Big Cottonwood Canyon & Park City, Utah


After two very long plane flights, and a layover that lasted nearly three hours, I stepped off the plane in Salt Lake City.  My luggage had been more fortunate, It caught an earlier flight, and didn’t have to endure the three-hour visit to Atlanta. After I waited at the carousel, tracked down a baggage agent, and identified my 49.5 pounds of pants and shirts, I escaped the airport, then drove around slightly lost for a few minutes, before finding my motel and collapsing on the bed.  My least favorite part of vacationing had left me beat, but it was only about 5 in the afternoon.  There were still three hours of daylight left, and on a vacation, every hour of daylight is precious.

I unfolded my Utah map and took a look around.  For some reason, I hadn’t put much planning into this first day.  I looked at the Great Salt Lake, but I had seen it before, and I assumed it looked much the same.  Then some squiggly lines caught my attention.  Any road that can’t run in a straight line shows promise, and this particular road cut directly through the dramatic Wasatch Mountains, before dropping down into the center of the 2002 Winter Olympics town of Park City.  This is where I would use the rest of the day’s light.

Cottonwood Canyon is a popular name in Utah.  Just a few miles south of it’s “Big” brother, you’ll find Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Much further south, in the middle of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, Cottonwood Canyon Road cuts through some of southern Utah’s most bizarre landscapes.  You can check out my 2004 trip for a review of that road.

Take I-215 south, then east from the SLC airport.  Exit 6 leads to Wasatch Boulevard and Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. 

Here’s a through-the-windshield shot, taken just before the turnoff into Big Cottonwood Canyon.  Even miles away, it’s fairly obvious where you’re headed, since there are very few breaks in the massive Wasatch Front.

Just after the turn, make another left and head into a parking lot, where several signs provide some information on what to expect along the scenic highway.

The road wastes no time, delving into sharp curves that twist around rocky outcroppings and hillsides.  I was tempted to stop a hundred times to take a picture.  After a few non-vacationing months in Flatorida, even the smallest bumps in the landscape look beautiful.  But the Wasatch offers something more–an incredible range of colors and textures, ever-changing as I drove on into the canyon.

Since you’re driving through a narrow pass between two big mountains, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the road shares space with a creek.  At one of the first turnoffs there’s a trailhead, where you can take a few good pictures of the cascading water.  Had I arrived earlier in the day, and had I not been drained of most of my energy by the hassles of flying, I would have considered a hike here.

The road continues to climb, eventually lifting you up high enough to provide an impressive view of the valley behind you.  You will need to make one left-hand turn, almost a U-turn, onto Guardsman Pass Road, just after you pass the Solitude ski area.  If you kept going straight, Big Cottonwood Canyon Road comes to an end at the Brighton ski area.

Take it slow!  Big, sharp curves are unmarked with warning signs on these roads, and they can take you by surprise if you’re not paying attention.

The pavement ends on Guardsman Pass Road, just as you reach the crest of the mountain.  It’s one of those moments where you realize you’re about to go from one dramatic view (the one behind you) to another (the one that’s about to be revealed as the road tops off).  Fortunately, there’s a small parking area here, so you can take a moment to let it all soak in.

From the top of the pass, the road begins its descent towards Park City.  Even though it’s dirt, it’s easily passable (at least, until winter arrives — after that, I make no guarantees).

As the road drops down, it winds its way through some forested areas, as well as some ski lifts.

My drive through the Wasatch Mountains was fun and beautiful, but it was a bit too much for what had already been a long day.  I’m especially sensitive to altitude sickness, and when those symptoms combined with fatigue, jet lag, and a lack of anything substantial to eat since that long layover in Atlanta, I was feeling pretty lousy.  The road from the pass into Park City isn’t terribly long, but it felt like torture to me.  Every curve added motion sickness onto that already long list of aliments.  By the time I reached Park City, I was hoping for a simple convenience store, where I could grab a drink and a snack.  But Park City is a polished ski resort–the kind of upper class town where, apparently, no one likes Slurpees or Big Gulps.  Eventually I found a grocery store, and a few minutes later, a Wal-mart (near Interstate 80–a surprisingly un-classy place, given the rest of the town’s boutique charm).  I-80 completed the loop back to the motel, where once again, I plopped down hard on a soft mattress.  At least this time, there was no daylight left to waste.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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