Hikes in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Little Cottonwood Canyon is located in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest approximately 15 miles east of Salt Lake City.  It was created by a glacier many years ago.  Its quartz and granite, mined by the Latter Day Saint pioneers, was used to construct the Salt Lake Temple. There are several excellent trails in Little Cottonwood Canyon, though my favorites are quite long.

Bells Canyon

Bells Canyon…WOW!  I’m not sure if I was just having a bad day or if the steepness of this trail at times was simply ridiculous.  Originally, I set out to see the upper falls about 2.8 miles from the trailhead with the possibility of visiting Upper Bells Canyon Reservoir, 4.2 miles away.  A six to eight mile hike is my bread and butter, and in general such mileage takes me 3-4 hours to complete.

Upon reviewing the hike summary in the handy guide, 60 Hikes within 60 miles of Salt Lake City, I saw the hiking time to the falls to be 2.5-3 hours.  What I didn’t register in my cursory glance, is this time was ONE-WAY, not roundtrip as most of the other trails are referenced in the book.  That calculates to one hour per mile…STEEP!

The trail begins via several switchbacks that ascend ¾ of a mile through oak covered foothills.  Enjoy the switchbacks while they last as aside from a short jaunt along a dirt road past the Lower Bells Canyon Reservoir, this is the easiest section of the path.

Lower Bells Canyon Reservoir

Just past the lower reservoir, a sign directs hikers from the road to the trail to the lower falls.  The trail ascends gradually through dense colorful foliage until it turns into a pathway of large blocks of granite.  For the next half-mile, hikers maneuver a track similar to a dry waterfall bed.

Soon, a sign indicates the lower falls off to the left.  These tall cascades, tucked in the shaded forest, make a great stop for short 3.4-mile roundtrip.  I almost stopped here, but instead pushed forward and ultimately got my second wind as the scenery changed from maples and oak to a more open and prettier view of aspen and fir.

As the trail climbs, it crosses a large, granite slab nearby the upper falls, though there is no sign for the second falls, so it could be any of at least three cascades I passed.  A lover of waterfalls, I really enjoyed this section of the trail and kept hiking until I reached a giant boulder field.

The reservoir seemed reachable by following cairns through the boulder field, but I found myself going nowhere fast.  After about an hour of rock hopping, I turned around.  I’m glad I did as upon referencing the book again, the ONE-WAY hike to reservoir takes 6-8 hours.  That is long for a 4.2-mile one-way hike!  Overall, it is a very nice trail, just be prepared.

White Pine Lake

The trail to White Pine Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon is a moderate 9.8-mile hike which takes about five hours to complete.  The dirt road ascends 2,500 feet over 4.3 miles creating a welcoming, gradual grade before it drops down to the lake at the end.

Despite being a miners’ road, the open track feels more like a trail as it passes creeks and springs beneath aspen and conifer for 3.4 miles.  The final mile criss-crosses a talus field with a fabulous open view of surrounding peaks.

Soon hikers are rewarded with a lake tucked in the rocks beneath a towering granite monolith which is spectacular when dusted in a light snow.  Despite the length, the trail is far easier than Bells Canyon!

Red Pine Lake

Red Pine Lake and White Pine Lake share the same trailhead.  Hikers gradually ascend a rocky path for a mile before it splits at the creek and most people take the trail to Red Pine Lake as it also leads to the popular peak, Pfeifferhorn.

creek at red pine lake junction

For a quieter, less steep, yet longer hike, go to White Pine Lake which is also more picturesque.  For a busier trail, go to Red Pine Lake.  The hike to Red Pine Lake is 7-mile roundtrip.  As the trail skirts the edge of the mountain slope, it provides excellent views of Salt Lake City in the distance.

Soon it turns into the forest where it climbs another mile before intersecting the creek.  The trail to Red Pine Lake continues straight while the trail to Maybird Gulch crosses the Red Pine Fork.  Soon after passing through a swampy meadow, the trail steepens substantially as hikers must navigate a stretch of boulders.

Red Pine Lake Trail

Upon exiting the boulder section, hikers delight in a few smooth switchbacks before being rewarded with the lake which sits beneath towering peaks.  Despite all the traffic on the trail, the lake is quiet as many early goers are peak bagging. As such, the lake is a nice resting spot in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Sunset Peak

This 4.2 mile roundtrip trail begins near the Alta Ski resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon and requires a $6 parking fee.  The trailhead is across the road from the parking lot in an open area subject to strong winds.  The trail veers to left and provides wonderful views of surrounding peaks before it climbs into the forest.

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.

Given the short mileage and charge for parking, anyone who wants to get the biggest bang for their buck may add on another nearby hike at Cecret Lake.

Crecet Lake

The 1.6-mile hike to Cecret Lake also begins in the area which requires the $6 parking fee.  Fortunately, it is only paid once at the entrance booth to the gravel road.

The trail to Cecret Lake passes beneath the ski lift and then joins a service road for about 0.4 miles.  Then hikers exit the road and veer to the left to follow the path through a meadow.  Soon it reaches a series of switchbacks over rocky terrain.

After climbing through the rock field, hikers end up on a dam with views of the lake, surrounded by snow-dusted mountains.  This is a nice trail for resort goers that want a short hike in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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