There’s nothing like waking up in a tent in the woods, unzipping the door, and stepping out into crisp mountain air to heat water and brew coffee. And sometimes car camping doesn’t cut it. You want to walk somewhere, get somewhere, and be away from the bustling runaround.
But a drive to southern Utah or the Uintas just isn’t always in the cards. And that’s why mini-backpacking trips in the Wasatch can be a godsend—more than a getaway, a way to really let the good ol’ Wasatch soak in. Let’s face it: We live alongside some gorgeous mountains, and a quick day hike or canyon drive is too fleeting a way to experience them.
Here are a few downright stunning, yet fun and easy backpacking trips in the Wasatch Mountains that come with minimal mileage and maximum refreshment. You can work in the yard Saturday morning and still have enough time to go backpack into the woods before dinner. And Sunday brunch is best cooked up in an alpine meadow.
With a short overnighter, it’s easy to justify carrying a little more weight than you normally would while backpacking—so go ahead and pack nice wine and gourmet fix ins. They'll make your getaway all the more memorable.
Note that camping in the Cottonwood Canyons comes with a particular set of rules. The quick rundown: Campstoves are preferred over fires, don’t swim in the watershed, leave no trace, and don’t camp within 200 feet of water. There are no water spigots here, so just bring your own water or use a backpacking filter to drink from the delicious snowmelt-filled lakes.
The three-and-a-half mile walk to Desolation Lake from the Mill D trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon will knock your (hiking) socks off. With the splendor of Cardiff Fork at your back, walk about one mile up the trail and angle right at the turnoff to Desolation Lake. From here it’s just another two miles of steady elevation gain until you top out at the glorious little bowl between Big Cottonwood and Millcreek Canyons where the lake is perched.
This trail is very popular with mountain bikers, but for some reason, none of them think to camp here. (Silly mountain bikers.) Set up your tent on a grassy little flat just a little ways from the lake’s shore. If you feel like walking a tad farther after ditching your pack, amble on up the switchbacks above the lake to the top of the ridge line for splendid views of the lake and the two canyons below.
This classic Big Cottonwood hike sees plenty of day visitors in the summer, but by sunset, everyone’s cleared out. That gives you free reign of the stunning Sundial rock wall, Monte Cristo peak, and multiple tiers of small lakes in the cirque’s flat spots.
Park at the S-curve parking lot about ten minutes up Big Cottonwood Canyon and start up the paved trail parallel to the stream. After just a few minutes you’ll see a major turnoff on the right—head up this dirt trail for about three miles until you top out at Lake Blanche. There are amazing camp spots hidden here and there in the meadows surrounding the lake. And to steer clear of fellow humans, hike a little farther than the lake and set up camp above it.
Red Pine Lake
Red Pine is a Little Cottonwood cousin of Lake Blanche’s. Equally stunning, it’s also just a three-mile hike each way. The lake is surrounded by a rocky cirque with tiered ponds and meadows. There are a few excellent, flat camp spots close to the lake, or you can amble up to the grassy meadow directly uphill from it and set up camp farther from any hikers. As an added bonus, this meadow is right in the neighborhood of Little Cottonwood’s herd of mountain goats, whom you just might see.
To get to Red Pine Lake, drive 10-15 minutes up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the White Pine trailhead parking lot. Start up the obvious trail that crosses the canyon stream and continues up the mountainside. When you hit a fork in the trail about a mile up, take the turn toward Red Pine Lake (which involves crossing the stream on a bridge), and continue upward. After another two miles, you’ll arrive at the lake.
If you feel ambitious, ditch your heavy pack at your campsite and scramble up the rock fields until you get to the ridgeline between Red Pine Lake and the Pfeifferhorn. If you’re comfortable with mildly exposed scrambling, work your way up the ridge to the peak before going back to your campsite for a hard-earned dinner. (The journey to the Pfeifferhorn summit is a bit more of an undertaking than you’d expect from Red Pine Lake, so allow a few extra hours to get there and back.)
Willow Lake is a surprisingly little-known lake tucked nearly a mile up a trail in the Silver Fork area of Big Cottonwood. The walk to the lake is so short (albeit steep! Prepare thy quads!), it makes a great overnighter if you’re getting a late start or have kids or whiny companions in tow (though be prepared for some griping up that ascent).
Once at the lake, you can make camp and set about exploring. A lovely trail encircles the lake, so you can work your way around it or explore one of the higher meadows above. The views across the canyon to Solitude and Silver Fork are absolutely gorgeous, and the canyon moose population makes good use of this area.
To get to Willow Lake, drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, just a minute past Silver Fork Lodge. You’ll see a few cars parked and an obvious trailhead on your left. Park along the road and start up the marked trailhead. You’ll work your way through some delightful aspen groves until you top out at the lake. Uncork that wine you brought in (bonus points if you have cheese to go along with it) and settle in to savor the serenity.
Whichever of these mini-backpacking excursions you take on, always be a safe, responsible backpacker. Give moose, goats, and other wildlife plenty of space. And if the fire danger is high, eat by starlight. The Milky Way will make it more than worthwhile.