Complete Guide To Wasatch Ski Touring
The Wasatch mountains of Utah have long been known for their skiing prowess. But why is this the case? Is the skiing and ski touring really that much better here than anywhere else? Or is one too many wannabes drinking too much of the Kool Aid? In reality, there is no single reason why the Wasatch backcountry skiing, and ski touring as a whole, are so good here, but a culmination of factors and all are intertwined:
First and foremost, Utah skiing as a whole is known for its dry and impossibly deep snow conditions with the epicenter of it all focused at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the town of Alta in the heart of the Wasatch Mountains. It snows a lot here, in excess of 500” annually, and far more than at most locations in places like Colorado, who also promote their dry snowfalls with comparisons to that of fine wines and all. It doesn’t snow more in the Wasatch than in it does in more coastal ranges, however, like in the Sierra Nevada or Cascade Ranges, but the snow that does fall here is normally much drier. The Wasatch is part or what is dubbed to be an inter-mountain snow climate, which as it be, sits in a sort of Goldilocks position: maybe not the most snowfall overall, but still plenty of it. And it’s the dry stuff, so you can count on sinking way, way down into it. Bring your snorkel!
With all that deep snow one needs to have some pitch to the slopes if they expect to actually be able to move! And that’s exactly the case in the Wasatch. The Wasatch is a young mountain range, geologically speaking, that rises immediately from (and above) the Wasatch fault on the western toe of the range, only a mere handful of miles from much of the skiing. The earthen beds that form the ski terrain are quite literally tilted upward, so there is no shortage of places to accelerate downwards! The Wasatch may not have the biggest slopes around, but they are some of the most consistent pitches anywhere in North America.
From a ski touring perspective, where travel away from developed ski areas (and any avalanche mitigation efforts) is part of the appeal, any hazard related to snow stability has the potential to limit the scope of terrain safe for travel. In short, the Wasatch mountains tend to have conditions which promote fairly favorable snow and avalanche conditions, particularly come mid-winter. It is somewhat paradoxical bit the statistically high snowfalls in the area, along with moderate temperatures actually promote stability long term. While there are periods of elevated danger short term during storm events, avalanche hazard normally wanes fairly readily. There are, of course exceptions to this, but there is a sharp contrast statistically to places with colder drier snow climates, like in Colorado, where snow and avalanche conditions normally are troublesome deep into the winter and even spring, limiting travel over snow options.
The Wasatch Mountains have some of the best access to high elevation by roads anywhere in the United States. This allows for a wide breadth of terrain to choose from for would be ski tourers. The roadways were fist established for mining and milling purposes many years ago but the roads received attention for improvements partly due to their near proximity to the rapid urbanization which took place in the valleys only a short distance away in places like Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo today. Good access is a bit of a double edged sword though, as it allows for more people to get out, but if it makes the sport viable that is just a cost that everyone comes to terms with. There are also, a huge amount of places to choose from and with a little creativity in tour planning or with a little earlier start enabling a little more mileage in a day, most folks can reap the benefits without any issue at all. The Wasatch may well be one of the highest user bases for ski touring in North America, but that it because the area is set up for it. Where else can you ski a 3000’ vertical powder run to your car 25 minutes from your job in the city and get to work on time in the morning?!
The Wasatch are commonly broken up into three geographic sub-areas: the Central Wasatch and the Northern and Southern Wasatch. The following is a non-exhaustive, short- list of some of best access points within these sub-areas of the range
Little Cottonwood Canyon
There is no doubt that upper Little Cottonwood is the epicenter of skiing in Utah, if not more broadly, the United States as a whole. There are two main points of access for ski touring in the upper canyon: the White Pine trailhead and the areas accessed directly from the road in the town of Alta such as Grizzly Gulch, Cardiff Pass and Flagstaff Ridge. The touring from White Pine is more of a wilderness experience with greater distances required for access, while the areas around Alta shine with their indisputable convenience and bang for the buck. Both areas provide access to terrain for all abilities but the terrain in White Pine is more remote with the slopes less in plain view compared to those around Alta. For beginners, Grizzly Gulch is a logical go-to, as well as the ascent to Cardiff Pass. If one travels beyond these more benign zones there is access to much of the most famed advanced level terrain in the range, including on that of Mount Superior and in Cardiff Fork, Days Fork, Silver Fork and in Wolverine Cirque.
