Big Cottonwood Canyon is one of the more popular big climbs in Salt Lake City. While the Cottonwoods are known for their winter skiing, they offer plenty for cyclists of all levels the rest of the year. The climb itself is used as a descent in the Tour of Utah throughout the summer en route to the mountaintop finish at Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Those looking for a longer ride can leave from downtown Salt Lake City, while those looking to simply enjoy the climb can park at the park-and-ride at the base of the canyon and ride south to the entrance of the canyon in minutes.
What Makes It Great
The climb up Big Cottonwood Canyon takes you past Solitude Ski Resort and finishes at Brighton Ski area where you’ll be rewarded with one of the better views of Pioneer Peak, Sunset Peak and Mt. Wolverine to the southwest. If you’re not accustomed to the elevation you’ll definitely be feeling the thinner air. Be mindful—all along the canyon are trailheads and hiker parking lots. Drivers and pedestrians sometimes forget to watch for cyclists.
The weather can vary in the canyons and the altitude can affect weather conditions throughout the year. Summer climbs are hot due to lack of shade. Some springtime snow can be present into May and June so it’s important to pack a wind jacket or vest for the descent back down the canyon. In the spring and fall, temps near the top of the climb can be substantially cooler (20 degrees or more) than those in the valley so it’s worth noting the conditions prior to taking off. If you’re concerned with the weather, check the Brighton and Solitude Resort websites as they are regularly monitoring and updating conditions.
For ambitious riders looking for an added challenge you can take a left just past Solitude at the sign for Guardsman and Empire and continue up to the 9,700’ peak of Guardsman Pass. While this addition to the route adds another 3 miles and 1,000’ to your climb, you’ll also get some shade as you pass through dense evergreens and aspens. The view from the summit of Guardsman is worth lingering to catch your breath: you can see all of Big Cottonwood Canyon plus the valley to the east.
From here you can turn around and head back down Big Cottonwood Canyon, or if you have some friends willing to pick you up, continue over the top of Guardsman Pass taking the descent down 224 into Park City. If you choose to head to Park City know that the descent of Guardsman is poorly paved and will be extremely bumpy. If you’re willing to endure it the descent into Park City can provide some impressive top speed numbers and smiles as you come into town.
Who is Going to Love It
While Big Cottonwood Canyon Road is a long climb, it isn't nearly as steep as the climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon. This one is perfect for road bikers who have the afternoon to kill and want a solid cardio workout.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
There’s plenty of free parking at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. You can park right at the bottom in the Park-N-Ride lot, or if that’s full, there’s a lot just across Wasatch Blvd across from the Porcupine Restaurant. The canyon doesn't have official hours, but it’s best to ride during the day because traffic can make night riding a little dangerous.
If coming back to Salt Lake City take a detour to Hectors on the way home (2901 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City, 84109) for some quality carb refueling. We highly recommend the breakfast burrito.