Big Cottonwood Canyon is a premiere summer alpine hiking and camping destination for anyone visiting the Salt Lake area in northern Utah. Known for its steep terrain, alpine lakes and abundant wildlife, the canyon is loaded with memorable hikes and mountain bike trails. The 17-mile canyon can provide outdoor fun for the whole summer, but if you only have a long weekend, you might want to consider checking out these highlights.
This area has a ton of visual impact within the first few minutes of the journey. Mighty Storm Mountain sits like a sentinel greeting the incoming stream of cars on their way up to cooler air. Don't head up too far before stopping to check out Stairs Gulch across from Storm Mountain Day Use Area. You don't need to hike all the way this time, but if you head up for half a mile you'll see all of the best small waterfalls of the gully. Fill up your bottles with some freshly filtered mountain water and take an early lunch under the cottonwood trees to get ready for a much more difficult journey this afternoon.
After getting back on the road, head just a few minutes to the famous "S" curve where the road goosenecks at the Mill B drainage. Find parking and gear up for an overnighter at a gorgeous alpine lake. The hike to Lake Blanche can be a bit grueling with a backpack, but the reward of an evening camping here is too good to pass up Take your time, bring some hiking poles, pack right, and you'll be just fine. Sundial Peak is an amazing and iconic feature of the Wasatch Mountains, and seeing it at sunrise with barely anyone else around is something special. If Lake Blanche is overloaded, you can get to another great hike from the same parking lot trailhead called Broad's Fork. It is less traveled but just as pretty, and although it lacks the lake, it has an incredible bowl canyon at the top. You can use this as an alternative if you have done Blanche already. Throw your tent up in one of the two major meadows you come across on the way up and enjoy the solitude.
After hiking back down to the Mill B trailhead, get back on Big Cottonwood Road and head up-canyon 10 minutes to your next beautiful destination. Kessler Peak sits across from Circle All Peak, Mount Raymond, and Gobbler's Knob, and it makes for one of the most dynamic and rugged parts of the canyon. After doing the steep Mill B Trail yesterday, Butler Fork is a perfect not-too-long yet very scenic trail. You get 360-degree views up and down canyon from the top of Circle All Peak, and in autumn it changes to a stunning array of color.
After Butler Fork, grab your campsite at Spruces Campground just up the road. Rest the legs, grab some food, and take an evening stroll to Donut Falls, which is back down the canyon lying between Spruces and Butler Fork. A short and easy hike with barely any elevation gain, it's a nice respite compared to the normally steep pitch of the other hikes, and there is a popular and interesting waterfall cave at the top.
On your final day you might want to consider rising before dawn and making your way up to Guardsman's Pass for sunrise. It has a particularly good vantage point to start the day, and once there you have a ton of options. Blood's Lake is only a short hike to a lake with a rope swing, or take the other fork in the trail to head up to Peak 10420 to oversee all sides of the canyon from the very top.
To finish off the trip, head to one of two places that are known as moose hot spots. To many people, the best part of Big Cottonwood is the likelihood of coming across one of these large mammals. The easier trail that gives you a good chance is the flat loop that circles Silver Lake. If you still have some juice left in your legs, there is no better place for spotting moose than Willow Heights. It is not unusual to see multiple families or lone bulls around the lake, and the autumn colors are the best in the Wasatch.
If you brought your mountain bike, you should pass on the moose hikes and ride down Wasatch Crest Trail after catching sunrise from Guardsman's Pass. You will need to shuttle a car to Millcreek Canyon or book one of the private shuttles online to bring you back, but this ride is one of the best in the U.S. You can ride the entire length of the spine between Big Cottonwood and Park City, 15 miles of amazing and technical terrain.
There is some great food at the Silver Fork Lodge halfway up the canyon, and Brighton keeps the Millicent Chalet cafeteria open in the summer at the very top. There are a ton of restaurants and grocery stores at the mouth of the canyon, including the fan-favorite Lonestar Taqueria. Summer here is perfect for hiking, but the fall colors are spectacular, so either season is fine to give this a try. Just keep in mind that the moose get aggressive during the autumn rut. Also, while bears are not very common, sightings have increased over the last few years.