Alta-Snowbird traverse

A glorious hike through the high country above Alta & Snowbird ski areas in the Wasatch Range of Utah.

I had the good fortune to be out in Utah to attend the MobiCom conference, held this year at the Snowbird ski resort.  Although late October is the shoulder season, I was nonetheless eager to get out hiking in the mountains above Snowbird.  Wow, was I ever lucky with the weather!  It snowed on the final day of the conference, leaving me to hike through a snowy wonderland on the day after.  See the photo gallery, and read on to hear more about the hike.

Views from Hidden Peak at Snowbird, toward the Twin Peaks and the sunset.I arrived at Snowbird on Wednesday, just in time to ride the tram to the 11,000’ summit of Hidden Peak, where there is an elegant restaurant.  The weather was calm, sunny, and warm (almost 60 degrees), allowing the conference attendees to stroll about the summit and snap photos of the sunset beyond Twin Peaks and over the glimmering lights of Salt Lake City.  Meanwhile, I was looking the other direction, toward the east… where I hoped to be hiking on Saturday.  These mountains are nothing like New England — the high country is open, with wide basins, scattered trees, and a few patches of snow left as representatives of an early-October snowstorm.

Mule deer on the slopes at Snowbird.The next morning I was out before sunrise to hike up the trails Snowbird maintains for summer hikers and bikers, weaving back and forth across the ski slopes.  I could feel the altitude; despite sleeping one night at 8,000’, climbing to 9,000’ was a real chore.  Still, it was a crisp and beautiful morning, and I watched the sun’s glow illuminate the opposite side of the valley as I climbed through meadows where mule deer were grazing.

Late afternoon light, late fall colors, Big Cotton Canyon, Utah.Later that day I was off with a friend to explore the next canyon to the north, Big Cotton Canyon.  We strolled along a well-traveled path to Donut Falls, a tumble-down collection of boulders where the water disappeared and reappeared in small cascades.  The highlight of the outing, though, was catching the late-afternoon sunlight passing through bright-yellow aspen trees at a roadside picnic area, as we wound down through the canyon on our way to a Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake.

Friday I was occupied with the conference all day, which was fine – we were embedded in heavy clouds that snowed on and off all day.  By the evening, when the clouds broke somewhat, the surrounding hills were covered in white.  With a forecast of sunshine for tomorrow’s hike, things were looking great!

Hiking up trails along the slopes at Alta.On Saturday the morning light exposed solid clouds all around – the mountains weren’t even visible.  I lingered over breakfast, waiting for the sun to lift those clouds before I began my hike.  After a short ride up the canyon from Snowbird to Alta, courtesy of the bell-hop, I was on foot at Alta Base by 9am.  Looking up the slopes toward Albion Basin, with the sun rising over the ridgetop and most of the clouds dissipating, I caught my first views of this gorgeous hike.

But here’s the catch.  No trail signs.  I don’t know if this is a Snowbird/Alta thing, or a Utah thing, or a Western thing, but they don’t seem to bother to put up signs at the trailheads, or at trail junctions. Nor publish high-quality trail maps.  I wandered this way, that way, the other way, and back, until I gained confidence in a track leading uphill under one of the ski lift lines.  I could see that the fresh snow, though only 1-2” deep, had already lured a nordic skier out of hibernation.  As the day went by I encountered more foot tracks, and a few other hikers enjoying early-winter conditions.  Indeed, their tracks helped me to find and follow trails.

2017-10-21-41013The scenery was absolutely spectacular.  For one used to the worn, forested slopes of New England mountains, beautiful as they are, the rocky peaks of the Wasatch Range have that classic, rugged look that somehow defines the term mountains.  Warm sun, fresh snow, and calm, clear air kept me in a buoyant mood as I climbed through 9,000’ in the Albion Basin and toward Catherine Pass.  After spending three days and nights at 8,000’, I had now acclimatized well enough that the altitude no longer bothered me.

On this trail I met the first of three hikers toting rifles. Gosh!  They were dressed in camo an hunter-orange clothes; I asked one what he was seeking.  “Deer”, he said, “season opener today!”   Sure wish I’d known that in advance… could have worn something orange.  Hunting must be very different in such open country, where deer could be spotted a mile away.  The fresh snow was, I’m sure, a big advantage to the hunters.  When I later spotted some deer, close to the trail, I encouraged them to keep well hidden.

High exposure on the trail to Sunset Peak - and it gets worse!I reached Catherine Pass around 11am and could now look to the distant Uinta mountains in the north and the rolling hills to the east.  I turned right and, keeping to the ridgeline, headed for Sunset Peak, reputed for spectacular views.  Little did I realize that the approach requires a knife-edge traverse with severe exposure.  I donned microspikes, but was still nervous about the steep 500’ snow slope to my left as I crossed the narrower sections of the ridge.  Slipping here could lead to a long slide toward the boulders below. A bit scary, but worth it!  At 10,648’, Sunset Peak’s small summit has 360-degree views.  Under blue skies and warm sunshine, I flew my kite in the gentle breeze and ate my lunch.  Gazing along the ridgelines toward Snowbird, I could see Hidden Peak and the top of the tram line.  I could almost pick out, visually, a path from here to there. This gave me an idea – one much better than backtracking to my start and road-walking to Snowbird.

Cecret Lake, Albion Basin.I decided to head for Snowbird across the high country.  I traversed the ridge to Sunset Pass, then off-trail through snowfields along a ridge to one of Alta’s ridge-top ski lifts.  From there, I was able to follow a road back down into Albion Basin, past some condos, and find the (unmarked) trail for Cecret Lake.  This popular destination had already had a lot of visitors today, indicated by the many footprints in the thin snow cover.  I can see why – this little lake is a beautiful, well-named pond nestled high in a bowl below the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain.  I stopped to assess my strength; here I had to commit to (a) descend to my starting point, or (b) climb to 10,500′ in hopes of finding a path around Mount Baldy to Hidden Peak, above Snowbird.  The maps were unclear, so it meant taking a chance. I decided to go for it.

I left behind the Cecret-lake tourists and, apparently from the lack of tracks, all other hikers.  I stopped at a small spring to refill my water bottle, and gazed up at the ridgeline.  I could see the “Sugarloaf” at the top, and I was following a road that zig-zagged its way up to that point.  Would it go further?  What is on the other side? Onward!

2017-10-21-41097Tired, I pulled into 10,500’ Sugarloaf pass and looked toward Baldy.  Ahh.  There is indeed another ski lift serving the opposite side, and a road leading down, into Mineral Basin.  No way to slab across to the other side of Baldy at this elevation; I had to descend several hundred feet into the basin, and then climb back up another series of switchbacks to reach the Hidden-Baldy ridgeline, again at 10,500’.  I could see the tram, bringing tourists up from Snowbird to enjoy the summit.  I quickly walked down into Mineral Basin and started the slow, zig-zag climb toward the 11,000’ summit of Hidden Peak, arriving around 4:30pm. Great views, to be sure, but I was most pleased to have navigated my way over to the Snowbird basin.  Now, I had to decide whether to walk 4 miles down the trails to descend 2,900’ vertical to my home at Cliff Lodge, requiring perhaps an hour and a half, or to ride the free tram down and be there in 10 minutes?  Easy choice!

I was met at the base by an old friend and roommate, who lives just outside Salt Lake.  We drove to his house, cleaned up, had another wonderful Mexican dinner, and caught up on old times – a great way to end a great day!  Check out the photo gallery.

Total hike distance 10 miles, elevation gain 4,341′.

MotionX capture of hiking track (orange), starting from Alta base (center top) and ending at Snowbird (left).

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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