Wasatch Crest Trail (Hiking)
Overview: The Wasatch Crest trail is a daylong adventure filled with five-star scenery and unparalleled vantage points. July and into August wildflowers add color to the alpine trailside, and the path into Mill Creek Canyon provides a beautiful, green, packed trail through the trees.
Start: Guardsman Pass trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon
Distance: 12.5 miles point to point
Hiking time: About 6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous due to length
Elevation gain: 660 feet
Trail surface: Packed dirt and rock; doubletrack dirt road and singletrack trail
Best season: Summer and fall
Other trail users: Mountain bikers on even-numbered days
Canine compatibility: Dogs prohibited. (Big Cottonwood Canyon is a watershed.)
Land status: Watershed; Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The Salt Lake City Water and Utilities Departments and several mining companies own land along this trail, which is part of the Great Western Trail.
Nearest town: Brighton
Fees and permits: Fee to enter Mill Creek Canyon (pay at exit)
Maps: USGS Brighton, Mount Aire, and Park West
Special considerations: This route is one of Utah’s most popular mountain biking trails, but bikes are allowed only on the Mill Creek side of the trail on even-numbered days. If you wish to hike on a day without bikes, pick an odd-numbered day.
Finding the trailhead: From Salt Lake City take I-15 south. Merge onto I-215 east via exit 298. Follow I-215 for 5.5 miles to UT 190/6200 South to exit 6 toward the ski areas. Head east off the exit and follow the road for just under 2 miles to the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon Road/UT 190. From the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon travel 14.2 miles upcanyon to the Guardsman Pass turnoff—a very sharp hairpin turn to the north. A sign on the south side of the road indicates the turn, but the road is not easily seen, so watch for it. Travel up this road 2 miles. The Guardsman Pass trailhead is located on the left-hand (north) side of the road. It is a small dirt road that heads north and hosts a restroom and trail kiosk 100 feet off the main road.
Trailhead GPS: N40 36.824', W111 34.259'
The Wasatch Crest Trail can be hiked from either end, but I recommend starting at Guardsman Pass, which decreases the uphill climbing required and ends with a pleasant stroll through enclosed forest. You will need to leave a shuttle car at Big Water trailhead in Mill Creek Canyon.
The well-defined Guardsman Pass trailhead has a restroom and kiosk, but the trail quickly runs into a large metal gate. The trail bypasses the gate on the left (north) side. The old jeep trail climbs to Scott’s Pass and the intersection with Park City ski resort in the first 1.0 mile. The road continues up the mountain to the cell towers as it climbs to the Wasatch Crest for which it is named. Once you reach the towers, the old access road turns into a single forested track as it crosses the Wasatch Ridge. Most of the elevation gain is achieved in the first 2.5 miles. At the Wasatch Crest the views open into grand vistas that make the hike worth every step. At the right time of year the beautiful wildflowers on both sides of the trail accentuate its magic.
From the crest of the Wasatch, the trail continues to head north and makes its way across the mountain, where it will eventually drop you down into the canyon on the north side. At 2.74 miles you enter the Wasatch National Forest and continue cross-country, where you will find Desolation Lake. The lake is a destination all its own, but from this trail you look down on it to your left.
The last half of the hike down into Mill Creek Canyon sweeps along a singletrack path that is often well shaded and meanders through the trees. This trail is part of the Great Western Trail, and the entire trail is well used and maintained. I suggest using trekking poles to help negotiate some of the rocky downhill sections you’ll travel on your way across and into Mill Creek Canyon.
The final 4.0 miles drop you into Mill Creek Canyon, where watershed restrictions are lifted and dogs are allowed. About 1.0 mile from the exit trailhead, signed intersections direct you to the Lower Big Water and Upper Big Water trailheads. Either trailhead is fine. These sister trailheads sit right next to each other on the Mill Creek Canyon road, and it takes only minutes to walk from one to the next. There is parking at both trailheads.