Saturday, August 8, 2020

SR 210: Little Cottonwood Canyon

Little Cottonwood Canyon is a well-known canyon located southeast of Salt Lake City, in the Wasatch Mountains. The canyon is popular for all sorts of recreational activities, such as resort skiing at Snowbird and Alta, backcountry skiing, hiking, fishing, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, and more. As a result, the state highway that runs up the canyon - SR 210 - is probably one of the best-known state route numbers in Utah, and in fact I have seen several cars with a SR 210 bumper sticker driving around Salt Lake. It is also well-known among highway engineers as one of the most avalanche-prone highways, and it also semi-frequently experiences debris flows and landslides caused by heavy summer thunderstorms.

However, this post will only discuss the history of the Little Cottonwood highway and the various connections it has made to other routes in the Salt Lake Valley.

The southern Salt Lake Valley from a snow plow turnaround halfway up the canyon.

SR 210 was not created until 1941, when the state legislature defined it as follows:
From route 4 in Parley's Canyon via Wasatch Boulevard and Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta.
That was the same route as today's road through Little Cottonwood Canyon, but it appears the eastern terminus was a bit west of where it is today. On this USGS map from 1955, the east end was shown to be more or less at the Wildcat base area of the Alta ski resort.
USGS (Dromedary Peak), 1955.

It is unclear when or how this east end was extended, but at some point UDOT took over the next half-mile of road, and 210 now ends just past the Albion base area at a Wasatch National Forest fee booth.

As for the original valley segment of 210: it seems relatively straightforward at first glance, but significant portions of Wasatch Boulevard did not exist as they do today.  In particular, today's segment between 3500 East/Creek Road and Big Cottonwood Canyon did not exist, so the original Wasatch Boulevard ran north along 3500 East, then turned to the east on a road that was just north of what's now Brighton Point Drive. It then went northeast along today's Prospector Drive, intersecting Big Cottonwood Canyon Road at its modern junction with Mine Shaft Road.

USGS (Draper), 1952.

Most of the rest of Wasatch Blvd appears to have been intact by 1941, but the 1940 census enumeration district map suggests a small portion in the Millcreek Canyon area - between Millcreek Canyon Road and Millcreek Road - hadn't been built yet. Unless the legislative designation was intended for the future Wasatch Boulevard (which seems more likely than not), SR 210 would probably have been signed along short portions of Millcreek and Millcreek Canyon Roads.

US Census, 1940.

Finally, back then, there was a direct surface connection from 33rd South/Wasatch Boulevard northeast to Parleys Canyon. Today, this portion of Wasatch Blvd dead-ends at about 3000 South; most of the old alignment is now a freeway ramp between I-80 and I-215. But until the interstates were built, that road connected through to US 40 (unsigned SR 4), and in 1941 it became SR 210:

USGS (Sugar House), 1952.

That map was made in 1952, and it illustrates part of a major change that was made to SR 210's valley alignment in 1945. That year, the west end of 210 was moved to the intersection of Highland Drive and Fort Union Boulevard, where SR 152 south from Salt Lake now turned east towards Big Cottonwood Canyon. From that corner, SR 210 went south on Highland Drive, east on Creek Road, and southeast on Danish Road to Wasatch Boulevard, where it rejoined its original alignment and proceeded east up Little Cottonwood. Most of Wasatch was removed from the state system, except for the small portion northeast of 3300 South which became an eastern extension of SR 171.

USGS (Draper), 1952.

The next major east-west road north of Creek Road is Bengal Boulevard. That apparently ended at 2300 West at the time the map above was made, but by 1958 it had been extended west to Highland. Since this new connection offered a more direct route from Fort Union/Highland to Little Cottonwood, SR 210 was moved off of Creek and Danish, and onto Bengal and 3500 East:

USGS (Draper), 1963.

As that map shows, the modern alignment of Wasatch Blvd between 3500 East and Big Cottonwood was in existence by then. In 1969, SR 210 was moved to this road, bringing the route to its present Salt Lake Valley configuration. Highland, Bengal, and 3500 East were removed from the state system.

The route also received a legislative extension to the east in 1969 - but before we talk about that, we'll have to go all the way back to 1941. In addition to SR 210, SR 229 was also created that year. It was defined quite simply by the legislature:
From Alta to Brighton.
That seems extremely vague even for an early legislative description...until you consider that there was actually no road connecting those two points. I see two possible routes this could have taken from Alta to Brighton: one on either side of the 10795-foot Mount Wolverine. The northern route would have climbed northeast from Alta up Grizzly Gulch to Twin Lakes Pass, then descended through the Twin Lakes area to Brighton. The southern route would have climbed southeast through Albion Basin to Catherine Pass, then descended north through the vicinity of the Brighton Lakes - Catherine, Martha, and Mary.

