Little Cottonwood, or the hardest climb I’ve ever done

When you’ve been around Salt Lake City and involved in cycling long enough, you’re bound to hear a little snippet of cycling lore about the local ride up Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Apparently, it has almost exactly the same profile as the notoriously grueling Alpe d’Huez climb in the Tour de France.  If you’re anything like I was when I first heard this, you are currently nodding and saying, “Cool!” so that you don’t reveal your absolute lack of cycling knowledge.

It’s okay.  I still only think it’s cool because other people think it’s cool and they know more than I do.

Little Cottonwood profile (from
Little Cottonwood profile (from
Alpe d'Huez profile... notice it's in kilometers and meters, not miles and feet (from
Alpe d’Huez profile (from

But it’s an iconic climb in the area, and I wanted to try it out.  Plus, since I’m dating a cycling fan, I now follow the Tour de France every year.  And if I can climb Little Cottonwood, next year when I’m sitting on the couch eating candy and watching Nairo Quintana climb Alpe d’Huez, I can nod knowingly at the television and say, “I feel your pain, bro.”

I decided to tackle Little Cottonwood Canyon this past weekend for one main reason—I was housesitting for Rob’s parents, and they live fairly close to the mouth of the canyon.  That meant I didn’t have to do a 50 mile ride or drive to the start of my ride.  Because Rob was out of town with his parents, I decided to try to find someone to do the ride with me.  I thought perhaps having company would dull the pain a bit.  However, I burned through my list of the one person I know in Salt Lake who isn’t Rob and might not be busy pretty quickly.  So, I just decided to go solo.

The one benefit of the end of cycling season is sleeping in.  When the high for a day is 65°, there’s no need to get out the door by 8:00am or even 10:00am.  For the first time in who-knows-how-long, I didn’t set an alarm at all.  (Of course, I was pet-sitting a cat and a dog who missed their respective parents, so I didn’t get the glorious night of sleep I wanted.)

This guy kept me awake all night with cuddle demands
This guy kept me awake all night with cuddle demands

After a relaxing morning filled with kitty cuddles and walks with the dog, I started preparing for my ride.  When you climb a canyon in the fall, you need to bring some warm clothing for the ride down.  65° and sunny is perfect weather going 15-20mph in the valley.  When you’ve climbed to 8500ft and suddenly turn around and start going 30+ mph, it’s not nearly as pleasant.  So I packed arm warmers, knit gloves, and a wind-vest.  The wind-vest is amazing.  It keeps your core warm for cold descents but can be rolled up small enough to fit in a jersey pocket.  I always borrow Rob’s, but I really should get one of my own.  Cycling gear can get superfluous, but this item works wonders.

Actually, the gloves aren't mine either...
Actually, the gloves aren’t mine either…

I packed my stuff, filled my water bottles, and headed off in high spirits.  This was going to be great!  Yeah, my high spirits didn’t last long.  The ride to the mouth of the canyon was the perfect fall bike ride.  Then I, you know, hit the canyon.  I guess there’s a reason the Alpe d’Huez is notoriously difficult.  If Little Cottonwood mirrors Alpe d’Huez as much as they say, then I think I discovered that reason.  This canyon never let up.  Every second hurt for miles.  And miles last a long time when you are going six miles per hour (or less!).  There were some gorgeous landscapes, but I spend most of the time looking my feet.

Why look at this...
Why look at this…
...or this...
…or this…
…when you can stare miserably at this instead?

I was miserable, and every time I looked down at my computer, it seemed like I had made absolutely no progress.  I almost turned around at around ten miles because I could not even imagine making it to the top of the canyon.  I soldiered on, more due to stubbornness than anything else.  Clearly, the canyon was eternal and I was going to die there.  I decided when I wrote about the climb, I would make sure to mention that the ride was no fun at all—absolutely none.  I even had to switch the display on my computer so I couldn’t see the time I had been out or the distance I had gone.

Finally, the grade lessened a bit.  Instead of chugging along at 5mph, I was flying at around 7.5mph.  I passed one ski resort and then another.  And then, in the distance, I saw a parking lot—a parking lot that didn’t seem to have anything leading out of it.  Once I reached the Promised Land parking lot, I called Rob in Alabama to make sure I had made it to the true top of the canyon.  I wanted to check this sucker off my list, and the last thing I wanted was to realize the next day that there was another half a mile left and feel obligated to climb it all over again.  He confirmed that I was indeed at the top.  I was done.  Finally.  And it was time to turn around and go back.

My obligatory
My obligatory “made it to the top” photo

It was at this point that I decided I couldn’t actually report that no part of this ride was fun.  Descending is fun.  Terrifying, but fun.  And when I wasn’t spending the whole ride looking at my feet, I saw that I was surrounded by some pretty amazing scenery, too.  Of course, I was way too terrified to stop, so I missed any photo ops.  I was flying down this canyon.  I topped out at over 40mph, and probably could have gone faster if I were a little braver.  To give a bit of perspective, it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to climb the canyon and under fifteen minutes to descend.  Even with my warm clothes on, I ran into some shady areas during the descent that were uncomfortably cool.  Canyon climbs are coming to an end for the year.

Max speed for the ride

When I got to the driveway, I had gone just over 29 miles, so I rode around the block a few times to hit 30.  And then I went inside and watched Netflix for the rest of the day.  I was spent.  When it comes down to it, I think I reached a bit beyond my ability for this ride.  I was able to complete it, yes, but just barely.  I think at a certain point, a ride is difficult enough that a slightly easier ride is actually a better tool for conditioning.  And I think when you are struggling to hit 5 mph and keep obsessively checking for an easier gear even though you know you’re already in your granny gear, you know you’ve hit that point.  Regardless, I’m glad I took on the challenge.  This is an iconic climb in Salt Lake City, and it’s one more canyon crossed off my list.  Next year, I’ll cross the rest of the off.  And I will definitely enjoy feeling like part of the brotherhood when the pros are climbing Alpe d’Huez during next year’s Tour.


4 thoughts on “Little Cottonwood, or the hardest climb I’ve ever done

  1. I went to Salt Lake City in 2010 and I ran a marathon in Provo, then took a road trip to a bunch of National Parks before heading home. I regret not going to Little Cottonwood Canyon – people told me to go check it out! Isn’t it a big place for rock climbing? Great job!!! What a cool challenge!


    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a big rock climbing place. I was struck by the rock faces there– I haven’t seen such impressive ones in the other canyons in the valley. There are so many beautiful places in Utah, so skipping out on Little Cottonwood probably just gave you time to see another one. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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