A Family Bike Tour of Salt Lake’s East Canyon

Following the Mormon Trail in Salt Lake's Backyard Mountains
Plan for stops when biking with children

Behind me, I could feel the pedaling slow and then stop completely. The weight from the trailer-cycle tugged back at me as I tried to propel it slowly up the dirt hill. I looked back, already knowing what I would find. My three-year-old was asleep, his head flopped forward at an awkward angle. A quiet snore escaped his sunburned lips. Oh, the joy of biking with children.

There was no waking my cycling partner; he’d had his fill of fun and excitement and had decided to check out for the duration. It was up to me to pedal the last few miles back to our car. I put my head down to shield it from the 90-degree sunshine and pushed on to complete the next leg of our family bike tour.

Somewhere below me, beneath the rolling of my rubber tires, were the long-buried tracks of handcart wheels and horseshoes. We were on the second day of a weekend bike camping adventure, following portions of the Mormon Pioneer and Pony Express national historic trails through a rugged canyon in the craggy Wasatch Mountain Range just east of Salt Lake City. Like the pioneers before us, we carried all the gear we needed to support ourselves. Just out of sight ahead of me, my husband Blair hauled a trailer overflowing with a tent, sleeping bag, a small cooler, and the standard range of miscellaneous items needed for a weekend of camping and biking with kids in Utah.

Somewhere below me, beneath the rolling of my rubber tires, were the long-buried tracks of handcart wheels and horseshoes.

Our family had been dreaming of a self-supported family bikepacking trip for months. Over our Saturday morning cups of coffee, Blair and I pored over maps searching for a suitable family bike ride. We wanted a course that included dirt, swimming, and plenty of pit stops for our son to play. Finally, we settled on little-trafficked, high-elevation route from Jeremy Ranch (near Park City) to East Canyon Reservoir via a 50/50 mix of dirt road and pavement. The fact that it was a historical route was an added bonus.

Historical Pioneer Trails signage

Day 1: On the Route of Pioneers

And so it was that on a hot and sunny Saturday morning in June we found ourselves loading gear onto our bikes. “Where’s my stuffed cheetah?!” my 3 year old asked with clear worry in his voice. I found the scraggly stuffed animal and affixed him to my son’s trailer-cycle. Off we went.

The initial stretch of dirt road was quiet and barren. The occasional truck came lumbering past, but for the most part, we were on our own. The scent of sagebrush wafted on the intermittent breeze; a lone deer darted across the road.

A few miles in, we pulled over at Mormon Flats, an oasis of sorts in the dry desert. The grassy meadow tucked at the base of Big Mountain Pass was used as a basecamp first for the Donner Party and then Brigham Young, as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints negotiated the rugged canyon en route to their ultimate settlement in the Salt Lake Valley that fateful summer of 1847. Just as I’m sure the pioneer children did, my son took off running for the creek. Wrangling him back onto safer ground, we shared a haphazard lunch of grapes, cheese and trail mix.

Big Mountain Pass Trail

Continuing down the road on our family bike tour, we eventually hit pavement. With my 3 year-old pedaling and singing songs, we made good time as we cruised around the shimmering blue shoreline of East Canyon Reservoir. The breeze from our movement helped offset the heat rising from the pavement.

Reaching the Dixie campground at the north end of the reservoir, we were all desperate for a swim. But first, we had to deal with the girl at the entry booth.

“Hello!” I said cheerfully, as we rolled up to the small brown building. “We have a reservation.”

She frowned as she evaluated our arrival method. She scrawled the date on a vehicle hang tag, and handed it toward me. “Wait,” she paused. “Maybe you don’t need the tag? Since you don’t have a vehicle?”

I shrugged. She handed me the tag anyhow, and we proudly attached it to the bike trailer.

Camping site secured, we headed to the water. Although the campground was full, the shoreline was nearly deserted. We spread our beach towels on an empty dock and jumped off the edge. With snowy mountain peaks looming in the distance, my body hit the water and a shock of cold water rushed across my skin. I reached for my 3 year old who was gasping and clinging to his lifejacket. We climbed onto the dock, laughed at the cold, and then jumped again.

Frozen to the bone, we dried off, quickly warmed up, then headed to the small marina store for ice cream. On the lovely wooden deck, we licked our cones and watched fishermen coming in with their dinner. We had nothing quite as fresh or tasty for our own dinner, but did enjoy a hot dehydrated meal while we played a few rounds of Go Fish.

Camping at Dixie Campground

Day 2: Headed Home

Despite the hot daytime temperatures, the night was cool. In fact, it felt downright freezing, a reminder of the extremes of elevation in the high country. We wasted no time getting back on the bike to get the blood flowing. With the sun up and our fingers thawed, we stopped at East Canyon Resort for coffee and mid-morning ice cream. From the comfort of the covered wood porch, we dined on the breakfast of champions.

Initially, the miles passed quickly. As the temperature rose, however, things slowed down. Returning the same way we had come, we noticed things we hadn’t the first time: the beauty of a sprawling horse ranch and a pull-out on the road with a good climbing tree. My son pointed out birds and sang sweet songs to them.

When the exhaustion finally kicked in and he succumbed to sleep, I continued on in silence. The hard effort felt good, and I imagined that I wasn't so different than the pioneer women before me. They would have carried their young children along this dusty path, the load heavy, happy to be headed toward home.

Whether biking with kids or one single child, this route could become one of your favorite family bike tours in Utah!

Kristen Bonkoski

Kristen Bonkoski is an avid mountain biker and adventure-lover who shares her escapades in words and photos.  Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Singletracks.com, and VisitIdaho.org among other publications.  She spends all her free time mountain biking with her husband and son in Salt Lake City, Utah, and blogs about it at RascalRides.com and RascalsOnTheRoad.com.

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East Canyon State Park Area

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Pro Tips

  • To replicate this trip, start where Jeremy Ranch Road turns to dirt. There is a small turnout for parking at the trailhead. Pedal Jeremy Ranch Road until you reach Mormon Flat. At the intersection with S.R. 65, head north toward East Canyon Reservoir. The ride is approximately 12 miles one way, and is well suited to children and beginners.
  • There are two campgrounds at East Canyon. Dixie Campground has more amenities including a store and boat rentals. Reservations can be made up to four months in advance and are strongly encouraged.
  • This trip could be extended by starting at This is The Place State Park in Salt Lake City and riding up Emigration Canyon, over the summit of Little Mountain, and then up East Canyon and over Big Mountain Pass. Riders can ride pavement or throw in Mormon Pioneer Trail from Little Dell Reservoir to Mormon Flat.