Get off-road for a slice of single-track heaven in the Wasatch Mountains.
by Shane Farver
For this month’s ride, we’re going off road for one of northern Utah’s classic mountain bike routes-the Wasatch Crest Trail.
Tucked between Park City and the Salt Lake Valley, the Wasatch Crest puts the grandeur of its namesake mountain range on display-riders are treated to snowcapped granite peaks, meadows speckled with an abundance of wildflowers, stands of quaking aspen, pine forests and a glacial lake.
You will, however, have to work for these rewards, as the Wasatch Crest also features a punishing hill climb, spooky sections that require technical finesse and miles of endurance-sapping singletrack.
To ride this trail, you’ll need to arrange a shuttle. Depending upon where you want to descend, you can arrange to have riding partners drop off their car at Mill Creek Canyon at the top of 3800 South or the parking lot at the Mill D North Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Then have all your friends pile into another vehicle and drive to the beginning of the trail up Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood Canyon. If you choose to descend Mill Creek Canyon, keep in mind that those trails are only open to bikes on even-numbered days.
Another option (which might be more expensive but is quicker and more eco-friendly) is to take a Utah Transit Authority (UTA) shuttle, which picks you up at the Park-and-Ride lot at 3900 South and Wasatch Boulevard. The ride, which is available on even days, becomes cheaper per person the bigger the group, so pack the shuttle full. (For more information on the shuttle: www.wcshuttle.com/content/?page=Mountain_Bike_Shuttles). The shuttle drops passengers off at a parking lot at Guardsman Pass, at the very top of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Once the transportation logistics are worked out, it’s time to ride. One of the most difficult parts of the trail awaits at the beginning, the appropriately named “Puke Hill.” Puke Hill is a steep, seemingly endless dirt road that tests even the fittest riders’ mettle.
There are two ways to approach this beast from Guardsman Pass. One is to park along a hairpin turn on the north side of the pass and begin a climb up a dirt road. Once you’ve reached a crossroads of singletrack and road, look to your left and notice Puke Hill, another dirt road climbing to the west.
If you drove and want to avoid more climbing than absolutely necessary, another option is to start riding at the parking lot at the top of Guardsman Pass. Look just north of where the road meets the parking lot to another dirt road that travels west. Ride up that road past a gate and watch for a singletrack trail that shoots off to the left. Follow that trail for a while until you descend to the intersection with Puke Hill, which lies just ahead and cuts to the west.
So, you’ve made it up Puke Hill. You might have walked your bike a ways, maybe even personally discovered where the hill got its name, but you’re at the top. Rest assured that there are other climbs, but none quite as bad as this. The adventure really begins here. You’ll soak in periwinkle mountain peaks and ride rollicking trail toward your next challenge: the rock fin above Desola_tion Lake.
The fin looks as if the spine of a long forgotten prehistoric creature has jutted up from the bowels of the earth. It demands an impressive array of technical bike-handling skills and has serious consequences for those who fail to navigate it safely (falling horribly, for one). If you don’t feel confident about tackling the fin, dismount and walk your bike down.
After the fin, look down at Desolation Lake, a sparkling blue green glacial lake surrounded by pine and green hills-a fitting reward for your hard work.
Shortly after leaving the overlook to Desolation Lake, you’ll have a choice to make. If you’ve parked at the Mill D North Fork trailhead, you are in for a shorter, but bumpy, ride. The Mill D trail splits off of the Wasatch Crest Trail to the west and then heads south toward Big Cottonwood Canyon. This sometimes steep trail features tree roots and rocks to maneuver over.
For a longer ride, continue on the Wasatch Crest trail until you meet up with Big Water Trail. Remember, you can only ride on the Mill Creek Canyon trail network on even days. Big Water offers fast descents with a few switchbacks, but beware of hikers, as they become more plentiful in this area and Mill D.
On Big Water Trail, you can also take a detour to Dog Lake, or, if you need an adrenaline rush and have the skills, a nutty descent down Little Water Trail.
Both Big Water and Little Water end at parking lots in upper Mill Creek Canyon. Now it’s time for a road descent back to your car or where the shuttle picked you up. If you still haven’t had your fill of dirt for the day, follow the road down to the Elbow Fork entrance to Pipeline, an easy trail ride down the canyon that has some narrow sections and steep dropoffs. You’ll also notice some sections of cast iron pipe along the trail, remnants from a flume. You can descend from Pipeline to the road from the easier Church Fork or Burch Hollow, or the steep and technical Rattlesnake Gulch. Pipeline also offers an overlook of the Salt Lake Valley, which lies west of the Rattlesnake Gulch descent.
Regardless of which route you take, plan on this ride taking several hours. Be prepared with plenty of water and some energy snacks and other packable food. Also, beware of summer lightning storms-much of the trail offers little protection.
You should also have a durable mountain bike with at least front suspension. A rigid frame won’t fare well on some of the technical sections.
When he’s not teaching or working on getting his master’s thesis published, you can find Shane riding his bikes and getting dirty in the Utah desert.