The Enchanting Panoramic Drive Over Guardsman Pass
Not too far removed from the seemingly more frequently photographed and chronicled Utah red-rocky country lie the Wasatch Mountains. Towering above the Salt Lake City valley floor and stretching for miles eastward … they still run north-south unlike the Uintas … these striking mountains provide the playground for prodigious numbers of Utahns and visitors alike. In all four seasons.
Although nowhere near as colossal as the Rockies to the east and north, it is perhaps the Wasatch’s lack of sheer altitude that allows the conditions to produce “the best snow on earth.” One of the canyons heading east into the Wasatch from the city to Brighton Resort is Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Most people drive up this scenic, uplifting canyon to go to Brighton or Solitude. Many of them stop along the way to access one of the many hiking trails in this canyon. My wife and I frequently head up this canyon to take one of our favorite drives in the whole state … the drive over Guardsman Pass.
Now, clearly you can drive Guardsman Pass from the opposite direction. You could come from either Park City (or above Park City) or from Midway and Heber. Simply reverse these directions. But we are always coming from Salt Lake City and much prefer going in this direction.
We usually talk ourselves … it’s not a tough sell … into making this drive 4 or 5 times per year. Once right after the gates open and the road is clear of snow in the spring. Usually once or twice during the summer. One more time to try and catch the fall leaf spectacle. And, if we can make it before the first snow, one last time before winter hits.
Due to the prodigious snowfall that covers these mountains each winter, Guardsman Pass is normally closed from November until April. So, consequently, it is open from May to October. In real snowy years like this past one, it may not open until June
This drive starts at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon which you can access by taking I-215 in Salt Lake City to the 6200 South "Canyons" exit. Turn left up the mountain road … U-152 … and follow the signs to Solitude and Brighton.
Although this is a busy road year-round, it is a scenic, winding, picturesque drive that usually moves along at a nice pace unless there is construction like there is this year … 2023. Even so, the delay we endured the last time up due to the construction was only 3 minutes so no big deal.
As you start to climb, you'll quickly find that Big Cottonwood is more than just a canyon. It is a sanctuary. Take one of the many hiking trails off this road and you’ll be able to experience … just minutes from Salt Lake City … the rustling leaves of quaking aspens, the chirping of seemingly countless birds and the occasional sighting of a mule deer or moose.
Be wary of the moose. They can be extremely dangerous especially a female with a young one. A cow moose attacked a dog just outside Park City this summer trying to protect a young one.
Guardsman Pass Road Winding Up The Mountain in the Distance
From the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to the turn-off for Guardsman Pass is about 14 miles. It took us 18 minutes the last time even stopping for a short 3-minute construction delay. Of course, you avoid the heavy winter ski traffic because Guardsman is closed during those months anyway.
Just look for the green sign for Guardsman Pass with the arrow. From this turn-off, take a sharp left and head up the mountainside.
From this same turn-off, if you stay on the main road, it is only another mile or so up the canyon to Brighton Resort. We often make the drive through the circle at Brighton just to see what is going on. If you have lots of time, I recommend this.
But Brighton is a destination in itself, even in summer, with a lot of hiking trails and summer activities to keep you busy. When we go to Brighton, we usually go to Brighton. When we drive Guardsman, we usually don’t spend any time at Brighton.
As you make the sharp left to head up Guardsman Pass, the road steepens quickly and serpentines its way to the top. Although a newly paved and pothole-free road, it is narrow … seemingly too narrow … so you have to be alert. It would be easy for oncoming traffic to wander into your lane even if it is moving rather slowly.
As the drive continues up the mountainside, the road snakes its way through thick alpine forests, open meadows and gives you panoramas of the mountains and valley below. These are views of the canyon you just drove up.
As you get closer to the top of Guardsman, things can become a little hairy. As I said, the road is narrow. There is nothing to keep you from plunging off the right side if you’re not careful. There is no guard rail to serve as a backup. Why, I don’t know. Seems like a simple safety precaution.
Funny thing is, on the road leading down the other side … far less intimidating … there are brand new, heavy-duty guardrails that will bounce you off rather than let you plunge over the side. And that side doesn’t have near the drop-off the other side does.
At the top, the summit of Guardsman Pass sits at one of the higher elevations in Utah … just under 10,000 feet. This high mountain pass acts as a gateway between Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City. The higher you climb, the more panoramic the views become.
It is only about 3 miles … 7 minutes … to the top from the turn-off.
At the top, the vast expanse of the Wasatch Mountains stretches out in every direction blanketed in a rich tapestry of greens in the summer or shimmering whites in the winter. Of course, you can’t get up here with a vehicle during the winter.
A Pause at the Pass
Reaching the summit of Guardsman Pass seems like an achievement in itself even in a vehicle. Here, it is almost mandatory to stop, get out of the car and immerse yourself in the 360-degree panoramic views. Even for a few minutes.
The only problem is that there is very little parking at the top. In fact, plan on no parking on weekends. Hardly enough room for 10-12 vehicles. And there is no long-term parking at all. It is a pass and that’s what they want you to do. Pass right on through.
The grandeur of the surrounding peaks and valleys is soul-stirring. Aspen (quakies to us), Douglas-fir, Spruce and Oak forests blanket the surrounding landscape. To the east, you can see the tops of the Uinta Mountains … the only mountain range running east to west in the continental U.S.
