Lake Blanche near Salt Lake City

Hikes in Big Cottonwood Canyon

Big Cottonwood Canyon

Big Cottonwood Canyon is conveniently located just east of Salt Lake City along Big Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway, State Route 190, which also travels over Guardsman Pass to Park City.  The 15-mile long canyon provides access to many outdoor activities including hiking, biking, camping, and fishing in the summer and snowboarding and skiing in the winter at its two ski resorts, Brighton and Solitude.

During my three-week stay in Salt Lake City, I explored several trails in the area including Brighton Lakes, Desolation Lake, Twin Lakes and Lake Blanche.  What do all of these trails have in common?  At least one lake.  All of the trails were lovely, but if I had to pick one, it would be Lake Blanche.

Brighton Lakes

Brighton Lakes Trail is named for William Stuart Brighton who constructed a hotel in 1874 to house and feed silver miners.  It wasn’t until the winter of 1936 when a towrope was installed to create Utah’s first ski resort, Brighton.

The 4.3-mile roundtrip hike takes visitors to four glacial lakes, though most resort goers only hike 2.2 miles to Lake Mary.  At first glance, I wasn’t fond of this trail that travels 0.6 miles beneath ski lifts before it veers into a wooded area as it felt too commercial.  I was pleased, however, to find all the lakes tucked in a forest of evergreens.

Lake Mary

Lake Mary is both the first and largest lake on the trail.  It is enlarged and controlled by a dam which took away from its beauty upon approach, but once the trail split to the left and followed its eastern shore, the dam was hidden.  The sunny skies and calm conditions resulted in the surrounding peaks reflecting in its glass-like surface.

Lake Martha

The trail continues past Lake Martha which is more like a pond and not terribly picturesque.  Having said that, the tranquil waters draw less crowds and more wildlife, like deer!

Lake Martha in Big Cottonwood Canyon

Lake Catherine

Just 0.7 miles up the trail from Lake Martha, Lake Catherine, is well worth the hike.  This section of the path, part of the Great Western Trail, gradually ascends to 10,000 feet and rewards hikers with nice views of the lower lakes before reaching the circular Lake Catherine.

I thought Lake Catherine was the prettiest of the lakes, especially with it being tucked beneath a snow dusted peak dotted with a few Indian paintbrush still blooming.  Be sure to walk around the lake to enjoy the magnificent reflections in this noteworthy jewel named for Brighton’s wife.

Dog Lake

Upon retracing my steps, I took a short side trip to Dog Lake.  Though a bit marshy, it is also worth a visit as it is not often four glacial lakes may be visited in one short hike.  What a treat!

Dog Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon

After getting over my initial aversion to the commercialization of the ski resort, I really enjoyed this trail, though I recommend a weekday trek in the fall to avoid crowds.

Desolation Lake

Desolation Lake may be reached by Mill D North Fork Trail as it gradually ascends approximately 2,000 feet through lovely aspen groves.  The trail follows the creek before it makes a turn at the trail junction as it continues to the lake.  The 7-mile roundtrip is a wonderful hike for fall colors as aspens both surround the trail and blanket mountain sides. 

With the long winter and delayed summer, my mid-September travels to Utah kept me from marveling in a golden sea of leaves.  But not to worry, the lake is beautiful regardless.  There are handful of trails near the lake and hikers may circle the blue oval partially lined by aspen.

Look out for deer and moose.  Two moose startled me as I neared the last mile of the trail.  I heard a snort to my right and then suddenly the moose darted across the trail twenty feet in front me.  Oh, how I wished I could snap a photo, but since I couldn’t see on the other side of the tree from which they came, I froze.

While they are generally solitary animals, I certainly wasn’t going to take my chances with an 1,800 pound animal that can run 35 miles per hour during mating season!  After letting some time pass, I crept up the trail only to get a glimpse of the female and young male as they sauntered up the mountain into the trees.  While I would have liked a better view, it was an exhilarating end to an excellent hike!

Twin Lakes

The Twin Lakes Trail may be accessed from the Silver Lake Interpretive Trail at the Brighton Ski Resort. It is always nice to start a hike at a lake. Silver Lake is home to many birds and even moose!  I did this short 2.3-mile hike with my aunt.  We took the boardwalk to the right which led to a trail in a spruce and aspen forest.

At the fork, hikers may go left to Twin Lakes or right to Solitude Lake which is longer (3.5 miles), though less steep.  The Twin Lakes Trail gains 750 feet on the way to the reservoir, but due to its short distance, it is a very good option for tourists looking for a nice hike in the woods.

The reservoir is lined with aspen on one side and evergreens on the other.  The dam may not be crossed, so walking completely around the lake isn’t possible unless hikers drop down to the small waterfall.  Overall, this is an easy trail in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Lake Blanche

Lake Blanche…wow!  I don’t know what else to say.  This trail is spectacular, and by far my favorite in Big Cottonwood Canyon!!  The parking for Lake Blanche serves two trails, Broads Fork at the west end of the lot and Mill B South Fork to the east by the vault toilet.

After a short jaunt on the paved trail which runs by Big Cottonwood Creek, hikers veer right onto a rocky single track.  The path crosses the creek and ascends through the canyon.  While the fall colors hadn’t fully changed when I visited, the kaleidoscope of red oak leaves, yellow aspen, green fir trees, frost, and snow dusted quartzite peaks was simply awe-inspiring.

I had to control my photo snapping finger, otherwise I would have never made it to the lake!  The trail climbs steadily until it reaches a boulder field where it takes a sharp right turn and follows a few switchbacks through the forest before it reaches a large quartzite formation.

Cresting the formation rewards hikers with amazing views of the large lake tucked beneath the snow-dusted Sundial Peak in the center of the cirque.  The grandeur of the golden aspen, cyan water and towering gray peaks is breathtaking!

Amazingly, that is not all.  Following the shore takes hikers past a waterfall to two more tarns, Lake Florence and Lake Lillian.  While the views are prettiest at Lake Blanche, the solitude of the tarns is a nice resting place.

While it only takes about 3.5 to 4 hours to hike the 5.8 mile trail, be sure to save an hour for the lake and surrounding majestic peaks.  Lake Blanche is an excellent moderate hike in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

One thought on “Hikes in Big Cottonwood Canyon

  1. […] It continues its 1,000 foot ascent to Catherine Pass which provides a wonderful view of Lake Catherine below.  From the pass, the trail turns to the right and continues upward for additional views of Lake Martha and Lake Mary.  Essentially, it looks down on the Brighton Lakes Trail that I wrote about in a post on Big Cottonwood Canyon. […]

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