The History of Each Cottonwood Canyons Ski Resort

The History of Each Cottonwood Canyons Ski Resort

By Brian Higgins
August 16, 2022

The stories behind your favorite resorts are just as great as the snow on their peaks. From silver mines to bathroom breaks, there’s a little bit of everything.  

How does a pair of canyons in the high desert become one of the premiere skiing destinations in the entire world? Well it takes a lot of snow (the greatest on Earth some would say), a lot of hardworking dreamers and some pretty incredible stories. If you’ve ever been curious about how your favorite resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons came to be, has the scoop for you. 

Mining For Turns at Alta

Many of Utah’s resorts and ski towns were originally founded in the late 1800s as silver-mining settlements. The town of Alta was one of the most successful, and certainly one of the most rugged. Although plenty of hardy folks hit it big, that prosperity began to wane with the onset of the Great Depression. Onset by both economic and natural disasters, the population of Alta slowly dwindled, and by the 1930s it was a virtual ghost town. 

By 1937, Alta consisted of a single resident named George Watson. One day George decided to declare himself the mayor of Alta, and won the election in a landsli—avalanche. His first order of business as mayor was to sell off his 700 acres of property to the U.S. Forest Service so he could pay off his back taxes. The town treasurer (George) approved the shady deal, and the chief of police (George) chose not to investigate.

Along with other recently acquired acreage, George’s land was used by the Forest Service to begin building a ski resort. They hoped to make the Wasatch Mountains a hub of winter outdoor recreation and draw people from all over the world to come ski its peaks (spoiler alert: they did). In 1939, Alta Ski Area became only the second ski resort in Utah, and just the second ski resort in the Western United States to install a chairlift. 

Eighty-plus years later those lifts are still spinning. Alta has become known as the premiere destination for powder skiing in the States, and that moniker is well earned. A powder day at Alta is a life changing experience. Even more life changing? A “country club” day, when the canyon road is closed but employees and resort guests are free to ski the nearly empty slopes. Get a day like that and you’ll agree — the town might have been built for silver, but the mountains ended up being pure gold.

Brighton’s History of Welcoming

In the old days, prospectors would often have to make the difficult trip back and forth between the mining towns of Alta and Park City. If you’ve ever driven over Guardsman’s Pass, you can probably guess that it wasn’t a lot of fun. The grueling journey up and over Big Cottonwood Canyon took its toll, and many travelers were willing to pay an arm and a leg for a warm bed along the way.

Enter William Stuart Brighton, the owner and operator of the Brighton Hotel. Not only did he let miners keep their arms and legs, but he gave them a place to rest those weary limbs as they prepared for the rest of their journey. And it wasn’t just miners who frequented the Brighton Hotel either; Salt Lake locals often traveled up to escape the valley heat and enjoy the mountain scenery.

The hotel grew over the years, and William’s welcoming attitude was so legendary that when the time came to establish a resort, picking the name was a no-brainer. That time wouldn’t come for a while, however. Although Brighton was technically the first ski resort in Utah (founded in 1936), it began as a hodgepodge of T-bars operated by different owners. Skiers in those early days would need separate tickets to ride each lift — think about that the next time you complain that your season pass doesn’t include enough mountains.

Eventually, all the lifts settled their differences, sang “Kumbaya” and became Brighton Ski Resort. Over the next 50 years, the resort grew along with the rest of Utah’s ski industry. Then one fateful day someone asked “What if I went down the mountain on a snowboard instead of skis?” and the entire ski industry collectively clutched its pearls. 

The folks at Brighton quickly unclutched their pearls and thought, “What would William Stuart Brighton do?” The resort was one of the first to welcome snowboarders, proving that the oldest ski resort in Utah could keep up with the times. Brighton soon became both a hub for the burgeoning sport and a breeding ground for some of its early pioneers. The mountain remains a go-to spot for boarders to this day. At Brighton you’ll find one of the finest terrain parks in the state, lots of happy tailgaters and plenty of beanies. So many beanies. 

