Utah's Other Canyon

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I may have only gained 400 vertical feet in my hike to the top of Pioneer Peak at Brighton, Utah, but I've also gained a whole new appreciation for Big Cottonwood Canyon.

One of the most panoramic views in all of the Rockies unfolds before me. Brighton's trails are laid out in a half-circle. Farther down the canyon are the slopes of Solitude. To my left, southwest, I can just glimpse the tram at Snowbird. To my right, northwest, is the top of Jupiter Peak at Park City.

A bit winded after the 15-minute hike from the top of the Crest lift, I stop to catch my breath and then click into my skis and drop down a steep, gladed face. The snow is surprisingly light on this mid-March day, shielded from the sun's warmth by the ridge and trees. Though it's been four days since the last storm, the untracked fluff is knee-deep, and I yell in delight.

As the snow flies around me, I think back to what Dan Knopp told me at breakfast that morning. In Big Cottonwood Canyon, nothing gets by Knopp. Literally, because the only way in and out of the canyon is past Knopp's Silver Fork Lodge & Restaurant. Figuratively, because Knopp is the canyon's unofficial mayor.

"This canyon is the Rodney Dangerfield of Utah skiing," declares Knopp. "We don't get any respect. But the skiing here is great. We have the same terrain and snowfall as the other Utah areas."

Knopp, who had been a diehard Snowbird skier for more than a decade, moved to Big Cottonwood five years ago and bought the strategically placed Silver Fork. Now, he says, "I have buddies from Snowbird who are coming over to Solitude and Brighton on powder days because there are no crowds or liftlines here."

BIG COTTONWOOD IS A 15-mile-long slice of heaven carved into the Wasatch Mountains just east of Salt Lake City. It's just north of Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to better-known Snowbird and Alta. There may be a certain irony now that the big-name ski resorts are in Little Cottonwood, but the canyons were named years ago simply for their plentiful cottonwood trees and relative size.

The bottom two-thirds of Big Cottonwood feels like Little Cottonwood-narrow, with steep rock faces. The top third of Big Cottonwood is wide-open, more than a mile across in places. All of Big Cottonwood is pristine, largely undeveloped, because the land is a watershed for Salt Lake City and is regulated by strict environmental controls. Only a few hundred people live in the canyon.

Solitude and Brighton are both family-owned, mid-sized ski areas with vertical drops of about 2,000 feet, featuring abundant snowfall, inexpensive lift tickets (less than $40) and a loyal local following. About half of their skiers and snowboarders are from Salt Lake City, while the rest tend to be visitors who stay in Salt Lake and sample a variety of the nearby resorts. Solitude and Brighton are an easy 35-minute drive from downtown and 40 minutes from the airport.

Neither area aspires to be a large destination resort, but Solitude is headed in that direction. With 90 modern rooms, a few nice restaurants and a small health club, it already has the trappings of a true resort. Construction has also begun on the first phase of the small Village at Solitude (see "Solitude Village Update on page 105), but only 560 rooms and a handful of shops and restaurants will ultimately be built. Compare this with the thousands of rooms available in Little Cottonwood Canyon or Park City, and you get the picture. Solitude's limited development is both by design-"We don't want to be a mega-resort," says Dave DeSeelhorst, son of Solitude owner Gary-and environmental necessity.

Two miles up the road, Brighton has only an old 20-room lodge and is extremely limited in potential base area development. In addition to facing the same rigid watershed and sewer system controls as Solitude, Brighton's base is virtually all on Forest Service land.

Though the two ski areas have some similarities, I discover that they have their own personalies. As DeSeelhorst tells me, "Brighton and Solitude are physically very close, but you can have two different ski experiences in the same canyon."

DEAN ROBERTS HAS BEEN skiing Solitude for nearly 40 years, and he still can't get enough of the mountain. "There's just something about this resort," says the 69-year-old Roberts, who started as a ski instructor here in 1961 and then ran the ski school for many years. "I'm addicted to this mountain and this canyon. Every time I drive down it, I admire how beautiful it is. My wife always says I'm going to cause an accident."

We're standing on a trail called Serenity/F.I.S., which is an intermediate cruiser with rolling terrain and swooping turns. Racers from Salt Lake's prestigious Rowmark Academy often train here, and the run was briefly considered for the giant slalom course for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but environmental concerns prevented any events from being held in Big Cottonwood. The world's loss is my gain, I think, as I follow Roberts down the trail. For a guy pushing 70, Roberts likes to ski fast. Really fast.

