Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of most avalanche-prone canyons in the world, U of U professor says

Apr 5, 2023, 9:00 PM

A University of Utah professor says that Little Cottonwood Canyon is the most prone canyon in the w...

Little Cottonwood Canyon has the highest uncontrolled avalanche hazard index of any major road in the world, according to a University of Utah professor. The professor joined Dave & Dujnaovic on Wednesday to discuss the dangers the canyon presents. Photo: (Elizabeth Weiler/ KSL NewsRadio)

(Elizabeth Weiler/ KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY — According to a professor at the University of Utah, Little Cottonwood Canyon has the highest uncontrolled avalanche hazard index of any major highway in the world.

Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah Jim Steenburgh says the highway is bisected by 50 different avalanche paths. He joined Dave & Dujanovic with hosts Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic on Wednesday to discuss the dangers that exist in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Dujanovic starts off the conversation by asking, “So, why is Little Cottonwood so dangerous?”

“It’s a just very steep canyon with a road that goes across all these avalanche paths,” Steenburgh said. 

The town of Alta was damaged repeatedly during the 1800s by avalanches, according to Steenburgh. He says a large number of miners were killed by those avalanches.

“If Mother Nature was left to her own devices is how I like to put it,” Steenburgh said. “It can be a very dangerous place.”

He said since people like to live, recreate and visit Little Cottonwood Canyon, there is a need to deal with avalanches before they actually happen.

And that’s why the canyon is periodically closed for avalanche mitigation.

Preventing an avalanche in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Noriega asked, “Is the canyon poorly engineered?”

“Well, the canyon highway has been there for a long time,” Steenburgh said. 

He says the Utah Department of Transportation is exploring several options for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Steenburgh says UDOT is examining the possibility of putting a gondola up there. Additionally, UDOT has explored putting snow sheds up the canyon, according to Steenburgh.

Dujanovic said “I don’t know what a snow shed is.”

“You could think of it as a shed that’s over the highway,” he said. “Basically, they’re constructed in a way that the roof connects with the ground, and it stands over the highway.”

He says if an avalanche comes down, it just stays on top of the roof and goes to the other side of the road. 

“It never affects anything that’s on the highway,” Steenburgh said. 

He says snow sheds are used in various parts of the world, including the Alps, to protect highways.

“It’s very important that those be explored and be considered for Little Cottonwood Canyon at this point,” Steenburgh said. 


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.  

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Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of most avalanche-prone canyons in the world, U of U professor says