Snowshoeing, Backcountry Skiing, and Yurting Await in Utah’s “Other” Mountain Range
Wasatch too crowded? While there are actually plenty of wilderness and opportunities for solitude just beyond the popular trailheads and resort areas, locals seem to forget the options in the Uintas.
Just an hour east lies a large wilderness area, high peaks, and nary a soul in sight for those seeking elbow room and a change of scenery. With multiple access points—and hundreds of thousands of acres of space—there are several ways to enjoy this hidden gem: snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, and for the multi-day adventurer, yurt trips.
1. Snowshoeing & Cross Country Skiing
The simplicity of snowshoeing is its inherent beauty: grab lightweight layers of winter clothing, a pair of snowshoes, some poles, and start walking. The methodical step-by-step shuffle under towering pine trees weighed down by snow provides a magical canopy for this family-friendly adventure.
Modern snowshoes are capable of climbing steep slopes, but a tromp through a flat meadow is just as enjoyable after a fresh snowfall. Pack a thermos of hot cocoa or coffee and hit one of the many hiking trails, or cut your own path, following your footsteps back to your vehicle for a rewarding half-day activity.
Beaver Creek Trail is one of the first trails heading out of Kamas, and its gentle rolling terrain is even groomed a few times a week. Great in big snow years (fingers crossed!), this trail parallels the highway and eventually connects to the North Fork Trailhead, allowing for both one-way and shuttled walks. Another favorite is the Norway Flat Road, which climbs gradually for four or five miles before steepening. Snowshoe as far as you wish then simply return the way you came. Pro tip: Use longer poles for less fatigued arms, and stay aware when trekking in avalanche terrain.
Akin to snowshoeing is cross-country skiing, with many of the same trails shared by users from both groups. For beginners, rent gear for an easy tryout. Snowshoeing is the easier of the two sports, and even expert downhill skiers (translation: this author) have crashed on the thin, edgeless cross-country skis on gradual slopes, or icy areas.
2. Backcountry Skiing
On summer hikes I can’t help but ogle the Uinta’s high peaks and steep bowls, scouting for potential ski lines and safe skin tracks for next winter. Utah’s highest mountain range has dozens of above-treeline steep faces: each more appealing than the next.
Spring is the preferred season to tackle some of the big ones near Hayden Peak and Bald Mountain Pass, where most terrain is above 10,000 feet. However, the Wolf Creek Pass area—which is accessed from the town of Francis—offers several low-angle ski tours near the campground. Note: This area is also popular with snowmobilers (hey, free tow rides!) throughout the winter.
This article is not the proper space to describe in detail any of the specific routes in the Uintas, as they can be complicated and often in high avalanche danger zones. Two books—which cover the entire state—are good places to start. Tyson Bradley’s Backcountry Skiing Utah and Jared Hargrave’s Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Utah are both great resources for the ski tourer seeking new terrain to explore.
But the best way to experience ski terrain in the Uintas is on a multi-day trip, using a yurt as a head start into the backcountry.
3. Yurt Trips
These circular structures were originally used in Mongolia as semi-permanent dwellings for their harsh climate, but have been adapted for Utah backcountry skiers and campers. Most yurts come equipped with cooking stoves, kitchen gear, outhouses, and beds, meaning trekkers can pack much lighter than if winter camping, while enjoying weatherproof accommodations.
With packs free of heavy items, I usually opt for a light summer sleeping bag, gourmet food, and, if it feels worth the penalty weight, a few cans of beer. I’ve found the best way to travel to most yurts is with about 35 pounds in my pack and the rest on a sled, which I attach with a heavy backpacking style belt to my waist, or clip to my ski pack.
As long as the route is not too steep, or full of narrow side hills, this method of splitting the weight works very well. I have also fallen into the trap of packing too much extra gear to compensate for all the eliminated gear and wind up with an even heavier load. Learn from my mistakes and leave some of those creature comforts at home, but don’t skip comfy yurt slippers.
Where to Yurt
There are five yurts in the Lily Lake system with the Boundary Creek and Ridge Yurts at the highest elevation—and longest approach—from the trailhead, and therefore the best touring opportunities. The Ridge Yurt is best for those whose priority is to ski some famed Uinta terrain, while the lower yurts are nice weekend escapes—especially for a mixed group that includes intermediate skiers. The terrain is mostly located in one of the basins above the yurts, and reaches above 11,000 feet. This area is accessed through Evanston, so it is a bit of an extra haul for Salt Lakers.
Closer to home is the trailhead for Castle Peak Yurt, which is only 30 miles from Park City, making the logistics more preferable to Wasatch Front and Back residents. With access to Castle Peak and another peak named Duke, this yurt offers some great “backyard” terrain. The approach gains about 2,000’ and can take up to six hours, but the views from top and excellent terrain make it a popular choice.
With everything from slide paths to cliff bands available here, options abound for an adventurous and experienced group. An added bonus is the wood-burning sauna to unwind in after a day of skiing, or waiting out nasty conditions and making sure your pores are extra clear before skiing back to the trailhead.
Snowmobile & Sled Access
Mirror Lake Highway is closed about 14 miles from Kamas, but the 30-plus miles up and over Bald Pass, and eventually to the Evanston, Wyoming gate is open for snowmobiling. While snowmobiles are prone to breakdowns, they do provide fast access to this road and middle of nowhere terrain: great for exploring new skiing areas. However, avalanches are a major concern on and off sleds or skis, so be prepared for the unexpected.