Wandering the West
March 8, 2011
Sometimes a short, simple drive not far from home feels like a vacation, and I’m a great one for urging readers to break the routine, even when it’s an ultra-luxe Park City routine. Last weekend, with Canyons, Deer Valley and Park City boasting epic years and fresh snow, my party packed the car for another ski destination.
I can’t remember the last time I drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon in the winter to go skiing. When you get to the mouth of Parley’s, look for the I-215 belt route going south and east. Exit at the brown signs for the ski areas, and zip out to 7000 South to the big parking lot and bus platform. Twelve miles up you’ll enter Solitude Mountain Resort.
Solitude is family owned, and despite a base that now resembles a fancy faux-Euro ski village, it’s pretty darn unpretentious. We got there early to beat the Saturday crowds. Turns out there are no crowds. The fact I’m sure management would like to suppress is that the hordes don’t descend on Solitude, even on a nice sunny weekend day with fresh snow like we had. Our longest wait for one of the seven lifts (not counting the beginner chair) was maybe a minute.
With seven lifts, it’s an easy area to learn. It has a front and a backside. The front is groomed beautifully, with several steep expert runs carpeted in corduroy, like Park City’s signature runs. The backside, Honeycomb Canyon, is all gladed forest where powder still lingered days after the last snowfall. The trail map shows one area marked with yellow stripes. Turns out its all cliffs you’d only jump if you were crazy and Warren Miller was filming.
It’s the kind of place where strangers share a lunch table and get talking. Turned out the complete stranger who joined our group was from the same tiny town in Minnesota where my family vacationed starting in the ’50s. We knew all the same people and he told some hilarious stories I’ll use against them when I’m there next!
You notice other things when you ski outside your normal resorts. Solitude uses smart-card technology you zip in a pocket and forget. With smart cards, they sell either day passes (at $68), or 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-ride tickets, allowing you to quit after a run or two on a crummy day, or allowing you to play hooky from work or school for three or four runs, and burn the rest up later.
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Solitude also runs a Nordic center that starts near Silver Lake two miles up the road at Brighton. And Brighton Resort, at the top of the canyon, is a snowboard haven with terrain parks and a pipe. It remains Utah school kids’ favorite place to skip classes.
Beyond resorts, Big Cottonwood is a winter playground for all kinds of dispersed recreation. Near the Spruces Campground, look for sledding hills and ungroomed ski and snowshoe trails. Unlike neighboring Little Cottonwood Canyon, Big is wide, with gentler terrain down along Big Cottonwood Creek. It’s a nice place to safely cross-country ski, as long as you remain avalanche aware. Research some trails that lead to interesting destinations, like Donut Falls or the lakes trail behind Brighton Manor, where you can visit Lake Mary, Lake Martha and others. The terrain is rugged and the trails are not maintained, but they offer safe backcountry experiences just a mile from Brighton’s parking lot.
On the Millicent side of Brighton’s resort, snowshoe or ride the lift up to Twin Lakes and views into glacier-carved granite cirques. Wolverine Cirque feels and looks like the Alps, and is one of the prettiest vistas in the Wasatch.
Before or after skiing, eat at funky old Silver Fork Lodge just down canyon from Solitude, or do what generations of Salt Lake skiers have done, and drop in to the Cotton Bottom Inn, a beer bar with killer garlic burgers at 2820 E. 6200 South. Just don’t bring the kids if you want to get in.
Utah has 14 ski resorts. Yes, it’s hard to imagine leaving Park City’s Big Three to ski smaller resorts on the other side, but it’s worth a little exploring. The Greatest Snow on Earth falls on all of them. Each has its own personality. And unless you go out on a rescue toboggan, it’s impossible to have a bad day skiing.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
Insider tip: Your dogs must stay at home. Big Cottonwood is a watershed for Salt Lake City and the water police patrol the canyon to enforce the dog ban.