Roberts gives me a high-speed tour of Solitude's frontside, which is a wide face with many open runs. At least two dozen trails-from bumps to buffed boulevards-can be reached from the Eagle Express high-speed quad alone. Uncrowded, spacious runs such as Sunshine Bowl are the essence of the Solitude experience for many of the area's intermediate skiers. "We tend to have an older, more affluent crowd than Brighton does," DeSeelhorst tells me, "and our clientele expects really good grooming."

Move up the canyon to Solitude's Powderhorn and Summit chairs, and the terrain gets much more challenging, with cliffs, tight glades and steep, rock-lined chutes. Honeycomb Canyon, on the backside of Solitude, can also be accessed from the Powderhorn and Summit chairs. Honeycomb has 400 acres of remote terrain where eagles are regularly seen soaring overhead. The snow there stays fresh for days because there's no lift in the canyon itself, which limits skier traffic. The only way out is a painfully long catwalk, and making "laps" requires riding at least two lifts.

While Roberts has had years to cultivate his love affair with Solitude, it is love at first sight for others. Down at the Inn at Solitude, Jeanna Baker from Houston is playing checkers with 10-year-old Tyler and 7-year-old Jessica in front of the fireplace after a day of skiing. "We love the prices, the fewer people and the good trails," she says.

The 46-room Inn at Solitude was built in the mid-Nineties, and the DeSeelhorsts succeeded in capturing the flavor of European inns they had visited. Its public areas are cozy, including St. Bernard's restaurant, which features upscale European-influenced specialties, and the rooms are surprisingly large. There's an outdoor heated pool, hot tub and a small health club with an exercise room, massages and other treatments. The Alps-inspired architecture extends to a nearby building, which houses 18 condominium units and the Creekside Restaurant.

Solitude is perfect for a two- or three-day getaway, and that's the duration of most guests' stays. That's fine with the management. "We don't have any delusions of grandeur," says Dave. "We're our own unique place."

AT FIRST GLANCE, Brighton's predominant mix of young snowboarders and families seems a potentially volatile brew. Even area manager Randy Doyle smiles wryly when he says, "It is an interesting mix." But conflicts have been few. Snowboarders are drawn by the area's large terrain park and its easily accessible backcountry. Families are attracted by the gentle, meandering trails that dominate the mid-section of the resort, as well as its inexpensive lift tickets and free season passes for kids 10 and under.

The Carlson family of Portland, Ore., are typical Brighton skiers. "We're staying in Salt Lake and hitting four areas in five days, including Brighton twice," says Rich Carlson, while eating lunch on the deck at the Alpine Rose cafeteria.

Brighton is at the top of Big Cottonwood and has four peaks that form a half-circle. Seven lifts, including two high-speed quads, serve 850 acres of in-bounds terrain. At least twice that much unpatrolled backcountry terrain is easily accessed by hikes ranging from 10 minutes to an hour. "We've always had open boundaries because it's Forest Service land," Doyle tells me. "But in the past five years we've seen a lot more people going into the backcountry."

Doyle and I are riding the Great Western high-speed quad, heading for a backcountry stash. It's a 10-minute hike to the backside of Clayton Peak from the top of Great Western. The slope is dotted with trees and rocks, but is mostly open. Doyle goes first, linking smooth, round turns and looking like the racer he once was. I follow and find untracked snow.

"I started skiing here when I was 2 years old," says the 46-year-old Doyle. His father, Zane, bought Brighton in 1944, some eight years after the first rope-tow was built. "My father was a butcher at the Hill Field air base," Randy says. "He used to cut meat for the troops at 3 am and then come up here and open the T-bar."

The Doyle family (Zane, Thelma and four children) owned and operated the area for more than 40 years, although Randy allows that "as a kid, I did a lot more racing and playing than I did working." In 1986, the Doyles sold Brighton to the Everett Kircher family, which owns several other resorts, including Boyne Mountain, Mich., Big Sky, Mont., and Crystal Mountain, Wash. "The Kirchers wanted us to stay on," says Randy, "so I became area manager and my brother, Mike, became operations manager. Ours was a tight family operation and so is the Kirchers'. It has worked out well."

In recent years, improvements have included two new high-speed quads, a new base lodge and the expansion of night skiing to 200-plus acres, giving Brighton the largest night skiing operation in Utah. But the place still feels rough around the edges-and that's part of its down-to-earth charm.

Nobody comes to Brighton to be pampered or to be seen. Instead, like Caroline Pratt of Highland, Utah, people come for "great views, good terrain and easy access from the parking lot to the lifts." I ride the Crest high-speed quad with Pratt, who wasn't able to convince any of her six adult children to ski with her on this day, so she came solo. "I've been skiing Brighton for years," she says, "and it's the only place I ski in Utah."

