So you’re keeping a close eye on the snow forecasts, and it looks like a major multi-day storm is heading right into Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. You pack up your gear, get someone to look in on the pets and head for the hills.
Where to? Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, of course. Few spots in North America signify the glories of the steep-and-deep more than the resorts in these two canyons: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude. They all have loads of powder stashes within their boundaries, and they are as close as can be: You can move from Alta to Snowbird and back without a hike; the same for Solitude and Brighton. A moderate hike over a ridge connects all four. A public bus runs between the two canyons.
But to fully experience Utah powder in the Wasatch Mountains, the powder hound must carve them up one at a time. Therefore, OnTheSnow presents a four-day, four-mountain guide for getting the most out of the famous Cottonwood Four. We conquered the best that Big Cottonwood had to offer at Brighton and Solitude over two days. With the snow falling, it's now time to check out Snowbird and Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Day Three: Snowbird
Get going early because, on powder days, it seems like half of Salt Lake City is heading up Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Snowbird’s acres of challenging terrain are difficult to cover in a single day.
Eschew the tram and get onto the hill via the high-speed Gadzoom lift, a downhill slide from the Creekside parking lot. Off the top, head down to the right and grab the Little Cloud chair to the top of The ‘Bird. Powder hounds head right to the mountain’s soul: The Cirque. Take it easy on the Cirque Traverse that, even on the snowiest days, can bump out and be full of hidden snags. You want to make it in one piece, because The Cirque bowl is worth it.
The first chutes of Great Scott are among the steepest and tightest in the state. Traverse along the crest, and the terrain opens up and the pitch moderates (off the back side are Gad Chutes, Wilbere Bowl and Mach-Schnell, but save them for later). All the glorious lines of The Cirque end up on Silver Fox and down Anderson’s Hill, which opens into another mini-cirque with plenty more powder turns to be had.
A perfect day in Snowbird: sun, steeps and plenty of pow. Photo Courtesy of Jared Allen.
Now you’re at the aerial tram. Get shoulder-to-shoulder friendly on the ride to the summit. Dip onto the backside and relish Mineral Basin. Take the high Bookends Traverse to the steepest part of the bowl, through the trees and over Flora Cliffs. Cycle around the basin on the Mineral Basin Express, checking out the Chamonix Chutes and Double Down.
Take a ride on the magic carpet through the mountain divide to Peruvian Gulch. Once upon a time this was Alta’s backcountry, before The ‘Bird opened in 1971. There, the famed High Baldy Traverse opens up tons of steeps. As these slopes hit Chip’s Run, head across the hill on Blackjack Traverse and you’ll find another treasure chest of powder to be had before finally running back to the base. A few cycles on the high-speed Peruvian Express and you’re thighs should be burning.
Head to the Birdfeeder to grab a sandwich at the base or get over to Mid-Gad—the only eatery on the mountain. Expect a line on busy days, but the soups are worth the wait. And, you’re now in Gad Valley, home to Red Lens and Thunder bowls off the under-appreciated Gad 2 Lift. A bit of hiking gets you to the pinnacle of all secret stashes: Defiance Ledge and Thunder Alley. The Baby Thunder lift will get you high enough to cruise back to your car at Creekside.
The Tram Club in the main base area buzzes with post-powder day energy, complete with beers and snacks. Or head over to the Cliff Lodge, ride the elevator to the top floor and relax in the newly remodeled Aerie Lounge. You may just end up staying for the night, and taking in the legendary rooftop hot tub and pool.
Day Four: Alta
Deep powder skiers have been coming to Alta for more than 70 years. What they all know is it doesn’t take long to get to the good stuff. The parking lot is a stone’s throw from the Collins and Wildcat lifts, where your powder ski day begins—remember no snowboarding at Alta.
First tracks reign supreme at Alta, so go for the gusto right away. Ride the high-speed Collins lift and take the High Traverse across Sunspot bowl. The ridge shoulders out with Alta's most-famous run: Alf’s High Rustler. Your tracks will be clearly noted by the crowds far below. Marking up neighboring chutes—Lone Pine and Stone Crusher—are visible, too, but not the cliffs of North Rustler around the corner.
With that ritual out of the way, the entire Mount Baldy basin awaits. Go back up Collins and track up the trees under the lift, or farther over on Sunspot and West Rustler. Be sure to head right and traverse under the Baldy Chutes along Ballroom to find your very own line. The farther you go, the steeper it gets. If you like it pitch-y and tight, Fred’s Slot is for you.
In addition to plentiful powder, Alta has no shortage of cliffs, cornices and other natural elements for thrill-seekers. Photo by Damian Cromwell. Courtesy of Salt Lake CVB.
At lunchtime, converge upon Watson Shelter (the Mid-Mountain Meeting Place on the trail map) for a bowl of hot soup and bread. It’s small but everyone seems to fit right in, where the picture windows always fog up.
Now head under the Collins lift, with an eye out for freshies to your left on Collins Face. Hit the two-seater Wildcat lift, which serves some of the steepest tree skiing anywhere. On any powder day, yelps of joy will echo around the glades on Wildcat Face. The narrow slots seem to go down forever. Don’t get too far to skier’s left or it’ll be a hike back.
Head back up Collins and hike through the Gunsight to Greeley Bowl (formerly access to the famed Blue and Green trails before lifts went in on the backside). Spread out and get your own untracked line. Near the bottom, head hard right to make the traverse to the Surprise lift (look out for the cliffs). Here you’ll find another Alta stash of rocky chutes and sparse glades. Hike up to Catherine’s Area (Brighton is just over the ridge) and relish the isolation of Snowshoe Hill and Last Chance.
Finish up the day with a beer in the buzzy Goldminer’s Daughter Saloon or a rustic dinner at the historic Rustler Lodge, Alta Lodge or Alta Peruvian Lodge. But beware: the temptation to stay another day may be too strong to resist.
Are your thighs burning just reading about four days at the legendary Cottonwood Four? Now it's time to get up to those canyons and really feel the burn. Read Part One here.