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Utah’s Cottonwood Canyons

There's no busines like snow business at four little-known ski resorts just minutes from Salt Lake City.

A skier at Snowbird makes the most of two feet of fresh snow.
Photo caption
A skier at Snowbird makes the most of two feet of fresh snow.

Utah's Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are terrible places to shop for designer clothes. They're no good for a rocking nightlife and not much better for celebrity spotting. What they do do well here is snow. Featherlight snow. Martini-dry snow. And lots of it.

"Utah in general has better snow than other states," says Salt Lake City meteorologist Mark Eubank. "We think it's because when the winds blow before the storms, salt dust gets into the clouds and makes nuclei for the ice crystals." As condensation blows in across the Great Salt Lake and up the canyons, it dumps snow, adding up to about 500 inches of the stuff annually—more than anywhere else on the continent. Aspen, by comparison, gets a paltry 300 inches and Sun Valley 220. Deer Valley, on the other side of the ridge, gets just 300.

The canyons were deemed too environmentally fragile to serve as venues for the 2002 Winter Olympics. So while the celebs frolicked in Park City, local skiers breathed a sigh of relief—their secret had been spared. Together, the canyons harbor four ski resorts: Snowbird and Alta in Little Cottonwood and Solitude and Brighton in Big. Each has a personality as stubbornly individual as your cherished old knit cap and lucky mittens.

Alta, which has built a reputation on its reluctance to change, still refuses to let infidel snowboarders anywhere near its slopes—and swears it never will. It's a place where covered parking has yet to be discovered, lifts tend to be slow as chilled molasses, and families that have booked the same week every year for generations play Scrabble and checkers in the lobby before dinner.

Snowbird, by contrast, just "down canyon" as they say in these parts, is the closest you'll get to the distraction-packed resorts of less snowcentric areas. Fifteen restaurants, five bars, a kids' camp, a spa, four lodges, five pools, and a tram shooting straight up to 11,000 feet keep the place buzzing. And Snowbird doesn't scrimp on the skiing, either. Given the choice between a new lift or new bedspreads in the rooms, this resort will pick the lift every time.

Big Cottonwood remains the more hush-hush of the two canyons, but word is getting out about Solitude's just completed Euro-style condo village. Still, the resort remains true to its name. Area residents teach their kids to ski here because fresh snow doesn't get skied off by midafternoon, lift lines are unheard-of, and they don't have to worry about little Johnny being run over by the hordes.

True loners and rebels can take refuge just up the road at their last stronghold. Brighton has the lowest lift ticket prices in the region and an aversion to updating its facilities that borders on the fanatical. Up in the A-frame bar, stuffed buck heads keep watch over an aggressively un-color-coordinated congregation dominated by the thrill-seeking snowboarding set.

Then again, the best-kept secret hereabouts may be that after the snow melts, the canyons only get lovelier. All summer long, overheated valley dwellers drive up into the cool mountains, where all of the resorts have rooms to let. Swimming pools warm in the sun, and chairlifts tote mountain bikers and hikers up to granite lakes and fields bursting with wildflowers. There's a quiet to the canyons in late summer, a kicked-back calm as they lie in wait for the first storms to blow in and bring more of the good stuff so the party can start again.

Photography by Scott Markewitz

This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.