People that live in Salt Lake City believe that Park City is just another suburb of Salt Lake. The locals that live in Park City know that’s simply not true. And so it goes, the endless debate (and rivalry) on which town/city is better to live in. Either Park City, where the mountains are at your fingertips because you live in the mountains, or Salt Lake City that sits right at the foot of the beautiful Wasatch Front Mountains. And through this series of posts, I hope to help those that are looking to move out west to Utah, on which place they will find the best outdoor adventures. Spoiler alert, no matter which place you choose, I can all but guarantee you won’t regret it! I moved out to Utah in 2018, first lived in downtown Salt Lake City, then moved up to Park City, where I have been ever since.
For the purpose of this debate, I am associating Big Cottonwood Canyon, Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Millcreek Canyon as a part of Salt Lake City (since everyone else does).
Salt Lake City
The canyons are notorious for amazing backcountry skiing zones. Some people think that the ski resorts are the only skiable terrain in the the cottonwoods, but they couldn’t be more wrong. All three canyons (Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood) have some of the best backcountry skiing in the West, if not the world. You can find endless powder (as long as you’re willing to work for it), gnarly steep lines when conditions are right, and mellow, low-angle slopes that will have you lapping all day. The snowpack here is generally stable all year, without that pesky persistent weak layer problems like Colorado. And it’s significantly softer than the cement of the Sierras and the PNW.
The fact that I will willingly get up at 5AM on my weekends to be able to go backcountry skiing in the cottonwoods should tell you something about how good it is. And depending on the avalanche conditions, there is always a place to ski. From everyone’s beginning area up in Grizzly Gulch to the beautiful zones up in White Pine Fork. There are long days to be had in Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Mineral, Days, Cardiff, and Silver Forks. And also tons and tons of gnarly skiing through chutes, off peaks, and down couloirs like Mt. Superior and the Pfiferhorn. Plus there’s the endless chutes in the Wolverine Cirque. This is just a short list of the seemingly infinite zones to ski in the Cottonwoods.
In my opinion, the backcountry skiing here is hard to beat; however, the downsides are that it’s very crowded! All of the access to the terrain uses the same roads up the canyon as the ski resorts, so get ready to fight traffic every weekend, only to find all of the trailheads were full by 6AM. And since every line can easily be accessed from the road (without the use of snowmobiles), the go-to terrain will always have a few other parties already up there.
I can’t comment too much on the Nordic Skiing scene in Salt Lake too much, as I have little experience. I know Solitude has some loops, but there simply isn’t enough flat terrain in the canyons to do much of it, and Salt Lake City doesn’t stay cold long enough, or hold snow to turn their golf courses into XC tracks.
PC flat out sucks for backcountry skiing. There are a few zones here that aren’t much to write home about, but they all suffer from the same problem, difficult parking situations. The least popular, but best skiing would be off the Iron Mountain side, but is almost impossible to park in the neighborhood during winter. The second best would be the terrain off the back side of Park City Mountain and Brighton, but you’ll need a snowmobile to ride the 4 miles from Empire Pass to that zone, and good luck finding a parking spot there either. Lastly, the most accessible terrain is up in Summit Park, where you can ski the low-angle glade terrain all day every day… if you can score one of the 6 parking spots there. That being said, if you do manage to get parking, you can be up skiing and back to the car, long before most of the city folk have made it through the traffic and reached the trailheads, so that’s a plus.
The Nordic and XC Skiing in Park City is incredible. Because the snow sticks around all winter, there are endless opportunties to break out those skinny skis. From the professionally, daily groomed fee-area tracks managed by White Pine Touring, to the free, rolling hills in Round Valley, you can always find a place to skate or nordic. All of the rail trails are groomed here as well in winter, for those looking to casually go out near their homes. Most of the schools and golf courses here also turn their properties into cross country skiing areas as well, so most locals are never more than a mile or two from the nearest XC track. An this doesn’t include the Bonanza Flat area above Deer Valley, which is out of this world beautiful.
Winner Is: Salt Lake City (Backcountry Skiing) or Park City (XC Skiing)
If you don’t mind the traffic and crowds, you can’t beat the Cottonwoods skiable terrain. Unless you here for Nordic/XC Skiing, because then it’s PC all the way.
Hi there, my name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.