ON MY LAST DAY in Big Cottonwood Canyon, I'm sitting outside Solitude's Moonbeam Center waiting for the morning sun to soften the snow, which has set up overnight. I can't help but tease the two women sitting next to me who are pouring Bailey's Irish Cream into their coffee. "The Breakfast of Champions?" I ask aloud.

"Liquid courage," responds Angie Singleton, who tells me she is getting ready for her second day of snowboarding. She's trying to keep up with her friend, Jayne Benedict, who has been snowboarding for five years. Benedict took to the sport naturally because she was on the U.S. Olympic windsurfing team for nearly a decade.

The two live in Salt Lake City and are flight attendants for Southwest Airlines, working weekends so they can ski during the week. As flight attendants, they could fly for free and ski Colorado, California, the East Coast. "We can ski anywhere," says Benedict. "But why ski anywhere else?" I just smile and nod in agreement.

Utah's Other Canyon: Mountain Tour, Solitude

Utah's Other Canyon: Mountain Tour, Brighton

Utah's Other Canyon: Almanac

Utah's Other Canyon: Solitude Village Updatedeck at the Alpine Rose cafeteria.Brighton is at the top of Big Cottonwood and has four peaks that form a half-circle. Seven lifts, including two high-speed quads, serve 850 acres of in-bounds terrain. At least twice that much unpatrolled backcountry terrain is easily accessed by hikes ranging from 10 minutes to an hour. "We've always had open boundaries because it's Forest Service land," Doyle tells me. "But in the past five years we've seen a lot more people going into the backcountry."Doyle and I are riding the Great Western high-speed quad, heading for a backcountry stash. It's a 10-minute hike to the backside of Clayton Peak from the top of Great Western. The slope is dotted with trees and rocks, but is mostly open. Doyle goes first, linking smooth, round turns and looking like the racer he once was. I follow and find untracked snow."I started skiing here when I was 2 years old," says the 46-year-old Doyle. His father, Zane, bought Brighton in 1944, some eight years after the first rope-tow was built. "My father was a butcher at the Hill Field air base," Randy says. "He used to cut meat for the troops at 3 am and then come up here and open the T-bar."The Doyle family (Zane, Thelma and four children) owned and operated the area for more than 40 years, although Randy allows that "as a kid, I did a lot more racing and playing than I did working." In 1986, the Doyles sold Brighton to the Everett Kircher family, which owns several other resorts, including Boyne Mountain, Mich., Big Sky, Mont., and Crystal Mountain, Wash. "The Kirchers wanted us to stay on," says Randy, "so I became area manager and my brother, Mike, became operations manager. Ours was a tight family operation and so is the Kirchers'. It has worked out well."In recent years, improvements have included two new high-speed quads, a new base lodge and the expansion of night skiing to 200-plus acres, giving Brighton the largest night skiing operation in Utah. But the place still feels rough around the edges-and that's part of its down-to-earth charm.Nobody comes to Brighton to be pampered or to be seen. Instead, like Caroline Pratt of Highland, Utah, people come for "great views, good terrain and easy access from the parking lot to the lifts." I ride the Crest high-speed quad with Pratt, who wasn't able to convince any of her six adult children to ski with her on this day, so she came solo. "I've been skiing Brighton for years," she says, "and it's the only place I ski in Utah."ON MY LAST DAY in Big Cottonwood Canyon, I'm sitting outside Solitude's Moonbeam Center waiting for the morning sun to soften the snow, which has set up overnight. I can't help but tease the two women sitting next to me who are pouring Bailey's Irish Cream into their coffee. "The Breakfast of Champions?" I ask aloud."Liquid courage," responds Angie Singleton, who tells me she is getting ready for her second day of snowboarding. She's trying to keep up with her friend, Jayne Benedict, who has been snowboarding for five years. Benedict took to the sport naturally because she was on the U.S. Olympic windsurfing team for nearly a decade.The two live in Salt Lake City and are flight attendants for Southwest Airlines, working weekends so they can ski during the week. As flight attendants, they could fly for free and ski Colorado, California, the East Coast. "We can ski anywhere," says Benedict. "But why ski anywhere else?" I just smile and nod in agreement.

Utah's Other Canyon: Mountain Tour, Solitude

Utah's Other Canyon: Mountain Tour, Brighton

Utah's Other Canyon: Almanac

Utah's Other Canyon: Solitude Village Update