The Art of Core Shot Avoidance


Utah’s best early-season backcountry ski tours


Story and Photos by Jared Hargrave



Patience is not a virtue of backcountry skiers. Every autumn Utah inevitably gets hammered by an early-season snowstorm that drops a few feet of virgin snow in upper elevations. Those peaks with frosted tips ignite a migration into the high country’s upper reaches. Die-hard skiers and splitboarders risk injuring knees and gouging skis just to eke out a few turns on barely-covered slopes. While young‘uns sate themselves building jumps at Brighton’s base, tech-binding nomads wander higher in search of winter’s first powder turns. But such excursions can come at a cost; core shots courtesy of your not-so-friendly local rock shark.

But you don’t have to destroy your new ski-touring setup to partake in what is arguably a foolish yet traditional mission. There are many backcountry routes you can ski in the uber-early season without needing your p-tex guy on speed dial. The number one rule is this: seek out grassy slopes where the rocks are few and where no bushes grew.

Willow Fork

The higher in elevation you go, the more snow you’ll find. That’s why upper Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are easily the most popular places for autumn turns. But while the crowds are tracking up pre-season ski resorts, you can find a true backcountry experience in Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Willow Fork, also known as “The Willows.” This small drainage across the road from Solitude Mountain is an awesome place for a short tour or all day yo-yo fest where you can find a low-angle bowl with fewer rocks to dodge than similar aspects further up-canyon.

Perhaps the best lines are found on Main Willow Bowl. Rocks are scarce and the skiing is nice and mellow, which is ideal for shaking a summer’s worth of non-skiing from your legs. The one caveat is that these west and southwest-facing aspects are open and sunny. That means you’ll need to ski it the morning after a big dump before Indian summer comes around and wrecks (or melts) that snowy goodness. There is some brush on this route, but it’s not so thick that skiers end up bushwhacking. Just make turns around naked branches sticking up like fingers from the surface and relish the run.

To ski Willow Fork in the fall, it’s best to avoid the official trailhead due to a steep and rocky approach. Instead, park at Solitude’s upper lot and walk across the road to the cabins. Go up the neighborhood street until you reach a jeep-road grade that heads northwest into the aspen trees. Follow this to the ridge between Willow Fork and USA Bowl. Skin east up the ridge, passing Willow Knob, to the Wasatch Crest. Traverse the crest north to the top of Main Willow Bowl and ski down. Use the old jeep road you came in on as the return to Solitude.

Catherine Pass

Another Wasatch Mountain zone ideal for an early-season tour is located right next to Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Catherine Pass, accessed from the Albion Summer Road, is pretty rocky in and of itself. But there are mellow, grassy slopes in the area if you know where to look. Many of the slopes that fall into the resort boundaries are treed and fairly low-angle, just in case you insist on skiing despite elevated avalanche danger after a two-foot dump before Thanksgiving. The backside of Catherine Pass is very dicey in the fall, especially off Rocky Point. That moniker is a big hint as to what lurks just below a shallow snow surface (but that doesn’t seem to stop some Neanderthal skiers.)

The best course of action is to ski inviting powder fields off the west faces of Rocky Point and Point Supreme. While this is technically within the Alta ski resort boundary, it has a very backcountry feel this time of year. Plus, it’s usually the only place at Alta you can ski pre-season while mountain operations closes uphill traffic in preparation for opening day.

For the best skiing with the fewest rocks, stay on the main faces and avoid being sucked into any gullies. There be rock dragons in those lowlands. As you ski down into the trees, one must be more careful to avoid hitting rocks as they tend to sprout prolifically here. Make your way back to the Albion Summer Road for a return ski to the car.

An early start (like 5 a.m. skinning by headlamp) is recommended here after a big snow event because it’s the first place people think to go. Avoid the crowds with a dawn patrol and laugh at the hordes skinning up while you’re making first tracks. To do it, park at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon Road at the closed Albion gate. Continue up the road on skins (take any shortcuts you come to for switchback avoidance) until you reach the top of the Albion chairlift. From here, keep left and follow the Catherine Pass summer trail to the pass, then head south from the pass, keeping on the ridge, to Rocky Point or Point Supreme. You can also break trail and switchback up the skiable slopes before reaching the pass itself.

Tony Grove

Tony Grove, located in the Bear River Mountains near Logan, is an immensely popular summer destination for hikers and campers. In the winter it’s the domain of snowmobiles. But there’s a short window where backcountry skiers who don’t own snow machines can make turns on a variety of terrain. Mellow meadows, steep chutes, and cliff bands are on the menu above the frozen shores of Tony Grove Lake. You just have to be able to drive up the unplowed road before the snow piles too high, rendering it impassable for passenger vehicles.

