Hiking to Desolation Lake
The Wasatch Mountains are chock full of amazing trails, many of which are very steep and challenging. If you are looking for a more leisurely hike, or perhaps something the entire family can enjoy, then hiking to Desolation Lake might be the perfect idea. The trail is mellow, shaded in many places, and ends at a glacially-fed lake in the middle of picturesque alpine scenery.
There are several trails that lead to Desolation Lake, but the hike described here begins at the Mill D North Fork Trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The trailhead is well-signed and just across the road from Reynold’s Flat (9.3 miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon Road). An interpretive sign near the start of the hike describes how this part of the Wasatch was formed by the movement of glaciers. Follow the well-worn trail east through an impressive spruce and pine forest. The climb is mellow and shaded in many spots. As the trail bends north, look to your right to see several cabins nestled on the hillside (suppress your feeling of jealousy towards their lucky owners).
The trail heads north through a mix of evergreens and aspens. During autumn the slopes that surround this hike explode with colors and make for a great foliage show. A small stream eventually appears along the east side of the trail. At mile 1.6, the trail splits. A sign shows Dog Lake to the left, but you should head right for Desolation Lake. The next section is the steepest of the hike, but even those with young adventurers should have no problem making the climb. The trail is well-maintained and easy to navigate. Eventually the route levels off, and the view back to the south is outstanding.
The trail continues its climb through the pristine Wasatch scenery. There are springs and runoff streams near the trail, so in early morning or late evening hours, wildlife is often easy to spot. Moose, deer, and birds of prey all call this area home. After a short, steep climb, the trail descends to Desolation Lake. The water is usually quite clear with an eye-popping greenish/blue hue. This is thanks to the fact that it is entirely comprised of snow melt. The previous season’s snowfall will dictate how large or small the lake may be. A walk around the shore reveals several excellent campsites, and spending a night here would be a real treat. Enjoy the scenery and return the way you came.
This out and back hike is a total of 7 miles, and will take between 3 and 5 hours to complete. 1,900 feet of elevation is gained during the hike, much of it at a very mellow and manageable grade. Other potential routes to Desolation Lake include the Beartrap Fork Trail (Big Cottonwood Canyon) and the Great Western Trail (Millcreek Canyon). It is also possible to mountain bike to the lake, and yes, we’ve got a trip report for that, too! No matter how you get there, Desolation Lake is an ideal spot for a quick jaunt through some top-notch Wasatch scenery.
Getting There: Drive 9.3 miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon road and park near the Mill D North Fork trailhead.
Dogs: No dogs allowed in Big Cottonwood Canyon or at Desolation Lake (watershed areas)