Salt Lake City Day Hike: Brighton Lakes Trail

A fragmented stone mountain rising up above scattered coniferous trees.

Mount Tuscarora reflected in Lake Mary on the Brighton Lakes Trail. Photo © Mike Matson.


Brighton Lakes Trail

Big Cottonwood Canyon, Wasatch-Cache National Forest

The Brighton Lakes Trail is one of the Central Wasatch’s best hikes to a series of alpine lakes. As the trail climbs, the crowds thin and the lakes become more and more picturesque. This trail is noted to climb to a high overlook with wide views and offers an opportunity for wildlife watching.
    • Level: Moderate
    • Total Distance: 4.6 miles round-trip
    • Hiking Time: 3 hours
    • Elevation Change: 1,594 feet
    • GPS Coordinates: N 40°59.781’ W 111°58.371’
Moderate hikes are generally suitable for adults and children who are fit.×

At the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, tucked into the steep rocky terrain and hidden from view from the road, sits a chain of sparkling alpine lakes. Like steps on a giant staircase, Dog, Mary, Martha, and Catherine Lakes offer hikers progressively more impressive rewards as they explore farther up the trail. This trail is particularly enjoyable in autumn, when aspens growing in scattered clumps between huge gray granite boulders stand out in bright pockets of orange and gold. Although this is one of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s most popular hikes, the crowds thin as the elevation and miles mount, leaving serenity at Catherine Lake on all but the busiest summer weekends.

Lake Martha is protected by heavy vegetation—a favorite food source of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s moose population.The Brighton Lakes Trail begins beneath the Majestic and Crest Express chairlifts of Brighton Ski Resort. The trail’s first segment is wide and well traveled, ascending through open ski slopes. After this initial 0.6-mile stretch, the path narrows as it ducks into a canopy of subalpine fir and leaves the human-altered ski resort behind. A few minutes after entering the forest, a signed junction points to a spur trail for Dog Lake. This short side trip leads to a quaint, pond-sized lake and wetland. Back on the main trail, the path follows the outlet stream for Lake Mary up through an uneven talus field and around a short dam. The reward upon arrival at Lake Mary is a breathtaking scene. The lake is surrounded by three towering peaks: Mount Millicent, Mount Wolverine, and Mount Tuscarora. The lake fills the bottom of a granite bowl, with mounds of fractured rock forming the uneven shoreline. On calm days, the glassy lake surface provides ample opportunities for landscape photographs.

Continuing up the trail along the left side of the lake, hikers will soon arrive at Lake Martha, tucked tightly into a deep bowl surrounded by forest and steep mountains. Lake Martha is protected by heavy vegetation—a favorite food source of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s moose population. Look closely around the lake: When we visited in the early evening, a bull moose quietly hid in the dense underbrush by the lake’s edge until we headed farther up the trail. Comfortable we were out of sight, the moose ventured out into the shallow lake to feed. From Lake Martha the trail ascends steeply upward via a series of switchbacks to an exposed rocky ridge. From this vantage point excellent views extend back down to the lakes below. The trail forks at the ridge. Head left at the junction to reach Lake Catherine, this trail’s crown jewel of alpine glory. The steep-sided Sunset Peak tumbles into the lake in rock talus fields. In early to midsummer, snowfields cling to the surrounding mountainsides. Look west toward Catherine Pass crossing the crest into Albion Basin and the upper reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon.


Options

The Brighton Lakes Trail presents several options beyond the three lakes on the main trail. Dog Lake, the first side trail, offers a 500-yard diversion and is easily included with the three other main lakes in this chain. At Lake Mary, it’s possible for hikers to head northwest for 1.1 miles to Twin Lakes Reservoir, on the opposite side of Mount Millicent. Finally, for hikers looking for a longer adventure, the trail continues for 2 miles on past Catherine Lake, through Catherine Pass and into Albion Basin. By leaving a car at the Albion Basin Road parking lot, hikers can make this a one-way trip and descend down Little Cottonwood Canyon.


Directions

From Salt Lake City drive east on I-80 for 5 miles and merge onto I-215 South. Continue 6 miles and take Exit 6 for 6200 South. Turn left at the light at the bottom of the off-ramp and drive 1.7 miles south on 6200 South/Wasatch Boulevard. Turn left at the light and enter the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Continue up Big Cottonwood Canyon Road for 14.1 miles to Brighton Ski Area. The trailhead is in front of the Brighton Ski Resort.


Information and Contact

There is no fee. Big Cottonwood Canyon is a watershed and dogs are not allowed. Maps are available at the Public Lands Information Center, 3285 East 3300 South (inside REI), Salt Lake City, UT 84109, 801/466-6411. For more information, contact Salt Lake City Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, 125 South State Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84138, 801/236-3400.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Take a Hike Salt Lake City.

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