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Wandering the West

It’s often said here, "As the crow flies, Snowbird is just eight miles from Park City." But people don’t fly like crows or any other bird, so the trip is really one hour by car over Parleys Canyon and then back up Little Cottonwood Canyon. But its still just eight miles or so if you care to walk.

Years ago my employer had a staff meeting one Saturday morning at a cabin at Alta. I decided to take the shortcut, driving over Guardsman Pass to Brighton, parking my car and doing the rest on foot. If the meeting hadn’t started so blasted early, I might have left the car at Park City Mountain Resort and hiked over Scott’s Pass as well. As it was, I couldn’t get anyone to believe I’d walked over from Brighton until it was time to head home on foot.

It’s a great day hike. Either start from the base of PCMR, or park at the top of Guardsman Pass and start down, or park at Brighton and just do the traverse from Brighton. It’ll take a half-day from Brighton, but make it a full day and have a leisurely lunch at Alta or Snowbird to celebrate half of your accomplishment. Kids from upper elementary grades on up will have a great time too, especially if you combine the trek with a Snowbird Tram ride to gain back most of the elevation gain you’ll need to get back out of Little Cottonwood.

From PCMR, head up Thaynes Canyon to the Thaynes Chair, then up the cat trail to the Jupiter Chair. Zigzag up to the Ski Patrol shack at the top of the lift, and go through the woods on the right of the shack. Then let gravity lead you down to Solitude or veer a little left to end up at Brighton instead. You can either access the ridge top separating Big and Little Cottonwood by hiking to the top of Solitude’s Summit Chair, traversing the Highway to Heaven winter ski trail, or from Brighton go across the parking lot and start up the chairlift trails there. Another scenic approach is to walk to the far side of Silver Lake from the trailhead and follow the marked trail. The last two routes take you up to Twin Lakes, a pair of reservoirs that are jewels of sparkling blue water surrounded by granite peaks. The sweep of lofty granite above is Wolverine Cirque, one of the prettiest alpine vistas in the Wasatch, and awesome winter backcountry terrain.

From the top of the ridge separating Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, it’s a scramble down Grizzly Gulch to Alta. If you’ve chosen the Solitude route via the Highway to Heaven, you’re following the winter Ski Utah Interconnect route.

A century ago, Grizzly Gulch was thriving with mines. Today, the miners’ cabins and mine buildings have collapsed under the weight of a century of legendary Little Cottonwood snowfalls. But the ruins are all around rusted pipes, cables, boilers and other mining detritus. Waste rock piles mark the mouths of long abandoned mines. The trees here are second growth because all the originals were cut down for mine timbering, accelerating the avalanches that so often spelled doom in Wasatch mining days.

Remember, when you get to Alta at the base of Grizzly Gulch, you’re only half way, so choose the next step wisely. You can either continue down the canyon to Snowbird and return from there, go to Snowbird, take the tram to Mount Baldy’s summit and hike across the ridgeline to Alta, or make Alta the turnaround point.

You still have to get back, so take another route so you’re seeing different scenery. Hike up Albion Basin often photographed for its prolific wildflower meadows, which are now at their peak. Stop by Cecret (with a "C") Lake, where the kids can terrorize the salamanders while you drink in the alpine scene. Then find Catherine Pass on the hiking maps and return to Brighton that way. The whole circle from Brighton will easily take a half-day. A round trip from Park City is an all-day affair with lots of vertical. I guess there’s always the option of calling for a ride at Alta and Snowbird if you can find someone sympathetic to drive you back around.

There are infinite numbers of good hikes in the Wasatch. This one starts quite literally in our backyard and takes in some of the best of the Wasatch, with a nice place to have lunch conveniently located at the halfway point.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.

THE VITALS: Google "Big, Little Cottonwood hiking trails" for several guides and maps.

Insider tip: Now that it’s late summer, afternoon thunderstorms blow up quickly. Stay off the ridge tops when clouds billow and turn dark. Lightning is sure to follow.


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