Coming into work at 9am with powder turns and sunrise photos under your belt brings a savory kind of satisfaction. Dawn patrols serve as a helpful way to sneak in more ski days than you ever could have logged otherwise. Before your coworkers even take that first sip of coffee, you've enjoyed the rarefied beauty of a winter morning in the Wasatch. And factor in the fitness benefits of a brisk 90-minute morning skin up the hill, and you literally get to order whatever you want for lunch—then get seconds.
A successful dawn patrol hinges on a few indispensable factors: You need a buddy who will unwaveringly commit to arise and meet you at 5:30 am, one who won’t leave you high and dry, waiting in a dark park’n’ride for a meetup that will never happen.
A few other strategic moves will help ensure things go smoothly. A headlamp is key, as is a Thermos of piping-hot coffee in your pack. (Bonus points if you heat up a burrito and slip it in an insulated travel mug to enjoy at the top.) You’ll also be glad to have the handy Wasatch Backcountry Skiing map app on your phone, so you can orient yourself and determine your exact location even if the sun is still sleeping.
Also essential: a well thought-out plan for where to get decent turns after a relatively short hike up. Set a firm cutoff time so everyone can get down in time for work. A pre-determined turnaround time puts everyone at ease schedule-wise and eliminates a “where-to-stop” debate.
Of course, time your top-out for just after sunrise if you can: It makes the ski down so much easier and safer. And you’ll be glad if you budget just a few minutes to snap some gorgeous pics of the sun’s first rays hitting the mountain ridges.
Here are our four favorite Salt Lake dawn patrols, each with its own unique characteristics, that make for an epic a.m. adventure in the Wasatch. These areas are popular by day, but at 5:45 am, you won’t exactly have to jostle elbows with other skiers, letting you enjoy the slopes (and those jaw-dropping views) in glorious solitude. And when you get to the office, just try not to strut too much.
Straight Up: Short Swing
The name says it all. This quick’n’dirty tour ascends directly above the Mill D North neighborhood, topping out at a conical peak some 2,000 feet above the canyon road. It’s popular because it’s easy-access, but in the pre-dawn hours you won’t have so many competitors for fresh tracks.
Park at Spruces Parking lot in Big Cottonwood Canyon, cross the canyon road, and ascend on the obvious skin track heading North/Northwest into the Mill D Drainage. About 10 minutes after you’ve skinned past the last of the cabins, you’ll see a clear turnoff to your right. This is where the Short Swing switchbacks begin. From here, it’s nowhere but up. Top out at the clear peak overhead, or just turn around when you’re out of time. Then, depending on avalanche conditions and snow quality, you can choose between perfectly-spaced aspen glades to the south or evergreen trees to the north on your descent back to the skin track.
A Ridge With A View: Tom’s Hill
Just across the drainage from Short Swing, you’ll see the proud little peak known as Tom’s Hill laced with ski tracks dropping off its side. Tom’s takes just a little longer to get to than Short Swing, but it’s well worth the effort. Park at Spruces and begin up Mill D drainage just as you would for Short Swing, but continue past the switchback turnoff and skin another 20 minutes till your handy Wasatch Skiing Map shows you’re at the base of Tom’s.
Here you should see a clear skin-track turning away from the Mill D gulley and starting up Tom’s. Switchback up through the open-spaced aspens and shrubs until you gain the peak about an hour after turning off.
For the descent, Tom’s offers a nice array of options: cruise down the north-facing line if the snow’s good and avy danger is minimal. Or head down the east open face for a longer fall line.
A Rosy Sunrise: Pink Pine
White Pine and Red Pine in Little Cottonwood comprise the gateway to many of the canyon’s most classic backcountry ski lines. But in between the two, on the ridgeline separating them, is an agreeable little Pink Pine tour that suits a tight timeline very well.
Park at the White Pine parking lot and head up the wide, obvious summer trail. About a mile up, you’ll cross a bridge that delineates the fork in the road between Red and White Pine. Veer toward Red Pine, keeping an eye out for a turnoff allowing you to start gaining the ridgeline above. (Again, your Wasatch Skiing map app will help you determine the way.)
Go as far up the ridge as you can, then choose between multiple slope aspects for your descent. Scan for the safest avy terrain, and let ‘er rip. You’ll enjoy unforgettable cross-canyon views of the chutes and couloirs that stripe the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons’ shared ridgeline.
A Short Skin Long on Payoff: Grizzly Gulch
This quick yet gorgeous skin gets you from Alta’s Albion Basin parking lot to the top of Twin Lakes Pass in time for the prettiest sunrise you’ve seen in a long time. You have to then choose whether you’re hanging a right to continue to the top of Patsey Marley, an all-star classic, or hang a left at the pass to get to the top of Black Bess.
To get there, park near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon Road and start up the clear skin track across the street from Alta’s Albion parking lot. The ascent up the gulch itself is quick—you’ll likely manage it in an hour. Then depending on time and snow conditions, you can top out above the line of your choice. You’ll watch the Alta and Snowbird resorts slowly wake up and come to life for the day, starting their lifts as you make your descent.