Located just minutes outside of Salt Lake City, Little Cottonwood Canyon is a backyard playpen for Utah’s biggest metropolitan area. Recreational opportunities abound year-round in Little Cottonwood, and any weekend recreationist will find something to suit them. In the spring, summer and fall, hike and camp on its slopes, ride its mountain biking trails or climb its quartz monzonite boulders and cliffs. In the winter, find its resorts and backcountry wilderness under feet of snow, an area perfect for downhill and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The glacially cut gorge is beauty to behold, its trough in parallel with the track of the sun through the sky, granite-like ridges at the base of O’Sullivan Peak and White Baldy casting long shadows at the dawn of day. Summer accompanies vibrant wildflower blooms of Wasatch penstemon, apache plume, arrowleaf balsamroot and Indian paintbrush. In the fall, quaking aspen and bigtooth maple paint the canyon in hues of crimson and gold.
The first thing you'll want to do when the bell rings in the weekend—or earlier, depending on how you play the game—is get out of town. Start out slow and scope out the canyon with a drive on Scenic Highway 210. The beautiful drive will give you an opportunity to preview the busiest spots in the canyon and pounce on those you want most (unless you reserved campsites beforehand, which is highly recommended during the high season). Because Little Cottonwood is so close to the city, Little Cottonwood Canyon Drive is always busy. From spring to fall, Tanners Flat Campground is a great place to set up a base camp for the weekend. Deep in the canyon—about as deep as you can go—Albion Basin Campground is also a spectacular base camp for Little Cottonwood excursions, although its open season is considerably shorter. If the mood hits and the timing cooperates, strike out on one of the shorter hikes, like Catherine's Pass Trail.
Saturdays are for the ambitious, so use your newfound freedom as an opportunity to tackle something tall. Fortunately there are plenty of peaks in the canyon to accommodate. Mount Superior and Monte Cristo both surpass 11,000 feet, ascending more than 2,000 feet from trailhead to summit. In other words: yes, please. At about 6.25 miles and taking six hours, the trail offers a solid full-day adventure. Or for those who wake at the break of dawn, it’s a fantastic warm-up for the afternoon’s activities. Catch the tram to Snowbird Ridge and ride the Big Mountain Trail on your mountain bike, which by all means you should bring with you. For something truly day-long, attack the 11,329-foot Pfeifferhorn Peak, an eight-mile, 3,700-foot trek to alpine splendor and exhaustion.
All good things must come to an end—but that doesn’t happen until Monday. We dedicate Sundays, a day of worship for many in Salt Lake City, to staving off the inevitable onset of the workweek. If you’re camped at Albion, wander on over to Cecret Lake and soak in the views of a proper alpine tarn. If that proves to be too busy, Secret Falls is just down the canyon, and offers greater seclusion than Cecret Lake, one of the most popular destinations in the canyon. Devil’s Castle offers amazing views of the canyon and surrounding peaks without a day-long commitment. Each hike is relatively short, an easy-going close to a fun-filled weekend. If your recalcitrant spirit clings to the freedom of the wilderness, you can stop once more on your way home at Bells Canyon, at the mouth of Little Cottonwood, and a great place to watch the sun set over Salt Lake City to the west. Rest assured: there will be many more weekends to come, and the Little Cottonwood Canyon will be there for you again.