The summits of Utah’s dramatic Wasatch Mountain Range stand proudly above the valleys to the west, boasting thousands of feet of prominence. Between 12 and 17 million years ago, forces in the earth conspired to create the range, forcing upward the prized peaks that form Northern Utah’s iconic horizon. A relatively young range, the ridgelines are sharp and reign over fields of rocky scree and high alpine lakes formed by retreating Pleistocene-era glaciers.
The Wasatch Mountain Range is the defining characteristic of Northern Utah. Its rugged peaks are the epicenter of outdoor recreation; its canyons are an important watershed to the population center of Utah, the vibrant Wasatch Front.
The range stretches some 160 miles from the northern border with Idaho to Central Utah while the population corridor known as the Wasatch Front is a roughly 80-mile stretch from Brigham City to the Provo area. At the center of that corridor is Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital city and cultural heart. The mountains have always been the Wasatch Front’s “backyard” playground (and cradle mountain adventure towns like Park City and Heber on the Wasatch Back), but the 2002 Winter Olympics first showcased their natural splendor to a global audience and demonstrated the combination of accessibility and modern infrastructure that made the Games so successful.
Salt Lake Valley
For many, it’s the u-shaped canyons that define the Wasatch Mountains. In all, seven canyons feed into the Salt Lake Valley from the range to the east. The glacier-carved Little Cottonwood is a 15-mile-long adventureland strewn with lovely quartz monzonite for climbing, blanketed with national forest for exploring, and carefully developed with stunning slopes for skiing and riding (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and Alta Ski Area call Little Cottonwood Canyon home). There’s also mountain biking, cycling and all kinds of wildlife wandering among the summer wildflowers (like at Albion Basin) and winter wonderlands.
The 15-mile-long canyon just north of Little Cottonwood is Big Cottonwood. Like its neighbor to the south, two major ski resorts anchor the canyon’s list of outdoor recreation — Solitude Mountain Resort and Brighton Ski Resort — and like Little Cottonwood, snow levels are deep in the winter and the powder can be endless. Big Cottonwood offers a solid mix of bolted and traditional climbs, a beautiful scenic drive or ride and some of the best trails, including the popular hike to Lake Blanche in the Twin Peaks Wilderness Area and access to the Wasatch Crest hiking and biking system, that connects with trails in the Park City area and the popular Mill Creek Canyon.
See other top Utah hikes near Salt Lake City.
Several canyons rise out of the Utah Valley as well, including the stunning Alpine Loop through American Fork Canyon (home to Timpanogos Cave National Monument and Sundance Mountain Resort), Provo Canyon and Spanish Fork Canyon.
The Provo River cleaves the range in Provo backyard, forming Provo Canyon, and serving as the setting for scenic fly-fishing, kayaking and floating. The surrounding mountains cradle an extensive network of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and mountaineering. Both River Ranch Adventures and Sundance Mountain Resort host zip lining.
North of Salt Lake
Heading north from Salt Lake City, several canyons offer sanctuary to the suburbs of Davis County (like Bountiful’s Mueller Park) and the metropolitan Ogden-Clearfield area, including the stunning Ogden River Scenic Byway (S.R. 39) that access the Ogden Valley’s three ski resorts (Snowbasin Resort, Nordic Valley Ski and Outdoor Recreation and Powder Mountain Resort) and the popular Pineview Reservoir.
Park City, Utah, could certainly stake a rightful claim of being the “perfect mountain town.” Combining its silver mining town heritage, a progressive vibe and a deep appreciation for the outdoors, Park City strikes a balance between luxury and comfort, all the while showing a deep appreciation for athletics, the arts and fine dining. Park City is home to the largest ski resort in the United States (Park City/Canyons) as well as the acclaimed Deer Valley and is the world's only IMBA-certified Gold Level riding destination.
The Heber Valley astonishes with its alpine splendor and access to endless outdoor recreation only 20 miles from Park City, or 45 minutes from Salt Lake City. Exclusive resorts, authentic dining and world-class golf round out the valley's extensive list of incredible accommodations and vast trail network, which means your Heber Valley sanctuary can be built on luxury (European-style hotels like Zermatt Resort and Spa and Blue Boar Inn Bed and Breakfast), off the road (Wasatch Mountain State Park), or a combination of both.
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