Winter sports for the non-skier: Wasatch Front offers plenty of alternatives for outdoor fun
Jan 14, 2020 02:46PM
By Josh Wood
Snowshoes offer a low-cost way to explore nearby trails in winter. (Photo courtesy of John Dehlin)
By Joshua Wood | [email protected]
The ski season got off to a solid start in Utah with a late November storm piling over 3 feet at many resorts as they opened. That should come as great news for skiers, but what about Utah’s non-skiers? Do they wait until spring and summer for warm weather outdoor activities?
While that certainly is an option, there are a lot of other things Utah’s outdoors offer. From hitting the trails on snowshoes or darting downhill on a sled at the neighborhood park, getting outside this winter is easy thanks to the Wasatch Front’s accessible outdoor wonders.
Getting outdoors on a (snow)shoestring budget
Snowshoeing presents a low impact and relatively low-cost alternative to skiing. People can enjoy the crisp, clean air of the mountains at a fraction of the cost of skiing. Snowshoes help people access nearby trails without the same crowds they might encounter during summer. It is increasing in popularity, too. According to statistics, 3.7 million people snowshoed in the United States in 2017, up from 2.4 million in 2007.
“It’s a great alternative,” said Mike Dailey at the Wasatch Powder House in Holladay. “I’ll send people to Millcreek Canyon because you don’t have all the ski traffic. There are a lot of trails up there. You can also go to the quarry in Little Cottonwood.”
Snowshoe rentals in the area range from $13 to around $25 per day. Many of the shops that sell and rent ski gear also rent snowshoes. From REI or your local ski shop, it is relatively easy to get a pair of snowshoes and poles and try it out.
“Snowshoes are good,” said Alan Greenberg at Cottonwood Cyclery in Cottonwood Heights. “They’re low cost, it’s fun, it’s something to do outside. You don’t have to wait in line, the trails are free.”
While the number of snowshoe rentals is fairly low from his experience, Dailey said he rents snowshoes to couples looking for something different to do on a date, or to older customers seeking low-impact snow sports. “It still gets you in the mountains, you still get to see cool stuff, and you’re not fighting the crowds,” Dailey said. “In the summer, you have all those hiking trails available. In the winter there are way less crowds.”
Winter sports can be about more than snow
Ice skating presents a timeless way to enjoy winter sports. From the indoor rink at the Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center to the Olympic Oval in Kearns or outdoor rinks when they can be found, skating helps bring people together.
Greenberg of Cottonwood Cyclery is passionate about skating and has visions of expanding access to ice skating in Cottonwood Heights. “It’s easy in the summer to make excuses to go outside and do something, but in the winter, it’s really hard,” Greenberg said. “My son plays hockey and goes to Hillcrest. If there’s an outdoor rink, he would skate there. He might meet some Brighton kids. Something like that brings a community together. That’s important.”
With sparks flying as he sharpened a customer’s skate in his shop, Greenberg talked about his vision for an outdoor ice skating rink as the centerpiece of a winter haven in Cottonwood Heights. Put it near a sledding hill, add food trucks and outdoor concerts, and the whole community could take part in winter sports right in town.
“Any ice sport is a hidden sport,” Greenberg said. “It’s tucked away in a rink. You really have to seek it out. You’re never going to stumble upon it. In the Midwest and the Northeast, where they have that stuff, you have communities that run into each other, and it’s out there. Who knows how many kids would see a rink and say, ‘Mom I want to play hockey or I want to figure skate.’”
For those who do skate, Cottonwood Cyclery sells, repairs, and sharpens skates for hundreds of people in the area. “I’d love to have an opportunity down here, right in the middle, where people driving by look and say, let’s buy a couple of cheap hockey sticks and we’ll go dink around on the ice,” Greenberg said.
A big, fat winter spin on summer sports
The ice and snow don’t have to put off traditionally summer sports completely. One alternative that enthusiasts in the area enjoy is fat biking. “Fat biking is definitely very popular among the mountain biking community,” said Sydney Ricketts of Trek Bicycle in Cottonwood Heights. “There’s definitely a large mountain biking community in Salt Lake. Fat biking is popular among mountain bikers because not many people do it so you don’t get the crowds like the ski resorts do in winter.”
The large, wide tires on a fat bike are great for riding over loose terrain like snow. They tend to require a larger frame, particularly the fork, than most mountain bikes can accommodate. Fat bike enthusiasts find uses for them year round. “Some people are all about the fat biking,” Ricketts said. “They can definitely be a year-round bike. The traction, and the tires since they are so big, you can run them at a lower PSI. Since they’re so high volume they can act like suspension, if you will.”
In the summer, fat bikes are popular for bikepacking, which is essentially backpacking by bike. The fat tires are great for rough trails and work as well in desert sand as on the winter snow. Fat biking also offers a winter alternative to skiing when the snow might not be so great.
One limitation of winter fat biking is finding suitable trails. “Trails need to be maintained,” Greenberg said. “You can’t just fat bike on loose snow.”
Not to worry. One way to find good trails for fat biking is to piggyback on another winter sport. “I see a lot of people biking on snowmobiling trails like in the Uintas,” Dailey said. “Mirror Lake Highway, Soapstone Road, they groom them. You have a road to ride on.”
Traditional winter fun right in town
Classic winter activities never go out of style. Go to a park like Mountview Park in Cottonwood Heights or Aspen Meadows Park in Sandy after a snowstorm, and you will find plenty of people sledding the steepest hills. Sledding is a low-cost activity that families can enjoy close to home.
“We’re here just to have fun with the family,” Monica Smith said as she watched her kids race down the hill at Aspen Meadows Park. “We’ll try to ski half a dozen times this year, but we probably sled more.”
People of all ages dart down snowy hills each winter, but sledding definitely seems to be about kids. It is a way for families to make the most of newly fallen snow and get outside during the winter months.
“I don’t ski; this is it,” said Levi Ortega. “It’s all about my kids. There’s no skiing or snowboarding for me. We just sled.”
Inexpensive sleds of various designs, from plastic or foam to inflatable tubes, are widely available in stores. More elaborate sleds are also an option. “A wooden toboggan? I can get them,” Greenberg of Cottonwood Cyclery said. “Think what a killer Christmas gift that would be. It would be really cool to have.”
A fun icebreaker
Another traditional summer activity that can be enjoyed in winter is fishing. Utah offers several good ice fishing spots less than an hour from the Salt Lake valley. “Rockport (State Park) is a great place,” said Karson Ranck of Fish Tech in Holladay. “It has some nice perch and rainbow trout. And it’s just 30 minutes away. There’s Jordanelle (State Park), and Strawberry (Reservoir) is really popular.”
The main obstacle to ice fishing, aside from getting over the idea of sitting in the cold for hours waiting for a bite, is getting through the ice. To do the job, people can opt for an old-fashioned manual auger or a powered one to drill a hole for their lines. Manual augers run around $70 at Fish Tech, while powered augers can cost $600.
Ice fishing is another way to enjoy recreation areas without the crowds. There are multiple online resources to check on temperatures and ice conditions before venturing out. Making sure the ice is suitably thick for fishing is, of course, a key safety measure.
It is also a good idea to research specific locations on the lake before drilling holes. Since finding a place to fish takes a lot more work when you have to auger a hole, it helps to make a plan of action ahead of time.
The tip of the iceberg
Other winter sport activities that can be enjoyed include curling, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and more. There are also opportunities to put a winter spin on more traditionally warm weather activities like running and various team sports. Utah is renowned for its winter recreation, but there is much more to do on the Greatest Snow on Earth than just skiing.