The Tony Grove area is among the highest elevation ski tours in this mountain range, so it tends to be blessed with a lot of early-season snowfall. Early Bowl, also known as Beginner Bowl, is perhaps the ideal low-angle autumn tour. This open shot is blessedly free of rocks and is popular with Logan locals scratching that pre-season itch before nearby Beaver Mountain fires up the chairlifts. It’s not uncommon to see skiers and snowboarders with resort gear boot packing up from the campground. To the west of Early Bowl, neighboring Miller Bowl offers more steepness. While your chances of connecting ski bases with rock are higher here, especially right when you drop in, it’s still a decent option for early skiing when the snowpack is shallow.

To ski Tony Grove, drive up Logan Canyon from the town of Logan 19 miles to Tony Grove Road. The road doesn’t close for the winter so much as it simply doesn’t get plowed. Driving up the seven miles to the lake is at your own risk and discretion. Four-wheel-drive and snow tires or chains are a must. At either the lake or campground, skin (or hike) south up the mountainside. Early Bowl is above the campground, while Miller Bowl is adjacent to the lake below the cliffs.

Garden City Bowls

Perhaps the most adventurous early-snow terrain in Logan Canyon is found on the Garden City Bowls. These east-facing runs in Garden City Canyon are a year-round powder paradise. But what makes them especially attractive in the fall is how grassy the slopes are. One year I skied here when I probably shouldn’t have. My skis hit ground at the bottom of every turn, and I didn’t connect with a single stone. Slope angles are mild though, so it’s damn fine meadow-skipping, even if you’re literally skipping on the meadow.

At an elevation around 8,800 feet, these northeast-facing bowls tend to wring a bunch of powder from cold storms. If you’re there on a clear day, you might even catch a glimpse of Bear Lake to the east. You can ski 1,000 vertical feet from top to bottom, but the wide-open spaces constrict and funnel into steep gullies above Garden City Creek. The best bet is to stay high and do laps on the upper slopes.

The tour begins at the top of Logan Canyon just before the highway drops down the other side to Bear Lake. Park at a huge dirt pull off near a UDOT plow shed at Swan Flat Road. Park here and skin up the road as it switchbacks to the top of a ridge. Leave the road here and skin south up the ridge to the top of the Garden City Bowls.

Wolf Creek Pass

Snowmobile mecca. That’s what Wolf Creek Pass in the Uinta Mountains becomes when the snow flies and the summit campground closes. But along with the immense plateaus and ridges that snowmobilers love to ride, there are a few obvious skiable runs that rise directly from the road. These 400-foot vertical descents are short, but make for good yo-yo tours on an autumn powder day. The pass officially closes in winter, but stays open early and late season as long as you can still drive up the road. 4×4 or chains are highly recommended. Once the pass officially closes, you’ll need a snow machine to get there.

Wolf Creek Pass has several options for low-angle touring on most aspects from the closed campground. The most obvious run is a prominent ridge just to the northwest where you can ski a short, 35-40 degree, 400-foot east face down to the South Fork Provo River. For a longer tour, skin west across the plateau on the north end of Duchesne Ridge along the rim of a wide, north-facing bowl that spills into Neeley Basin. The slopes are often wind-loaded here, but good, protected snow can be found if you make turns near or in the trees on either side of the bowl.

To reach Wolf Creek Pass, go to the town of Francis south of Kamas and head up State Route 35 into the Uinta Mountains. From town it’s about 20 miles to the pass summit. There are several pullouts along the road for parking. Take a look around because there’s a lot more terrain that can be skied along with what I describe here.


Ski Resorts

Ski resorts are often the best place to backcountry ski in the fall. Before operations close resorts to uphill traffic, the established beginner and intermediate ski runs generally have far less rocks than off-piste areas, which lessens the risk of gouging impeccable ski bases. Resorts at higher elevations are of course the obvious choice due to increased snowfall. Alta is always a skier’s go-to resort to skin up and ski down in early season because upper Little Cottonwood Canyon gets a ton of snowfall, even in the autumn months. In fact, it’s tradition for the powder-hungry to flock to Alta and skin up beneath the Collins lift after the first big storm, even if it means basically skiing on grass.

Other good resorts for pre-season tours is Brighton, Solitude, Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Beaver Mountain. Be a weather forecaster and make plans to pull the trigger on whichever resort is favored for the most snowfall. Although the Central Wasatch is famous for epic dumps, it’s not uncommon for the Northern Wasatch and Bear River Range to be the big winners in an autumn storm,

Backcountry skiing the resorts are also convenient because you can pick up your season pass while you’re there. But remember, always check with resort operations before heading up for a pre-season tour, because all ski resorts eventually close to uphill traffic once they start getting the mountain ready for opening day. The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no avalanche control at closed resorts. You may be sliding down a ski area’s runs, but don’t be fooled into a sense of safety. Avalanches can and will occur in-bounds during pre-season. Take the same precautions that you would in true backcountry terrain.

There are doubtless other places in Utah to get your autumn backcountry fix. The key is to find those areas that get a lot of snow, and have smooth grassy slopes with few rocks. A good plan of action is to scope out lines before the snow falls so you can gauge the rock content of your desired slope. Then again, if you need an excuse to buy new skis, it can also be fun to take your old boards and just destroy them on that 6-inch snowpack.

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