A Moderate Hike in Big Cottonwood Canyon
- Length: 7.4 miles round trip (Lately I've seen the mileage designation for
this trail to be anywhere from 7 to 8.2 miles, I'm sticking to what it says in my older, trusty guidebook)
- Elevation Gain: 1900 ft (lake)
- Highest Elevation: 9,240 ft at the lake
- Trailhead: 9 miles into Big Cottonwood Canyon, designated as "Mill D North"
Desolation Lake has many trailheads. The hike described in this article starts at Mill D North Fork
in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
The hike is a moderate one, and unless you are in tip-top shape, allow several hours to complete it.
And, it is a popular one for both hikers and mountain bikers, so you are likely to have company.
The trailhead is on Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. As you travel into the canyon, after about 9 miles and
just before the Spruces Campground, there is a large parking lot on both the North (unpaved) and South
(paved) sides of the road. The Mill D North Fork trailhead is on the North side of the road.
The 1900 ft elevation gain from the trailhead to the lake is not one of the more strenuous grades in the
Wasatch, but there are some stretches that are downright nasty. (My hiking buddy commented "This is one steep
Mother--I think he was talking about Mother Nature). On the whole, the trail varies between very steep to nice,
easy stretches of flatness.
At 1.8 miles, about half-way, you come to a junction. If you are feeling really energetic, maybe
take the left fork for a side trip to Dog Lake . It is only .6 mile from
this junction, but it is very steep. Continue on the right fork for another 1.9 miles to Desolation
Lake. Just after this junction is one of the more, shall we say, challenging sections of the slope.
But hang in there, because after that it gets a lot easier, with several long stretches of fairly level
trail. The scenery is beautiful at any season, whether you see the new spring shoots, the wildflowers of
summer, the colors of autumn, or the snow-covered landscape of winter. And there are varying views of
peaks, meadows and aspen or evergreen forests.
Desolation Lake lies at the bottom of a 550-foot-deep bowl that was scooped out by a glacier during the
last ice age. You can continue up the trail on a very strenuous grade to above the lake and on the crater
rim for a spectacular view. From the crater rim down to the lake is a very exciting ride on a bike, and
it is common to see several bikers high up on the rim, just marvelling at the view before starting the
screaming descent into the bowl. Pack a lunch and sit for awhile, enjoying the scenery before heading
For more pictures from this hike, check out the
Hike Photo Gallery.