The Wasatch Front is littered with steep, feral terrain that attracts the attention of the ski media and dominates lift-line banter. However, this expert terrain is only a percentage of what’s on the menu: Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and Parley’s canyons all offer milder avenues to explore.
Little Cottonwood Canyon: Cardiff Bowl (Pole Line Pass)
This popular zone in Alta offers the classic elements of a wide-open bowl, with (ideally) an untouched canvas to paint your line on. This south-facing slope is best in early morning, before the sun puts a crunchy crust on the snow—on any clear day with new snow, the freshies will be eaten up well before noon.
Begin at the Our Lady of the Snows church in Alta and head past the wisely placed Beacon [can’t find anything about this] check station. The established path through the fresh snow set by skiers, called a skintrack, heads uphill for about a mile, rising 1,300 feet. Be careful not to follow the alternate track east toward Flagstaff; the namesake telephone poles should provide easy reference. Once on the ridgeline, enjoy the stellar views, then drop back south, all the way to Highway 210.
Big Cottonwood Canyon: Beartrap Fork
Beartrap holds a variety of low-angle, aesthetic tree runs. “It’s a great place to learn how to go into, access and enjoy the backcountry,” says Adam Fabrikant, a local guide who has taught a Backcountry 101 class in the area.
The trail begins 10.6 miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon; there’s a pullout on the right side of the road. The Park City/Millcreek ridgeline is a two-mile climb from the road, but isn’t essential, and doing so puts you in slightly more advanced terrain. Another option is to follow the skintrack that breaks to the right in the lower drainage, taking you up the west-facing side of Beartrap Fork. This area offers a playground of well-spaced trees and noncommittal terrain that will lead you right back to the skintrack for more laps, if so desired.
Parley’s Canyon: Lambs Canyon
You’ll likely find more solitude and untouched lines in Parley’s than you will in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. But watch out for the hordes of tromping snowshoers, especially near the trailhead. The Lambs Canyon area is accessed from Interstate 80, by taking exit 137 and heading south on Lambs Canyon road for about two miles. In winter, the trailhead begins where the road ends. The skintrack follows a flat summer trail that continues south through pines and aspens, before the uphill begins.
In this area, lines can be found on all the aspects that surround the trail, with a variety of pitch, terrain features and length. The layout encourages exploring; start small and work up to the bigger peaks. There are runs available on the north-, west- and east-facing aspects, and many of the areas are protected from wind and sun, helping to ensure quality snow later into the day and even days after a storm.
Of course, any run in the backcountry, no matter the difficulty, is a different ball game than those in resorts, and skiers need to prepare before heading out. Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center says that Utah averages four avalanche fatalities per year, with many more close calls. “We urge backcountry skiers and boarders … to carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear, read the avalanche report on UtahAvalancheCenter.org and to get educated,” he says. Safety is always the No. 1 concern in the backcountry.