Tom Kelly’s Sunday Ride: Meeting Mother Nature at Big Cottonwood

There’s something truly majestic about climbing the climb at Guardsman Pass and descending into Big Cottonwood Canyon. The landscape changes like a lightbulb as towering, rocky Alpine peaks come into view behind the aspen-lined road.

From Clayton Peak that stands guard between the Heber Valley and Big Cottonwood, to Mt Millicent above Brighton, the Honeycomb Cliffs that form Solitude’s backbone, and down to Reed and Benson Ridge, it’s remarkable alpine terrain that just a short Sunday drive away is Parkstadt.

When we moved to Utah in 1988, driving up Empire Pass and on through Guardsman was a terrifying adventure. A rocky, eroding pavement left you skeptical as to why you ventured to the top. There was no room for passenger cars! Today, the fully asphalted roadway with crash barriers is child’s play. Unfortunately the option to just park your car at the top and hike up to 9990 for the sunset is missing.

Big Cottonwood Canyon is filled with adventure, all in partnership with Mother Nature. The mountain lakes are particularly fascinating about big cotton hikes. From the switchbacks coming down from Guardsman down the fabled S-curve, you have over a dozen destination lake options ranging from all-day adventures to Desolation Lake at the back of the Canyons or Lake Blanche high up at Mill B towards Little Cottonwood easy family hikes to Willow Lake, Twin Lakes, Lake Mary and more.

Nestled at the foot of Mt Millicent between Brighton and Solitude, Silver Lake is the gateway to a variety of mountain adventures. It’s less than a mile of boardwalk and flat walking trail, each step offering breathtaking views. It really is a hike for everyone. The more adventurous can take one of the foothills to Twin Lakes Reservoir or connect to the Lake Mary Trail in Brighton and even over Catherine’s Pass to Alta.

Families have been drawn to Big Cottonwood for well over a century. In the early 20th century, wagons traveled from the Salt Lake Valley to Brighton. Miners would drive over from Park City. The Wasatch Mountain Club was founded nearby in 1920.

Silver Lake is an easy family hike that pays off. The most amazing thing is the diversity of Mother Nature that you will encounter. The surrounding coniferous forest is teeming with Engelmann spruce, pre-Alpine fir, Douglas fir, silver fir and Scots pine. Its canopy creates dense shade that blocks wind and sun and keeps it cool.

In a short one mile hike you will see an entire ecosystem in action. Kids, your job at Silver Lake is to count the different animals you see – rabbits, squirrels, beavers, turtles, stoats, trout and, yes, maybe even the Brighton Moose! And when you see them, think about their surroundings and the role they play in the environment.

Every season tells a different story in the mountains. On our last walk around Silver Lake, the winter snow succumbed to spring temperatures as it tumbled through the pines on its way to Silver Lake. For a moment I felt like I was thrown back into the powder turns I had been doing on Millie just a few months earlier. But today that powder had turned to water, trudging its way around the roots of the trees as it began its long march through the ravine.

It’s a great way to spend a chilly Sunday afternoon.

The details

Overview: Big Cottonwood is an easy drive up and over Empire Pass in Deer Valley, through Bonanza Flat and up Guardsman Pass and down into the gorge. You can take a round trip or take a tour of Salt Lake City. It’s all completely paved. Be aware of any parking restrictions and leave the dogs at home – they are not allowed!

Funny things: Big Cottonwood is all about Mother Nature, with every choice of hikes for the family. Bring your walking shoes, sunscreen, binoculars and your camera!

Meal: A great start to the day is breakfast in the cool mountain air at Silver Fork Lodge, a Big Cottonwood institution since 1947. Or grab a snack, treat or light lunch from the Brighton Store. Look out for live music and pizzas at Solitude Mountain Resort.

Next week: After a few weeks close to home we will be venturing north to Idaho next week to visit the awesome City of Rocks which offers a unique look at the geology and some fun rock climbing for the kids.

About Tom Kelly

A lifelong traveler, Tom Kelly has visited over 100 countries on six continents. But some of his best adventures have been in Utah and the Intermountain West, where he has called home for 34 years.

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