Tom Kelly’s Sunday Drive: Meeting Mother Nature in Big Cottonwood

There is something truly majestic as you crest the rise at Guardsman Pass, heading down into Big Cottonwood Canyon. The scenery switches like a light bulb as towering, rocky alpine peaks come into view beyond the aspen-lined roadway.

From Clayton Peak, standing sentinel between the Heber Valley and Big Cottonwood, to Mt. Millicent above Brighton, the Honeycomb Cliffs forming the backbone of Solitude and down to the Reed and Benson Ridge, it is remarkable alpine terrain just a short Sunday Drive away from Park City.

When we moved to Utah in 1988, a drive up Empire Pass and on over Guardsman was a terrifying adventure. A rocky, eroding roadway left you skeptical about why you ventured up. It was no place for passenger cars! Today, the fully paved roadway with guardrails is a breeze. Sadly missing is the ability to just dump your car at the top and hike up 9990 for sunset.

Big Cottonwood Canyon is teeming with adventure, all of it in partnership with Mother Nature. What’s especially fascinating about Big Cottonwood hikes are the mountain lakes. From the switchbacks coming off Guardsman down to the fabled S Curve, you have over a dozen destination lake options from daylong adventures up to Desolation Lake on the backside of The Canyons or Lake Blanche high up Mill B towards Little Cottonwood, to simple 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 a gateway to a wide range of mountain adventure. It’s less than a mile of boardwalk and flat trail hiking, every step offering stunning views. It’s truly a hike for anyone. For the more adventurous, you can take one of the spurs up to Twin Lakes Reservoir, or connect over to the Lake Mary trail at Brighton and even up and over Catherine’s Pass to Alta.

Families have been heading into Big Cottonwood for well over a century. In the early 20th century, wagons would make treks up to Brighton from the Salt Lake Valley. Miners would ski over from Park City. The Wasatch Mountain Club was formed nearby in 1920.

Silver Lake is a simple family hike that pays big dividends. The most amazing aspect is the diversity of Mother Nature you’ll encounter. The surrounding conifer forest is teeming with Engelmann spruce, sub-alpine fir, Douglas fir, white fir and timber pine. Its canopy creates dense shade that blocks wind and sun, keeping it cool.

In a short one-mile hike, you will see a complete ecosystem in action. Kids, your task at Silver Lake is to count the number of different animals you see – rabbits, squirrels, beaver, turtles, ermine, trout and, yes, perhaps even the Brighton moose! And when you see them, think about their surroundings and the roles they play in the environment.

Every season tells a different story in the mountains. On our recent walk around Silver Lake, winter snow was succumbing to springtime temperatures as it cascaded down through the pines on its way to Silver Lake. For a moment, I was transformed back to the powder turns I had made just a few months earlier on Millie. But today, that powder had become the water tracing its ways around the roots of trees as it began its long march down the canyon.

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

The Details

Overview: Big Cottonwood is a simple drive up and over Empire Pass at Deer Valley, through Bonanza Flat and up Guardsman Pass and down into the canyon. You can do an out-and-back, or complete a roundtrip down through Salt Lake City. It’s all fully paved. Do pay attention to any parking restrictions and leave the dogs at home – they are not permitted!

Fun Stuff: Big Cottonwood is all about Mother Nature, with every range of hikes for the family. Bring your walking shoes, sun screen, binoculars and your camera!

Dining: Breakfast in the cool mountain air at Silver Fork Lodge is a great way to start the day, a Big Cottonwood institution since 1947. Or you can grab snacks, treats or a light lunch at the Brighton Store. Watch for live music and pizzas at Solitude Mountain Resort.

Next Week: After a few weeks close to home, next week we’ll venture north to Idaho to visit the magnificent City of Rocks offering a unique look at geology and some fun rock scrambling 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, which he has made his home for 34 years.

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