Giving in to the Lure of the Open Road: Utah's Best Road Cycling Routes

By Yeti Jul 13, 2021
Eleven road biking routes through Utah’s snowcountry that are so scenic and fun, you’ll have zero regrets about cheating on your mountain bike.
Giving in to the Lure of the Open Road: Utah's Best Road Cycling Routes

words by Melissa Fields

A slight breeze pushes fat clouds lazily across an electric blue sky. As you roll past a lush field framed from above by snow-capped peaks, where a half-dozen shiny horses graze, you and your friends chat about where to stop for lunch. The road grade steepens slightly, and your buddy turns to you and shouts, “Last one to the top buys the beer!” With just a grin, you accept the challenge and revel in the adrenaline rush as your legs propel you and your bike uphill to victory.

Such are the sweet joys of road biking. Pedal out onto any of Utah’s popular road biking routes on a balmy spring, summer or fall day, and you’re likely to encounter throngs of spandex-clad cyclists. It’s easy to see why. Most of the time, road riding is as easy as putting on your shoes, clicking in and pushing off—no loading bikes onto your car rack or driving to the trailhead required. And if you’re looking for a fitness routine that reaps huge strength and cardio benefits, it’s hard to beat road cycling.

Somewhat surprisingly, Utah’s road cycling’s popularity is likely due in large part to mountain biking. Utah’s shoulder seasons tend to be long; often you can ride the roads weeks or even months before the trails are dry in the spring, and right up until you pull out your skis in the late fall. Riding a bike on pavement requires much less skill than riding a mountain bike on singletrack, making it something people of different ability levels can do together, regardless of skillset and even aerobic fitness.

The following are 11 of Utah’s road biking routes that travel to or nearby the state’s world-class mountain resorts. When you go, make sure to use the bike lane, make eye contact with drivers, signal where you plan to go and always wear a helmet.

Park City Area

Immerse yourself in the Wasatch Back’s bucolic vibes with this 46-mile weekend-day tour of Park City, Peoa and Francis. Pedal west out of Park City along the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail. Follow the road under Highway 40 to a left onto the Browns Canyon Road. Enjoy the scenery, and ride along the wide shoulder to State Road 32. Follow S.R. 32 through Peoa and Kamas to Francis. Make a left onto State Route 35 in Francis, riding out to Woodland. Take your next right onto Lower River Road back toward Francis, riding back onto S.R. 248. Stay on S.R. 248, and enjoy views of the Jordanelle Reservoir on your left, all the way back to Park City.

For those ready to see if they have what it takes to tackle the ultimate goal in cycling—riding 100 miles, aka a century—look no further than this 88-mile training ride from Park City to Wolf Creek Summit. Follow the intermediate route outlined above from Park City through Browns Canyon, Peoa and Kamas to Francis. Avoid getting cooked on the climb ahead of you with a stop in Francis at Joe’s Country Store for energy bars and water. Continue along State Road 35 through Woodland to Wolf Creek Pass. The climbing begins in earnest here, with several 8 and 9 percent grade stretches along the way. At the 9,458-foot summit, enjoy both the views and endorphins. Backtrack along the path from which you came back to Park City.


Cottonwood Canyons

You’ll experience firsthand how small the Central Wasatch Mountains are—but will understand also why they are so amazing for snowsliding—when you ride the steep but gorgeous 10-mile route from Brighton to Park City through Guardsman Pass. Begin by riding down from the Brighton Store, and then ascend up onto the Guardsman Road/State Road 224 at the fork in the road. This route gains steep elevation for most of the way to Guardsman Pass, except for a brief rolling section about halfway to the summit. Once at the top of the pass, stop at the small pullout area with restrooms to catch your breath and take in the views. Pedal down a short descent past a couple trailheads (for both mountain biking and hiking) and then back up a shorter climb to Empire Pass. There, the road winds past swanky Deer Valley hotels and homes before the final descent: you can choose to stay on the more direct S.R. 224 which turns into Marsac Avenue as it approaches Park City or take the more serpentine Royal Street down into lower Deer Valley.

Though the route through Little Cottonwood Canyon is short—just 8.3 miles from the mouth of the canyon to its Town of Alta endpoint—the average 8- to 9-percent grade means this ride is often compared to the Alpe d’Huez climb in the Tour de France, just with fewer switchbacks. Distract yourself from the effort by glancing up at the soaring granite walls on the north side of the canyon, where some of the state’s most famous climbing walls are located. The stretch at Tanner Flat allows a slight reprieve before you make the final push past Snowbird to Alta Ski Area. There, take a well-deserved rest before turning around and enjoying a mind-blowingly fast descent.

Not nearly as consistently steep as Little Cottonwood, but longer, just as scenic and still challenging is a ride through Big Cottonwood Canyon. Begin at the Park & Ride lot on the north side the canyon mouth. (Need to caffeinate before you start pedaling? Hit Alpha Coffee, located just down-canyon from the Park & Ride on the west side of 7-11, for some java, pastries or a breakfast burrito.) Occasional shade and close proximity to the creek—and the 5,000-plus-foot elevation gain—makes this a relatively cool ride most of the 17 miles to Brighton. You’ll pass multiple rock climbing crags, hiking trailheads, the Silver Fork Lodge (a popular restaurant) and Solitude Mountain Resort along the way, which combine to make this a very busy roadway on the weekends.


