Park City Snowshoe Excursion: Gracing Guardsman Pass
I’m thinking steak sandwiches…or maybe the fish tacos. It’s not that a Park City snowshoe adventure along Guardsman Pass in itself isn’t rewarding but there’s something to be said for a cold brew and one of Deer Valley Resort’s freshly made New York steak sandwiches with Jack cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions, (mmm), after a robust trek in the mountains. And, as foresight would have it, we were positioned perfectly for both.
If you’ve ever considered snowshoeing as a way to embrace winter- or at least tolerate it- Empire Canyon via the Guardsman Pass Trail near Deer Valley is one of your most civilized outdoors experiences.
As one of the few paths near Salt Lake City to allow snowmobiles, this Park City snowshoe trail is regularly groomed in sections and well-packed down everywhere else thanks to cross-country skiers, shoers and beelers cruising it every day of the winter season, traveling between Park City and Big Cottonwood Canyon.
You’ll still want to check with the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center website before leaving as new snowfall or drastic weather changes may create hazards even on popular trails, but this one is doable on just about every day of the year and you do have cell reception for the first 2.5 miles thanks to the demands of DV’s clientele.
We started our day at the crack of 10- Park City snowshoeing breeds a relaxed attitude. Sure that the sky would remain azure blue and the views unguarded by clouds, we layered up, packed water, sunscreen, shades and shoes and headed for the trail.
You might not get that same adrenaline rush you would from downhill skiing, but snowshoeing has something skiing doesn’t. A short learning curve. If you can hike, you can shoe. Oh, and it’s free.
My Australian shepherd, too, appreciated the opportunity to join me on a winter day. He bounded from the car, eager to start the moderate climb. You’ll ascend 500 feet in the first .5 mile to your first crest.
As we crossed under a skiers’ bridge, Bogner-clad men and women waved to us on their way from Deer Valley’s “Northside” to Empire Lodge. Giant aspens and conifers line the trail, occasionally distancing themselves to allow for short (t)romps in the untracked powder. We moved aside to let snowmobiles pass but it didn’t happen so often to be obnoxious.
When we reached the place where the land opened up and you could see from Heber Valley to the Timpanogos to Park City, we had a choice. It was almost 11 a.m. and 30 minutes into the hike. We could a)turn around and head back down, b)go .2 miles past the car and head to the Empire Lodge for an afternoon of ‘deck shoeing’ or c)we could push on.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is four, crow-fly miles from Park City but in the winter, that becomes a 44-mile drive (along the foothills and back up I-80); or a five-hour snowshoe each way. Seeing as how the Lodge stops serving lunch at 2:30 p.m., we knew dropping into BCC wasn’t happening.
Both steep and gentle slopes surrounded us. We chose to continue another 1.5 miles to where the trail forked. To the left and beyond was Heber Valley; to the right, Big Cottonwood Canyon. Behind us were the Lodge and our mouth-watering steak sandwiches. I parked the dog in the car and trotted the last section, flipping snow everywhere with my shoes. With only minutes to spare, I had my tray, my sandwich and my self-satisfied buzz from my four-hour excursion to Bonanza Flats (where the roads intersect).
At this intersection, where SR 224 meets 190 to Brighton, the elevation approaches 10,000 feet. There have been talks over the last few years of completely paving Guardsman and maintaining it year-round. When and if that happens, we will lose a favorite winter backcountry experience. Like that steak sandwich, get it while you can.
Utah routes 190 and 224 traverse 9,700-foot Guardsman Pass to connect Park City and Brighton in the summer, but neither are maintained in the winter.
From Park City, take SR 224, turn left onto Deer Valley Dr. Enter the turnabout and take your second right to continue south on Marsac Dr. Marsac veers right to become Guardsman Pass/SR 224. Continue approx 1.3 miles until you are facing Deer Valley’s Empire Canyon Lodge. Take a hard left to continue on SR 224. A small, brown sign on the right confirms “Guardsman Pass” with an arrow. At about .2 miles, you’ll hit the avalanche gates that bar vehicles. There is pullout parking to the right and left of the road.
5 Great Beginner Park City Snowshoe Trails along the Wasatch Back:
Park City’s Rail Trail
Spans up to 28 miles of relatively flat terrain. The wide-open trail allows plenty of room to walk side by side through wetlands and valleys. You can often spot wildlife or at least interesting art projects along certain portions of the path. There are six trailheads- Park City trailhead; Jordanelle trailhead; Star Point trailhead; Wanship trailhead; Coalville trailhead; Echo trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.
8 miles out-and-back of mostly flat terrain. Sixteen hundred acres of open space where vistas and meadows abound. Three trailheads- National Abilities Center trailhead; Park City trailhead; Old Ranch Road trailhead. Dogs allowed on leash.
East 224 Connector
2.3 miles one-way if you start from the main trailhead at Willow Creek Park. There’s also a trailhead at the Redstone Complex at Kimball Junction. Park City’s Mountain Trails Foundation grooms the trail in winter so that it’s used for skiing, snowshoeing, or walks to the store. Spy sandhill cranes, spotted frogs, and other wetlands wildlife as you skirt alongside the Swaner Nature Preserve. Dogs allowed on leash.
A four-mile groomed loop with a strenuous start and finish but a long flat valley in-between. You’ll travel through aspens, pines and conifers. Be careful to avoid the connecting Foreman Trail Loop as it is not groomed or well-traveled. Dogs allowed. Because the TH can be hard to find: Go 15 miles east of Heber on U.S. Highway 40. Pull into Daniel’s Summit Lodge. Take a hard right into the lot and park at the far west end. Don’t bother asking staff for directions, they’re clueless.
Soldier Hollow, Wasatch Mountain State Park
When you’re looking for something more civilized, purchase a snowshoe pass and pick up rental shoes to traverse the more than 16 miles of trails flowing through the Olympic “monument”. Trek through trees and hills amid awesome views of Mt. Timpanogos. At day’s end, grab a hot chocolate and snack in their day lodge. Dogs allowed on leash.