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5 early-season backcountry ski tours in Utah

Backcountry skiers are an impatient lot. As soon as the first couple inches of autumn snow falls in Utah, die-hards risk knee-and-ski injuries just to eek out a few turns on barely-covered slopes. But you don't have to destroy your rock skis to backcountry ski tour in Utah. There are several places you can ski or snowboard early season without having your P-Tex guy on speed dial. Below are 5 of my favorites.

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ALTA

Pre-season turns among Alta's morning light. Skier: Mike DeBernardo. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Pre-season turns among Alta's morning light. Skier: Mike DeBernardo. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Ski resorts are often the best place to backcountry ski in the fall. Before they open for the season, intermediate runs generally have far less rocks than off-piste areas, which lessens the risk of gouging your impeccable ski bases. Alta is probably the best 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 we're basically skiing on grass. Plus, 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 Alta does close the resort to uphill traffic once they start getting the mountain ready for opening day.

CATHERINE PASS

Justin Lozier approaches Catherine Pass before the crowds arrived. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Justin Lozier approaches Catherine Pass before the winter crowds arrive. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Another upper Little Cottonwood Canyon zone ideal for an early-season tour is located right next to Alta. Catherine Pass is a lot more rocky than the resort, but there are mellow, grassy slopes if you know where to go. Many of the slopes that fall back into the resort boundaries are also treed and fairly low-angle, in case avalanche danger is elevated after that 2-foot dump before Thanksgiving. The backside of Catherine Pass, however, is a bit more dicey, especially off Rocky Point, where the slopes are steeper and very rocky. It's best to wait for a deeper snowpack before entering that area. But if you stay frontside, go ahead and lap runs all day, then cruise the unopened resort runs back to the car.

GARDEN CITY BOWLS

Adam Symonds skis Garden City Canyon's untracked meadows. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Adam Symonds skis Garden City Canyon's untracked meadows. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

The east-facing runs of Garden City Canyon, known as the Garden City Bowls, are a year-round, powder paradise. These wide open meadows are located at the top of Logan Canyon, and are low-angle, grassy, and boast views of Bear Lake in the distance. While winter is the best time to visit, the rock-free slopes of the Garden City Bowls make the area perfect for scoring some early-season turns when the rest of the northern mountains are practically bare. All of this can be had with a relatively short and safe approach from the highway.

TONY GROVE

Meadow skipping in Early Bowl where early season turns were plentiful. (Skier: Mason Diedrich, Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Meadow skipping in Early Bowl where early season turns are plentiful. (Skier: Mason Diedrich, Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Tony Grove, located in the Bear River Mountains near Logan, offers everything from mellow runs, steep chutes, and cliff bands above the frozen shore of Tony Grove Lake. The Tony Grove area is also among the highest elevation tours in the range, so it's known for receiving a lot of early-season snowfall. But the road to get there is unplowed, so autumn is the only time to tour here unless you have a snowmobile. But if your car can make it to the top, access is easy from the lake or campground. Early Bowl (aka Beginner Bowl) is a low-angle tour that's blessedly free of rocks and is very popular with locals. Neighboring Miller Bowl is a bit steeper, but is also a good option for skiing when the snow pack is shallow.

WILLOW FORK

Can there be too much of a good thing? Adam Symonds skis the line between too steep to be safe, and not steep enough to actually make turns in 3 feet of powder.(Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Is there such a thing as too much autumn powder? Adam Symonds skis the line between too steep to be safe, and not steep enough to actually make turns in 3 feet of powder in Willow Fork (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Upper Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains is another spot that can get hammered with early-season storms. While you can tour within the ski resort boundaries of Brighton or Solitude before they open, a true backcountry experience is found in Willow Fork. This small drainage across the road from Solitude is a generally low-angle and avy-safe backcountry area. In the fall, it's an awesome place for a short tour or all day yo-yo fest where you can find open, low-angle bowls next to steep tree runs covered in well-spaced evergreens with fewer rocks to dodge than similar aspects further up-canyon.

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, it can also be fun to take your rock skis and just destroy them on that 6-inch snowpack.

For more information about these tours, including driving directions, topo maps and ascent/descent descriptions, pick up a copy of Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: Utah from Mountaineers Books. 

BC-Ski-Utah_Jared

This article is by Jared Hargrave from utahoutside.com.

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