Everyone knows that fantastic winters in the Wasatch Mountains are one of the best things about Utah. Our storms come in from the west and travel directly over the Great Salt Lake, and the clouds suck up the moisture from the lake just before they run into a wall of mountains. This creates the light and fluffy snow that attracts so many people from around the world.
But there is a price to pay for that extra-dry snow. The lake effect that gives us this great snow combines with the geography of the Salt Lake Valley to create a temperature inversion that settles in the valley between storms. When the air is not blowing with enough force, a warm body of air sits on top of the colder body and traps all the smog in a thick and unhealthy layer just a few hundred feet off the valley floor. This can cause people with asthma or other respiratory diseases to suffer serious side effects, and it can even ruin the day for people without these conditions. Like me, many people live in Utah for the sole purpose of enjoying the outdoors, and inversion days are our most depressing times of the year. Fortunately there is a temporary solution, and it involves a simple idea: getting up one of the canyons! You can drive up Parley's Canyon toward Park City, which does not suffer the same fate, or you can head up Emigration, Millcreek or the Cottonwood Canyons to get above the smog layer.
Only 30 minutes away, Park City is the ideal place to ride out a bad inversion day. Endless trails and outdoor opportunities await along with brilliant blue skies and fresh air...the kind all mountain towns should have. And you don't need to drive all the way to Park City proper to get on some great dog friendly trails. The Wood's Trailhead of the North Basin Trails System, located just over Parley's Summit, is one of the closest options to escape the inversion. Head further into town to Quinn's Trailhead for a larger option that even allows your dogs to roam off-leash at the massive Round Valley Trail System. Neither one of these options have any avalanche danger, making them safe options for the whole family.
Little Mountain is probably the best air you can find within the shortest traveling distance from Salt Lake. Emigration Canyon is elevated just enough to get you out of the soup. This is another dog friendly hike that is not difficult and usually pretty packed down, so snowshoes are not a necessity. The easy access from Emigration Canyon or Parley's Canyon makes this a popular destination for hikers and skiers alike. You get great views of East Dell Reservoir and Mount Aire, and the hike is relatively easy.
Reynolds Gulch is a short and steep hike that starts halfway up Big Cottonwood Canyon just across from Donut Falls. Great views, great air, and very few people on this side make this a lesser known jewel. Stunning views of Kessler Peak, Mount Superior from the backside, and Cardiff Fork Valley keep you entranced as you head up the south facing slope. No dogs allowed, and there is a small avalanche danger in this area, so be aware.
Willow Heights offers a more difficult trail with many more options and routes than Reynolds Gulch. Because it is located about two-thirds of the way up Big Cottonwood Canyon, the snow is deep and the air is crisp and clean. Backcountry skiing is very popular from this area, but the less adventurous should still bring the snowshoes to make it an easy inversion escape. The avalanche danger here is quite low, and there are no dogs allowed.
Scott's Hill is a great chance to test your snowshoeing endurance on a bit of a longer trek. Starting off from the closure gate at Guardsman's Pass, the 5-mile round-trip journey gains 1,300 feet and gives you some seriously breathtaking views in all directions. You'll see everything from the Pfeifferhorn to Brighton Ski Resort to Park City. The trail is usually frequented enough to be packed down, it's position at the top of the canyon and can mean some seriously deep snow.
Although escaping the inversion is a must, so is cutting down on the emissions that make it so unhealthy. Visit Breathe Utah to learn more about how to make an impact. This can range from not warming up your car in the morning to writing your state representatives to support green initiatives, keeping your house a few degrees cooler than normal, or using public transportation as often as possible. If we do nothing, nothing will change. Regardless of our political or social views, we all breathe the same air.
Whatever hike or activity you choose to do in winter, always check the Utah Avalanche Center to check the danger ratings before you go.