If you’ve skied in Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon before, you’re likely familiar with the ski traffic. Whether it’s getting up early in an attempt to beat the crowds up the canyon, sitting in the red snake on the way home or waiting in long lift lines on a powder day — we’ve all felt the repercussions of a rapidly growing ski economy in the Wasatch. This year, the crowds are compounded by a few additional factors. Poor early season snow has delayed the opening of some terrain, concentrating people in a smaller area. COVID-19 precautions mean that lift lines often take longer, as fewer people sit together on each chair. More people are heading up the canyons to find an outdoor reprieve while stuck at home for work and school. As a result, navigating heavy traffic has become a part of the ski experience in the Wasatch. It can be easy to forget that there are other ways to play outside in the winter and lots of other places to do it. If you want to avoid the crowds, consider some of these alternatives.
Cross Country Skiing
If you’re looking for a full-body workout, look no further. Cross-country skiing, also called Nordic skiing, has two varieties — classic and skate. Regardless of which you choose, this skinny ski sport provides great exercise along with great views. While there is a bit of a learning curve, a lesson or two – or a few YouTube tutorials – can put you well on your way to enjoying the dynamic flow of Nordic skiing. While Alta and Solitude both offer Nordic courses, you can avoid Cottonwood traffic by exploring one of many other groomed courses across the state. Mountain Dell is a short drive away from Salt Lake City while Park City offers several courses, including free access at Round Valley. Other great options include Sundance Nordic Center and Soldier Hollow, home of the 2002 Olympics course.
With wide tires and increased traction, fat bikes bring the joy of mountain biking to the winter months. The unique experience of biking on snow has contributed to a rapid rise in popularity of the sport in recent years. While summer mountain biking trails are covered in snow, there are surprisingly many places to try fat biking in and around the Wasatch. The Little Cottonwood Trail is great for beginners while Millcreek Canyon also has various options depending on the conditions – riders can bike up the canyon road itself or give trails like the Pipeline Trail a try. Farther north, fat bikers can access groomed single-track trails around Snowbasin and Ogden Nordic.
Snowshoeing may be one of the most underrated yet versatile winter activities. Compared to skiing or biking, the slower pace of snowshoeing allows for a tranquil, immersive experience in snowy landscapes. Take your snowshoes on established hiking trails or into the backcountry to wander at your leisure. You can easily access trails throughout the Wasatch or mix it up by heading south to Cedar Breaks or Bryce Canyon to snowshoe through the red rocks.
Winter camping is an activity that, with the right gear, makes for a truly memorable experience. Compared to camping in the summer, pitching your tent in the snow offers a special kind of solitude, and fewer bugs are an added bonus. Best of all, winter camping can be combined with most of the other sports listed here to create the ultimate winter backcountry adventure. The Uinta mountain range is a great place to head out to for a night or more of silence and starry skies.
If you left sledding behind in your youth, reconsider and embrace your inner child. With all the speed of skiing but increased accessibility, sledding is a simple way to squeeze in some outdoor adrenaline in the winter. If you’re not in the mood to walk back up the hill each time, Soldier Hollow and Woodward both have tubing hills with uphill service. However, free sledding hills are plentiful around Utah. Sugarhouse Park, Rock Canyon Park and Eastridge Park all have good terrain for sledding – just make sure there’s snow coverage before you go.
While it’s hard to ignore the world-class skiing in the Cottonwood Canyons, there are so many other ways to get out and enjoy the winter while avoiding the infamous traffic. Whether you’re looking for a challenging workout or a leisurely afternoon, a micro-adventure close to home or a multi-day backcountry excursion, mix up your repertoire and get creative this winter. Most of the gear you need can be rented through Outdoor Adventures if you don’t have it, so what are you waiting for?