It’s no secret that Utah encompasses a grip of thrilling mountain bike trails, thanks to the vast diversity of topography in the state. Glaciers, wind, and water etched this landscape for eons to sculpt the terrain where we’ve built our trails. Sandstone slickrock in Moab, tricky technical slabs along Gooseberry Mesa, and flowing singletrack in Northern Utah provide a well-rounded diet for any mountain biker with a hearty appetite.
Though it would be difficult to designate Utah’s best mountain bike trail, the Wasatch Crest Trail is undeniably one of the most memorable rides in the Salt Lake area and Wasatch mountain range.
The Wasatch Crest Trail delivers a heaping dose of expansive views, big descents, one noteworthy climb, technical rock gardens, and sections of blissful flow through aspens and evergreens. This intermediate/advanced trail comes highly recommended to all mountain biking visitors and residents who crave a thrill at high altitude and want to test their skills.
Salt Lake’s most iconic bike ride is a bit like one of those choose-your-own-adventure novels you read as a kid. The trail runs along the aesthetic northern ridge of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Riders can opt to start and finish the ride along several different routes. Those in Park City can start right from Old Town, pedaling up the Park City Armstrong Trail to the Mid Mountain Trail to Pine Cone Ridge. Others may opt to patronize one of the many shuttle services or park a car at the top of Guardsman Pass near Solitude and Brighton ski resorts. A classic combo is to stitch together a 13-mile shuttled ride from Guardsman Pass into Millcreek Canyon (but keep in mind that cyclists may only access upper Millcreek Canyon on even-numbered days). This is the route I recommend for a memorable day in the Wasatch. Let’s go!
Take a moment to catch your breath before kicking off on Scott’s Bypass Trail from Guardsman Pass. After all, you’re above 9,700 feet in elevation and the views are about to knock you off your saddle. Sinuous singletrack winds for about 1.5 miles, leading bikers through a series of banked turns, aspen groves, a short climb, and a brief descent through an evergreen stand. Enjoy the breeze as the most challenging section of the Wasatch Crest Trail draws near, the aptly named: Puke Hill.
Puke Hill is an exposed dirt road that must be climbed to harvest the bounty of the fantastic sections of trail below. It may sound daunting, but it’s worth the exertion. Just get ready to suck some wind and earn those après beers. The vertical gain of 350 feet in under a half mile leaves many folks walking their bikes, which is perfectly fine. Keep going, you’ll get there. There’s not much shade on Puke Hill, so grind your way ever upwards and don’t be fooled by the false summit about ¾ of the way up. The crest of Puke Hill is naturally a place where most riders will pause to calm their thumping hearts and soak in the incredible panorama of alpine terrain at nearly 10,000 feet. Check out Solitude and Brighton ski resorts to the south and rest up because the best riding is ahead!
From here the trail gently climbs and drops with majestic views of granite peaks and intermittent glimpses of Park City Mountain to the right. The brilliant white trunks of aspen trees meld into a blur as you whiz past stands and whip around corners boarded by thick carpets of wildflowers. To me, it’s the colors of the Wasatch Crest Trail that make this ride so memorable: the yellow Helianthella, purple asters, the brilliant red and orange hues of the paintbrush, the soft pink of wild geraniums, and my favorite, the iron-rich hues of the trail itself.
Before the crux of the trail, a jagged fin of rock dubbed The Spine, lies a series of brilliantly red hills hemmed in by aspens and wildflowers. The red dirt hills offer riders a series of gentle climbs, though they are somewhat deceptive in their number and length. Settle in and enjoy the views as you steadily approach another worthy rest stop followed by riotous downhill sections.
After the red dirt hills, take a moment to adjust your bike and mentally prepare for The Spine. Many riders opt to walk this section, but there are rideable lines to the left and center. The center line is the easiest, smoothest option but the exposure is enough to deter most. A less terror-inducing, though rugged line, can be found to the left. There is absolutely no shame in walking your bike through these imposing glacial remnants while admiring the view of Desolation Lake below.
Following The Spine, comes two options to round out your Wasatch Crest Ride. Head left down to Desolation Lake for thickly forested singletrack to the Mill D North Fork, dropping into Big Cottonwood Canyon. There is a bit more hiker traffic to contend with if you select this option. Watch for moose! Should you bear right after the Spine, you’ll be dropping down into Millcreek Canyon – make sure it’s an even-numbered day if you choose the right fork. After finishing up on the trail, there will be a bit of downhill road riding with the option to hop back on the Pipeline Trail before you return to civilization.
Having completed one of the Wasatch’s best rides celebrate with a cold beverage or snack in the parking lot. For unparalleled alpine views, climbs worthy of their joyous descents, and some of the best riding in Utah, the Wasatch Crest should be on every rider’s hit list.
Plan to be on the trail for a minimum of 2 hours, knowing most folks complete the Guardsman to Millcreek option in 3-4 hours.
The trail is typically good to go June through October, though on heavy snow years, the trail may not melt out until July. After the first couple of snowstorms in September or October, the trail is typically impassible.
Keep your ears open in the early season before you ride, (Check the hashtag #WasatchCrestTrail on Instagram,) as there may still be a good amount of snow or downfall along the trail. It is recommended to wait until the trail is dry and free of snow in order to prevent ruts from forming and preserve the trail.
Ride the Crest at least twice a year, once for wildflower watching and again for leaf peeping. The colors of the aspens in autumn will blow you away!
The Wasatch Crest offers cool relief from Salt Lake’s often scorching summer days. Much of the trail is above 9,000 feet in elevation and I’ve been caught pining for an extra layer or rain shell more times than I care to admit. Don’t let Utah’s cerulean blue skies fool you!
If you’re visiting Utah, take lots of snack breaks and be sure to bring ample water and start your ride hydrated. Since the bulk of this ride traverses high elevations, the altitude will take a toll on your energy levels!
Don’t forget to apply sunscreen and take a spare bottle. The sun up here can really scorch.
Weekends can be quite busy on the Wasatch Crest, plan on getting an early start. Alternatively, give the trail a ride in mid-afternoon or try an early evening ride—just don’t forget bike lights!
Take a small tool kit and a couple of extra tubes and a bike pump as there is no way to hail a ride along the trail!
Leave a cooler with cold drinks in the car to await your return. You won’t regret it!