Ogden River Scenic Byway

Ogden to Monte Cristo through mountain panoramas into high elevations perfect for a summer or autumn drive

Location: North-central Utah. The byway travels east from Ogden to the eastern boundary of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Overview: A 30-mile canyon/ alpine drive with an optional 30-mile descent to Woodruff in the Bear River Valley.
Travel Season: Year-round through Huntsville. The highest part of the byway, where it approaches Monte Cristo Summit, is closed during winter (usually from December through April, depending on snow conditions). Dense and varied foliage makes this a popular autumn drive.
Special Attractions: Pineview Reservoir, Abbey of the Holy Trinity, Star Burgers at the Shooting Star Saloon, lovely mountain panoramas.

GPS of Start: 41.244323, -111.969962 (Ogden)

GPS of End: 41.463791, -111.497591 (Monte Cristo Campground)

Drive Route Number & Name: Highway 39, Ogden River Scenic Byway.

Camping: Twelve national forest campgrounds.

Services: All services in Ogden; gas, food, and camping at Huntsville and Woodruff.

Nearby Attractions: Trappers Loop Scenic Backway, Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area, Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, Highway 30 Scenic Byway. 

– The Road Trip –

There’s plenty of variety on this drive. Like other drives that run east from valleys into mountains, the Ogden River Scenic Byway follows a narrow canyon away from the urban center and up into spectacular alpine landscapes. Along the way to its high point of nearly 9,000 feet at Monte Cristo Summit, it passes through a complex quartzite gorge, a beautiful high valley, and some of the finest mountain meadows and forest in Northern Utah. Also along the way are significant man-made attractions that include a genuine monastery and prize-winning hamburgers.

The road is paved the entire way and suitable for all vehicles. Weekend traffic in summer and during the ski season can be heavy between Ogden and Huntsville. Beyond Huntsville it is doubtful you will see much traffic along Highway 39, especially beyond the high point at Monte Cristo. Expect snow anytime after September. The road through the canyon above Ogden can be very difficult when icy and inconvenient for large RVs. East of Huntsville the byway is subject to winter snow closures. Inquire in Ogden or Huntsville as to the current status of this road. 

Railroad Heritage

Ogden is one of very few Utah communities founded by pre-Mormon pioneers. American and British trappers were active in the area from the early 1800s. Miles Goodyear established a trading post at the current site of Ogden in 1845, the first white settlement in the entire Great Basin. When the Mormons arrived two years later, Brigham Young promptly bought Goodyear out and resettled the area with his faithful followers. The city is named for British trapper and explorer Peter Skene Ogden, who never actually visited the site.

The city’s growth was also tied to non-Mormon interests. Although the transcontinental rail line was joined at Promontory Summit, 60 miles away, the primary rail yard and depot were established early on at Ogden. The old Union Station (2501 North Wall Ave.) houses the Utah State Railroad Museum, Ogden Natural History Museum, Browning Firearms Museum, a collection of vintage automobiles, an art gallery, and a very complete travel information center with all the books, maps, and brochures you could need. Make a point of visiting this jam-packed collection of Ogden-area exhibits.

Highway 39 is 12th Street, north of the city center. Turn right (east) on Highway 39. Because the Wasatch Range abuts the eastern limit of the city, within 3 miles of downtown Ogden you are in complete mountain wilderness in a very narrow canyon beside a fast-moving stream. The chief (and rather significant) difference between this canyon drive and those from other Wasatch Front towns is that Ogden Canyon is mostly private property, while the others are mainly national forest. Several attractive roadside restaurants might make nice stops.

In addition to resident traffic, this is a major conduit between Ogden and its lake and mountain recreation areas, so you might experience a fair amount of traffic in the canyon. The road is also narrow, with sharp curves, so large vehicles should exercise care and make use of the infrequent pull-outs to allow faster traffic to pass.

At mile 7 you pass the city water-treatment plant and enter the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Just beyond, you reach the dam and lower end of Pineview Reservoir, a major -recreational resource for the Ogden area. The two campgrounds (total of nearly 100 sites) at the reservoir fill up quickly on weekends. If you are looking for a place to picnic, there are more peaceful spots along the Ogden River and at Causey Reservoir east of Huntsville.

Snowbasin & Trappers Loop

At mile 10 is the turnoff for Snowbasin, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics’ downhill skiing events. Just past the turnoff is Anderson Cove Campground on the left. In another 0.5 mile, on the right, is the turnoff for Highway 167, the Trappers Loop Scenic Backway, clearly marked for Mountain Green.

