Brooks Finlinson, breaking through the glass doors and into the Little Cottonwoods Canyon white room. Matt Crawley/Snowbird photo.
Meet the Cottonwood Canyons of Utah, located 15 minutes from the Salt Lake City International Airport. No, not exaggerating. The Cottonwood Canyons, which UT HWY 210 & 190 crawl up, run east and west parallel to each other right off I-215 at 6200 South. Both canyons are under 20 miles long and separated in some parts by only a mile. It’s the mecca of skiing convenience in the lower 48, and home to some of the best hills and the lightest snow in the country at Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude.
These four resorts make up the Cottonwood resorts, where a Ski City Super Pass allows for flexible skiing between all of them. The Super Pass can be bought in increments of 1 to 10 days and used over a two-week period at any of the four resorts. They can often be coupled with your hotel package for a deal, and tend to come in between $75-$79 per day.
The Super Pass also provides you with free transportation on all UTA buses and TRAX trains which run between town and the resorts. The passes are even direct-to-lift, so you don't have to stop at the ticket window.
Where else in the U.S. do you get four different ski resorts less than 30 minutes from an international airport with snowfall averages of five hundred inches of dry, fluffy, 4% desert pow?
One of the best parts of these two canyons is having Salt Lake City and all of its amenities right at the base. Salt Lake City is a city of about a million people, with hundreds of different hotels and vacation rentals scattered throughout the city. While renting a car is tempting, there is a great public transit network that facilitates accessing the hills as well as the city’s possibilities. And, this transportation is free with a Super Pass.
Salt Lake City is RAD – rid yourself of the old-fashioned views of Salt Lake as having difficult liquor laws, mediocre food, and no bar scene. There are a ton of new bars – no memberships needed anymore – impressive culinary trends in order, young entrepreneurial bar & restaurant ventures, and a train that can take you to all of it.
Then you factor in the ease of commute from town to shredding and you realize how badass this city really is . It really is ideal: you can get a hotel in the city and maybe save a little money, drink and dine in the city, and still shred all day up at any of the four incredible resorts found just outside the city.
The Lowdown on ALTA
Dex Millis wiggling through some flawless Alta powder. Mike Brown/Ski City photo.
Shredding: Considering I’ve spent pretty much every day of my season at Alta this year, I cannot say enough good about the shredding here. Powder days at Alta are unbeatable. Whether GS-ing mega wide-open turns off the backside or skiing steep trees off of High Rustler, Alta is the bomb for people that love to ski.
A lot of Alta’s best terrain, however, is accessed by a pretty advanced traverse. If you don’t like traversing, find some steep trees off of the Superior lift or in the Ho off of Wildcat. If you need a beginner lift, the Sunnyside or Albion chairs are a great place to start, and the ropetow by the Gold Miner’s Daughter is literally where I learned to ski.
The backcountry access at Alta is incredible, the snow is incredible, the people that work and run each little lodge, bar, or ski shop there are awesome. Alta is a place that you can immediately FEEL is a special experience. Of note, however they do not allow snowboards. “Alta is for Skiers” was the slogan when Alta opened in 1939, and that two-planked policy remains in place to this day.
Parker Dunn, getting the Alta experience. Alta Ski Area photo.
Lodging: lodging is made up by an assortment of different lodges, each of which are independently owned, which is pretty charming, too. Most accommodations at Alta encourage the multiple night stay and have anything from dorm living with shared bathrooms and bunk beds to the charming quaint lux of the The Rustler. Another total gem is The Snowpine Lodge, which is super cute & charming.
Food & Beer: Alta offers a variety of charming little places to eat. If you want a beer and a pizza, go to the Gold Miner’s Daughter. If you want a bomb burger, go to Watson’s. If you want a great coffee, Alta Java is bomb. If you want fine dining, The Shallow Shaft is across the street from the Alta Lodge, and has a super unique dining atmosphere with knowledgeable servers and a pretty good wine list)
For après, Alta holds two of my favorite spots: the Peruvian Bar and the Sitzmark. There are a ton of other spots to eat that can be included in your lodging up at Alta or can be found on-slope. Alta has many options, however, to get from one to another does require a bit of outside walking. Although each lodge (for the most part) has a great shuttle system in order to give you little rides wherever you need to go.
The Lowdown on SNOWBIRD
Automatic faceshots under the tram at Snowbird. Snowbird photo.
Shredding: Snowbird cannot be beat in Utah for lift-accessed advanced terrain. If you are an advanced skier, Snowbird is an absolute mecca. When I first moved back to Utah, I got a job at Snowbird and have called it a home for many many moons since. Snowbird has every kind of terrain that you can imagine. They have expanded to Mineral Basin for some great pow runs and sunny groomers. The have sped up their Gad 2 chair and made Little Cloud – once a slow, chilly two-man-chair – a high speed quad.
