If you need an easy and relatively safe way to get into the Wasatch backcountry during winter, look no further than Willow Heights. The wide open terrain and low grade of the surrounding mountains make this Big Cottonwood hike perfect to enjoy on days where other spots are more dangerous. Located across from Solitude Ski Resort, you can hear the blasts in the distance that keep the resort safe from slides. There are snowshoe enthusiasts on this trail along with cross-country skiers and people skinning and split-boarding to find some turns further up. You can access a lot of great territory from this trailhead, but this write-up is meant for people hiking to the lake and back, just like most people do in summer.
If you arrive early in the morning after a fresh coat of snow you might have a little trouble finding the trailhead, but for most it should already be tracked out. There is a large trailhead information sign a short distance in to let you know you are on the right path. Once you are on your way the pitch begins to climb steadily until you hit a few sections that are downright steep. Do your best to keep from getting overheated on these first parts; sweat is the enemy out here in the winter. Strategic stops a few times along the way are great for taking in the magical views and the silence that accompany this season.
As the trail begins to level out the aspen grove gets much thicker, and this means you are getting close to the lake. Near the end of the trail the aspen grove abruptly stops and opens up to a beautiful meadow with small rolling hills and down-valley views. Keep heading due north, straight through another small patch of trees. From here you have a ton of option: You can head back down to complete the normal 2.4-mile round trip, or you can circle the snow covered lake or continue up toward Dry Lake (northeast) to find steeper skiable terrain. USA Bowl is accessed from here, making it a premier launching point for the backcountry, especially on high risk days. Overall this place is hard to beat as a hike for people new to winter recreation or a launching point for the seasoned vet. It is also common to see moose here, and the views are stellar.
Be sure to check out the summer version of this Adventure. Doing this trail first without snow is a great idea, but it's not a must. Always check your avalanche conditions at the Utah Avalanche Center before heading out. While the buddy system is best, be sure to let people know where you are going if you'll be heading out alone. There is cell reception in this area, and it is a good idea to bring a USB battery pack and cord to recharge your phone, which drains quickly in the cold.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.