Introduction Climbing Information Guide Books Access and Regulations Getting There Weather Camping and Accomodations
The Wasatch Range truly offers incredible recreational possibilities in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Utah. The Wasatch mountains rise to elevations of more than 11,000 feet and stretch for 200 miles from the Northern Utah border to Nephi, just south of Provo. From deep backcountry powder to mind-blowing mountain biking trails and exceptional rock and ice climbing, it is no surprise that outdoor enthusiasts from all over the US visit and move to Salt Lake City to take advantage of the climbing possibilities.
The area surrounding Salt Lake City is hard to beat in terms of rock climbing, and a road trip to Salt Lake City should be on every climbers' tick list. Located only a few minutes from the Salt Lake Valley, the Wasatch Mountains are home to some of the most spectacular and accessible climbing in the US. The diversity is what makes climbing in the Wasatch so special, since it is possible to access virtually all forms of climbing and a variety of rock types just a few minutes from downtown Salt Lake City. The pristine scenery of the Wasatch is equal to that found in the Tetons, the Sierras, or the Colorado Rockies.
No matter what type of climbing you are looking to do, the Wasatch Range will offer some of the best routes in varied, wonderful and pristine settings. The canyons are what make these Utah mountains so special, and each canyon offers a very different climbing experience. Here is a brief description of the most popular climbing areas, and what they have to offer:
Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) is one of the best, and most accessible granite areas anywhere, and even contains some limestone crags too. The quality of the granite varies from fine grain to coarse to polished, and is generally excellent. LCC is a historical climbing area for granite multi-pitch climbs, featuring technical slabs, knobby faces and continuous cracks of all sizes. You'll find everything here, from trad, sport, bouldering, and ice climbing. Most of the climbs are located on the sunnier north side of the canyon, but there are lots of shady routes on the other side of the canyon too. The area has a rich history, and many difficult routes were climbed in the 1960's and 1970's with limited protection.
Big Cottonwood Canyon (BCC) offers hundreds of routes and dozens of crags can easily be accessed from either sides of the canyon, and it's one of the most popular places to climb around Salt Lake. The rock in BCC is quartzite which can feel slippery and hard at first, but it also features numerous juggy incut holds. Expect steep face climbing with numerous cracks, slippery slabs, and fun overhangs. You might also find that protection is more difficult to place in quartzite than in granite. As a result, BCC has more sport routes, but the majority are still trad climbs. Many beginner routes and toproping areas can be found, and approaches range from a few minutes to 1 to 2 hours.
Devils Castle stands high above Albion Basin at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and lies in the heart of Alta ski area boundaries. The rock on this huge north facing formation is limestone, and the style of climbing is very different than what is found lower down the canyon. Routes are multi-pitch mixed gear (trad/sport) and are usually around six pitches long. This is alpine climbing at its best, and is the place to be on hot summer days.
Bells Canyon is a large canyon located just south of LCC and it's a spectacular climbing area containing large granite towers. This canyon has a remote feel to it, because there is no road at the bottom. The rock quality varies, usually deteriorating as you near the top of the buttresses. Most routes are multi-pitch trad climbs, and involve a fairly long, but very scenic approach. The main attraction here is Middle Bell Tower, which is the most beautiful of the group, with routes up to six pitches long. All routes face south, so it can get hot in the summer.
Lone Peak Cirque features amazing high alpine granite climbing, and is one of the most beautiful areas to climb in the Wasatch. This is "the place" for alpine climbing and the views are unbeatable. Expect four to five hundred foot trad climbs on impeccable granite with cracks, off-widths, chimneys, and superb face climbing on amazing varnished rock. The Cirque sits high above a pristine alpine meadow, where melting snowfields provide the only source of fresh water. Routes range from 5.7 to 5.12, are all trad and on exceptional rock. However, the approach is fairly long and strenuous, and most parties will want to spend at least one night to camp once up there.
American Fork Canyon is the place to go for pumpy sport climbing on steep, hard and pocketed limestone. AF features some of the hardest routes in Utah, with most high quality routes ranging from 5.11 to 5.14.
Because the climbing in the Wasatch can be so diverse in terms of style and types of rock, you'll need some variety in your rack. Some routes will be all trad, others will be all bolted, and some will be a mix of bolts and gear.
The same applies for anchors, where some will have to be built on pro, others will be bolted, and some will consist of a tree or bush. Bring long slings to tie around trees and blocks and carry extra gear for building anchors.
Climbers should carry a good assortment of nuts (1 set), cams (1 or 2 sets), quickdraws and slings. Micro nuts can be especially useful on some routes, as well as tcu's and other micro cams. On most routes, you'll need cams up to 3", but the occasional wider crack will demand a bigger piece or two. Occasionally, an old bolt or piton will be encountered, and you should inspect them carefully before committing to them. Use good judgement and common sense when using sketchy protection. As far as ropes, a 70 m rope will help you move faster, climb longer pitches, and possibly past slower parties more easily, but a 60 m will work fine for most routes. If you plan to rappel and/or retreat, make sure to have two 60 m ropes with you, and some extra webbing. Many routes also require a walk-off, sometimes down steep and exposed gullies with some bushwacking possible, and some will choose to do the walk-off in their climbing shoes. However, it is a good idea to bring along a good pair of hiking shoes for the descents, especially if your climbing shoes are not the most comfortable.
5.5: West Slabs
Alternative Climbing Areas
If there's bad weather along the Wasatch Range (or if it's too cold or too hot), you're in luck, because many options exist to keep you climbing. If it's too cold to climb in Salt Lake, and you're looking for warmer weather, drive south to Moab, Indian Creek, Saint-George, Zion or Las Vegas (Red Rocks). All are about 4-6 hours away. If it's too hot in Salt Lake and you don't want to head up to Lone Peak or Devil's Castle, head up north to the Tetons or the Wind River Range, also about 4 to 5 hours away. For great sport climbing in the heat of the summer, try Maple Canyon or the Uinta mountains. Both areas offer excellent and fun sport climbs in a cool, high mountain setting and are only 1.5 hours away. Another great climbing area worth checking out is City of Rocks, located just accross the border in Idaho, where you'll find great camping, excellent rock and hundreds of single pitch sport and trad routes. For bouldering, you'll want to go to Joe's Valley, Ibex, or Triasssic.
Many climbing stores can be found in and around the Salt Lake Valley.
Exum Utah Mountain Adventuresis a year round climbing and backcountry skiing guide service operating in the Wasatch Range. Exum Utah Mountain Adventures is located in the Black Diamond Center at 2070 East 3900 South #B, Salt Lake City, Utah 8412, (801) 550-EXUM (3986).
The Salt Lake Valley has 3 world class indoor climbing gyms to keep you pumped if the weather turns bad:
There is no shoe resoler in Salt Lake City.
Rock Climbing Utah's Wasatch Range is the most comprehensive guidebook for the area. This book compiles the results of 70 years of rock climbing in the Wasatch. It includes Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon, Lone Peak, and other climbing crags near Salt Lake City. Falcon Guide, Stuart and Bret Ruckman, 2003.
If you want to go sport climbing on the steep limestone of American Fork, then A Climber's Guide to American Fork Canyon and Rock Canyon, by Stuart and Bret Ruckman is the book you'll need.
Other useful guidebooks for the area include: A Bouldering Guide to Utah, Rock Climbing Maple Canyon, Northern Utah Limestone Climbing, Uinta Rock, and Ice Climbing Utah.
How to Get There
Salt Lake City International airport is the nearest and biggest airport. Being in such a large city, you'll also be able to rent a car easiliy. The mountains are located less than 30 minutes from the airport, which is very convenient.
The climbing areas of the Wasatch Mountains are condensed in very easily accessible canyons, and are located just east of Salt Lake City, so it's very easy to get to from any point around town. The two major canyons (Big and Little Cottonwood) run east to west along the Wasatch Range and provide easy access to most peaks and crags.
To reach the Cottonwood Canyons, take I-215 East from either I-15 or I-80, depending where you're coming from. Exit on 6200 South, and continue Southeast, following the signs for the Cottonwood Canyons Ski resorts on UT 190, which eventually becomes Wasatch Blvd./UT 210.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is located at the intersection of Wasatch Boulevard and 7200 South (Fort Union Boulevard), about 12 miles southeast of downtown Salt Lake City. Turn left at the light (Seven Eleven), following the signs to Solitude and Brighton ski resorts to head up Big Cottonwood.
To get to Little Cottonwood Canyon, continue straight through the stoplight and follow the road for another 4 miles to the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon (follow signs for Snowbird and Alta ski resorts).
While bus service is available and useful around town, you'll likely need or want a car to get to most crags and climbing areas.
There is a Park'N Ride lot at the mouth of each canyon on the left side of the road. This is a popular place for people to meet, use the bus, and carpool, which helps reduce traffic up the canyons.
The mouth of both canyons can be accessed by using UTA mass transit. Check out UTA's website, it has a good Trip Planner to help you figure it out. In the winter, you can use the ski bus to go up to the ski resorts. However, to get to the crags, you'll need a car or a bike. Depending on where you're starting, you can get there using a combination of bus and TRAX, Salt Lake City's light rail system.
Fees, Permits and Regulations
There are no fees to access Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons. However, Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are part of the Salt Lake City Watershed. As a result no dogs are allowed and violators will receive a hefty fine (see dog acces section for more details).
Other regulations for these wilderness areas include: Camping at least 100 ft from the trail and 200 ft from any water source, no swimming in any of the reservoirs, no dogs or horses are allowed (even in cars), and parties should be limited to 9 people. Apart from these restrictions, no permits are needed to enter or camp in the wilderness areas.
Remember that many of the climbs are located on private property or you have to cross private property to access them. Please be respectful of the owners and the land you are accessing.
If you are going to climb in American Fork Canyon or Maple Canyon, expect to pay a small day-use fee.
For the current weather, click here.
Because Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon both offer a sunny north side and a shady south side, and because climbing areas vary in elevation from 5000 to 10 000 feet, the weather, conditions and seasons can change dramatically from one area to the other.
One of the best things about climbing around Salt Lake City is that it's possible year-round. However, the best time to visit and climb in the Wasatch is from April to late October. In general, the months of June through October offer the best temperatures, dry rock and long, stable weather spells.
Winter (December to February) is generally ski and ice climbing season, and the upper canyons are filled with snow. But during some regular temperature inversions, some sun-warmed, south facing cliffs often allow climbing in the middle of the winter!
Spring (March to May) is usually the wettest time of the year. The snow is melting, and most of the rock is climbable, except for routes at high elevations and on north facing aspects which can still be wet.
Summer (June to August) can be hot in Salt Lake, but with so many crags at higher altitudes and on north facing cliffs, climbers can always find great climbing conditions, even when it's over 100 F in the valley. However, routes on the large south-facing granite slabs get very bright and extremely hot. Be careful about getting caught on a sunny multi-pitch climb in the middle of the summer!
Fall (September to November) is usually considered to be the best time of the year for climbing in the Wasatch. Autumn temperatures are often perfect, and dry weather is the norm.
Camping and other Accomodations
Although many campsites are available in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, and free camping can be found if you hike up into the wilderness areas, it is not the most convenient place to camp. No campings in the canyons offer showers and there is a 7 day limit stay.
Little Cottonwood Canyon has 2 Campgrounds: Tanners Flat is the most convenient and favorite campground, located 4.1 miles up the road. 38 sites are available for $11 per night. If you'll be climbing up on Devil's Castle, check out the Albion Basin campground located in the Alta area. It has 26 sites and is also $11.
Big Cottonwood Canyon also has 3 Campgrounds: Jordan Pines, Spruces and Redman.
Unfortunately, none of these campgrounds are open in the winter and some are only open during the warmest summer months.
If you are looking for a more comfortable option or if the campgrounds are closed, there are many hotels and motels located near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. If you want to enjoy Salt Lake's nightlife scene, simply stay in one of the hundreds of hotels and motels that downtown Salt Lake has to offer. Other nice options to consider if your budget allows are the lodges located in the canyons, such as the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, Alta's Rustler Lodge, or the Silver Fork Lodge up Big Cottonwood Canyon.
There are also two hostels in Salt Lake City that are often used by climbers and skiers. Unfortunately, neither one is close to the mountains: Avenues Hostel: 107 N "F" Street - (801) 359-4525, and Ute Hostel: 21 E (between State and Main) 1160 S - (801) 595-1645.
Food and Restaurants
After a great day of climbing, you will be very close to many good restaurants, pubs, movie theaters, etc... Most ski resorts offer year-round dining if you're staying in or near the canyons. Try The Silver Fork Lodge up Big Cottonwood Canyon, which is great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. For a finer dining experience, try the Aerie in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird.
For groceries, the closest thing is the Smiths located between Little and Big Cottonwood at 7800 South and 3500 East. For organic produce, go to Whole Foods, located at 6930 Highland Dr.
For good food near the Canyons, try the Porcupine Grill, located at 3698 East and 7000 South. They serve great pub food, have a big selection of local beers and a great patio. If you want some awesome Mexican Food and the best fish tacos, head to the Lone Star Taqueria at 2265 East on Fort Union Blvd. For a greasy garlic burger, check-out the Cottonbottom at 2820 East and 6200 South.