If there is a line for the Tram, no problem! Head up the Peruvian Chair and go through the tunnel to Mineral Basin. Take the kids through it regardless because it’s hilarious to go through a tunnel with your shred gear on via magic carpet. Snowbird has trees, wide-open cirques, accessible hiking, cliffs, chutes, ahhh! It’s endless... and often open well into May if you're really hankering for some late-season turns.
Lodging: Snowbird is the easiest hill in the Cottonwoods for one-stop-shopping. They have lodges, spas, work-out facilities, several different restaurants, an arcade, some great bars, and all accessed by minimal walking. The Cliff Lodge is easy, and has been recently renovated. If you want a condo or a larger bedroom with amenities, those exist as well and are all run by Snowbird reservations. All you have to do is call Snowbird to figure out lodging – no need to call several different lodges. Like I said: one-stop shopping.
Food & Beer: For fine dining, enjoy the Aerie at the top of the Cliff Lodge. They also stay open as a nice bar space if you’re looking for a night-cap. The Bistro has a GREAT burger. If you skied all day and you really need some red meat, The Steak Pit is a great option. For après, The Tram Club is the place to go. OR you could have a beer on the tram deck if it’s a lovely day at The Forklift.
Also, brand new to Snowbird this year is The Summit. It’s a window-lined restaurant at the top of the Tram. The views are incredible, the food is tasty, and a beer on the patio up there might be a hint chilly some days, but this place cannot be beat in the Cottonwood Canyons for views!
The Lowdown on BRIGHTON
Brighton rides like a skatepark, and is the most downhome-feeling hill in the Cottonwoods. Andrew Kooyman photo via Brighton Resort.
Headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton is a total steal. Not only does Brighton have incredible terrain, but it also feels like a locals' resort. Brighton is magic – you can ski steep pillowy and cliffy runs off the Milly Chair, teach your kids how to shred, noodle through great trees, and cruise the best wide groomers around at night.
It has a thriving park scene, which makes it pretty much the only resort up either canyon with that option. Brighton is also a great place to learn to take your kids to. There is great beginner terrain and beginner trees (what kid doesn’t love noodling through trees?), and Brighton does offer the only night skiing around town. It feels like a locals' hill, because it is one.
Make sure to bring beacon, shovel, probe, because while not mandatory, most of the steeper options off the Milly Chair are in the backcountry off the sides of the runs there. You can find fresh snow for days after a storm at Brighton. Can’t say enough good about this little resort with a lot of badass terrain.
Brighton is the only ski area in the Cottonwoods that offers night skiing, including its fully-lit terrain park. JP Walker/Brighton Resort photo.
Lodging: You can stay at the Brighton Lodge or down the street at the Silver Fork Lodge, but for the most part Brighton is not your all-inclusive resort destination, which is part of what makes it magical, less expensive, and less crowded.
Food & Beer: Molly Green’s at Brighton made TGR's list for the top five aprés ski spots around Ski City. Brighton also has a full cafeteria with great sandwiches and offers an indoor picnic area under Molly Green’s. How cool is it that a resort this day and age offers a warm place to eat your packed lunch? Down the street, again, is the Silver Fork Lodge, which makes a great breakfast. Lunch and dinner are also super delicious and served in an unrivaled cozy, comfortable space.
The Lowdown on SOLITUDE
With a big diversity in terrain and literally no crowds, Solitude remains empty, and deep. Ski City photo.
Shredding: It’s very hard to explain just how good the skiing and riding is at Solitude. It’s simply astounding how not crowded this resort can remain, even when year after year, people who end up there realize how good it is. There is literally never a crowd at Solitude; don’t ask me how that is, it’s just science. You have any kind of terrain that you want, and it stays good for days after a storm.
If you want to learn how to shred, Link is a great place to start, then you can graduate to Moonbeam Express. If you want intermediate terrain, this hill is littered with incredible blue runs. If you want advanced terrain, there’s a chance that Solitude has some of the most advanced terrain around off Fantasy Ridge. Be warned that Fantasy Ridge, however, is not always open and has extremely advanced hike access-only terrain, and the hike alone will scare anyone that is not comfortable in highly advanced bootpack situations.
If Fantasy Ridge is not open, Honeycomb Canyon has incredible advanced terrain with awesome tree skiing. If you’re feeling spicy, check out Powderhorn II and go for a tree skiing adventure; it won’t disappoint. Solitude also has a full Nordic Center as well.
Lodging: lodging is easy at Solitude. There are many different options, including renting condo space or private homes, which would be a nice option if you wanted to relax in your sweats, make some food, and watch a movie one night.
F&B: Solitude has made night-and-day upgrades with food options in the last 15 years. The food on-slope is tasty. I used to love eating at the Roundhouse when I was a kid; it was our big treat. They have great food options for finer dining and pub-eating as well, with Stone Haus Pizza being a good place to start. Après at Solitude always starts at The Thirsty Squirrel, and leads into one of the several options at the hill's base village.
