Big Cottonwood Canyon
It may just sit 20 minutes from downtown Salt Lake, but Big Cottonwood Canyon is a mountain retreat that feels worlds away. Much of the canyon is National Forest land, with a gushing stream running parallel to the main canyon road and side-canyons galore to explore year-round.
The lower half of the canyon, narrow and rugged, is largely uninhabited—the canyon walls rise sharply above the road, all the way to the 10,000-foot-plus peaks towering above. But drive the ten miles to the upper half of the canyon, and now we’re talkin’ more than trails. A small but lively community of cabin-dwellers occupy the little neighborhoods of Silver Fork, Guardsman Pass, Giles Flat, Cardiff, Mount Haven, and Brighton. Everyone knows everyone else—because they’ve all come here for a reason: to carve out a life separate from (but near to) the city.
The canyon’s handful of bars and restaurants all share a warm, welcoming feel. People come here to play hard, sleep deeply, drink boisterously, and eat plentifully. Year-round, visitors revel in the rugged vistas, getting their cardio kick by biking, hiking, and running the mountain trails. Rock climbing routes abound. Two world-class ski and snowboard resorts sit on the canyon’s upper slopes, with endless backcountry ski touring beyond their rope lines.
Whether you come to Big Cottonwood for a brief visit or make it a regular haunt, it’s the kind of place that shapes its visitors for the better. Meet the place on its terms—it’s not Park City, and it sure doesn’t aspire to be. Up here in the high mountain air, you’ll throw yourself wholeheartedly into recreation and adventure—then sleep deeply, with visions of powder turns dancing in your head.
Where to Eat & Drink
Whether you come up to ski, snowboard, climb, hike, or bike, Big Cottonwood is a great place to work up an appetite. The neighborhood’s best dining mainstay is the beloved Silver Fork Lodge. The restaurant/inn sits most of the way up the Big Cottonwood road, perfectly situated with views of jagged ridgelines and beautiful aspen-covered hillsides.
Silver Fork Lodge has been present since old mining days, and the restaurant still serves sourdough bread baked with a 70-year-old sourdough starter—talk about flavorful history. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, apres and dinner, 365 days a year, snow or shine. So stop in for a cozy spot by the oversized fireplace, order the tastiest pancake platter you’ve ever had, and bask in the scenery just outside the wall-to-wall windows.
Just a skip up the road at Solitude Resort, there are a few more eateries (and drinkeries) worth noting—in the Solitude Village (based at the resort’s upper parking lot) you’ll find the Honeycomb Grill, the Stone Haus Pizzeria, and St. Bernard’s restaurant. A pizza pie at the Stone Haus is one of the most perfect ways to refuel after a big day of adventuring—in the warmer months, you can polish it off sitting at a picnic table in the middle of the village, with full mountain views. The Thirsty Squirrel, open all winter and sometimes in the summer, offers the high-altitude beverages to wash it all down.
Finally, a few miles further at the top of the canyon, Brighton Resort is home to Molly Green’s restaurant and pub—a canyon community classic. It’s a bar, so bring the 21-and-up posse only, but the fare is tasty and the setting unforgettable. The pub sits in the top floor of an old A-frame cabin-style building that serves as a medical clinic, sack lunch area, and bar. You can sit by the fireplace and order one of the biggest nacho platters you’ve ever had, washed down by a cold draft brew.
Where to Play
Let us count the ways: whatever your season or mountain sport of choice, this canyon serves it up in spades.
By summer, be sure to check out the canyon’s famed hiking destinations, including Lake Blanche (moderately difficult, three miles each way), Lake Mary (easy, one mile each way), Willow Lake (easy, one mile each way), and Dog Lake (moderate, two and a half miles each way). Each trail offers its own unique vistas, wildflowers, challenges, and wanderings. Summer Saturdays are busiest, but go up early morning on a weekday, and you’ll share the mountain with nobody but the moose and the songbirds.
There’s also excellent mountain biking (lift served!) at Solitude Resort. You can pop in to the village rental shop to rent a top-notch bike and snag a trail map, then set out on the trails from there or hop a lift ride to the top for an easier start. The resort boasts a twenty-mile network of tree-lined singletrack trails and double-track dirt roads—each marked with its difficulty level.
While we’re talking summer at Solitude, be sure to check out the 18-hole disc golf course. Mountain disc golf is unlike any other—you’ll spend about half your time digging through wildflower bushes and shimmying up trees to locate wayward discs. However, you’ll spend all of your time smiling too.
By winter, snowsports excitement kicks into full gear. Both Brighton and Solitude are world-class winter resorts. Brighton is also known for its exceptional terrain parks, which attract the young set from Salt Lake. Both resorts have ample inbounds terrain to offer—and between the two resorts lies the Solitude Nordic Center, a sprawling network of perfectly groomed cross-country ski trails. You can stop in to rent some gear or sign up for a lesson and spend an afternoon in the perfect quiet of the canyon forest.
Where to Stay
Other than the quaint little Silver Fork Lodge (which is highly recommended if you like old-timey comfort and killer breakfast just downstairs), there is lodging aplenty at Solitude Resort. The resort has multiple buildings of condominiums for rent nightly as well as an Inn, which features hotel-style rooms. You can also check out the many nightly and weekly cabin rentals in the area if you’d like the full mountain getaway experience—because nothing says Big Cottonwood like a toddy on the couch by a woodstove fire after a glorious day out.