Trappers Loop is recommended as a short side trip and is often used as a shortcut for those headed to Pineview from the south. It is named as the probable route followed by Peter Skene Ogden and his party of Hudson’s Bay trappers. This is 9 miles of perfectly maintained paved road with really marvelous views of the eastern faces of the Wasatch Front’s northern segment. The round-trip drive takes 30 to 45 minutes. There is gas and a convenience store in Mountain Green. If you’re headed for the Park City/Heber area, or just can’t get enough of canyon driving, Trappers Loop leads to I-84, which in turn leads to lovely mountain towns and valleys. State Highways 65 and 66 drop south of I-84 from East Canyon. From there, it’s easy to return to Salt Lake City via Parley’s Canyon (I-80) or the highly recommended drive through Emigration Canyon. Even though Emigration Canyon was the one used by Mormon pioneers as they made their way to the Salt Lake Valley, it’s remained less traveled than most canyons leading into the Wasatch Mountains. If Salt Lake City is your base for the Ogden Canyon drive, it’s definitely worth taking the time to loop back via East and Emigration Canyons.

The land adjacent to the Trappers Loop drive is privately held, and development is in its early stages; this is how the land around Heber City and Deer Valley must have looked 30 years ago.

Retrace the Trappers Loop backway to Highway 39, where it is 1.5 miles to Huntsville. Most of this attractive community lies just off to the left of the highway, as signs indicate.

Burgers & Bucks

If everyone in your party is over 21 years old (and heavily into beef), you really should stop in at the Shooting Star Saloon in Huntsville for a world-famous Star Burger. The fare is simple: beer and burgers. But the saloon’s burgers are consistently judged among the nation’s best. An institution since 1879, the Shooting Star claims to be the oldest operating saloon in Utah, and it is packed with artifacts including the massive stuffed head of a Saint Bernard called Buck. In accordance with state laws, children are not admitted.

If you can tear yourself away from Huntsville’s indoor attractions, more fine scenery awaits up Highway 39. Just east of the turnoff to town on the left, and after the sign for the monastery, there is a sign indicating a right turn to stay on Highway 39, headed east. Straight here goes to Eden, another small lakeside town and the gateway to the low-key Nordic Valleyand Powder Mountain ski resorts. We will take the right to continue up to Monte Cristo.

Most of the land around the lake is private, but just east of Huntsville the road reenters the national forest and you pass six national forest campgrounds in quick succession, with a total of about 150 campsites. These campgrounds are all nicely shaded by old cottonwood trees on the banks of the fast-flowing Ogden River. Just past the last of these campgrounds is the turnoff on the right for Causey Reservoir and Weber County Memorial Park, a good place for a picnic or a swim.

Beyond the turnoff for Causey Reservoir, Highway 39 turns north and follows Beaver Creek up into the forested mountains. The forest here is primarily aspen, making this a truly spectacular autumn drive. This region is rich in animal life and is a likely place to spot moose and porcupines beside the road and beavers in the creek that bears their name.

About 6 miles along Beaver Creek is the turnoff on the left for Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area, 14 miles north on an unpaved and often rough road. Hardware Ranch is primarily a winter elk preserve, though some of the animals remain through the summer and the visitor center and restaurant are open year-round. Check at the Forest Service office in Ogden on current road conditions; you might be able to use Hardware Ranch as an interesting return option on this drive, provided you are driving a high-clearance vehicle.

On to Woodruff

After 23 miles (and a long climb from Huntsville) you come up to a prominent pass as the road climbs almost to the summit of 9,148-foot Monte Cristo Peak. There will often be snow up here into June. The Forest Service fire guard station (still in use as a base for mountain rescues) and campground at Monte Cristo technically mark the end of the Ogden River Scenic Byway (and this road trip), but you might want to continue down to Woodruff in the Bear River Valley, or at least far enough to drink in the broad views the eastern descent provides. This 30-mile continuation is as scenic as the ascent to Monte Cristo. One great attraction to the drive down to Woodruff is the near total absence of traffic.

Woodruff was settled in 1870 by pioneers from the current town of Bountiful. There is a gas station, convenience store, a nice little park with picnic area, and a cute little rodeo arena. Woodruff is a cold spot, averaging only 57 frost-free days per year.

From Woodruff, it is but a half-hour drive through pretty ranchland with nice views of the Uinta Mountains to the south, to reach I-80 (at Evanston, Wyoming) for the quickest return to the Salt Lake Valley. Another possibility is to use Highway 39 as a route to Bear Lake and Logan Canyon; this would be a much longer drive, but it would allow you to get to the lake or Logan while avoiding the doldrums of I-15.