Of note: the elevation of Twin Lakes Pass is 9993 feet, and Catherine Pass is about 10210 feet. Either road, if built, would have easily been the highest state route in the Wasatch and one of the highest in the entire state.

However, the road had not been built by 1969, and SR 229 was decommissioned that year. But apparently the state was still planning to build the road, because the proposed route was transferred to the SR 210 description that year with the added note "roadway to Brighton Loop non-existent".

In 1974, a new road known as the Alta Bypass Road was built. Despite its name, it does not bypass the town of Alta but is rather an alternate route to the town from Snowbird. The road is so named because it bypasses a section of the main Little Cottonwood Canyon Road that is extremely prone to avalanches in winter. While Bypass Road is still commonly affected by avalanches, it is a bit more reliable than the main highway to its north. As a result, the year after it opened, it was added as a discontinuous section of SR 210.

UDOT, 1975.   

In 1987, SR 210 was extended northwest along Wasatch Boulevard and a then-proposed road to I-215 near Knudsen's Corner (the historic name for the intersection of Holladay Boulevard and 6200 South). But this extension would never be signed as 210; the next year, before the new road was finished, it was transferred to SR 190, which had just been created as a renumbering of the Big Cottonwood portion of SR 152. This was done so that UDOT would not have to re-milepost the entirety of SR 210 in addition to SR 190.

Apparently there were still plans to build that Alta-Brighton road as late as 1990, because the unbuilt extension was retained in the updated 1990 legislative description. But whatever plans were still around had been cancelled by 1994, and the east end was officially truncated to Alta, where it has remained since.

UDOT, 2017.

To be honest, an Alta-Brighton road would probably be a good idea from a traffic management standpoint since Little Cottonwood is a dead-end canyon, but for once I'm glad it didn't get built. That is an awesome area to hike in summer, and it'd probably be a bit less fun with a state highway going right through the middle of it.

Of note: the mileposts for this road are a little weird due to the existence of the Bypass Road segment. While the east end of SR 210 is at Albion Basin in Alta, that is not where mileage ends. Officially, mileposts increase up the canyon to 12.524 at Albion Basin. Then, the route starts up again at the east end of Bypass Road and increases westward, ending at the junction with the main 210 segment just east of Snowbird. So I guess you could say that SR 210 ends at itself.

Route Photos

SR 210

SR 210 begins in Cottonwood Heights, at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon on SR 190. 210 heads south up Wasatch Boulevard without signage.

Turn right at 3500 East, a former alignment of SR 210, for a park-and-ride lot. In winter, skiers can elect to take the bus up Little Cottonwood rather than drive themselves.

A fire station emergency signal occurs just a bit further down the road.

As we approach the mouth of Little Cottonwood, Wasatch Blvd will continue to the right. Stay straight for Snowbird and Alta via North Little Cottonwood Canyon Road.

If that last sign wasn't clear enough, this one reminds us to stay straight for the ski areas.

SR 210 continues ahead towards the ski areas, leaving Wasatch Blvd for good. The road visible off to the right is Danish Road, which is also an old SR 210 alignment.

Wasatch Blvd turns off at a unique seagull intersection.

That intersection also features a bike signal and a random floating SR 210 shield...not sure what that's about. Maybe it was placed there instead of on the street blade for some reason. 

After we leave Wasatch Blvd, we'll get a reassurance shield for "south" 210, even though it is mostly an east-west route. We'll also pass a warning that chains or snow tires are required when those lights are flashing. This happens more often than you'd guess. 

Turning around for a second, we'll look back across the Salt Lake Valley towards downtown Salt Lake City, 14 miles to the northwest. This is one of my favorite city views.

A chain-up area will be provided at the canyon mouth.

SR 209 heads west from here along 9400 South. Stay straight for 210 up Little Cottonwood.

This private road goes to the LDS church's top-secret family records vault.

This road is filled with avalanche areas, in which parking or stopping alongside the road is banned during the winter months. This is one of them.

The large number of snow avalanche areas mean this road closes regularly in the winter for avalanche control.

For whatever reason I only have a westbound view of this intersection, but this seagull intersection is the first of four Snowbird ski resort entrances from the highway. This intersection design makes it easier for large crowds to leave the ski resorts in winter.

After passing most of Snowbird, we'll pass the turnoff to Bypass Road, an unsigned segment of SR 210 that bypasses some of the most active avalanche paths along the highway.

Again, I only have a downhill photo, but the Bypass Road intersection is another seagull.

Alta is actually an incorporated town, which surprises a lot of people.

Another town welcome sign, along with yet another avalanche area sign in the background. 
After passing through the town of Alta, SR 210 ends just past the Albion base area of Alta Ski Resort.