Making the most of a day in the Wasatch backcountry.
Before we moved to Salt Lake City from Spokane, Wash., a ski tour required time and effort. My husband and I would be out the door by 6 a.m. at the latest and drive two or three hours to a trailhead. We’d ski laps until our legs were too weak to make turns, get to the car as dusk crept up the sky, and toss back five-hour energy shots on the drive home.
Salt Lake’s Wasatch Range is the opposite. It’s really accessible. Here, we can be out the door at 6 a.m., and on the trail 30 minutes later. What’s even better are the gentle grades, perfectly spaced aspen groves, and, of course, the “Greatest Snow on Earth.”
Backcountry skiing has gained popularity especially in the past few years as social media has taken hold. We used to see photos of hordes of people skiing down groomers or at the park, but now there are images of untracked powder, without a soul in sight. This is what draws so many of us to the backcountry. Although the sport requires endurance (it’s a “human-powered” activity), the views and solitude that can be experienced make all the effort worthwhile.
Ski mountaineer Andrew McLean said it best in the forward to Backcountry Skiing Utah guidebook, “An average powder day here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience anywhere else; and a great Utah powder day, well, it can redefine your life.”
And it’s not hard to find that legendary powder. Nine and a half miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon lies some of the easiest, most beautiful terrain in the Wasatch. Parking at Spruces Campground, you can access trails on the north and south sides of the canyon. To the north, past a private parking lot, a summer road winds past a group of quintessential mountain cabins. By November or December, this road is covered in snow, and provides an obvious skin track into the Mill D North Fork drainage. In the summer, trails for both Dog Lake and Desolation Lake meander through this same forest.
Using skins or snowshoes opens this area to endless possibilities. Less than a mile up the drainage, there are multiple trails winding up to Tom’s Hill, Short Swing, or my personal favorite, Powder Park 3.
While Powder Park 1—below Sheep Shit Ridge—and Powder Park 2—north of West Desolation Ridge—are equally fun to ski (though Powder Park 2 is a steeper grade), Powder Park 3’s bowl-like terrain makes this area unique as it opens up in wide swaths similar to runs at a resort. Between uneven groves of aspen trees are uninterrupted glades of Utah’s finest powder, and on any given day, blissful cheers echo as powder-seekers maneuver their way down fresh-tracked lines. It’s also where I learned to make S-turns on a bluebird powder day earlier this year.
The summit near Powder Park 3—aptly named The Cone—gains access to Beartrap Fork in the east, another mecca for moderate terrain. Off the southeastern side of the cone, glades develop to groves, with a thicket of coniferous trees thrown in for good measure. Due east of the cone are the Beartrap Aspens. With 800 feet of moderate and tightly spaced tree skiing, it’s easy to do multiple laps without skiing the same line twice.
Hiking west up The Cone connects back to Powder Park 3, where following the natural descent through Short Swing brings you back to the drainage, and you can ski all the way down to your car.
Word to the wise: Although it’s possible to see avalanche activity in this area, the majority of trails leading out of the Mill D North Fork Drainage and the Beartrap Fork Drainage have low-angle slopes with relatively low avalanche danger.
While it’s easy to access Wasatch backcountry, it’s even easier to attend a free Know Before You Go class put on by REI or the Utah Avalanche Center. Throughout the winter, informational classes are held throughout the valley to educate backcountry users on accessing, and enjoying, our incredible backcountry terrain. In addition, the UAC puts out a daily avalanche report through its app to let users know of potential dangers in the area.