Tom Kelly’s Sunday Drive: Meet Mother Nature at Big Cottonwood

There’s something really majestic as you culminate in the hike at Guardsman Pass, heading into Big Cottonwood Canyon. The scene transforms like a light bulb as the towering rocky peaks of the Alps emerge behind the poplar-lined path.

From Clayton Peak, standing ranger between Heber Valley and Big Cottonwood, to Millicent Mountain above Brighton, honeycomb cliffs form the backbone of solitude and down to Reed and Benson Ridge, it’s gorgeous alpine terrain just a short drive from Sunday Park City.

When we moved to Utah in 1988, the drive through Empire Pass and then Guardsman was a terrifying adventure. The eroded, rocky road made you question the reason for your adventure. It was not a place for passenger cars! Today, a fully paved road with guardrails is a breeze. Unfortunately, the ability to dump your car at the top and lift the 9,990 at sunset is missing.



Big Cottonwood Canyon is brimming with adventure, all in partnership with Mother Nature. What’s especially great about hiking tours in Big Cottonwood are the mountain lakes. From Transformers flying from Guardsman to the legendary S Curve, you have over a dozen destination lake options from full-day adventures to Lake Desolation on the backside of The Canyons or Lake Blanche up Mill B towards Little Cottonwood, to family trips Simple to Willow Lake, Twin Lakes, Lake Mary and more.

Located at the foot of Mount Millicent between Brighton and Solitude, Silver Lake is the gateway to a wide range of mountain adventures. It’s less than a mile from the trail and hiking the flat trails, and every step offers stunning views. It really is a hike for anyone. For the more adventurous, you can take one of the catalysts to Twin Lakes Reservoir, or connect to the Lake Mary Trail in Brighton and up and over the Catherine Trail to Alta.



Families have been heading to Big Cottonwood for more than a century. In the early 1900s, buggies were making trips to Brighton from the Salt Lake Valley. Miners were skating from Park City. Wasatch Mountain Club was formed nearby in 1920.

Silver Lake is a simple family outing that pays big dividends. The most amazing aspect is the diversity of Mother Nature that you will encounter. The surrounding coniferous forest is teeming with Engelmann fir, sub-alpine fir, Douglas fir, white fir and wood pine. The canopy creates a dense shade that blocks the wind and sun, keeping the cool.

On a short one mile walk, you’ll see an entire ecosystem in action. Kids, your task in Silver Lake is to count how many different animals you see – rabbits, squirrels, beaver, turtles, ermine, trout, and maybe even a Brighton moose! And when you see them, think about their surroundings and the roles they play in the environment.

Each season tells a different story in the mountains. On our recent walk around Silver Lake, winter snows swayed to spring temperatures as they rolled through pine trees on their way to Silver Lake. For a moment, I’m back to the powdery turns I did just a few months ago on my Millie. But today, that powder has become the water that traces its way around the roots of trees as it begins its long walk through the valley.

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

the details

Summary: Big Cottonwood is a simple car ride up and over Empire Pass in Deer Valley, through Bonanza Flat and Guardsman Pass down into the valley. You can take a round trip, or complete a round trip through Salt Lake City. All fully paved. Don’t mind any parking restrictions and leave dogs at home – NOT allowed!

fun stuff: Big Cottonwood is all about Mother Nature, with every family picnic package set. Bring your hiking shoes, sunscreen, binoculars and camera!

eat the food: Breakfast in the cool mountain air at Silver Fork Lodge is a great way to start the day, a Big Cottonwood establishment since 1947. Or grab snacks, sweets, or a light lunch at the Brighton Store. Watch live music and pizza at Solitude Mountain Resort.

next week: After a few weeks closer to home, next week we will be venturing north to Idaho to visit the wonderful city of rocks that offers a unique look at geology and some fun rocky amusement for the kids.

About Tom Kelly

A lifelong traveler, Tom Kelly has visited more than 100 countries on six continents. But some of his best adventures were in Utah and Intermountain West, which he made his home for 34 years.

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