In skiing speak, the word "snorkel" is typically used in this context: Dude, I ripped snorkel-deep powder all morning. I'm stoked! So when I tossed a snorkel in with my ski boots, goggles, gloves, and hat for a ski trip to Utah last winter, one might assume that I was headed for Alta, banking on several feet of the world's finest fresh. Well, I was going skiing, and I was planning on immersing myself in the deep--but I was counting on 65 feet of it. Add a mask, dive booties, and fins to my list of gear, and my mad plan became apparent. I was going scuba diving on a ski trip. Yep, that's right: in Utah.
Situated beside the Homestead, a sprawling year-round resort whose main building is an old white inn of a quasi-New England style, is the Crater, a 65-foot-deep natural hot spring. It's just minutes away from Park City, so I first skied my legs into jelly (priorities, people), and then I went for a serious swim.
The Crater is the biggest of the several hot springs adjacent to the Homestead, and the only one developed. It's covered by a 55-foot-high hollow, earthen dome, the result of eight or 10 thousand years of mineral buildup around the spring-carved pit. It's the most surreal dive site I've ever encountered--in fact, it's one of the most surreal places I've ever been. First, you walk through a 110-foot-long tunnel bored through the side of the dome. The changing rooms are little cubicles, separated from the dim tunnel by plastic shower curtains that waft in the breeze. The "dive shop," where you pick up your tank and any other gear you need, resembles a counter in an old-fashioned dime store-none of the pastel-painted, fishnet-bedecked decor that scuba purveyors usually fancy.
From there, it's just a few steps into the dome, which reminded me of something out of Alice in Wonderland, sans rabbit. As sunlight filtered through a natural hole at the dome's apex, I moved to a tiered wooden float at the water's edge, hoisted on my dive gear, and proceeded to submerge. Because touching the silty bottom and walls would quickly cloud up the clear water, platforms, bars, and even an old wagon wheel have been suspended at 20-to-60-foot depths to keep divers from doing so. Fauna consists of a rubber alligator and two fake lobsters. Once I examined the various attractions, there wasn't much to do. So I practiced buoyancy control, breathing efficiency, and streamlining my kick and body position. It's kind of like skiing in a whiteout; with few distractions, you start paying attention to what you're doing.
It may lack the coral, shipwrecks, and exotic fish of a tropical locale, but the Crater beats other inland diving spots big-time. At many freshwater sites around the West, divers must lug their gear over mud flats and marshes, put on thick wetsuits, dive in frigid mountain meltwater, and surface in those thick wetsuits to blazing sun-and there's usually not even much to see beneath the surface. The minute I dipped into the Crater's 90-degree water, I appreciated the vision of Dr. Jerry Simons, a dive-shop owner from nearby Provo who convinced the folks at the Homestead to tunnel through a heap of dirt to create a place for divers, snorkelers, and swimmers. In a sport famous for its hot-tub culture, the Crater may be the best après-ski soak in skiing.
Getting There: From Park City, take Utah 248 four miles to U.S. 40. Go west for 10 miles to the Heber/Wasatch State Park exit. Turn right and follow the Homestead signs for about five miles. Driving time is about 20 minutes.
Cost: If you haven't dived before, $100 including divemaster and equipment. For certified divers, $20 plus $15 for all rental equipment. Scuba Update/Tune-Up for certified divers, $50 including workbook and manual. Dive-and-lodging packages, from $78 per person for one night's lodging and one dive, double occupancy. Snorkel and swim rates are less.
Information: 800-327-7220, www.homestead-ut.com