BIG SNOW: Utah mountains got 700” of snow last year. Hard to imagine, right? So don’t — Experience it. close

A Winter Retreat

Adventuring to The Big Water Winter Yurt in Millcreek Canyon
Fat-tire and cross-country ski: getting up Millcreek in winter.
Fat-tire and cross-country ski: getting up Millcreek in winter.

Words and photos: Kristen Bonkoski

It is only a few miles from our brick bungalow in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City to the winter gate in Millcreek Canyon, but the trail into the forested Wasatch Mountains already feels far away. The gray December day has given way to showers and the parking area that’s usually well utilized is nearly empty. The temperature is several degrees above freezing, which means that snow turns to rain right above our heads. Fortunately, it has been snowing heavily for days so, despite the rain, the canyon is white and frozen.

We stay hunkered down in the car for a few minutes but when it becomes clear that the rain isn’t going to be stopping any time soon, we start putting on layers. I dress Parker, my 4-year-old, first. Thermal underwear, sweats, wool socks, snow pants and coat. Finally, I tuck him safely inside a sleeping bag, stuff him in his trailer and zip its rain cover closed.

My husband, Blair, and I load the polk (a sled that can be pulled behind skis) with sleeping bags, spare clothes, food and a stove. On top, we secure a tarp to keep our gear dry. The plan is for me to haul the polk and for Blair to pull the kid in the trailer (with skis). I’m on cross-country skis; he’s on a fat bike.

Bundled up to explore Salt Lake City's Millcreek Canyon.
Bundled up to explore Salt Lake City's Millcreek Canyon.

We’re both feeling a little uneasy about the weather and snow conditions — further along the trail we come into contact with the potential danger — but we are well prepared for the conditions and with a half-smile and a nod, we lock the truck and head out.

Ahead of us, the snow-covered road climbs 4.5 miles and more than 1,000 feet up Millcreek Canyon to the Big Water Yurt where we’ll be spending the night. The first mile or so is crowded with snowshoers, hikers, and kids on sleds, but beyond that, the flow of traffic slows to a trickle and finally to nothing.

Leaving the parking lot and the winter gate behind, we make good progress. To our relief, the snow is hard packed and the grade is mellow. In the trailer, Parker is snoring softly.

Once we reach the first steep climb, however, our momentum comes to a screeching halt. The snow is wet and sticky and thanks to the fact that it has been snowing for several days straight, the road hasn’t been groomed or packed down. Blair is having trouble pulling the trailer behind his bike, so I hook it onto the back of my polk and start carrying the entire HEAVY load. We move at a snail's pace.

In the trailer, the kiddo begins to stir. “Are we there yet mom?”

I let him know that we aren’t, and Blair gives him the option to keep going or to throw in the towel and head back to the car. Secretly, we’re both hoping that our child will give us an excuse to quit. He doesn’t, so we head on.

I know soon we’ll see eager skiers headed toward us, but for a moment the canyon is silent, wild, and we feel a million miles away from real life.

Christmas is coming soon, so Parker and I sing holiday songs to keep us entertained as we inch forward. The temperature drops and soon it begins snowing in earnest again. Even though it is still mid-afternoon, the sun begins to disappear behind the steep canyon walls, and we are surrounded by long shadows and snow.

We’re only half a mile from the yurt now, which is good because it’s getting cold quickly and I’m soaked. Luckily, the kiddo is bone-dry and warm inside the trailer. I’m focused on wiggling my fingers and toes when suddenly we hear the hum of snowmobiles approaching from behind. This is a surprise considering that the road is closed to motors.

We can barely see the headlights thru the snow as the machines pull up. The two riders cut their engines and yell to us.

“We’re looking for a hiker,” one of the men shouts. “Have you seen anybody?”

We haven’t and I tell him so.

“We’ve had reports of a man hiking in jeans,” he continues. “He sounds to be in bad shape. If he comes knocking on the door in the night will you let him in?”

Feeling anxious, but obviously willing to help, I assure him we will.

To my surprise, rather than pushing on, the rescuers turn and prepare to retreat back down the canyon. “We’ll know more in the morning if somebody reports him missing,” they explain.

Inside the rustic yurt.
Inside the rustic yurt.

