Page Contributor(s): Bruce Hamilton, La Quinta, CA, USA; Stacy Topping, Tacoma, WA, USA
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Cycling Big Cottonwood Canyon -- one of Utah’s great bike climbs.
17 miles gaining 5,521’ to elevation 9,709’ at 5.4% average grade.
“This climb is one of the most difficult in Utah up very scenic Big Cottonwood Canyon (Route 190) to Guardsman Pass on a route that does carry some traffic at times. A shallow start turns a bit steeper when the road gets very twisty. Just beyond the five mile mark the grade eases a bit through its middle section. Just over 12 miles in are two solid grade miles and then you turn left for the pass (straight to the Brighton Ski Resort). The first ramp on this section is steeper (double digit briefly) and the grade then eases a bit soon after a right turn that leads toward the top. The upper part is scenic and over variable grade and the climb soon ends at dramatic Guardsman Pass. You can continue down the east side ot reach Park City (upper section closed in winter- Wasatch-Cache National Forest - 801-733-2660). The descent is challenging so be alert, particularly the S curve and down low in the twisty section where there are many areas where people park just off the road to hike and climb.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 214.)
Before heading to Utah and climbing Big Cottonwood Canyon, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is a destination both in the winter and summer. This bike climb heads up Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, which, if we continue straight at the 13.8 mile mark, ends at Brighton Ski Resort. The entire bike climb is on the Big Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway (SR-190) which runs from the intersection of Wasatch Boulevard/Highway 190 to Guardsman Pass. The origin of this highway dates to 1933.
We enter Wasatch National Forest (908,000 acres est. 1907).
On our way up Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Cottonwoods and mountain scenery as we climb.
At 13.8 miles turn left onto Guardsman Pass Road and climb another 3.1 miles (1,100') to the top of Guardsman Pass (accessing this major Utah Pass via the west).
We almost immediately enter the Wasatch National Forest as we begin our climb, and continue for nearly 14 miles through a very scenic canyon, following (by view or sound) Big Cottonwood Creek from mile two until we turn left and begin climbing Guardsman Pass Road.
Turn onto Guardsman Pass Road at mile 13.8.
We begin some steep switchbacks just after the 13.8 mile mark as we complete the climb (three miles at 7.1%), up to the top of Guardsman Pass -- the views along this portion of the climb are at times spectacular.
Guardsman Pass can be accessed from the north (via Empire Pass North-Park City side -- YouTube Playlist) and the east (#14 - Guardsman Pass East -- Midway, Utah). An up-over-back ride from the beginning of Big Cottonwood Canyon up to Guardsman Pass then down to Midway and back entails 51 miles riding and 8,939' of climbing (major footage for the buck!).
View from the top of Guardsman Pass.
We pass Solitude Ski and Board Resort at mile 12. For provisions before heading up to the top, continue straight at the junction of Guardsman Pass and Big Cottonwood Canyon Roads (mile 13.8) for a quarter mile to Brighton Ski Resort where there is a lodge, cafe and bathrooms, open during the non-winter season. A “cleats on the ground report” comes from New Orleans cyclist Ray Clement:
Here's a photo of the cafe/general store at the top of the climb: They've never given me any trouble despite the "No Public Restrooms" sign. But for those less willing to go into the cafe, there's a nice restroom just to the right once you reach the top loop. Water fountain, private stalls, and the toilets flush!
Roadway and Traffic Report: As you can readily see from our videos, the first 13.8 miles of this climb on a highway and cars can zip by at a good clip, although there is a very good shoulder/bike lane for the bulk of this stretch, the general flow of traffic is mild to moderate. Traffic on Guardsman Pass Road is light. The roadway surface is excellent as of August 2014.
This canyon is called “Big” Cottonwood because it is longer and wider than “Little” Cottonwood (Snowbird/Alta) four miles to the south. However, the two are equals as to scenery and exceptional cycling experiences -- they are both “must do’s.”
That’s a wrap!!