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Desolation Lake

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Basics
Location:
In Big Cottonwood Canyon southeast of downtown Salt Lake City
Length:
7.3 mile roundtrip
Difficulty:
Intermediate
Time:
3 to 3-1/2 hours
Elevation Change:
1970 feet
Season:
June to October

Description

Desolation Lake is a popular destination for mountain bikers, so you are bound to see a few of them on this hike. But don’t expect all of them to be riding-there is a 2,000-foot elevation gain from the trailhead to the lake, and riding a bike uphill is much harder than walking.

The lake itself is located at the bottom of what, at first glance, looks like an old volcanic crater. The 550-foot-deep crater is actually a large bowl that was scooped out at the head of Mill D North Fork Canyon by a glacier during the last ice age. The view from the crater rim can be quite spectacular, especially in early September when the aspen trees on the northwest side of the lake are displaying their fall colors. On weekends one can often see fifteen or twenty mountain bikers parked on the trail above the lake, pausing to enjoy the view before their long downhill ride back to Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Details

Location:
In Big Cottonwood Canyon southeast of downtown Salt Lake City
Length:
7.3 mile roundtrip
Difficulty:
Intermediate
Time:
3 to 3-1/2 hours
Elevation Change:
1970
Season:
June to October
Useful Map(s):
USGS Salt Lake City Topo (1:100,000)
Additional Details:
From Mill D Trailhead the trail winds up through the aspens along the north side of Mill D North Fork for 1.8 miles to the intersection with Desolation Trail. If you want to see Dog Lake before continuing on, bear left here for 0.6 mile. Otherwise, turn right for Desolation Lake. Up to this point the hike has been an almost unbroken uphill climb. There is still more uphill walking to come, but for the last 1.9 miles before Desolation Lake there is also a fair amount of level ground. It is a beautiful walk, through occasional meadows with fine views of the surrounding peaks. Finally, with almost no warning, the trail runs into the lake.

To reach the rim above Desolation Lake, bikers normally take the better used trail that goes up the northern side of the crater. But if you want to connect with Beartrap Fork, as I suggest, you should bear right and go up the lesser used path that climbs the crater’s southern flank. Once you have negotiated the 550-foot climb to the top, follow the south rim trail around in an easterly direction until it meets the trail coming from the north. At the point where the trails meet, above the southeastern side of the lake, you will see Beartrap Fork Canyon directly below you to the south. This is the route that will take you back to the highway in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Unfortunately, the first few hundred feet of the Beartrap Fork Trail are so vague you probably won’t believe you are on a trail at all. But don’t worry, the track soon becomes evident. As you descend from the top of the ridge into Beartrap Fork you will first see an occasional cairn. Then you will see faint trample marks in the grass, and by the time you reach the trees, 100 yards from the rim, you will be on a proper hiking trail. Initially the trail tends to follow the right side of the creek bed, which is on the left side of the canyon.

There are few switchbacks on the Beartrap Fork Trail, and for the first mile the path is quite steep. But soon the canyon floor levels out in a dense grove of quaking aspen, where you will begin to appreciate the beauty of the little used route. Finally, about 0.5 mile from the highway, the trail turns into a jeep road. Some confusion may occur as you near the end, because the jeep road is intersected by other primitive roads. Just remember to always take the road that heads downhill, and you should intersect the highway exactly at the point where you parked your shuttle.

Map + Directions

Basic Directions
From Downtown Salt Lake City, head south on I-15 about 8 miles to the I-215 Belt Route. Take I-215 East about 5 miles to 6200 South (Exit 6). Bear to the right off the exit ramp onto 6200 South and head east. (It'll turn south after a bit and and merge with Wasatch Boulevard, but just stay on the main road.) Follow it about 2 miles to the light at Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. (On the southwest corner of the intersection is a 7-Eleven gas station and mini-mart.) Take a left and head up canyon. The trailhead is 9 miles past the canyon entrance on both the north and south side of the road. (Note: Along the trip from downtown you'll see large signs to the Solitude and Brighton ski resorts. These resorts are at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, so if you follow those signs, you'll get to Big Cottonwood Canyon just fine.)

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