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 Utah Travel Center ActivitiesHiking • Desolation Lake

Desolation Lake

Distance: 6.6 miles (plus 1.6 miles by bicycle)

Walking time: 5 hours

Elevations: 2,500 ft. gain, 2,220 ft. loss
     • Mill D Trailhead (start): 7,260 ft.
     • Desolation Lake Overlook: 9,760 ft.
     • Beartrap Fork Trailhead: 7,540 ft.

Trail: Most of the trail is well maintained and easy to follow, but some parts of the Beartrap Fork section can be confusing.

Season: Summer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow until early June. For current conditions call the Salt Lake Ranger District, Wasatch-Cache National Forest, at (801) 943-1794.

Vicinity: Big Cottonwood Canyon, near Salt Lake City

     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.

     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.

Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah's Favorite Hiking Trails.

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