Snowshoeing Utah's Wasatch Mountains
They say that no two snowflakes are alike. As I stand in my snowshoes looking across Big Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, toward the peaks rising on the other side like jeweled sentinels of winter, snowflakes flutter around me filling the air with pinwheels of ice. I wonder how “they” decided no two are alike.
In a journal entry dated January 6, 1858, Henry David Thoreau briefly succumbs to the doldrums of winter before a minute detail elevates his spirits:
“… My attention was caught by a snowflake on my coat-sleeve. It was one of those perfect, crystalline, star-shaped ones, six-rayed, like a flat wheel with six spokes, only the spokes were perfect little pine trees in shape, arranged around a central spangle. This little object, which, with many of its fellows, rested unmelting on my coat, so perfect and beautiful, reminded me that Nature had not lost her pristine vigor yet, and why should man lose heart?”
Thoreau’s words make me think of how the early nights and cold days too often drive us indoors; and of all the people who are home missing this fresh air, these vast, majestic mountains; and equally important, an outing that imbues Thoreau’s “pristine vigor.” Definitely one need not lose heart in the midst of winter. Just go snowshoeing.
I climb my way past the bold evergreens and the naked Aspen, while the occasional bird interjects a thought across the air. Hiking through scenic mountain forests, accompanied by the feel of the sun, or the breeze on your skin, is not just a summer opportunity. Serene forest surroundings, an escape from the valley inversion, phenomenal snowy peaks, icy streams, and turquoise blue skies burning with the brilliant sun, provide strong reasons to head to the mountains. I swiftly fend off a creeping winter hibernation with the invigorating action and eye candy of the outdoors.
Snowshoers quickly discover that exercise and fresh air, in surroundings that lift the soul for a few hours, allow one to shake off the blues of a dull winter perspective, like Thoreau, and see the crystal snow sparkling in the sun, hear the birds and silence, and experience winter in a fresh and healthy way.
I like to call this perspective the 3 E’s: Exploration, Exercise and Endorphins.
How to Get Started
Thousands of years ago the winter travelers lashed the first snowshoes together out of necessity. The need to travel across snow during the winter was a survival skill. Today snowshoers enjoy the lightest and most high-tech snowshoe gear the world has ever known. With this gear, snowshoeing is a sport — something we do for both fun and health. And in Utah snowshoe trails crisscross the Wasatch Range in a beautiful map of exploration.
No special lessons or years of practice are required to enjoy snowshoeing. Everyone from grandma to young children can branch out and make snowshoe excursions. It’s a sport for the whole family. It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s affordable. It’s good for you.
Snowshoes come in a variety of styles, from small trail-running snowshoes to large backcountry snowshoes with serious crampon bite on the bottom. Do you want to traipse through deep powder in the backcountry, scaling peaks, or is a snowshoe run on packed trails more your style? Or maybe, it’s somewhere in the middle where you’d like to snowshoe through a peaceful forest for 30-minutes, connecting with the Zen of nature. All these options are available in Utah’s mountains, which in many areas of the Wasatch Front are as close as the gym. Design the level of exercise, the snow conditions, and the length of your trails. It’s all up to you on how you decide to tackle and enjoy the sport.
If you’re trying snowshoeing for the first time, or you’re more comfortable in controlled environments, sticking to established trails is a great way to begin. Northern Utah has a selection of commercial snowshoe venues that provide groomed or marked trails. The advantages of going commercial include having trails that are easy to follow, being close to other people, being in an environment where you are unlikely to encounter avalanche conditions, and often the Nordic centers/commercial trails also have facilities where you can rent equipment or find guides if needed.
As you get more comfortable and want to branch out on non-commercial trails on your own, you can use the free online snowshoe guidebook to the Wasatch Range: www.snowshoeutah.com. This site provides information on more than 60 trails across the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back.
I pull out my camera to take a photo of the snowflakes landing on my glove, tiny spokes and all. A miniscule work of art, with a limited life, that I see because I am here to look. Because, like Thoreau I have taken time to step away from the city, to explore, and to notice the beauty of winter.