We make it to the yurt door just as darkness falls. I’ve stayed in quite a few yurts, but this one is the most rustic I’ve encountered. The big round room contains a few bunk beds with wooden platforms, a long table, and most importantly, a large wood stove. The temperature inside is below freezing so we make quick work of lighting first our lantern and then a fire in the stove.

Once the fire is roaring and we have dry clothes on, any sense of uneasiness we had outside begins to disappear. We’ve brought to-go burritos for dinner, and Blair reheats them in tin foil on the stove. I use our JetBoil to heat water for hot cocoa.

We’re tired and prepare for bed early. Parker and I curl up together on a bottom bunk and tell camp stories until his eyelids grow heavy. I lay awake for a while longer listening to wind and snow battering the tent walls and waiting for a knock at the door. When it doesn’t come, I add another log to the fire and succumb to sleep.

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A New Day: Skiing Down the Canyon

We wake to sunshine coming through the window at the front door. It has snowed enough overnight — 10 inches or more — that we have trouble opening it. Outside, the sky is blue and still and snow envelops the world. Our skis and sled are so buried we have to dig to find them.

We retreat inside to hibernate a little longer. It is a Sunday morning and we have a busy week ahead of us — presentations at work and a preschool performance — but at the yurt, we have no cell phone service, no electricity. We take our time eating oatmeal, playing crazy Eights and enjoying each other’s company.

Finally, we head outside to shovel a path to the wood pile and the bathroom. We reload our gear on the sled and bundle up. My little boy wants to ski down, so we put on his downhill skis and his harness and I have him lead us downhill back toward the city.

After the snow overnight, there are no tracks and we break our way down the canyon. I know soon we’ll see eager skiers headed toward us, but for a moment the canyon is silent, wild, and we feel a million miles away from real life.

Digging out from the overnight snowstorm.
Digging out from the overnight snowstorm.

The trip was far harder than we expected. I’ve skied the canyon many times on my own, but inclement weather and the addition of a child brought a whole new level of adventure. It was also a humbling reminder that anytime we head outdoors in winter, we need to be prepared for the any conditions — it’s not the time nor place to travel unprepared..

Of course, this wildness is part of what makes the canyons of the Wasatch so amazing and so important to protect. We need a place we can escape and unplug — and yes, even face a little danger. We need a place where we can teach our children about nature that’s accessible and close to home; somewhere we can go for even a quick overnight.

As we reach the truck my phone pings in my pocket; we’re back in reception. Instead of reaching for the phone, I leave it be a little while longer. My son’s cheeks are pink and rosy. “Can we do this again sometime, mom?” he asks. I smile and nod, yes.

Kristen Bonkoski

Kristen Bonkoski is an avid mountain biker and adventure-lover who shares her escapades in words and photos.  Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Singletracks.com, and VisitIdaho.org among other publications.  She spends all her free time mountain biking with her husband and son in Salt Lake City, Utah, and blogs about it at RascalRides.com and RascalsOnTheRoad.com.

Big Water Trailhead

Millcreek Canyon 4.5 miles past winter gate.

What's Nearby

Solitude Mountain Resort

Solitude Mountain Resort

Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort

Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort

Snowbird has the longest ski season in Utah. Snowbird Resort's generous season means more time to Find Your Greatest on its 3,240 top-to-bottom vertical and its 2,500 acres. As the crow flies, Snowbird is the nearest resort to the airport.

Millcreek Canyon's Desolation Overlook

Millcreek Canyon's Desolation Overlook

When You Go

  • The Big Water Yurt is open from December 1 to April 30. Dates fill up quickly (especially weekends) and there is a lottery system to reserve dates in advance of the season. You can learn more on the Salt Lake County Parks website.
  • No motorized travel is allowed above the winter gate, and the only way to get to the yurt is via skis, snowshoes, or fat bike. Most people do the trip on cross-country skis, but backcountry or touring skis are a good alternative. From the yurt, there are additional opportunities for experienced backcountry skiers. If you choose to do this, you’ll need avalanche equipment.
  • The Big Water Yurt has bunk beds (no mattresses), a table, and a wood stove. There is also a vault toilet nearby. To stay at the yurt, you’ll need to bring (at a minimum): sleeping bags, a lantern, matches, a cooking stove and utensils, drinking water, food, garbage bags and a first aid/survival kit.