Originally Posted On: https://www.phoenixmag.com/2023/11/01/wasatch-escape/

Salt Lakers love their signature ski region. Whether it’s winter, summer or somewhere in between, you will, too.

Though it was the massive, mostly lifeless body of water to the west that gave their town its name, the residents of Salt Lake City – or “Salt Lakers,” as many prefer – clearly feel a greater kinship with the large mountain range to their east. 

It’s where Salt Lakers have most of their fun, after all. 

“It’s a huge benefit of living in Salt Lake, that’s for sure,” a Utah tourism official says while taxiing a group of visitors through the celebrated hiking and skiing region. As the car descends through a handsome glacial canyon, he starts describing its geological origins as if relating anecdotes about an old college friend.

Quite unabashedly, SLC folk love the Wasatch Range, an extremity of the Rocky Mountains that forms the heart of the Utah outdoor recreation community. Though the Wasatch technically stretches across half the state, its apotheosis is right here outside Salt Lake, less than an hour drive from downtown. Home of Park City, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and other world-famous slopes, it’s also the cradle of the Sundance Film Festival and provider of more hiking, fishing and biking possibilities than most of us can count.

Aided by a clean, efficient highway system that ribbons through the area, locals and visitors alike can form intimate connections with the peaks that tower over Salt Lake and the valleys that tumble onto its foothills.

After a few days here, don’t be surprised if you’re talking about canyons like they’re people. And having Salt Laker-style fun in the process.

Park City

One endearing trait of the Wasatch is that it’s not that high or rocky, at least by Rocky Mountain standards. The loftiest peak tops out at about 12,000 feet – not even as high as our own Humphreys Peak in Arizona.

This means getting around, through and over the range is generally pretty hassle-free, even in the winter – a far cry from the impassable fortification of 15,000-foot peaks that bifurcates central Colorado like the Wall from Game of Thrones.

The upshot: You can check into your room at the Westgate Park City Resort & Spa (westgateresorts.com) after a short, straight drive from Salt Lake City International Airport and get right down to whatever you’re doing in Park City. If it’s skiing, you’re in luck. The Westgate, an unpretentious, family-friendly resort slightly north of midrange (high-season rates starting at $360/night), is a classic ski-in, ski-out operation, with Park City Mountain ski lifts located just steps from the property.

For ski enthusiasts, Park City Mountain needs no introduction, but its vital stats make for good reading: Comprising three distinct peak clusters in the Wasatch, which one can transit on skis using a system of lifts and runs, it’s the largest ski resort in America – a kingdom, really, good for a week or more of never-ski-the-same-trail-twice exploration.

Later, work out the kinks in the Westgate’s mammoth, indoor-outdoor heated pool – a perfect, steamy end to any ski day. Then recharge at on-site Edge Steakhouse, where chef Wayne Christian goes big with deft starters like asparagus bisque with half-cooked quail egg and a tuft of enlivening micro-herbs; and a 45-day-aged bone-in ribeye, full of dense, wonderful, mushroom-y flavor.

Understatement trigger warning: There’s also plenty to do in downtown Park City, located two miles down the road. For starters, Park City will disabuse you of the (possibly never true) notion that Utahns don’t like to drink – home of the Sundance Film Festival (see sidebar below) and a favorite of the party set, it’s a tremendous town for tipplers, starting with Alpine Distilling (alpinedistilling.com), set in a quaint storefront on the town’s historical main drag. Low-impact option: Walk down the stairs and have a cocktail in the comfortable, artsy lounge. High-impact option: Gather some friends and take a gin-making class with Alpine co-owner Sara Sergent. The botanic-minded yin to husband and co-owner Robert Sergent Jr.’s bourbon-minded yang, Sara will sit down and talk you through the philosophy of gin-making, inviting you to smell and taste the dozens of herbs, seeds and dried fruit skins that compose modern gins. Then you’ll make your own bottle, choosing the juniper berries, citrus peels and other botanicals that suit your taste. It’s half spirits class, half encounter group. Psychoanalysis you can drink.

Plied with gin courage, you might skip across the street to Burns Cowboy Shop (burns1876.com), which bills itself as the oldest continuously owned Western retailer in the world, dating back to 1876. Custom cowboy hats and boots are the bell cows here, customized to fit any customer who walks through the door. The hat process is particularly fun. Using a steaming device to manipulate the rabbit-felt hats, Burns technicians can fashion virtually any style on-site, from a rakish, dented “cattleman” to a feminine, fluted “Caroline.”

And then you put it on your head – the perfect accoutrement for one of the West’s great mountain towns.

Deer Valley

Technically located within Park City town limits, Deer Valley has its own, upscale identity – sort of the Silverleaf to Park City’s Scottsdale. It refers both to Deer Valley Resort (deervalley.com), a luxe alpine ski mountain that caps lift sales at 7,500 a day and forbids snowboarding – sorry, kids! – and, more colloquially, the handsome  colony of hotels, condos and overnight resorts that huddle around  it.

The best-known and most impressive of these is Stein Eriksen Lodge (steinlodge.com), an absolute dream of a Scandinavian-style hotel that has everything you need for full Wasatch immersion, be it summer, winter or anything in between. Conceived by its namesake, a Norwegian Olympic gold medalist and longtime international ski instructor who ultimately made Utah his home, it’s a sprawling, cottage-style warren of guest rooms, walking paths and breathtaking alpine views that feels ripped from an Oslo mountainside.

