Big Cottonwood Canyon

Little and Big Cottonwood: these two canyons are synonymous with the phrase “Steep and Deep” when it comes to skiing in Utah. As the winter winds down, another sport takes over these burly canyons: climbing. Though visually very different from each other, both offer excellent climbing that is easily accessible, making these canyons a popular off-winter spot for those with hunger for heights.

I spend most of my Salt Lake City climbing time in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The lower canyon has a noticeably different character than the upper, being more rugged and less vegetated. I love the views here; the rock juts out in a decidedly diagonal manner, with defined strata making the mountains look like a lopsided layer-cake. A swift mountain river flows by the base of many climbs, lending cool air (and a bit of the otherwise unheard of Utah humidity) to climbers who flock to the routes near it.

If you’re looking to get someone into climbing or just want a place where you can get on and off several routes in a short amount of time, head over to the Dogwood picnic area. Just two miles from the mouth of the canyon, this area offers climbing that takes just minutes to walk (hiking would make it seem strenuous) into. The area is unique in that you belay from a narrow bank between the wall and the river. Go too early in the season and you’ll find that this unique feature means many of the routes are unaccessible because Spring’s snowmelt has raised the water level, covering the belay areas. And don’t expect to have the place to yourself… this area is popular with boy scout troops, college students and families.

Another must-climb area in Big Cottonwood is the “S-Curves” which is a nickname for the stretch of road directly below the climbs. Find this spot by heading about four miles up the canyon until you see the caution sign for some serious curves and slow speed ahead. The road here basically makes an “S” but you only want the lower S-curve to access the trail… if you trace the entire S with your car, you’ve gone too far. Park between the two curves and find the trail head to the northeast section of the lot. You will have to cross the road- definitely use caution here as there is a blind corner and canyon drivers are known to take their curves at speed. There are many routes to be had here, from novice (5.5) to you-gotta-be-kidding-me 5.13d. This area is south facing so if you’re looking to stay warm, this is your spot. Make sure to come early, though, as parking is limited and the area is popular.

These are just two of the climbing areas Big Cottonwood features but they will give you a taste of what the canyon has to offer. Make sure to get acquainted with the area: the locals are friendly and are ready to help if you would like to venture beyond Dogwood & the S-curves. And if you’ve got a favorite spot or route in Big Cottonwood, share it below!

P.S. If you happen to find yourself a little hungry after all your climbing, check out Silver Fork Lodge in the upper part of Big Cottonwood Canyon, voted the best food with a view. Their chowder is thick and so are their fries (mmm) and if you’re craving breakfast, don’t miss theirs! It is hearty and during good weather, you can sit out on the patio and enjoy it in the pine-scented air. They even have wool blankets to keep the chill off. This place has been a staple of Big Cottonwood for generations; make sure to check it out.

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