Big Cottonwood Canyon
Big Cottonwood Canyon has a vast diversity of terrain suitable for ski touring and is a hot spot for expert skiers and beginners alike. There are numerous access points from the Big Cottonwood Highway with terrific beginner ski touring accessible in Mill D North fork, Beartrap Fork, Willow Fork and USA Bowl. More advanced terrain can be accessed from the town of Brighton or Brighton ski area by ascending toward Mt Wolverine and it’s many flanks. Other more advance ski touring terrain in Big Cottonwood is better accessed from Alta in the Little Cottonwood (see above).
Millcreek Canyon is a longtime local haunt for Salt Lakers due to its immediate proximity, lack of resort crowds and the ability to hike of ski tour with their dogs! (in Big and Little Cottonwood dogs are prohibited for watershed reasons). In the winter the Millcreek Highway is closed halfway up the canyon and it is groomed for Nordic skiing purposes. This grooming makes for a really pleasant exit option for up-and-over ski tours originating in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The distance up the road from the bottom is really too much distance to cover on the way up for a reasonable day ski tour otherwise. A better option for a tour originating in Mill Creek itself is to go up Porter Fork, a sub-canyon down canyon a short distance from the winter gate. Porter Fork has a wide diversity of terrain but is only suited to intermediate level ski tourers and above and route finding and intricate terrain add to the complexity of the area. It is a gem of an area though for those prepared for adventure with the northern slopes of Gobblers Knob and Mount Raymond looming above!
Many of the mountainsides in the southern Wasatch are difficult to access in winter as there are few maintained roads in winter, partially due to a lack of other developed winter recreation such as ski resorts (with the exception of Sundance). The mountains here generally are very large and steep with undeniable majesty. The best access points to the high country are as follows:
American Fork Canyon
The road is plowed all the way to Tibble Fork Reservoir in the winter which, albeit, is still a fair bit lower than common access points farther north in the Cottonwoods, still provides terrific access for motivated advanced-level ski tourers. Box Elder Peak, the Shotgun Chutes and the Temptations are a short slog away and provide access to some of the best skiing in the state. Much of the terrain here is steep and avalanche prone though so it is critical to be aware of what is going on snow-wise, pick your days, and be part of a competent group to be set up for success.
Just up the road from Sundance is perhaps the most dramatic terrain accessed from any trailhead in the state. Perched directly under the massive Primrose Cirque avalanche path that spill off the norther slopes of Mount Timpanogos, the Aspen Grove area is no joking matter. In spring, an ascent of Primrose Cirque can be tempted with a degree of sanity, but only by expert ski tourers. The most suitable accessible terrain in the area touring-wise is found by following the road farther up, past the winter closure for a few miles to access the UFO Bowls. The is an area of tremendous beauty, but a keen eye for the snow is critical, as well as a competent group, as the area does not come without exposure to avalanche terrain and a degree of remoteness.
Aside from the limited side-country access around Snowbasin Ski Area and Mt. Ogden the best access for strictly human-powered ski touring is found on the Cutler Ridge of Ben Lomond Peak in the northern Ogden River Valley. Access here requires some sideways travel through a short section of Nordic trails before ascending through some low elevation brush to gain the toe of the ridge. From here the ridge progressively starts to open up and ski opportunities abound for intermediate to expert level ski tourers. The slopes off the ridge itself, particularly as one trends upward toward and beyond the summit of Ben Lomond itself make for terrific skiing but not without serious exposure to avalanche terrain. The ridge itself makes a nice, reasonably safe ski in itself though!
We here at Backcountry Pros are here to help. Feel free to reach out for guiding and instructional opportunities throughout the area!