Oftentimes, ski-centric hotels sequestered on mountain tops can lack in the hospitality realm. Not so here. On-site flagship restaurant Glitretind – named after Norway’s second-highest mountain – impresses from the jump, with one of the most lavish resort beer lists you’ll ever see, including selections from hard-to-find Napa brewery Mad Fritz. Dinner was spectacular at Glitretind, with a locavore-driven menu featuring such on-point delicacies as Utah elk carpaccio and bison ribeye over a hearty marrow bean salad with lusty squirts of spicy red chimichurri. For the vegetable-inclined: a ragout of wild mushroom served with rich cornbread and a bowl of carrot mole. Unusual and delicious.

Still, breakfast is what really sinks its ski poles into your culinary memory at Stein Eriksen – namely, the Norwegian potato and bacon pancake, a savory dish served with poached eggs, Jarlsberg cheese sauce and cranberries. Utterly alien and insanely good.

The hiking around Stein Eriksen is superb, but if a ski vacation is more your style, know that the resort is blessed with what amounts to a private Deer Valley lift, located just outside the ski shop.

Also know that you can have a private jacuzzi on your private deck if you book one of the resort’s grand suites. After a day of quad-burning exertion, it doesn’t suck.

Big Cottonwood Canyon

Driving over the top of the Wasatch from Park City on spectacular Guardsman Pass Scenic Backway, you’ll enjoy satisfying eyefuls of Big Cottonwood Canyon, the more northern of the two high-personality ski canyons in the Wasatch. (Be forewarned: The Backway tends to close during the winter months, closing off the nifty Park City connection. But Big Cottonwood is always accessible from SLC.)

Formed by Big Cottonwood Creek, this is an alluvial canyon, meaning it was formed by water erosion, giving it a distinctive V-shape. It’s also lusher and more densely wooded than the jagged glacial canyon we’ll meet later.

Big Cottonwood is home to two ski resorts: Brighton Resort (brightonresort.com) and Solitude Mountain Resort (solitudemountain.com). In the case of the latter, at least, the branding is entirely dead-on. Several miles and a mountain pass removed from the glitz of Park City, Solitude is where you go when you want to escape the madding ski crowds. With 66 trails spanning 1,200 acres, it’s massive by the meager standard of Arizona ski facilities, but one of the more compact SLC-area resorts. It also boasts a wide range of beginner and intermediate slopes, making it appealing to families and groups with a wide range of skill levels.

During the summer and fall, it’s also a primo hiking and biking hub, with long, meandering trails through thick stands of larch and mounds of white granite.

Irrespective of season, Solitude offers guest accommodations in a cute, Teutonic town-square-style central village with restaurants, shops and guest rooms.

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Running parallel to and south of Big Cottonwood is its presumptively smaller sibling, Little Cottonwood Canyon. As a glacial canyon, Little Cottonwood has a much more dramatic origin story than creek-created Big Cottonwood – specifically, it was formed by Pleistocene-era glaciers tearing a giant rut in the range as they migrated south, leaving a distinctive U-shape in their wake.

Perhaps for this reason, Little Cottonwood was also a silver mining hot spot during Utah’s 19th-century mining heyday – a history folded into Snowpine Lodge (snowpine.com) with remarkable tact and architectural aplomb. Located at the foot of Alta Ski Area (alta.com), Snowpine began its hospitality life in 1939 as a public shelter for skiers. Following a $40 million overhaul in 2018, the lodge now includes all the amenities of a luxury hotel – walk-in showers, slope-side balconies, plush beds – but has also mindfully retained some of its rustic, territorial character. You’ll find it in the resort’s Stillwell Spa, a transportive, meditative warren of relaxation rooms, grottos, an oxygen bar and more, fashioned from the original granite stone of the 19th-centery general store upon which the hotel was built. You’ll find similar mining-era vestiges in the lodge’s charming game room, filled with foosball, ping-pong and every arcade ticket game you can imagine, built into an old ore cellar.

Equipped with two on-site restaurants and situated within walking distance of several bountiful hiking trails, not to mention the gorgeous ski mountain in its backyard, Snowpine has everything you need for a Little Cottonwood residency, regardless of the season.

Not a mile down the highway is the canyon’s other premier recreation resort, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort (snowbird.com), a highly vertical, scenic operation that, true to its name, offers an aggressive menu of warm-weather amusements (including a roller-coaster) to burnish its winter ski appeal. One of its notable innovations: Tram Club, a subterranean bar and lounge set in Snowbird’s aerial tram engine room that became a cult hit among tippling Salt Lakers before shuttering during the pandemic.

No matter – the legendary tram itself is still in operation, essentially an enclosed ski lift the size of a large studio apartment that whisks passengers up the 11,000-foot face of Snowbird, affording them exalting, 360-degree views both of Little Cottonwood and Salt Lake City below.

It’s one of the greats views of the Wasatch. And it will remind you that canyons are people, too.


Visit Salt Lake is a private, non-profit corporation responsible for the promotion of Salt Lake as a convention and travel destination. In partnership with Salt Lake County, Visit Salt Lake improves the area economy by attracting and providing support to conventions, sports events, leisure travelers and visitors with a strong commitment to sustainability and stewardship of the area’s natural environment. Through its sales and marketing programs, Visit Salt Lake’s impact on Salt Lake’s annual $5.4 billion visitor economy equates to nearly $1,800 in tax relief for each household within Salt Lake County. For more information on all that Salt Lake has to offer, go to www.VisitSaltLake.com.