I love taking photographs of Solitude Mountain Resort and the surrounding Cottonwood Canyons. Getting a great photograph of these places is part luck and part hard work. In this article, I will describe a backcountry tour up the ridgeline across from the Moonbeam base area. I travel this route several times each year, often getting not photographs worth sharing. Every once in awhile though, the conditions result in a really nice image. I’ll share some of the photographs I’ve taken from this spot over the years and describe a little about how they are made.
Solitude Mountain Resort with Willow Knob Pointer
The route takes me up to Willow Knob and down Little Willow. All of the terrain is considered backcountry, requiring respect and knowledge of proper backcountry travel techniques. I have had several training sessions with the Utah Avalanche Center and highly recommend their field classes. I always travel with safety and avalanche gear and am ready to assist in a rescue if needed. I always let my family know my exact route and return time. My favorite app for identifying avalanche terrain is called the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map; avalanche prone areas are identified with red shading.
All of my dawn patrol runs start the night before with a close look at the weather, the avalanche forecast, and packing my bag. My bag carries a first-aid kit, personal locator beacon, full water bottle, external phone battery, super-loud whistle, food, shovel, probe and camera gear. I also go ahead and put the climbing skins on my skis and pack the car. This makes it easier to get going early and reduces the chances that I’ll back out in the morning.
The worst part of dawn patrol is going to bed early. Lights out by 9 p.m. is not how most people like to spend their Friday nights! I have found that 3:30 a.m. is a perfect wake-up time. Although this sounds painfully early to many people, as long as I get to bed by 9 p.m., I am usually super excited to get up and go.
I’m dressed for uphill travel with my avalanche beacon on and out the door by 4 a.m. During the drive up the canyon, I watch carefully for wildlife on the road. If I am the first car in the Moonbeam base parking lot, I park in line with the Moonbeam lower terminal lift shack. If there is already a car there, I’ll park on the west side of the existing cars.
First Car in the Parking Lot at Solitude Mountain Resort
Now the work begins; boots on, pack on, and skis in hand for a short walk across the road. Skis are clicked in and I start the skin up to the hiking trail.
I do not know the name of the hiking trail, but it is a maintained Forest Service trail with a trailhead marker off of Old Stage Road. I will take a shortcut by bushwhacking up from the Moonbeam side since it’s winter, but in summer, I’ll start this hike from Solitude Village and Old Stage Road. My family calls this the “Pleasant Bench Trail” since there is a carved wooden bench at one point along the trail.
View from the Pleasant Bench trail
For today’s tour, I won’t make it all the way to the bench. I turn right off the trail at the point where the trail turns around the ridgeline and the trees turn from aspen to spruce. I now bushwhack up the ridgeline all the way to Willow Knob. This ridgeline is called Blue Bunny on the backcountry maps and is a nice downhill run in fresh snow. During this climb, there are no kick-turns required and it ascends at a fairly even and steady pace through three open glades.
The Climb Begins
Willow Knob itself is hard to ski. The north-facing side is steep enough to slide, and the south face is usually too baked out and wind blown. The west-facing side often has brush poking out in inconvenient places, so I usually drop my skis at the base and boot up to the summit for a photo or two.
This is one of my favorite vantage points in Big Cottonwood Canyon. I get awesome views of Solitude Mountain Resort and Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Taking in the View
Skins off and I switch to downhill mode. This run is called Little Willow, and is a gentle slope through sparse trees and small glades. About halfway down, I intersect the Pleasant Bench Trail and can continue down to Willow (Beaver) pond or take the trail back to Solitude.
Little Willow Backcountry Ski Run
When I return to the car, it’s still early. I’ll usually do a couple of runs at Solitude before heading home for the day. Not a bad way to spend the morning – exercise, nature, photography, and skiing, all before breakfast.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my photos on Instagram where I post as @linkchutes. If there is enough interest, maybe I’ll tell you about this place next: