Driving Utah's Wasatch and Uinta Mountains

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Approaching the south end of the Wasatch Front Range on Interstate 15 gives an amazing view of some beautiful mountains! They seem to just shoot straight up out of the ground into the sky.

Approaching the south end of the Wasatch Front Range on Interstate 15 gives an amazing view of some beautiful mountains! They seem to just shoot straight up out of the ground into the sky.

After I was done with Bryce it was time to move on and begin the actual Rocky Mountain portion of my summer travels. The Wasatch and Uinta Mountains to the east of Salt Lake City (SLC) are considered to be part of the Rockies so I wanted to do some of their drives. Every time I’ve driven through Provo and SLC I’ve always been amazed at just how beautiful the mountains behind them are. They rise like sheer cliffs and dominate the skyline and are stunningly beautiful, especially when they are snowcapped. I’ve never taken the time to drive through them, but I had always heard they were gorgeous, now I aim to find out.
My camp near Nephi, UT.

My camp near Nephi, UT.

Rather than drive up Interstate 15 I decided to take 89 which basically parallels it. Utah is a surprisingly mountainous state and the great majority of Northwestern Utah is pretty valleys between mountain ranges. When the Mormon settlers came here, they settled in the valleys–89 follows one of those pretty farming valleys. I was going to SLC because I had ordered something from REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) and I was picking it up at the store in SLC. If you’ve ever driven through there, you know how terrible the freeway traffic can be. Because it’s extremely hectic and unpleasant I always plan to drive through there on Sunday morning when many good Mormons are in church and the sinners are home in bed (just kidding!).
My campsite outside of Nephi, Utah.

My campsite outside of Nephi, Utah.

That meant I needed to camp a few hours south of SLC to be able to get there when REI opened at 11:00 am on Sunday. Last year Judy and I found a beautiful camp just outside of Nephi, UT and did the exact same thing, got there Saturday night and drove through SLC before noon on Sunday. So I camped there again this year. As you can see in the pictures, it’s a beautiful spot I’ll plan to stay at whenever I’m through the area.
Because that country was all new to me I really had no idea where to go. I looked for guidebooks to the area and all I could find was “Scenic Driving Utah” (which is part of a series that covers many of the states) while it is fact-filled, it gave me no idea which drives were the best ones and I shouldn’t miss, and which ones were just okay. But at least I was aware of the drives which was better than nothing. For more info, see it on Amazon here: Scenic Driving Utah
Gaurdsman Pass looking west toward SLC. The Aspens are just  budding so they aren't very pretty, just a dull brown.

Gaurdsman Pass looking west toward SLC. The Aspens are just starting to bud so they aren’t very pretty, just a dull brown. Plus, it was an overcast day so the light was poor.  

When I got to the REI I asked them about which drives were the best because these were local people who loved the outdoors and had hiked and biked through most of it. I figured they would know the drives and could advise me; and I was right, they knew all about them. I took my maps in and showed them where I was thinking about going and asked what they would recommend, after a discussion they suggested four drives they thought I needed to take. One of them was very nearby so that’s the one I took that day.
The view west from Gaurdsman Pass.

The view west from Gaurdsman Pass back toward SLC.

The Big Cottonwood Canyon Drive to Gaurdsman Pass and then down to Park City is very pretty and a great drive. Like most of the drives through the Wasatch Front Range (the mountains directly behind SLC and Provo) they begin in very narrow steep canyons and climb steadily away from the city.  Because it was Sunday afternoon the road was very busy with people out enjoying nature. Every pull-out and trail-head (of which there were many!) was packed with cars. At the top of the pass were two ski resorts which weren’t operating. Although it was early June there was still snow on the ground (just not enough to ski) and the Aspens were just starting to bud. But a few cross-country ski trails were still open so people were out doing that and the Ski Lodge Restaurants were full.
The view to the east down toward Park City.

The view to the east down toward Park City. I’m standing in the Wasatch Mountain Range and in the distance is the Uinta Mountain Range, both are part of the greater Rocky Mountain Range.

This points out the problem I had with all these Utah Rocky Mountain drives and why I don’t really recommend them even though they are pretty–they are just too crowded.  They are so full of people there is no “wildness” left to them, so I suggest you look elsewhere for the best Rocky Mountain drives.  You don’t have to drive very far to get to drives that are prettier and have much less population and traffic in Idaho, Wyoming or Montana. There are 2.4 million people living in the Ogden-SLC-Provo corridor which is only slightly less that the combined population of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming together (3 million) and four times the population of Wyoming alone (563,000) and more than double Montana’s population (989,000). Needless to say, you’ll have a lot more breathing room in Wyoming than you will have near SLC.
This map shows the three drives I took in the area and the location of my Kamas camp. You can see how close it all is to the Logan-Salt Lake City Provo Corridor with its millions of people.

This map shows the three drives I took in the area and the location of my Kamas camp. You can see how close it is to the Logan-Salt Lake City Provo Corridor with its millions of people.

Once at the top of Guardsman Pass your treated to a beautiful view down at Park City and you begin the steep descent down to it. Cody and I stopped for lunch just below the pass and went for a walk. There was less traffic on this side because most of those people turned around and went back to SLC, but it was still a busy drive. This is a very steep descent with tight switchbacks, you’ll need to drop into a lower gear to save your brakes. Park City is famous for the Sundance Film festival and is supposed to look quaint but to me it just looked gaudy–it’s not my kind of place so I didn’t stay very long.
We stopped here below Gaurdsman Pass for lunch. Th Aspens are starting to bud at this lower elevation so there is some green to them, none above here yet. Cody has his head in a gopher hole trying to get a better lunch!

We stopped here below Gaurdsman Pass for lunch. The Aspens are starting to bud at this lower elevation so there is some green to them, none above here yet. At the bottom of the picture and to the left of the van Cody has his head in a gopher hole trying to get a better lunch!

By then it was getting to be a long day so I needed to find a place to camp. From my guidebook I knew that Highway 150 near Kamas, Utah was famous for having lots of dispersed camping; since it was only an hour away I headed over there. The guide book was right and I found a great campsite for the night.
We’ll pick up there in my next post.

Previous Dispersed Camping near Klamath Falls, OR
Next European Vandweller

20 Comments

  1. Linda Sand

    In all the times I’ve been in an REI store it never occurred to me they could tell me the best drives. Thanks for such a wonderful tip.

    • Doug VanderSys

      Thanks Bob. I particularly like the images of your camps. A “this could be you” reminder. Thanks for the blog and thanks for the site.

      • Bob

        Thanks Doug! You’re right, it could be you there!
        Bob

    • Bob

      Sure Linda, they are people who know their area and love the outdoors. Great source of information!
      Bob

  2. Sheri K

    Thanks for the post, Bob. Love the pictures and write up. SLC is my hometown but I agree there are too many people! Safe travels to you!

    • Bob

      Sheri, soon I’m going to do a wrap up on my feelings about Utah and SLC, and I believe that some of the very best people in the country live in Utah, and although there are too many of them in SLC, they are still remarkably nice!
      Bob

  3. kay ~ the barefoot minimalist

    You give the BEST info and take the most beautiful photos! You do a wonderful service, especially for those of us who aren’t “out there” quite yet. Thanks for the continued inspiration! 🙂

    • Bob

      You’re welcome Kay! Your time will come!
      Bob

  4. Omar Storm

    Bob,
    Thanks for all the good information. This will be a great resource when my time comes.
    Safe travels,
    Omar

    • Bob

      You’re welcome Omar!
      Bob

  5. jonthebru

    Appropriate analysis of SLC and the surrounding areas. Cites have their purpose of course, but its best to stay as far away from them as you can. I have spent time in Utah and really want to visit there again.

    • Bob

      jonthegru, it is one of the most beautiful states because of the incredible variety. I love it!
      Bob

  6. stevesways

    Well, Bob I am finally starting out on a journey today. Your travels have really inspired me to get going. I was getting a little jealous of your trips and I figured I have got to get the heck out on the road. I am taking the Runaway and I hope that works out. This is really the first extended trip for me using it as a primary living arrangement on the road.I am leaving this morning and heading to the Natchez Trace to travel it and end up in Nashville. From there I am not sure which way I will go. I have a 45th high school reunion in Cincinnati on the 25th of July but I am unsure if I want to attend that. I sure would like to head out west when I get to the end of the Trace. Thanks for your and everybody’s encouragement.
    If I do decide to go west at the end of the Trace what area would you recommend to head for this time of year? Keeping in mind of course, I want as much free camping as possible. LOL

    • Bob

      Steve, I’d go to the Rocky Mountains. They really aren’t that far and there is just tons of free camping in the National Forests. You could spend your whole summer in Colorado and still not even begin to see it all. In the middle of July the wildflowers bloom and it is spectacular! Then go up to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and finally Glacier NP.
      I’ll knock your sicks off!
      Bob

  7. Jim at Growing Faith

    I really like the photos in this post, and thank you for the advice on avoiding the most populous areas in the Rocky Mountains. That is good to know. I like how you compared the metro area population to that of entire states. 🙂

    • Bob

      Thanks Jim! Too many people just ruin the whole nature experience for me. I just did Yellowstone and I just can’t stand all the crowds and traffic. I dislike it so much the only reason I tolerated it was so I could blog about it. I won’t go back!
      Bob

  8. Al Christensen

    Any mountain elevations where aspens and oaks grow are much more dramatic in autumn. Too bad they weren’t even leafed out when you were there.

    • Bob

      I agree totally Al, fall is best and spring when they are that very bright green is second best. Leaves off is the worst!! Oh well, we take what we can get!
      Bob

  9. Sherrie S.

    I live in the area and occasionally peruse your excellent site and forum…… wondering if you are still around? We are heading up to uintas (camping with my dogs) to beat the heat wave! If you are still in the area and you need anything you can email us! We would love to meet the famous Bob! -Sherrie S.

    • Bob

      Sherrie, I’m sorry to miss you but I am in Montana right now, I am way behind in my blog posts!!! I gotta try to catch up.
      Bob

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