Over the past week, the Utah summer has turned downright hellish, with temperatures dabbling in triple digits on a near-daily basis along the Wasatch Front. And due to the pandemic, many of the usual ways to find relief, such as community pools, water parks and skating rinks, are not available or ridiculously crowded.
Fortunately for nearly all Wasatch Front residents, numerous cooler, higher-elevation destinations are within an hour’s drive. Our collective “backyards” are laced with water bodies, shady canyons and trailheads accessing breezy mountain passes and flower-filled alpine meadows. With valley highs expected to reach well into the 90s for the next several days — and no precipitation in sight — now is a good time to explore the mountains nearby.
The following is a list of prime locations in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Cache and Utah counties, organized by type and difficulty of access. While these places may be good to avoid the heat, be warned that they could be crowded, even on weekdays. Utah’s public lands, especially those close to cities, are seeing record use this year. So have masks ready and strive to socially distance.
When you go, be sure to bring plenty of water, apply sunscreen early and often, and check the weather forecasts. Afternoon thunderstorms sometimes appear with little warning and can quickly turn a family picnic into a mad dash to the car.
Utah State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service operate recreational amenities at several reservoirs along the Wasatch Back from Pineview in Weber County to Deer Creek in Utah County, all with inviting shorelines and boat launches.
A favorite is the three-armed Pineview Reservoir in the Ogden Valley, where public beaches can be found at Cemetery Point, Middle Inlet and Anderson Cove, all about an hour from Salt Lake City. This lake is great for boating, swimming, paddling, fishing, even camping.
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest operates a campground and day-use area at Anderson Cove, as well as a marina on Cemetery Point just outside Huntsville. Day-use fees apply at most locations around this lake.
Elsewhere, state parks can be found on the shores of East Canyon, Echo, Rockport, Deer Creek, Mountain Dell and Jordanelle reservoirs, along with Utah Lake and Willard Bay on the Great Salt Lake. Summit County’s Smith and Morehouse Reservoir isn’t a park, but it’s worth a visit.
Floating the Weber River is another great way to spend a hot afternoon. The 5-mile stretch from Henefer to Taggart offers easy access for entering and exiting along Interstate 84. Everyone floating this stretch is required to wear a life jacket. Downstream is Ogden’s Kayak Park along the River Parkway Trail passing through the city. When flows are high enough, this spot is considered Utah’s top urban play area for paddlers.
Alpine destinations: easy access
Creekside picnic spots are easily reached in many of the canyons spilling out of the Wasatch into Utah and Salt Lake counties. The most accessible are in Mill Creek, Payson, Provo and American Fork canyons, such as Church Fork a few miles up the Mill Creek Canyon road or Aspen Grove near Sundance.
A recent dam reconstruction has doubled the size of American Fork Canyon’s Tibble Fork Reservoir, where you can spend a day floating and fishing, then head out for a hike. Options include an arduous climb up 11,101-foot Box Elder Peak or something easier, like Lower Mill Canyon.
Payson Lake is a 13-mile drive up the Nebo Loop Scenic Byway from Payson, offering a campground, trailheads and picnic areas.
Other prime easy-to-access spots include Silver Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon and Trial and Lily lakes on the Mirror Lake Highway. Visitors will find shady shorelines without much hiking, as well as access to trails for those who don’t mind hiking an extra few miles in search of thinning crowds. Options include Twin Lakes or Lake Mary, located beyond Silver Lake, and Clyde and Wall lakes for those visiting Trial Lake.
Alpine destinations: moderate access
A few years ago, Park City and Summit County acquired Bonanza Flat, just over Guardsman Pass from Big Cottonwood Canyon. It has since become a popular hiking destination, offering short trips through alpine forests to Bloods and other alpine lakes. Three new trailheads have been built to serve the newly designated 1,350-acre Bonanza Flat Conservation Area. The old trailhead at Guardsman Pass can be used only for dropping people off.
Bloods Lake is now a 1.5-mile, mostly flat hike from the new trailhead.
In neighboring Little Cottonwood Canyon, Albion Basin’s meadows are the perfect place to enjoy wildflowers’ brief season in bloom, which happens to overlap with July and August.
The Forest Service limits the number of cars that can drive beyond Alta Ski Area at any one time, so get there early to ensure vehicle access to the Albion trailheads. Latecomers likely have to wait or hike along the Sunnyside lift to get to the trailhead. From there, Catherine Pass is an easy hike, with Lake Mary in Big Cottonwood Canyon not much farther.
For ease of access, nothing beats City Creek Canyon, a riparian oasis that slices through the Wasatch foothills into the heart of Salt Lake City. The lower canyon is as clogged with walkers and cyclists as ever, but picnic sites abound far up the canyon at Rotary Park. They cannot be reserved or accessed by vehicle due to the pandemic, which is also the case with Affleck Park, the popular campground the city manages three miles above Mountain Dell Reservoir. This area in Parleys Canyon is still a go-to place for beating the heat. A great hike or mountain bike ride follows the Mormon Pioneer Trail from the reservoir to Big Mountain Pass.
This year, the trail was rerouted through Affleck Park, so the campground offers a fine stopping point for those passing through.
Alpine destinations: harder access
For those willing to spend a day hiking, the Wasatch Mountains offer countless alpine lakes, passes and mountain summits, many far from the hordes crowding the Wasatch of late. Even so, you will likely have to soldier through jammed trailheads, such as White Pine, to get to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Red Pine Lake and the 11,331-foot Pfeifferhorn, or Timpooneke to get to Emerald Lake and Mount Timpanogos.
Other choice destinations are Naomi Peak, reached from Tony Grove in Logan Canyon; Gobblers Knob and Lake Blanche, reached from Big Cottonwood’s Butler Fork and Mill B trailheads, respectively. For something a little less ambitious, but still challenging, try Bells Canyon, which scales Lone Peak’s northwestern flank out of Draper, or Neffs Canyon above Olympus Cove south of the mouth to Mill Creek Canyon. They may be steep, but both these easy-to-get-to hikes follow shaded streams. Just hope there is still water in them.