GETTING TO THESE RESORTS
The UTA runs buses to all four Cottonwoods resorts, which can deliver you to the hill all the way from downtown Ski City. UTA photo.
This is incredibly easy, as there are LOTS of different options for getting to the Cottonwood Canyons. The Utah Transit Authority has great routes to get you up to the hill, even right from downtown, and a Ski City Super Pass gets you a free ride to and from the resorts with the UTA any day you plan to ski or ride.
Many of the resort's lodgings will have airport shuttles and transportation options of their own. Renting a car is pretty cheap, too, although there’s really no need to have a car unless if you want to take a full day off from shredding and try out some of the city's awesome downday activities, in which case having a car opens up more of Salt Lake City's option. On top of all that, Uber is now offering uberSKI to get to the hills, so that’s also an option as well.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE RAD CITY OF SALT LAKE
Salt Lake City itself has more good bars, bars, and entertainment than you'll be able to enjoy during your stay. Adam Barker/Visit Sale Lake photo.
As I mentioned earlier, Salt Lake has come a long way and developed a huge host of awesome places to eat, drink, and entertain yourself, from movie theaters you can drink beer and eat dinner in to the hipster scene at Beer Bar and Bar X to taking on the aggressive itinerary of the Ski City bar crawl.
Great Restaurants: Pago, Valter’s, Current, Copper Onion, Copper Kitchen, Takashi, Em’s, the Red Iguana.
A banh mi sandwich, part of the delicious lineup at Oh Mai in Ski City. Ski City photo.
Maybe not as famous, but still really good: Frida’s, Avenues Bistro, Rye, Roots Café, Eva’s, Sushi Groove, Oasis Café, Salt Lake Roasting Company (they have an insane lasagna).
Unique places to get a beer: Brewvies, where you can watch a movie, eat dinner, and drink beer all at the same time. The Beer Bar, where you can pick from any of the huge menu of gourmet brats and enjoy the best beer selection (on draft) in Utah. The Bayou also has Cajun late-night food and the longest beer list in Utah.
Bar X and Beer Bar, side-by-side downtown, are must-stop spots with a cocktail crowd that often spills into the streest. Beer Bar photo.
Go downtown: there are a ton of fun new little bars, from swanky to divey, all within walking distance and right off the Trax.
Use the TRAX: TRAX is the public rail system that runs from Draper to SLC. TRAX stops in the Sugarhouse neighborhood, which is really up-and-coming these days. New Wasatch Brewery is located in the heart of it, along with The Annex, Epic Brewery’s gastro-pub.
TRAX can also take you to The City Creek Shopping Center, Abravanel Hall, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the Vivint Smart Arena where the Utah Jazz play, the downtown Planetarium, and of course, the Mormon Temple, TRAX rides are free with the purchase of a Super Pass as well.
There's a ton of bars and restaurants accessible via the downtown TRAX stops, and you can take it all the way from the center of the city to the ski areas. Ski City photo.
TRAX opens up the city and allows for you to not have to drive or park if you do not desire to. Watch the schedule, however, as they don’t have super late trains if you do end up at the bar till close.
Down days can also be a total riot. From super cool museums, foam pits & trampolines, to Salt Lake’s own Utah Jazz, there are a ton of things to do in SLC (we even wrote our own guide about them). Check out The Depot or The State Room for a concert, check out the Natural History Museum of Utah, and even our downtown library is incredible as well!
Carston Oliver actually wrote a sweet little diddy about Utah downdays. He mentions Snogression, but there’s another trampoline park where you can try your hand at an American Ninja Warrior course that dumps into a foam pit as well at Airborne.
Tips for Making The Most of a Cottonwood Canyon Powder Day
Big powder days in Little Cottonwood Canyon mean dangerous avalanche conditions above the access road that often must be cleared before traffic is allowed up. Snowbird photo.
Stay up a canyon, this way you don’t have to deal with driving traffic/ parking/ road closures/ necessary 4WD vehicles with snowtires. If you do rent a car and it looks like it’s going to be a snowy week, rent a 4WD vehicle!
Do not drive if you do not have snow tires and 4WD! You will get turned away by the police.
Keep your eyes on UDOT for road closures, as Little Cottonwood Canyon closes all the time for avalanche safety.
You’ll want to start early if you are coming from the city or Park City if you want to beat traffic, as traffic up and down the canyon is frequent, especially on pow days.
Get a Ski City Super Pass ahead of time so you can run right to the lifts when you get to the hill, and don't have to stop and get a ticket.
If you do not head down the canyon road by around 3:30 (maybe a pinch earlier) on big pow days, you might get stuck in what we call the “red snake," which is the line of brake lights that can be seen all the way down the canyon. This can take a while, so either call and make your dinner reservations a bit later on a pow day, or hang out for aprés after the day.
From The Column: Local’s Guide
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