of the most decorated players in women’s ice hockey: She led her college team, the Wisconsin Badgers, to two national championships, won seven IIHF World Women’s Championship gold medals, and helped the women’s Olympic hockey team secure two silver medals (Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014) and gold in Pyeongchang in 2018.
As Knight and I walk around Ketchum—with the snow-topped mountains of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in the background—it’s hard to reconcile that this rustic little town with an unmistakable Wild West cowboy vibe is a magnet for celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Demi Moore and Oprah Winfrey. “You’ll see Arnold Schwarzenegger eating lunch and no one bothers him,” Knight shrugs. “Everyone’s really respectful and low-key.”
The main draw is the skiing—and with plenty of dry powder and sunshine it has been since the 1930s, when the first chairlift in the world was installed on Dollar Mountain (now more geared to families and beginners with blue and green runs, and where Knight is no stranger on the halfpipe with her board). But the star of the show is Sun Valley Resort’s Bald Mountain, or Baldy, which boasts over 2,000 acres, 13 chairlifts and 65 runs with glades, bowls and varied terrain. The Black Diamond Fire Trail is Knight’s favorite.
Knight wants to show me one of her beloved hangouts, Grumpy’s dive bar. When she returned with gold from Pyeongchang, she made sure to step through the doors—with her medal on. Despite her fame, she gets treated like a local here. The no-frills burger-and-beer joint has out-of-state license plates and vintage knickknacks on the walls, and it’s easy to see why Knight and her family spend almost every Christmas Eve here with a few schooners of beer. Just don’t miss her signed hockey stick above the pool table. “We have autographed sticks from Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, but our most prized is Hilary’s Olympic stick,” says owner Pete Prekeges. “Her family’s been coming here since she was a kid—good people.”
For fans looking for a Knight sighting, try one of her favorite eateries: Cookbook, an old church turned butcher turned restaurant that offers braised pork osso bucco, Idaho trout and specialty pizzas. There’s also Enoteca a few blocks away, pairing an extensive wine list with house-cured meats, cheese platters and entrées such as wild boar ragù. But it’s the steak and Idaho baked potato she craves most when she’s out of town. The Pioneer Saloon, with its decor of barbed wire, buffalo heads and one of Ernest Hemingway’s guns framed on the wall, is one of her favorite spots to scratch that itch.
Just as the sun begins to drop behind the peaks, Knight takes me to a place that shaped her, Sun Valley Rink, where we watch kids skate inside. “Hockey’s a galvanizing sport here and a lot of locals play.” She used to join in pickup hockey games during puck hour every day at noon, and these days, when she’s in town, you can find her in the stands cheering on the Sun Valley Suns. “It’s so nice to catch a game and be able to be a fan,” she says.
We make our way outside, take a seat at the Sun Valley Lodge bar, which overlooks an outdoor rink, and take our time with some red wine. In summer, the outdoor tables boast sought-after views of pirouetting Olympic figure skaters who train here. On our way out, Knight leads me through the historic hotel’s wood-paneled hallway, past black-and-white photos of all the smiling celebrities who have stayed here: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Hemingway, Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong and Olympic gold medalists Picabo Street and Evan Lysacek.
Knight stayed here for a month while she was looking for her current home. But when we peruse the hallway, I can’t find her photograph. At least not yet.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Before Taylor Gold takes me to view one of his childhood haunts, he insists we stop at a favorite eatery, Skull Creek Greek, a rustic, counter-service spot in the middle of Steamboat Springs. Instead of the Rockies, it’s decked with big landscape paintings of Santorini and the Aegean Sea, not to mention tasty Greek staples. Gyros in hand, we hoof it over ice-slicked sidewalks to the Fifth Street Bridge, where we sit and watch ski jumpers launch off the ramp at Howelsen Hill, the oldest continuously operating ski area in the country. It’s where Gold would come to hit the slopes almost every night after school.
“I haven’t skied in more than 10 years,” he tells me, as tzatziki drips everywhere. As a kid, he’d also spend weekends at Steamboat Ski Resort, which features 169 trails and 18 lifts set across 2,965 acres of dry and light snow, and arguably some of the best tree skiing in the country. Gold was well-poised to become a ski prodigy, but when he was 8 he saw American snowboarders sweep the men’s halfpipe at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He ditched the skis for a snowboard and the resort’s 16-foot halfpipe. By 9 he was entering snowboarding competitions across the state. After winning more than a dozen halfpipe competitions nationally and internationally as a teenager, Gold competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but a fall prevented him from medaling. Injuries kept him sidelined during the 2018 Games, and now he’s readying for 2022.
“Who knows if I’ll get it? It’s such a dream,” Gold says almost nonchalantly. But I forget we’re in Steamboat Springs, nicknamed Ski Town, USA, a place that has produced more Winter Olympians than any other in North America (98). In 2018 the town sent 15 athletes to the games—more than some small countries. Out of a population of 13,000, one in every 136 residents is an Olympian. Heck, Taylor’s little sister, Arielle, is one, too (she received the bronze medal in the women’s halfpipe at the 2018 Olympic games in Pyeongchang).
“We’ve all ridden together since we were kids,” Gold explains. “It’s a lot of friendly competition.”
If you’re here in the off-season, Gold says there’s great mountain biking on the other side of Howelsen, on Emerald Mountain, which Gold uses to train in the summer. He’s seen foxes, deer and bear up there, but “no mountain lions—yet.” He loves to ride the downhill trails. “It’s good cardio on the way up and very similar to snowboarding on the way down,” he explains. “You need a quick reaction time and there’s some impact with the jumps. And when the bike trail is grippy, it’s the summer version of riding powder.”
Gold and I walk back into town, past upscale skiwear boutiques and gear shops in brick buildings. “I don’t want to sound like a grump, but this town has changed over the years,” he says, referring to the influx of high-end storefronts that have sprouted up. “They even widened the streets to improve traffic.”
He takes me to a spot that hasn’t changed, The Shack Café, an endearing little diner decorated with wooden logs and emerald countertops, and known for slinging the best pancakes in town since 1963. “I’ve been coming here since I was 5,” he says. “The pancakes are the best in the world, and the berry pies are really good.” When we order black coffee in heavy white mugs, the waitress lets us know that “we’re really good at caffeinating people, too.”
Gold then leads me on a short five-minute drive to Steamboat Ski Resort. At the base of the gondola, we squint up at the snowy peak, and Gold tells me he was 2 when his parents first took him up there and attached a leash on him as he skied for the first time. “It’s not as weird as it sounds,” he assures me.
We make our way to another old haunt, the Powder Tools Board Shop. Before we go in he tells me that as a teen, he and his friends would loiter on the couch watching snowboarding videos by the fireplace. That ragamuffin group—who grew up to be just as spectacular on snowboards as anyone in the videos—included his sister, Arielle, Nik Baden, who won a silver medal on the halfpipe at the Youth Olympic Games in 2016, and Matt Ladley, who won gold in the superpipe at the Winter X Games in 2016.
We walk in to a decidedly warm welcome, making it pretty obvious no one minded those scuffles on the couch back in the day. “I used to intern here in middle school, too,” Gold whispers.
“I have a photo of these tiny humans on our desktop,” shop owner Bernie Tomassetti tells me, like some sort of punk rock stage dad. “We’re really proud of ’em.” “I love you guys, too,” Gold says and dramatically unzips his jacket, revealing the Powder Tools T-shirt he’d made a point of wearing the entire afternoon.