Big Cottonwood Canyon is filled with dozens of long, epic hikes with spectacular views. But sometimes you just want to hike a short trail with a nice payoff. This is especially true if you’re taking kids. Willow Lake on the Willow Heights Trail near Solitude Mountain Resort is the perfect hike for that. The trail is a short (but steep) one-mile hike through a shady aspen forest, ending at a small lake nestled in an open valley. Good views to the south of Solitude Mountain Resort, Honeycomb Canyon and Silver Fork Canyon round out the experience.
The hike to Willow Lake begins at the the roadside trailhead about 11-miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon. Just after you drive past the Silver Fork Lodge, the parking pull-off and trail is on the left (north) side of the highway. There is also room to park off the south road shoulder as well.
The hike starts out steep as it heads straight up the mountainside. Embedded rocks act like stairs in some places and the path can be eroded. Watch your step and engage those quad muscles! Despite the lung-busting vertical gained here, you can enjoy hiking through one of the most gorgeous aspen groves in the Wasatch Mountains. Fall is an especially good time of year to hike this trail as the aspen trees are bright with color.
About 0.5 mile up, the trail begins to level out a bit and you can relax your pace. As you exit the aspens at a large meadow, you’ll top out on a broad shelf. Look back and see sweeping views of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Not long after that, the trail enters a dense swath of willows and you come to the shores of Willow Lake. This is a very small lake and is often depleted during low-water years. But during summers after high snowpack, the lake’s clear waters attract ducks and moose for wildlife viewing. There are many spots around and near the lake to have a picnic and let the little ones toss rocks into the water.
For a longer hike, continue up the valley as the trail loops around the lake through another beautiful, old-growth aspen forest. At the end of the loop, simply follow the ascent trail one-mile back down to your car.
Willow Lake is also a great place for a short backpacking trip – ideal for first-timers. Several decent camp spots can be found in the woods surrounding the lake, and your back won’t complain much after a mere one-mile hike in.
To hike Willow Lake, drive from Salt Lake City up Big Cottonwood Canyon (SR-190). Just after the Silver Lake Lodge, park at a pullout approximately 11 miles up the canyon. The trailhead is located on the north side of the highway and is marked by a large stone sign that says, “Willow Heights Conservation Area.”