South of Salt Lake City

Considered by many to be one of state’s best road bike rides, the Alpine Loop combines breathtaking scenery and tough climbs. First of all, calling this route a loop is a bit of a misnomer; it's really more an out-and-back, unless you're one of the few who has the time and legs to make it an all-day adventure. Lush vegetation, punctuated by views of Mt. Timpanogos, line the winding road up which can be highly-trafficked at times. You can start this ride at either end of State Road 92. For a longer and steeper ride, begin in Cedar Hills; for less climbing, start pedaling anywhere from Heber City along Highway 189 to the mouth of Sundance Canyon. Either way you decide to ride, be sure to stop at Sundance Mountain Resort's General Store for cookies and a cool beverage.

Utah State Route 143, also known as Patchwork Parkway Scenic Byway, winds through the Dixie National Forest for 55 miles between Parowan and Panguitch. Beginning at an elevation of about 6,000 feet in Parowan, the byway climbs eastward through Parowan Canyon to 10,000 feet, passing by Brian Head Ski Resort at the 12-mile mark. After continuing past the spectacular Cedar Breaks National Monument, the route descends again through pine and aspen forest to Panguitch Lake, a beautiful natural lake located at 8,400 and ideal place to take a dip. From there, it’s just 20 mostly downhill miles to Panguitch.

The Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway climbs 18 miles from the cute town of Beaver to Eagle Point Resort. Though Beaver is just 100 miles north of the arid red rock desert surrounding St. George, once you start climbing this canyon—with its babbling stream, huge Ponderosa pines and craggy hillsides—that desert may as well be 1,000 miles away. Like the rides in the canyons east of Salt Lake City, this route is uphill almost the entire way. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the Tushar Mountains 12,000-foot peaks and cool mountain breezes.

North of Salt Lake City

Logan Canyon, served by State Road 89, is another must-do for those cyclists who like to log elevation. Starting at 4,700 feet at the mouth of the canyon, this 27-mile route gradually gains about 2,500 feet on its way to Beaver Mountain. The canyon mouth is marked by deeply cut, nearly vertical limestone walls and rock formations laden with fossils. Views of Bear Lake’s turquoise waters will come into view as you ascend the second half of the ride. This is a popular Interstate-alternative route to the lake. As such, expect vehicular traffic to be heavy on most summer weekends.

The city of Ogden and the bucolic Morgan Valley are connected by State Routes 167 and 226, known as Trappers Loop. The 26.5-mile, not-too-steep route features sweeping views of mountain-framed farmland and Snowbasin Resort, making it well-traveled by two-wheelers throughout the warm-weather months. Start pedaling in Mountain Green using S.R. 167 outbound. This ride packs in 2,880 feet of climbing, although none of the uphills are steeper than a 6 percent grade. Consider breaking this ride up with a pitstop at Snowbasin for a trip on the Needles Gondola and lunch at Needles Lodge. Return to Mountain Green via S. R. 226.

“One of the steepest and most challenging bike climbs in the United States” is how cycling blogs describe the 7.2-mile sufferfest along the canyon road to Powder Mountain. The ride begins at a relatively modest 5 percent grade for the first couple of miles but then ends with 5.6 miles at 11 percent grade. If you dare, begin this ride at the north end of Eden on State Road 158. You’ll reach the top of the canyon about a mile past Powder Mountain.  


A Couple Bonus Rides

A classic Salt Lake City-area climbing route is Emigration Canyon. This 16-mile round trip road ride begins its gradual 1,000-foot climb at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. From there, you’ll pass by verdant green hills, the converted railway car restaurant known as Ruth’s Diner and charming homes on your way to the top of Little Mountain. The last mile does get a bit steeper, but is short enough that if you put your head down and pedal, it’s over before you know it. Once at the top, take in sweeping views of the Salt Lake Valley to the west and of Little Dell Reservoir to the east. Expect lots of two-wheeled company on Sunday mornings when the vehicular traffic is at its lightest.

If you are interested in a unique way to see a piece of one of Utah’s most beautiful landscapes, look no further than this 54-mile, out-and-back ride along Utah's All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12. This famous state road is consistently found at the top of many travel magazines and internet sites “Most Beautiful Roads” lists. This mostly rolling route begins in the town of Escalante. Conserve your energy for the hardest part, which arrives at about 19 miles in: the three-mile ascent from Calf Creek up to the Hogsback Ridge. Once on the spine of the Hogsback, you’ll take in truly breathtaking views. (Beware that the drop-offs on either side of the road here may be enough to trigger even the mildest fear of heights.) Stop for a rest and/or lunch in Boulder at the Hell’s Backbone Grill before making the descent back to Escalante.