The Fascinating Geology of Utah's Ski Areas

By Local Lexi Dec 28, 2021
Sure we all love mountains, but do you know how Utah's famed peaks were formed? Dip into this geology primer for Utah's majestic mountains.
The Fascinating Geology of Utah's Ski Areas

Let's shift back, millions of years ago before skiers and snowboarders left their temporary tracks all across the mountains of Utah. It's rather fun to imagine how our favorite mountains came to be and to learn a bit about the geology that made each range and landform. 

Learn a bit more about the geology of Utah's ski areas! Understanding the land's natural history strengthens your connection to a place and honors the unfathomable span of time and events that created the places where we play. Dig a little deeper with me and find out why Utah's ski areas rock. 

Bear River Range 
Cherry Peak and Beaver Mountain 

Both Cherry Peak and Beaver Mountain reside in the Bear River Range. This is a subrange of the Wasatch Range that spans 20 miles in width and averages over 8,000 feet in elevation. You'll find FAR colder temps in the Bear River Range and in fact, the lowest temperature in Utah was recorded right near Beaver Mountain in the Beaver Sinks area at −69 °F in 1985. 

The range is the result of tectonic plate movement, typical of what we see in Utah and Nevada. Erosion has created rounded peaks, caves, sinkholes and ponds in many corners of the Bear River range. The range consists of limestone, quartzite and dolostone which is very absorbent and creates a great number of streams and ponds. The range is named for the tributary river it feeds: The Bear River. This unique watercourse is the longest river in North America that doesn't reach the ocean and it recharges about 60% of the Great Salt Lake's surface area. The lake is currently under threat as various user groups fight over water rights to the Bear River. The Bear River carved out much of the landscape you see today including the Cache Valley where Cherry Peak resides. Glaciers contributed to the erosion of the peaks and the creation of high mountain valleys. Earthquakes also shaped the land and even created neighboring Bear Lake.

Ogden Valley 
Powder Mountain, Snowbasin and Nordic Valley

Ogden Valley is a pastoral mountain valley tucked between large peaks and bisected by the Ogden River. Nordic Valley lies on the western side of the valley below Powder Mountain to the north and Snowbasin to the south. Ogden Valley borders the Wasatch range and the Monte Christo Mountains lie to the east. The valley itself is a fault trough surrounded by faults to the east and west. It was once a glacial lake bed connected to the great Lake Bonneville. 

Big & Little Cottonwood Canyons
As you ski around the resorts of Brighton and Solitude, Snowbird or Alta, take a moment to thank a glacier. Yes, that's right, both canyons boast the distinctive U-shaped valley carved by the motion of millions of pounds of frozen ice and snow slowly succumbing to gravity. 

The Wasatch Fault has produced steep mountains with very little in the way of foothills. About 100 million years ago, mountain building in Utah began to take shape as plate tectonic motion and volcanism ramped up. As the Earth's crust stretched and thinned, deformation produced fault lines that created long segments of repeating mountain ranges and valleys - you can observe this all across the states of Utah and Nevada.

Periods of glaciation continued to shape the land and the last big glaciation in Utah's mountains occurred around 20,000 years ago. As glaciers grew in the shady areas of the highest summits, bowls, cirques and hanging valleys were slowly formed. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon are both excellent areas for snow sports thanks to the sequence of tectonic action and glaciation. 

Wasatch Back 
Park City Mountain and Deer Valley Resort encompass the eastern-facing slopes of the Wasatch Mountain Range and the area is often referred to as 'The Wasatch Back'. The terrain features broad alluvial valley bottoms (such as the Swaner Nature Preserve), low and rolling hills and mountainous terrain. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that Park City Mountain covers over SEVENTEEN mountain peaks!

Deep depressions such as Empire and Ontario Canyons were created when faulting and erosion eliminated less-resistant bedrock. These canyons were glaciated in the distant past and you can take a look at rocks for signs of scouring from glacial ice. The hills to the north have far gentler slopes since they are composed of softer substrate like shale, mudstone and siltstone. 

Provo Canyon 
Sundance Mountain Resort is tucked away in its own little zone in the startlingly narrow confines of Provo Canyon. The first thing you'll notice about heading up the North Fork of the Provo Canyon to visit Sundance is the looming and magnetic presence of the enormous limestone edifice, Mount Timpanogos.

About 340 million years ago, the land that is now Utah resided near the equator covered in a warm, shallow sea. As marine animals perished over millions of years, their calcium carbonate remains accumulated on the ocean floor in deep depositions. Over time, the compaction lithified these deposits into rocks. Thanks to the drift of tectonic plates, these rock deposits were gradually transported north and uplifted to the mountainous elevations you see today. Many different formations and compositions of limestone layers form the mountains you see around Sundance. The Provo River and erosion carved out the canyon where Sundance is now located.

The Tushar Range 

Eagle Point is the only ski area crowning the centrally located Tushar Mountain Range near Beaver, Utah. Most are surprised to learn that peaks in this range rise to over 12,000 feet in elevation and comprise the third highest mountain range in Utah. Its history is violent and volcanic which explains some of the cone-shaped peaks you may observe when skiing in the Tushars. The range was formed between 22 and 32 million years ago thanks to volcanic action and explosions. You'll find evidence of lava flows, ash flows, calderas, volcanic domes, cinder cones and black rocks composed of basalt.

Markagunt Plateau & Cedar Breaks
Brian Head Ski Resort graces the flanks of Brian Head Peak, a distinctive mountain on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau that measures 11,307 feet in elevation. Skiers and shredders at Brian Head often pause to ogle at the sweeping views of the Great Basin to the west. The area was impacted dramatically by volcanic activity nearly 60 miles away around the Utah-Nevada border. If you spy grey rock on the lower portions of Brian Head Peak, you've identified the remnants of the eruptions, which are classified as some of the largest and most violent in earth's history. Powerful blasts sent pyroclastic flows of vapor, ash, gas and molten rock all the way to the location of today's resort area. 

If road conditions allow, you'll definitely want to head up the road past Brian Head Resort to feast your eyes on the rim of the Cedar Breaks Amphitheater. You'll have to snowshoe, cross-country ski or backcountry ski out to the cliffside but in taking the effort you'll discover a hanging valley of vermillion pinnacles, cliffs and rock formations. It's hard to believe, but the area was once entirely submerged in the waters of ancient lake Claron 60 million years ago. The area sits on the distinct boundary between the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range landforms. A sizable fault divides the two landforms and earthquakes are a frequent fixture in the geologic timeframe. Over the past 10 million years, earthquakes along the fault have lowered the land to the west and created uplift among the land to the east. This explains the high perch of Cedar Breaks and Markagunt Plateau. 


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