I’ve admittedly got a one-track mind. When I heard the words “steepest mountain range in the world,” it caught my complete and total attention. Where was this mythical place? The Himalayas? Alaska? France? I was envisioning desperate routes in desperate places with exotic surroundings, epic approaches, hostile wildlife and endless first descent potential. As such, it was with a bit of shock and embarrassment to learn where these fabled mountains stood.
“Dude, they are like an hour north of your front door.”
Oh. Well then. What was the name of them again? The Wellsville Mountains? Right at the end of the Wasatch Range, squished between Brigham City and Logan? You don’t say. I must have driven by them 100 times and never given them a second thought, but this changes everything.
As a measurement of width versus height, the Wellsvilles are indeed a proud little mountain range. They get this “Steepest Range in the World” distinction mainly by skipping those pesky things called foothills, but the slope angles themselves are quite reasonable for turning. The west side of them is bordered by the flat Salt Lake Valley and the east side by the pastoral Logan Valley, with the mountains squirting straight up between them. The skiing is much like the fabled Ruby Mountains in Nevada, where you can be floating through thigh deep powder, yet see nothing but vast deserts all around. This coalescence of mountains and deserts mysteriously combines to deliver some unbelievably light snow and perfect skiing. And, much to my dismay, the approaches are as easy as it gets, a Best Western Hotel replaces Yak Butter Tea and cows constitute the most hostile wildlife.
In all practicality, you can really only ski one side of the Wellsville Mountains. The north and south side are the pointy ends, so there’s not much skiing to be had there. Then, the west side, right above Brigham City, is too rocky, steep and exposed to the sun to hold much skiing potential. That would leave the east side, which more than makes up for all three of the other aspects. In reality, even though the range offers runs up to 4,000’, a typical day involves busting out the approach, then spending most of your time yo-yo’ing the upper 1,000’ which is where the best variety and skiing is. The entire range runs for about 10 miles measured tip to tail with five distinct peaks dotting the ridgeline. These little peaks offer slightly different aspects and exposure, which can help in finding the best snow.
Getting there from Salt Lake City is a single cup of coffee and one CD affair. Drive north from SLC on I-15 for about 52 miles and take a right (east) onto US 89/91 which will skirt Brigham City and in 10 or so miles bring you up and over Sardine Pass. The southernmost trailhead, Rattlesnake Canyon, will be four miles further, on your left as the road makes a sweeping right hand turn, but, you will have hang a big U-Turn to circumvent the cement highway divider. A better option is to continue another 15 minutes to the Pine Canyon Trailhead, which is located right on the edge of the town of Wellsville. Turn left off of US 89/91 and onto UT 23, which will lead you straight through town. Follow this to 500 North, which is also the Pine Canyon Road and turn left. Continue straight toward the drainage in front of you, which just so happens to be Pine Canyon. More than likely, you will come across a closed gate at this point and will have to park off to the side and start walking. Depending on the snow level, you will sooner or later work your way into the mouth of the canyon, which is identified by avalanche debris. This is a good place to start assessing the snow stability for the day and deciding whether or not it’s safe to go straight up the drainage, or to get on the ridge off to the climbers left. The advantage of this trailhead is that it gets you directly into the heart of the mountain range and offers good skiing on the way out. The disadvantage is that there is a little more vertical involved. The third and most northern access point is the Deep Creek trailhead located 5 miles north of Wellsville on Third North Street in the town of Mendon.
The main skiing attraction in the Wellsvilles are its two highest peaks, Box Elder (9,372’) and the Wellsville Cone (9,356’), which happen to be right next to each other. From the vicinity of either one, it is possible to scope out numerous little chutes, open glades, tree shots, ridges and bowls in all directions. There is no one classic line to speak of, but more like 50 variations on a quality theme. For the run back to your car, stick to Pine Canyon or its flanks, otherwise you’ll pay a heavy bushwhacking fine.
Another fun Wellsvillian thing to do is to traverse the entire range. This entails about 10 miles, 5,300’ of gain and a bit of logistics. The best way to do it is to find another party that is interested, start at opposite ends of the range, traverse towards each other, have lunch when you meet somewhere along the ridge, then shuttle each other’s cars back to a meeting spot/bar. Or, you can always do the California Carpool – drive two cars to one end, shuttle back and ski forward.
Aside from being a great trivia question on the world’s steepest mountain range, the Wellsvilles have all the famous hallmarks of classic Utah skiing – easy access, great snow, fun skiing and weak beer, as well as one other major advantage… you can bring your dog. Considering that you probably won’t see many other people out there, this can be a good thing, as you’ll have someone to swap lies with and revel in the face shots.