High in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Willow Heights is an easily overlooked area. A short hike takes you through a grove of mature aspens to a broad meadow and a lake with a beaver lodge. A hotspot for wildlife all year and for wildflowers in summer, the most surprising thing about Willow Heights is how few people you’ll typically see. The short distance (just under a mile to the lake) and limited elevation gain (675 feet) keep the commitment factor low as well.
At the trailhead on Big Cottonwood Canyon Road you’ll park on the side of the road where a rock marker commemorates the dedication of Willow Heights Conservation Area. This 155-acre parcel was purchased by Salt Lake City in 2001 from United Park City Mines Company. This new trailhead saves you from walking a few hundred yards through a private neighborhood to get to Willow Heights. The trail winds its way through a lovely aspen forest, climbing steadily and never very steeply. Just about a mile into the woods you’ll cross a stream and enter a large open meadow.
At the upper end of the meadow you’ll reach a trail junction where a sharp left would lead back down into the woods toward some cabins. Continue straight for Willow Lake or take a right turn for the long route around the lake through the woods. If you arrive early or late in the day, it’s a good idea to slow down and keep quiet as you approach the lake: moose, deer and elk are commonly seen here, and the lake is home to beaver as well as nesting ducks in the summer.
North of the lake there are a couple of campsites, and trails continue toward the Park City ridge. Continuing your hike around the lake adds about 0.7 miles and more chances to spot wildlife. This area also makes a nice, mellow destination for snowshoers and backcountry skiers in winter. The short trip to the lake doesn’t cross any avalanche paths, but use caution if your route continues to the high ridgelines.