Wind Down Cycling Season on Utah’s Colored Canvas

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5 Challenging Road Rides For Fall

Story and Photo by Jonathan Cracroft

Experience your own personal Tour De Utah and check out these five rides for a full-on feast of autumn color, heart-pounding climbs, bomber downhills and lightning fast flats through some of Utah’s best canyon country. Maps of all the following routes and more can be found on my www.MapMyRide.com” MapMyRide.com page under “jlcracroft.”

#1 – NEBO LOOP

70-Mile Loop, 5,240-foot elevation gain

Enjoy views of the nation’s best fall foliage on this ride that begins with a big climb from Payson to the Mt. Nebo lookout, down Salt Creek Canyon to Nephi and back along the flats to Payson.

Getting There: From Salt Lake City take I-15 and get off at Exit 248 (800 S.) in Payson. Make a left turn at 800 West, drive one block and park at the baseball diamonds on the left. Ride one block back to 800 South and head east up to Canyon Road. This turns into Nebo Loop Road when it meets with 600 East. Ride the entire loop road, connecting back to State Road 132 into Nephi. Take Main Street north toward Nephi, which turns into Mona Road to Santaquin. Follow State Street back to 800 South in Payson.

The Ride: Near the foothills, Canyon Road quickly turns into Nebo Loop Road and a nice rolling start gets you warmed up. The next 15 miles is an intense climb past pine and aspens lining the road. Along the creek you’ll ride past several campgrounds and continue pushing through the atmosphere into the 9,000 ft. level.

Enter the loop’s plateau section. Here you find a little relief before digging deep for the three last short, but steep, climbs and rolling hills, pulling you to the top elevation of about 9,300 ft. Just past the Monument Trail parking lot, sit back and take in the change of scenery in Salt Creek Canyon, aptly named for its more arid and desolate feel. This upper section is fast! Beware of the steep, sharp corners and the “chip-sealed” road. Red rock lines the upper canyon walls, which juxtapose the beautiful rock-lined streams with the previous high alpine meadows.

Descend into the canyon basin where old tree snags loom near the road, evidence of a previous wildfire. Ride to Nephi and stop to rejuvenate at local restaurants. End in Payson.

#2 CANYON CHALLENGE

109-mile loop, or mix any number and variety of canyons to your vertical and mileage desires, 12,119-foot elevation gain

Summit the four main recreational canyons along Salt Lake’s Wasatch Front in one day if you’re up for a mega-challenge!

Getting There: Start anywhere along Salt Lake’s East bench and ride these canyons in any combination of your liking.

The Ride: Increasing congestion and valley smog make the canyons an excellent clear-air getaway with many challenging rides. Little Cottonwood, the steepest, and toughest, of the four canyons rewards you with incredible views, large granite walls, wildlife, waterfalls and striking fall foliage.

Big Cottonwood is tough, but offers a little reprieve halfway up with some comfortable climbing for a couple miles in the middle, just enough time to get your lungs back for more gear grinding and plenty of stand-up pedaling. The scenery is highlighted by slower water at Tanner Flats and brilliant yellow, orange and red trees glowing in fall fashion.

Mill Creek is my favorite of these canyons because of its tranquility, especially in the shoulder seasons when traffic is blocked at the winter gate. This is the narrowest of the canyons and offers lots of shade and cooler temperatures, especially the upper half. Take in the canvas of colors this fall as changing leaves peak in October.

Emigration is arguably the busiest of the four canyons because it’s closest to the heart of the city and the terrain is much more manageable. A great social ride with a variety of climbing and rolling canyon hills.

#3 ALPINE LOOP

63-mile loop, 5,965-foot elevation gain

Many enjoy this area’s spectacular autumn palette by car, but cycling lets you see this picturesque, decadent canyon up close. The early challenger on Suncrest drops you down to Alpine and the base of American Fork Canyon where you can ride up and over to Sundance.

Getting There: From Salt Lake, exit I-15 at Bangerter Pkwy Eastbound (Exit 289), follow Bangerter to Highland and turn left, a half mile on your right park at South Mountain Park. Bike along Highland back to Bangerter and take a left on Traverse Ridge Road (Suncrest). Go up and over Suncrest to Timpanogos Highway, left up the canyon, following the Alpine Loop signs. Ride down to Provo Canyon into Orem. Head west to State Street, north to American Fork and back to Suncrest.