Two miles down the Park City side, the road splits. The right fork takes you through the Bonanza Flat Conservation Area. If you continue along this route, you’ll end up at Wasatch Mountain State Park in Midway and then on to Heber if you want to go there.
On this particular drive, we want to take the left fork.
Another very scenic drive although a little different than heading left to Park City. It is a windy road but newly paved and in great shape when not snowed in.
In the fall, the leaf displays are spectacular along this route due to the diversity of the forest. It seems like the color changes phase in like an orchestra as each type of tree seems to have its own schedule.
Bloods Lake is a popular hiking destination that can be accessed from Guardsman Pass. Like the surrounding area, it offers picturesque views and a serene alpine lake setting. The trail is relatively short but offers delightful views making it a favorite among locals and visitors alike.
Tucked away in the serene backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains, the hike to Shadow Lake off Guardsman Pass is another jewel that many hikers like to think only they have discovered. This moderately challenging trail winds its way through dense forests of aspen and evergreens opening up to reveal the unspoiled waters of Shadow Lake.
Reflecting the cobalt sky and the surrounding mountain peaks, the lake offers a tranquil spot for reflection and a chance to catch your breath before heading back down. Whether you're an avid photographer capturing the lake's mirror-like quality or a nature enthusiast soaking in the alpine beauty, this hike guarantees a rewarding escape from the bustle of everyday life.
Even so, these hikes will probably be crowded on the weekends so plan for it. Salt Lake City and its metro area now have almost 1.2 million people. And there’re only minutes away.
Don't forget to pack some food and water. These lakesides are a perfect spot to refuel before heading back to the car. It can also still be hot at the top of the mountains in summer.
Apart from these two, there are other trails and backcountry routes that experienced hikers can explore in the vicinity of Guardsman Pass. This is always, of course, dependent on the season and conditions.
A good Utah hiking guide can tell you what they are. Always ensure you have a reliable trail map and check local trail conditions or restrictions before heading out.
Descending Towards Park City
While the ascent is mesmerizing, the descent towards Park City offers its own set of highlights.
The landscape slowly transitions with aspens and pines giving way to meadows adorned with wildflowers of every hue imaginable during spring and summer. But there’s also a lot of open sage-covered scenery and views for miles in every direction. It wouldn’t be Utah without sage.
As you come off the flat basin towards the Park City side, you’ll start to see multi-million dollar houses, “cabins”, ski runs and hotels. The Montage Deer Valley for example.
Just keep following the main road down into Park City. This world-renowned ski town, with its charming streets and vibrant culture, is the perfect end to this scenic journey.
If you have a multi-speed automatic transmission, I recommend you gear down on the descent. That is unless you like paying for new brakes. It is steep and the further down the mountain you get, the faster you go.
We like to time so we can stop for either breakfast or dinner depending on when we decided to make the drive in the first place. It has become a small tradition … OK, a big one … of ours to stop at one of our favorite places in Park City to eat … the Park City Roadhouse Grill.
It’s nothing fancy. Located on the main drag at 1900 Park Avenue, it has two things I enjoy. Good food and good beer. If you like beer, they have a nice assortment of craft beers although not as many as they used to when it was named Squatters Roadhouse Grill.
Before that, it was the Mt. Air Café … for 30 years. This place has been around for almost 50 years. Breakfast offers the usual fair with excellent omelets.
For dinner, I like the meat loaf which comes with a nice stack of mashed potatoes, meat loaf on top, asparagus on the side and gravy smothering it all. I get it just about every time I go there. After my wife tried it, she now does also.
Once again, we prefer this drive coming from the Big Cottonwood side to Park City. Sure you can do it in the other direction and you’ll have to if you are in Park City. To us, it is more than a scenic drive. It is a tradition. It is a scenic drive we look forward to every time.
It is a wonderful immersion into Utah’s alpine wilderness without ever having to get out of the car if you don’t want to. That makes it ideal for someone who has difficulty moving around.
In a world increasingly dominated by screens and urban sprawl, a route like Guardsman Pass … despite the affluence and craziness of the Park City side …reminds us a little idea of Utah’s raw, untamed beauty.
The whole drive from the mouth of Big Cottonwood to the roundabout in Park City takes 45 minutes even if you get out of the car for a few minutes at the top
This Drive in Reverse
If you want to make this drive in the reverse direction … from the Park City side over to the Big Cottonwood Canyon side … it is a completely different look and feel.
If you are leaving Salt Lake City, take I-80 east up Parley’s Canyon and head to Park City. That’ll take you less than 30 minutes.
One thing to remember, never try to drive up Parley’s Canyon on I-80 especially coming from I-215 south on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The traffic can back up for miles at the mouth of the canyon as seemingly the entire city heads for the mountains.
To access Guardsman Pass from Park City, take State Route 224 (SR-224) towards Deer Valley. From there, transition onto Marsac Avenue which eventually becomes Guardsman Pass Road (also known as SR-190 or Guardsman Connection in some sections).
This winding road past multi-million dollar homes and hotels will take you up and over the top and eventually transition into the road leading you to the top of Guardsman Pass.
Always remember to check road conditions before your journey … especially in the colder months … as Guardsman Pass can be closed or treacherous due to snow and icy conditions even before it is closed for the winter.
This road eventually leads you to Big Cottonwood Canyon and then to Salt Lake City at the base of the canyon. Once again, just our personal preference but we like driving this route in the opposite direction.
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