Wasatch Boulevard to the Cottonwood Canyons: Salt Lake City's Best Rides
Wasatch Boulevard is a main artery that provides cyclists an elevated view of the Salt Lake Valley to the west, and views of the Wasatch mountains to the east. It runs north to south from approximately the point where I-80, coming west out of Parley’s Canyon, dumps into the foothills high above the Salt Lake Valley. Using the Bonneville Shoreline Connector Trail, a paved bike path with series of pedestrian bridges that cross up over the busy interchange, you can connect to Wasatch Boulevard from the Foothill Drive area. This makes Wasatch Boulevard a popular destination for road cyclists starting from the University of Utah and Research Park areas of the city.
Once you have connected to Wasatch Boulevard there are many options for great rides. At just about any point, you can drop down off of Wasatch Boulevard and find routes through communities like Holladay, or Cottonwood Heights, then climb back up to create a loop.
The pots of gold at the end of this rainbow though, are the mighty Cottonwood Canyons. If you have your sights set on climbing one of these iconic routes, you might want to enjoy your cruise along Wasatch — and don’t push too hard. Let riders in small groups pass you from behind, jump on, and catch a draft, or let them go to save some juice in your legs for the big climbs ahead.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is home to Brighton and Solitude ski resorts, while Little Cottonwood Canyon is home to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and Alta Ski Area. Both would be considered HC (or above category, if they were in the Tour de France), but to the legs of a cyclist, they couldn’t be more different from each other. The best tip to remember is that “Big is little and Little is big,” in terms of the severity of the climbing.
Big Cottonwood has its steepest sections at the bottom and the top, and many sections in the middle are borderline big chainring riding if you can get on top of the gears and keep it rolling. Little Cottonwood is little chainring all the way, and most cyclists with compact-style chainrings and/or wide range gearing in the cassette (28 or 32 tooth max gear) will be grateful for this beta.
Cyclists with mid-season fitness will find the ascent to the top of either Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon to be plenty of climbing for one day. You have to take these two monsters seriously and reckon with them one at a time, but not both in the same 24 hours. Tour of Utah level riders might ride both canyons in a day, but let's face it: That is a small and elite group.
Here are a variety of ride options, all starting at Olympus Hills Shopping Center, for you to get out and best experience the Wasatch Boulevard area on two wheels.
Wasatch Boulevard Out-and-Back, 16 miles round trip
This route is a mellow cruise that starts at Olympus Hills Shopping Center. The ride is mostly flat and will give you a taste of the classic sections of Wasatch Boulevard. Head north on Wasatch Boulevard and in less than a mile you will be at the intersection of 3300 South. Make sure you turn right here to stay on Wasatch, and follow it until you see the trailhead for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Connector. Follow this paved trail all the way to where it ends on Foothill Drive, then turn around and head back the way you came.
Once back on Wasatch at 3300 South, you will cruise to the south end, passing where you parked at Olympus Hills. Keep going. The intersection with 6200 South, by the Old Mill Golf Course, is a good time to swing around and ride back the way you came.
Always remember there are a few spots where traffic at intersections can be heavy, after all, it is literally right off the freeway. The heaviest traffic will be at intersections with 3300 South, 3900 South, and 4500 South, which all happen to be exits off the I-215 Belt Route.
Millcreek Canyon from Wasatch Boulevard, 18 miles round trip
Millcreek Canyon is an iconic climbing route that is accessed right off Wasatch Boulevard, at Millcreek Canyon Road, aka 3800 South. It’s one of the cooler canyons, not just visually but in terms of temperature. Local cyclist Burke Swindlehurst offers up a pro tip: Once you get past the Rattlesnake Gulch trailhead, things cool down considerably, and this can be a great escape from the heat of the valley below.
Head north about one block from Olympus Hills Shopping Center, and turn right on Millcreek Canyon Road. Start the ride by climbing through some neighborhoods. When you get to the last house, this signals the point where the real climbing is just beginning. The next 8.8 miles of average 6% gradients will climb just over 2,500 vertical feet.
Millcreek terminates at a parking area at the top of the canyon, a popular starting place for hikers to access higher elevation trails. Millcreek is also home to the famed Pipeline Trail, so mountain bikers frequently ride this canyon to access the trailhead, which is predominantly a downhill directional route. This is your turn-around point to head back to the valley far below.
Be very cautious while descending this canyon!
Wasatch Boulevard to Big Cottonwood Canyon, 39 miles round trip
Start at Olympus Hills Shopping Center and head south on Wasatch Boulevard. At the south end, just past the Old Mill Golf course, turn left at the 6200 South intersection, as Wasatch Boulevard continues uphill towards the Cottonwoods. This is a fairly busy 4-lane highway with a decent shoulder. At the next intersection, you will see the most famous 7-Eleven in Utah. Turn left here to follow the signs to Solitude and Brighton ski resorts. This is highway 190, otherwise known as Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The ride all the way to the Brighton circle is just under 14 miles and while not as challenging as Little Cottonwood Canyon, it will still give you a good workout.
Wasatch Boulevard to Little Cottonwood Canyon, 35 miles round trip
Use the same route as above, but when you get to the intersection where 190 and Big Cottonwood Canyon go left, continue straight on highway 210. There is a steep kicker right out of the gates, and then it mellows out for a few miles as you pass through neighborhoods leading up to the split where Wasatch Boulevard drops down to the right. You will continue straight on Little Cottonwood Road.
There is a reason why the Little Cottonwood Canyon climb is used as the finish of the Queen Stage of the Tour of Utah. It’s steep and impressive, and if you can make it to Entry 2 at Snowbird, where the resort’s iconic tram building is located, pat yourself on the back for doing the same climb as the pros in the Tour of Utah peloton.
But wait...there’s more! Continue climbing up to the town of Alta and Alta ski resort where you will be blown away by the views of Albion Basin and the surrounding peaks.