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Jonathan Stull | 09.10.2016

One of the west’s great alpine playgrounds, the Wasatch Mountains just outside of Salt Lake City have year-round adventures to enjoy from hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking in the summer to skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. There are six canyons to explore here, each with a character different from the others—from the resort developments and mountain ski towns in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons to the quiet backcountry hideaways in Mill Creek Canyon.

We’ve developed a six-day itinerary for you to explore the canyons and mountains of the Wasatch. To keep you moving and out of the crowds, you’ll travel from north to south through five of the six canyons, spending at least a night in each of them, and you'll spend the middle of the week in the most popular canyons, Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood. Prep your climbing gear, pack your helmet and grease up your hiking boots, because you’ll venture to inspiring peaks, plumb the geological depths beneath the mountains, and explore everything in between.

Mill Creek Canyon - Sunday

On the seventh day, God rested, but you'll get right to work. Start your journey in Mill Creek Canyon, one of the most accessible canyons near Salt Lake, but one that sees less visitation in the deepest part of the canyon—your destination. If it’s an even date on the calendar, strap your bike onto the rack or throw it over the lift gate and head up to Dog Lake Mountain. This is a beautiful, mellow ride and a great way to ease yourself into a Wasatch exploration adventure.

Your greatest challenge will be finding a place in Mill Creek Canyon to camp. The canyon has only group campgrounds available for reservation, but backcountry camping is legal if you are more than a half mile from Mill Creek Canyon Road. After you’ve conquered Dog Lake Mountain, consider a hike at Mount Aire, where backcountry campsites may be available. There is also lodging along Mill Creek Canyon Road if you’d prefer to rent a room for the night. Otherwise, swing around into Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Big Cottonwood Canyon - Monday to Tuesday

Campsites are abundant at Spruces Campground. Bring a Frisbee or a volleyball to take advantage of the playing fields. This will be your base camp for two days in the Big Cottonwood Canyon.

The climbing gear you have tucked snugly in your trunk will find its moment in the sun in Big Cottonwood. Make your first day a climbing day at S-Curve Area, with its 30 or so bolted sport climbs that range from 5.6 to 5.13d. Hard quartzite rock, most of the routes here include an overhang—great fodder for hungry dirtbags.

Big Cottonwood Canyon has many hikes to choose from, and no visitor to the canyon should neglect Lake Blanche, which is arguably the most spectacular hike in the canyon. The elevation gain is stiff, but the work pays for itself with a view that is comparable to Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite. And being mid-week, you may just have the trail to yourself. Should you descend and find yourself with half the day to burn, grab a picnic lunch and your headlamp, and take a few hours to relax at Storm Mountain Day Use Area before heading to Peak 10,420 for sunset. Yes, it’s another peak, but don’t fret—under two miles, it’s very short, if steep. A summit beer might make the pain in your legs a little bit easier to handle.

Finish off your trip to Big Cottonwood with another night at Spruces Campground, and get ready for little brother to the south, Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Little Cottonwood Canyon - Wednesday to Thursday

Spend your third day in the Wasatch Mountains wandering upland along scenic Highway 210 to its farthest reaches to Albion Basin Campground, where you’ll have reserved a site for a couple of nights (hint). With the little town of Alta nearby and the trailhead to Cecret Lake at the entrance to the campground, you may unfold your tent and find yourself spending the day at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon. We’d be hard-pressed to tell you to go elsewhere.

A pair of trails may beckon to you on your first day, however, so once you’ve claimed your campsite, head back down the canyon to Maybird Gulch. Tackle Maybird Lakes first, where the Pfeifferhorn reigns over wildflower-spackled slopes. Before you pack up and head back up the canyon to your camp, sneak off of the Red Pine Lake Trail and find your way to Secret Falls. Though it requires some bushwhacking, the trail is short and off the beaten path, taking you to a 40-foot cascade that few venture toward.

Day four brings you the luxury of choice: drag out those old climbing rags and scour the lower canyon for climbing routes—historically scoured by the likes of the famous Lowes—or strap your mountain bike to the back of the car and catch the tram up Snowbird Resort to the Big Mountain Trail. When you get tired of the air rushing in your face, the sound of gravel under rubber tires, the thrill of improper gravitational force sucking you stream-ward, return to camp and fix yourself a campfire.

Or, swing by the LDS Church Vault, which contains the entire catalog of Mormon genealogy, and explore your lineage.

The trip continues south—to American Fork Canyon.

American Fork Canyon - Friday

In a perfect world, the crowds attracted to Big and Little Cottonwood canyons will clear out by the time you swing through Highland on your way into American Fork Canyon. Your first stop: Timpanogos Cave National Monument, a 1.5-mile trail into the depths of a system of three caves: Hansen, Middle and Timpanogos. Open seasonally between May and September, take one of the monument’s guided tours or an introduction to caving. The cave stays cool throughout the summer, a welcome reprieve from Utah’s summer heat.

Continue along the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway to Aspen Grove, where you’ll be camping for the night. Mount Timpanogos Campground and Theater-In-the-Pines Campground are located here. Before pitching your tent, wander up Mount Timpanogos as far as your legs and the light will allow. The 14-mile trail passes lakes and waterfalls early in its mileage, and it even has possible campsites if you’d prefer to spend the night in the backcountry.

Provo Canyon - Saturday

In the morning, pack up camp and continue along the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway to Wildwood, and turn west down U.S. Route 189 into Provo Canyon. Stop off at Bridal Veil Falls, a 600-foot cascade that was the former site of a resort before an avalanche destroyed it in 1996.

Your long journey is coming to an end. Spend your day soaking up the scenery—Provo Canyon gradually descends back into Provo, into the metropolitan area of Salt Lake City, and the hubbub of the urban environment.


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