Salt Lake City is one of the greatest hiking destination in America. Name another city in the country where within 300 yards of the state’s Capitol building and the downtown center you can be walking in a protected nature reserve while spotting elk and raptors. Where else can you have easy access to five federally designated wilderness areas—some within easy walking distance of residential neighborhoods?
With mountains on every side, Salt Lake City offers a greater variety of dramatic and awe-inspiring hikes than any other major city in the United States. And just beyond the metropolitan area, Salt Lake City is essentially surrounded by thousands of square miles of national forests, and has access to eight spectacular national parks that can be reached on less than a tank of gas.
But, as always, Salt Lake City can be a matter of "so many hikes and so little time." So, if you only have a few hours for a morning hike or afternoon outing, here are five great hikes in the Salt Lake city area that you simply should not miss.
Lofty Lake Loop (Best Mountain Scenery)
Where: Uinta Mountains, 40 miles east of Salt Lake City Length: 4.1-mile loop Duration: 3 to 4 hours.
With a trailhead at 10,154 feet, you’re already in the midst of the mountain scenery upon arrival to Lofty Lake Loop. Once on the trail you’ll encounter lakes, streams, mountain passes, deep woods, sprawling meadows, and stunning views, all without ever dropping below 10,000 feet in elevation.
There are a few steep ascents and descents along some rocky sections of trail, but the scenery is so rewarding that it’s easy to overlook the challenges. Even at these high elevations (some even above treeline) wildflowers abound and wildlife can often be spotted. The trail is easy to find and follow, but it’s not well marked, so be sure to pick up a free map at the Kamas Forest Service Office on the way to the trailhead.
Brighton Lakes (Best Lakes)
Where: At the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, 15 miles east of the Salt Lake Valley Length: 4.2 miles out and back. Duration: 3 to 4 hours
Lake Mary, Lake Martha, and Lake Catherine, known collectively as Brighton Lakes, lie at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon just above the Brighton Ski Resort. They form a chain of pristine, alpine glacial lakes set in granite bowls and adorned with woods of fir and spruce. Since Lake Mary is closest to the trailhead and can be done as a 2.2 mile round trip hike, it’s the most popular destination for families and hikers looking for a quick taste of the trail. It’s a great spot for a picnic or a summer afternoon of lakeside recreation too. Continuing on to Lake Martha and Lake Catherine takes a bit more time, but as a result the crowds thin out along with the air. Outside of an occasional angler, you may be the only person on the trail as it climbs upward toward the treeline.
Timpanogos Cave (Best Cave –and a great hike, too)
Where: Mt. Timpanogos Cave National Monument, in American Fork Canyon, 25 miles south of Salt Lake City Length: 3 miles round trip Duration: 2 to 3½ hours, including 1 hour for the cave tour.
Even without touring the cave, the hike on this spectacular trail, carved into and through the rocky cliffs above American Fork Canyon, is memorable in its own right.
You’ll climb 1,000 vertical feet of canyon wall through sub-alpine forests of fir and pine before arriving at the cave. The fact that the trail is paved doesn’t detract one bit from the pristine beauty of the canyon setting, plus, you’ll appreciate the surefooted surface as you pass a number of unprotected drop-offs. Allow an hour for the ranger-guided cave tour, and buy your tickets in advance at the visitor center. Remember, the cave remains a constant 45 degrees F, so even on a sweltering summer day, bring a sweater or jacket for your time below ground.
Mt. Timpanogos (Best Mountain Summit)
Where: Mount Timpanogos Wilderness Area, accessed from the Alpine Loop (UT 92), 35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City Length: 14.8 miles round trip Duration: 6 to 11 hours.
The Timpanogos Massif dominates the eastern skyline of Utah County to the south of Salt Lake City.
The climb to the 11,749-foot summit is a worthy challenge, but one that reasonably fit hikers should be able to achieve. On a summer Saturday you’ll be joined by hundreds of other hikers on the trail as you ascend the Giant Staircase, which is made up of a series of five canyon benches, before arriving at the upper glacial bowl. Then it’s still another hour or more along a knife-edge ridge trail to the rocky summit. The waterfalls, wildflowers, and wildlife (mountain goats are almost always sighted) are as exciting as the commanding summit views.
Doughnut Falls (Favorite Local Waterfall)
Where: Big Cottonwood Canyon, nine miles east of the Salt Lake Valley Length: 1.4 miles out and back Duration: 1 to 2 hours
Doughnut Falls is well-known by local hikers, but rarely seen by visitors. It’s an intriguing sight — a unique waterfall that plunges through a hole in the rock and into a grotto before cascading down the rock drainage below. It’s a short hike that even small children can accomplish and enjoy, but keep them close at hand, as they’ll be tempted to climb in and around the waterfall, which can be dangerous. It’s easy to spend an hour or more playing around the falls. The trail and falls are set in a forest of spruce and aspen, which is populated by ground squirrels and chipmunks along the trail, but deer, moose, and beaver can often be spotted as well.
More Hikes from Greg Witt
I am a hiking guide in Switzerland every summer. Visit my 5 Best Day Hikes in the Swiss Alps for some of my favorite walking routes in Switzerland. If you'd like a hike that is off the normal Jungfrau tourist trails visit hiking a quieter route.