It’s no secret that Utah’s mountains are a winter wonderland, but not many people realize
that outside of Salt Lake City, an assortment of hikes lead to a summer paradise.
During the warmest months of the year, when the trees are green and the wildflowers are abundant, the canyons just outside of the state capital burst into life. And if you know which trails to follow, you can find streaming waterfalls and pristine lakes tucked high in the mountains.
On that note, here are six of the most rewarding hikes near Salt Lake City.
In Big Cottonwood Canyon
Packed with towering trees and monumental rock formations, Big Cottonwood Canyon often stops hikers in their tracks. It’s a must-visit on any trip to Utah, but it shines brightest in the summer.
Before you go, you should know that Big Cottonwood is part of Salt Lake City’s watershed, so dogs aren’t allowed in the canyon, and people aren’t allowed in the lakes. This news might come as a disappointment, but the following hikes are worth the tradeoff.
Round-trip length: 1.5 or 3.1 miles (depending on route)
This classic Utah hike is called Donut Falls for good reason: the waterfall at the end of the trail plunges through a donut-shaped rock.
It’s best to hike to Donut Falls in the summer or fall; although the trail is accessible in late spring, it can be muddy at this time of year. That said, this is an easy hike, so even if you’re trekking through a bit of mud, the trail shouldn’t pose a challenge.
To see the falls, you’ll need to cross a small stream at the end of the trail. The flow isn’t high, but the temperature is cold, so it’s a good idea to stay on top of the logs spanning the water.
After crossing the stream, you’ll have a view of the waterfall’s lower half, but it will be difficult to see the so-called donut. Luckily, you can keep climbing. Up higher, inside a grotto, you’ll see the falls spraying through a water-eroded skylight, with wide bands of sunshine flooding in too. The water pools at the bottom of the grotto, then drains via the icy-cold stream.
This hike has a huge payoff, so the next time you’re in Utah, you won’t want to miss it.
Round-trip length: 4.4 miles
This trail begins beside a chairlift at Brighton Resort and leads to a chain of glacial lakes. Each lake boasts its own personality, so while you might be tempted to turn around without visiting all three, the extra scenery is worth the extra effort.
The first lake, Mary, is the bluest in the chain, and its granite shores make a great picnic spot. Next up, Lake Martha is smaller than Mary, but it’s bordered by towering trees, and in the early mornings, it’s a magnet for moose. Finally, Lake Catherine is the quietest stop on the trail, a peaceful place surrounded by rocky slopes and colorful wildflowers.
Hiker, beware: the first section of the trail is steep and exposed, since it doubles as a ski run in the winter. Although the middle stretch is relatively flat, the incline picks up again on the approach to Lake Catherine. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — taking the higher ground will give you a panoramic view of the other lakes.
While you’re there, don’t forget to stop and relax at at least one lake. That’s the best part of this hike, and you should make the most of it!
In Little Cottonwood Canyon
This canyon is another gorgeous one. Gouged by the longest glacier in the Wasatch Mountains’ ancient past, it’s made up of an eye-catching granitic rock. This rock was used to construct several important buildings in Salt Lake, but it looks best in its natural setting: Little Cottonwood Canyon.
This canyon is also part of the local watershed, so the following trails aren’t pet-friendly, and the following lakes aren’t swimmer-friendly.
White Pine Lake:
Round-trip length: 10.5 miles
The trail to White Pine Lake is the longest hike on this list, and it just might be the prettiest. En route, you’ll ascend ridgelines offering views of colossal canyon walls, then hopscotch your way over streams, marvel at a myriad of wildflowers, and cut across a talus slope.
It’s quite the trek, but the journey is just as satisfying as the destination.
When you reach the lake, you’ll notice that it’s fairly small, its water bright blue, its shore lined with enormous boulders. But in the moment of arrival, you’ll also be reliving the day’s earlier memories: the orange alpenglow that slid across the canyon, the knife-sharp air that filled your lungs, the clicking sounds that came from a foraging squirrel.
If you started your hike early (before 7 a.m.), there’s a good chance that you’ll have the lake to yourself, so savor the moment, then gather your spirits for the downhill return. Don’t worry about holding back your triumph, or your awe at all that the mountains have to offer — you’ll need something to think about on the long way down.
Round-trip length: depends on route (generally short)
In late summer, Albion Basin is the place to be. That’s when its slopes are streaked with a dense and diverse array of wildflowers, like fireweed, lupine, paintbrush, columbine, and more. The wildflowers reach their peak in late July and early August, so if you time your visit right, you’ll hike across a landscape decorated in every shade of the rainbow.
You can choose between several trails that cut through the basin, the views and colors varying from path to path. Along the way, you’ll spot plenty of the pollinators who made
this spectacle possible, and with any luck, you might catch a glimpse of a moose or two.
But you’re guaranteed to see large crowds of hikers, so you can reduce your impact by keeping to the trail and choosing not to pick the flowers.
If you’re interested in staying in the area overnight, you’re in luck! There’s a large campsite at Albion Basin, which lets early risers get a sunrise start on their hikes.
Round-trip length: 1.7 miles
Just uphill from Albion Basin, Cecret Lake makes for a great addition to your wildflower hike. Although the trail is moderately steep, it’s also short, allowing scores of small children to reach the lake every summer.
You’ll find the trailhead near Albion Basin Campground and gain about 450 feet of elevation on the way up. As you go, you’ll sight wildflowers blooming throughout the basin, and for your final push, you’ll follow rocky switchbacks to the water.
A few salamanders make their home in Cecret Lake, and the shores are a popular hangout for deer, marmots, and young families. The lake is surrounded by a gorgeous mountainscape, with Sugarloaf Peak dominating the view; its green slopes match the water’s emerald color, but even so, the lake’s clarity is almost glass-like.
If you’re looking for an easy (but beautiful) hike, Cecret Lake is the perfect option.
In Provo Canyon
Provo Canyon is farther from Salt Lake City than several other canyons are, but its mind-blowing scenery is worth the longer drive. Here, the sedimentary layering is clearly visible, giving rugged cliffs the appearance of stacked bookshelves; partway up the canyon, 600-foot-long Bridal Veil Falls trails across the face of the mountain.
Round-trip length: 3.4 miles
Stewart Falls is one of the most scenic spots in Utah, and although this hike is beautiful in autumn, it’s at its best from May to early June. During this time of the year, when the foliage is newly green, and the air is refreshingly crisp, the 200-foot-tall waterfall roars down the mountain with extra intensity. Springtime hikers might even notice the snow banks that spin ribbons of meltwater above and around the falls.
If you’re expecting a steady incline on the route to the falls, and a steady decline on the return to the parking lot, think again. The altitude increases until just past the trail’s midpoint, then decreases all the way to the waterfall, meaning that you’ll need to save some energy for your trip back to the trailhead.
Right in front of the falls, you’ll find sweeping mountain views, as well as a spot to wade in the runoff. If you’re feeling daring, you can even scale a slope partway up the waterfall (just watch your step — it’s steep and slick up there!).
No matter how or when you’d like to experience Stewart Falls, one thing is certain: it’s worth exploring on your next Utah trip.
Word to the wise: the mountains have a limited number of parking spots, so no matter which trail you’d like to try, it’s best to arrive early, especially on the weekend. With any luck, this will help you nab a parking spot, enjoy cooler temperatures, encounter fewer people, and even spot some wildlife.
So, are you ready to experience Northern Utah? Ditch your skis, and make your way to Salt Lake City in the summer. We’ll see you in the mountains!
New to hiking and want to build some confidence? Check out these unbeatable beginner hikes in the U.S. that offer incredible views without intimidating milage.