Restroom Resentment Leads to Solitude’s Creation

In the early 1960s, future Solitude founder Robert M. Barrett was on top of the world. In a few short years, he had gone from a construction worker in Moab to a nearly overnight millionaire by investing in uranium at the onset of the Cold War. With his newfound fortune, he headed to Salt Lake City to live out his days skiing the powdery peaks of the Wasatch Mountains. 

Everything was going swimmingly (skiingly?) for Robert, until one day he was called to something greater. Actually, he was called to the bathroom, and the folks at Alta told him he couldn’t use it. Since the resort had to remove sewage by truck and pay for the costs itself, the bathrooms were reserved for overnight guests. They hoped Robert would understand. He didn’t, and immediately declared that he would simply open his own ski resort.

And then he actually did! In a huge win for anyone who’s ever said “You can’t fire me, I quit!” Robert purchased an expanse of land next to Brighton and soon Solitude was born. Robert would go on to operate the resort for almost 20 years before selling it in the late 1970s. In keeping with his unorthodox style, he decided the best way to sell it would be to put out a classifieds ad in the Wall Street Journal. After picking up a gently used washing machine and a pair of tennis rackets, an Arizona businessman answered the ad and Solitude officially changed hands. 

The businessman, Gary DeSeelhorst, got to work building a resort village, securing a modern sewage system and installing new chairlifts. In 1982, the new Summit lift finally opened full access to the lip-smacking terrain in Honeycomb Canyon, and in 1989 the Eagle Express lift became the first high-speed chairlift in Utah.

Once seen as the forgotten younger sibling of the Cottonwoods, Solitude has been seeing more and more visitors each year. Even this uptick is too much for some Solitude purists, however, especially given that the name that was so fitting for so long. So don’t be surprised if a Solituder with a beard full of snow and a giant smile tells you “This place sucks. Don’t ski here.”

Snowbird, the Girl Next Door 

It’s a classic American love story; a guy falls in love with the girl next door, decides he’ll do anything to be with her and enlists a wealthy oil tycoon to finance it all. 

In the late 1960s, Ted Johnson was working at Alta ski resort and spending his days off exploring the terrain on the west side of Mount Baldy. Amidst endless powder turns in untracked bowls, Ted had a brilliant idea — “What if I hiked back up and did that again?” Then, after a few years of that he got tired of hiking and decided that a lift would be better. Inspired by his love of the terrain and a dream to share it with others, Ted began gathering funds to build a new ski resort.

He didn’t have much to scrape together, though. After all, ski bums aren’t really known for their excess wealth. Ted knew he needed help. He searched for a wealthy investor to partner with for months, and by the fall of 1969 he was beginning to think his money would run out before he ever found one. Then one day, in Vail, Colorado, he found his knight in shining Gore-Tex. That knight was a Texas oil man by the name of Richard Bass, and the two soon began plans to build Snowbird Resort.

What came next was a legendary effort to get Snowbird up and running as soon as humanly possible. Ted and Richard worked around the clock for the next two years, cutting runs, building infrastructure and, most importantly, installing the iconic tram that would run faithfully for the next 50 years.

The stress of getting the resort up and running took its toll on Ted, who sold his ownership shares to Richard as soon as Snowbird opened in 1971. He quickly set about enjoying the vision he had brought to reality, sharing powder turns with friends on some of the best terrain in the world. In fact, he even got to ski on a run named after himself — the “Silver Fox” trail was named for Ted’s gray hair (which was a lot less gray two years prior).

Today, Snowbird is home to some of the most enthusiastic powder hunters in the state. Steep and deep is the name of the game at The Bird, and many an unsuspecting tourist has learned the hard way that its double black runs should probably be spelled in all caps. With similar snow totals to its neighbor Little Cottonwood neighbor, Snowbird receives a more-than-healthy dose of Utah’s light and fluffy powder snow each year. Combine epic snowfalls with the steep terrain, and a fresh powder run down Snowbird might just be a perfect representation of what Cottonwood skiing’s all about. We see what Ted was getting at.

Now that you know the history behind the Cottonwood resorts, we hope you can appreciate your fluffy turns even more. After all, you might not be skiing Honeycomb Canyon if Alta had let Robert Barrett use the bathroom, and Alta might never have even existed if Mayor George had lost his election. So shred on with gratitude, and check in with for all your skiing and snowboarding travel info.