The Ride: Suncrest is a teaser, the real magic happens once you enter American Fork Canyon. Enjoy the cool canyon breeze as it hits your face upon entering the mouth. Mount Timpanogos stands high above Utah Valley and typically holds glaciated snow year-round. The mix of fiery fall colors and icy snowcapped peaks offers a bold canvas for fall visitors.

Past the Timpooneke Campground turnoff, colorful aspens dominate the landscape, creating a strobing effect as bright light beams through the gaps and shadows of the trees. The road narrows and becomes steep as it winds down into the Sundance area. Enjoy mach speeds as you thunder down to Provo Canyon. Once there, connect to the cycling/pedestrian path beginning at Vivian Park, host to one of the Heber Creeper train stations. From here it’s a fun ride past Bridal Veil Falls into Orem and back along the city streets to Draper.

#4 BIG COTTONWOOD — PARK CITY — SLC LOOP

65-mile loop, 6,263-foot elevation gain

Gorgeous scenery and autumn backdrops make this spectacular climb up Big Cottonwood worthwhile. Then blaze down a fast drop into Deer Valley, ride along the interstate to East Canyon ending with a classic finish down Emigration.

Getting there: Ride from home if in Salt Lake or park anywhere along Wasatch Boulevard.

The Ride: If you’re driving, park far enough away from Big Cottonwood to have time to warm up, a cold start can be detrimental. Once in Big Cottonwood, it’s straight up until you reach Tanner Flats/Mill D area. Along the way, push past Dogwood then up and over the bridge into the Slip and Storm Mountain, taking a short breather near the amphitheater. Then it’s a steady grind up to the S-curves with a big push to Mill D. Catch your breath on short flats with a mellow climb from here past the Spruces campground. The area’s lined with a mix of large cottonwoods changing from summer greens to fall yellows. The Aspens on the other side of the road absorb backlight from the morning sun and radiate spectacular hues as you ride up.

Ride past Solitude. It’s a continuous pedal pump from here up Guardsman Pass to the summit. Follow the road up and over onto the two miles of dirt road into the basin. As the road rejoins the pavement, continue straight into Empire Pass and down to Park City. Follow Park Avenue into Snyderville and down the interstate at Kimball Junction to the East Canyon Exit. Ride up to Mountain Dell, and then hang a left at Emigration to reach Little Mountain. Enjoy the cruiser down Emigration.

#5 UINTA OUT & BACK

60-mile out & back, 4,350-foot elevation gain

Experience the full-blown fall beauty of the Uinta Mountains on Mirror Lake Highway. This exceptional ride can be accessed from a number of places including Salt Lake, Park City, Evanston, Coalville and more. I’ve chosen Kamas as a common reference point.

Getting There: From Salt Lake, head east on I-80 to Highway 40 South, Exit 4 (Kearns Blvd.) then go east on State Road 248 to Kamas. Take a right on Main Street and park at the city park.

The Ride: The bright hues of changing leaves make autumn a beautiful time in the Uintas, and the traffic is mellower on the road then. It’s still a good idea to ride single file when there is traffic as the shoulder is narrow. From Kamas, head east up Mirror Lake Highway past Samak Smokehouse. Stop in for delicious jerky and micro-brewed root beer (best on the way back). Continue up the manageable climb through the thick pine forest, past the pay station and wind up the canyon along the Provo River. After a long left, and just before the Alexander Lake turnoff, pull over for a breather and scope the Duchesne Tunnel, a ten-foot wide hole running six miles through the Uintas.

At Slate Gorge prepare for a big push to the top. This begins the toughest section of climbing. The river cascades down the riverbed in this upper section and may justify a few spots to pull over, rest and enjoy the colorful scenery.Continue past Trial Lake and meander through Teapot, Lost and Lily Lakes. Prepare for the final push to the colder, more exposed climb to Bald Mountain. Turn into the top parking lot and prepare for a quick descent back to Kamas.


Jonathan Cracroft is a freelance writer and photographer, transacting residential real estate as his “full time” job. He has been writing and creating images for over fifteen years with a focus on Utah’s outdoor recreation.

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