My touring buddies call me “the cautious one.” (Also, “burrito hoarder.”) And they don’t mean either as a compliment. But how many times have I died in an avalanche? Zero. That statistic says a lot. Each morning, I carefully study the Utah Avalanche Center’s detailed daily report. These guys know their stuff, and when they say danger is considerable or worse, I figure they mean it.
But a high danger rating needn’t mean it’s a couch day. The gods of the Wasatch have blessed us locals with a bountiful array of well-anchored, low-angle glades, and all we need to do is seek them out. Here are a few go-to areas to check out when avy danger looks like a total drag. I, Ms. Let’s-Dig-Another-Pit, have officially deemed these low-risk*.
*Still, be responsible, think for yourself, and know what you’re doing out there.
Nestled in upper Big Cottonwood Canyon, Beartrap Fork boasts more than safe tree glades: it’s downright quiet and untracked too. Most folks drive right by the unmarked trailhead without realizing it’s there, but there it is—just half a mile down-canyon from bustling Silver Fork Lodge.
Park along the canyon road and skin up the trail on the north side of the road. You’ll soon ascend into a lovely stepped series of meadows and inclines, gradually working your way up the belly of Beartrap Fork. When you’re ready, angle off to the right and ascend through the aspen glades to the ridge between Beartrap and Mule Hollow. From here, there’s no wrong way to ski back down into Beartrap … and there are many right ways.
I frequently sing the praises of Mill D North, even if the canyon snowplow guy did block my car in behind a four-foot-high chunk-mound last time I was there. Mill D still offers a veritable playground of gentle, aspen-gladed delights.
Simply park at Spruces, skin up the trail on the north side of the road, and split off to the right about half a mile after you pass through a cluster of cabins. Ascend to the ridge between Mill D and Beartrap (known as the Powder Park 3 area) and choose your aspect of descent carefully based on the avy forecast. There’s plenty to go ‘round, so point your planks in the right direction and let ‘er rip.
The view from the top of Circle-All Peak makes the trek up to it worthwhile; it’s one of the best views in the Wasatch. As you de-skin and contemplate the glorious fall line beneath you, you’ll be able to scope out every major feature along the dramatic skyline between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.
To get to the peak, park at Butler Fork and skin up till you get to a fork in the trail. Veer westward toward Mt. Raymond and continue upward for 30 minutes till you top out on the ridgeline above. A five-minute jaunt south along the ridge will land you on top of Circle-All. It’s the best view in town, and the fall line going back to your car won’t suck. Not one bit.
Willow Fork happens to be slam-dunk easy to get to, and it offers primo views of Solitude along the way. (So you can be jealous of the lift-riders while also feeling grateful you don’t have to jostle with them.)
Park along the canyon road in front of Solitude’s upper village and start skinning up the little residential road across the street. When the road turns hard right, veer left and start ascending through the trees. You’ll eventually top out at Willow Knob, a 9,500ft prominence. You can either ski down directly from there or continue riding the ridge to the northeast if you’d like a different slope angle. There are many, many descent options that keep you safely within the aspens and away from any lurking dangers above.
Most of my touring pals either love or hate Green’s Basin, but you know what? It’s damn safe if you stay in the very (very) tight evergreens that blanket the basin’s north-facing drop.
Getting up into the basin is a mere one-hour affair; just park at the Spruces lot in Big Cottonwood and start ascending up toward Days Fork. Half a mile up Days, you’ll see a turnoff on the left. Follow it and continue as long as you have time to. The fall line back down to the parking lot is very steep—intimidatingly so—but there’s little room for a major slide to occur. The trees are packed in like sardines, but the snow between them is so soft and well protected that you won’t mind one bit.
There you go: five go-to spots even when the danger looks dicey. So go nuts (cautiously). And obviously, check the reports, scope your travel routes carefully, and don’t be a dummy—be well practiced, and always bring your safety equipment.
For days when the avy forcast is good, check out these five short and sweet tours in the Wasatch.