Other favorites include Rich's Bagels (6191 Highland Dr.) for the best bagel in town, Squatter's Pub Brewery (147 West 300 South), the Red Iguana (736 West North Temple) is the place for traditional mexican food, Barbacoa serves amazing burritos (many locations), Cafe Madrid offers delightful spanish tapas (2080 East 3900 South), Bombay House is the place for Indian food (2731 Parleys Way), Thai Siam has great thai food (1435 South State), and Brewvies is a fun movie theater where you can eat, drink and play pool (677 South 200 West).
Water and Shower Info
For showers and/or swimming, try the Alta Canyon Sports Center, located at 9565 S Highland Drive (corner of 9400 South Highland Dr.) – (801) 942-2582. Cost is $3.20. Open M-F 6am-10pm, Sat 7am-8pm, Sun 12-5pm. Another nearby option is the Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center, located at 7500 South and 2700 East. Cost is $4 and they're open from 5 am to 10pm - (801) 943-3160.
Here's where you can get an internet connection in Salt Lake City:
For libraries, the Salt Lake County Library is the closest to the Cottonwood Canyons (2197 Fort Union Blvd), while the Salt Lake City Public Library is located downtown (210 East 400 South).
For coffee shops offering free Wi-Fi access, try the Sunset Cafe (7879 South 1300 East), Brewed Awakening Cafe (2005 East 3300South), Brewvies Pub Cinema (677 South 200 West) or the Front Climbing Club (1450 South 400 West).
In case of a serious emergency, dial 911. Phones are located at the mouth of both Cottonwood Canyons in the Park'n ride lots.
The closest hospital to the Cottonwood Canyons is Alta View Hospital. It is located at 9660 South 1300 East and can be reached at (801) 567-2600. Other Hospitals close by are St. Marks Hospital located at 1200 East 3900 South (801) 268-7129, and Cottonwood Hospital located at 5770 South 300 East (801) 262-3461.
You can also visit the First Med East walk-in clinic for less serious injuries. It is located at 1950 Fort Union Blvd (801) 943-3300. There are also several other Quick care locations in Salt Lake City.
The closest pharmacy is located in the Smith's grocery store, at 3470 Bengal Blvd. There is also a Rite Aid at 2378 Fort Union Blvd.
Dogs are allowed in most climbing areas around Salt Lake City, which might sound like a good thing at first, but are strickly prohibited in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons because they are Watershed. Even having a dog in your car while driving up the canyon is a violation! This is very unfortunate for dog owners, because Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are the two most popular places to climb. In fact, domestic animals and livestock are not allowed in the Protected Watershed areas of Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, Parleys and City Creek Canyons. Search and rescue dogs are allowed, but by special permits only. Animal violations, as with all Watershed violations, is punishable up to $1,000 and/or 6 months imprisonment.
If you want to bring your dog to the crag, your best bet is to head up to Lone Peak Cirque, American Fork Canyon, Ferguson Canyon, or Maple Canyon, which are all very dog friendly. Dogs should be on leash and remain under physical control at all times. As always, make sure to clean up after your pet (pick up ALL dog waste, even if it's not yours), and prevent them from barking unnecessarily. Let's make sure that we can conserve this priviledge. Also make sure to bring plenty of water and a water bowl to keep your best friend hydrated, and never leave dogs in a closed vehicule in the summer time, because temperatures inside a car parked in the Utah sun can creep well over 120 F in just a few minutes.
Animals and Plants
The Wasatch Mountains contain a wide variety of animals. The most dangerous are probably black bears (although not very common) and rattlesnakes (much more common). Bear, elk, moose, deer, mountain goats, and cougars are some of the larger animals that you might encounter. As far as smaller creatures, bobcats, coyotes, fox, porcupines, raccoons, badgers, rabbits, weasels, marmots, squirrels, chipmunks, and pikas are the most common. Birds are abundant too, and some of the most impressive include eagles, owls, and hawks. Also expect to encounter lizards, snakes, spiders, and various other insects.
There are endless possibilities for recreation in and around Salt Lake City. Obviously, downtown Salt Lake has a multitude of shops, movie theaters, restaurants, museums, bars, etc... Another great diversion from climbing is to visit the Timpanogos Caves, located at the base of American Fork Canyon, which offers a "refreshing" tour of some amazing caverns full of stalagmites and stalagtites.
During the summer, many great hiking trails lead to pristine peaks and alpine lakes up the beautiful Wasatch Mountains. Another great way to give your fingers a break is to go mountain biking at one of the ski resorts. Park City and Deer Valley have especially good trail systems with hundreds of miles of single track riding. Park City is also a great place to go for shopping and dining, or just a night out.
In winter, late fall or spring, head up to the ski resorts for some truly amazing skiing and snowboarding. Snowbird usually stays open until May, and is worth a visit. If you're not a skier, just take a ride up the tram.