Cyclists along the Salt Lake stretch of the Wasatch Front are exceptionally spoiled when it comes to great canyon rides nearby. Besides offering jaw-dropping scenery, a canyon climb gets you out of the summer heat, away from busier roads, and offers a fantastic challenge to spice up your training—especially if your prepping for a race or century ride. That’s why the Summer Cycling says time climbing one of Salt Lake’s canyons is always time well spent!
To that end, we’ve compiled an overview of each of the major canyons near Salt Lake City, including trip distances, grade percentages, and some route notes to help you get an idea of what you’re in for when you tackle one of these gorgeous beasts—we hope you do!
City Creek Canyon
Beginning at Memory Grove in downtown Salt Lake City, City Creek Canyon is a popular ride among cyclists who work or live downtown. The canyon is open to cyclists (and closed to motor vehicles) on odd days from Memorial Day to the end of September. City Creek is one of the few canyons that offers quality shade during the peak summer months.
Distance: 6.80 miles (one way)
Elevation Gain: 1460 feet
Starting point: Start at Memory Grove by the Bonneville Blvd gate. Turn left onto Bonneville Blvd. then immediately right into City Creek Canyon.
At Memory Grove, the starting elevation is 4,670 feet. City Creek Canyon road steadily climbs to about 6,040 feet over 6.8 Miles. The route averages a 7.3% grade, but the second half of the ascent almost seems like a different ride. The first half of the climb from the gate to the water treatment plant gradually climbs at an average grade of 5.6% for 3.2 miles. The road in this section gradually winds over rolling hills.
Once you pass the water treatment plant the road straightens and narrows. This upper section averages a 9.4% grade with some quite steep sections. This second half of the ride is mostly shaded as you work your way up to the finish at Rotary Park. There are several restrooms and picnic areas along the way, which provide great break areas or turnaround points.
The speed limit for vehicles in the canyon is 15 mph. While it may be tempting to bomb the descent, remember that City Creek Canyon is also a popular multi-use trail. You’ll share the canyon with many runners, walkers and it is open to dogs, so keep that speed in check.
Emigration Canyon is one of the most popular canyons to ride near Salt Lake. The canyon offers wide shoulders and a gentle climb for a few miles before a steeper final ascent to the Little Mountain summit.
Distance: 7.70 miles (one way)
Elevation gain: 1300
Starting point: Rotary Glen Park. From the parking lot, ride east on the main road (E Sunnyside Ave/Emigration Canyon Rd) into Emigration Canyon.
Emigration Canyon begins near Hogle Zoo (elevation: 4900 feet). The initial elevation gain is gradual and gets steeper near the end where the road begins several switchbacks to the Little Mountain summit (elevation: 6270 feet) and a beautiful view of Little Dell Reservoir.
Emigration is very popular with cyclists. If you ride early in the day, you may see more fellow riders than cars, but the canyon does have significant vehicle traffic, especially below Ruth’s diner. Be mindful of motorists pulling in and out of driveways along the route.
Enjoy the winding road and canyon views as you make your way to the top. Be sure not to turn around too early. You’ll find a beautiful view of Little Dell Reservoir on the back side of the summit.
From Little Mountain Summit you can opt to turn around and enjoy a nice descent back down the canyon. Or if you’re feeling strong and looking for more climbing you can keep riding over the top of Little Mountain past Little Dell Reservoir and up to the Big Mountain summit. This will add another 16 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing.
What’s the deal? No love for Millcreezy?
Big Cottonwood Canyon
Big Cottonwood Canyon is a challenging ride with an average grade of 7.8%. This canyon is longer than Little Cottonwood Canyon, but not nearly as steep. Enjoy beautiful canyon and river views as you climb, and keep an eye out for wildlife.
Distance: 14.70 miles (one way)
Elevation gain: 4584 feet
Starting point: You can park right at the base of the canyon in the park-and-ride lot. Or, if that’s full, there’s a lot just across Wasatch Blvd; north of the Porcupine Restaurant.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is Salt Lake County’s longest climb. This climb begins at 7200 South (elevation 4,920 feet) and ends at Brighton Ski Resort at an elevation of about 8,770 feet after 14 miles of climbing. The first couple miles of canyon are relatively moderate. Enjoy the warm-up. Two miles up the canyon you will reach the Storm Mountain Camp Area where the grade will jump to 9-13% for a half mile.
After the Storm Mountain area, the grade eases a bit to provide some less-strenuous work until you reach the “S” Curve, about 4 miles from the base. Beginning at the curve and continuing for about 2 miles the grade is relatively steep, though less steep than the Storm Mountain section.
When you have completed this second steep section, the grade will mellow again for about 5 miles to the Silver Fork Lodge, just before Solitude. This Solitude section is the last steep section and lasts about 2 miles, which will put you within eyesight of the Brighton Loop and the end of the ride. Stopping at Brighton is reward in itself with amazing views and a chance to catch your breath.
If you’re looking for even more climbing, take a right at the sign for Guardsman and Empire and continue up to the 9,700 foot peak of Guardsman Pass. This addition to the route adds another 3 miles and 1,000 feet to your climb. Enjoy the amazing view from the summit of Guardsman before heading back for a long descent.
Little Cottonwood Canyon
There’s a reason why the Little Cottonwood Canyon climb is used as the finish of the Queen Stage and the Ultimate Challenge of the Tour of Utah. Although it is about half as long as Big Cottonwood, it is significantly steeper, making it one of the most challenging climbs on the Wasatch Front.
Distance: 8.4 miles (one way)
Elevation Gain: 3472 feet
Starting point: There are several options to choose from including Wasatch Boulevard or from anywhere in the Salt Lake valley if you’re looking for a higher difficulty ride. There is a park-and-ride lot at the base of the canyon, but you may want to start at Hidden Valley Park (located at 11700 South Wasatch Boulevard) to give yourself a bit of a warm-up before entering the canyon.
From the mouth of the canyon, at an elevation of 5,397 feet, the Little Cottonwood Canyon road climbs steadily – and sometimes steeply – to the end of the road in Alta, at an elevation of 8,729 feet.
The average gradient of Little Cottonwood Canyon Road ranges from 8% to 9% for the entire length of the 8.3-mile climb. This ride is steady and challenging the whole way. If you want to take your mind off the grind, look around and enjoy the view of the creek and the variety of trees, and wildflowers along the way.
About 3 miles up the canyon, you’ll enter the stretch of road known as the Seven Sisters. This is a reference to a series of seven curves that the road steeply negotiates.
The first entry point to the Snowbird ski resort is on the right at mile 10. You’re almost there! Keep climbing past the next three Snowbird entrances and enter the town of Alta at mile 11.3. The climb ends where the road splits at the top of the canyon.