The drive up the Big Cottonwood Canyon itself is enough to take your breath away. The full spectrum of nature’s palette can be seen in the trees lining both sides of the road.
Turn up the volume on some Fleet Foxes or Flatbush Zombies and soak in the beauty — the scenery is perfect for any music genre. Once you reach the Willow Heights Trailhead, hop out of your car quickly because the canyon breeze is immediately refreshing. Parking is a first-come, first-served free-for-all. Praise the powers that be, we somehow found a spot at noon on a Sunday when the canyon is usually swarming with people looking for an escape from everyday life.
The hike to Willow Lake is not long, certainly not an all-day trip. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in 600 feet of vertical elevation gain. The trail is three-quarters of a mile and clearly marked, making it easy to follow; however, it is quite narrow, so remember the trail etiquette your mom taught you. So much elevation gain in so little time means it is considerably steep for the first half-mile.
It’s not for the faint of heart or for those with two left feet, as the trail goes quite high up into the Wasatch Plateau. Willow Lake itself sits nestled in a basin at an elevation of 9,400 feet.
The trail ranges all the way from a nature walk to nearly unmanageable in its short duration — just enough fluctuation to keep you on your toes. The fall colors are spectacular. The entire trail carves its way through a grove of aspens, all in their autumn bloom, with intermittent spruce and fir trees.
After a half-mile of nearly vertical trekking, the trail begins to even out, signaling that the end is near. Upon exiting the thick growth of yellowing aspens, you suddenly find yourself out in the open. The trail now seems flat, and you can feel the relief washing over you. Looking ahead, though, you see yet another rise of the path in the distance. Ultimately, the trail falls into a small basin just beyond that view.
Willow Lake isn’t quite what I imagined and, in all truth, leaves a little to be desired. After that mountainous climb, it could well be described as anticlimactic. But that’s hardly the lake’s fault. Without a previous good snow year, alpine lakes can appear a lot less impressive in a dry fall than in a wet spring, and we all know what little snow the whole valley saw last winter.
Willow Lake is small, shallow, and a tad sloppy. But it is beautiful. In the early hours of the morning and last hours of daylight, you can see moose looming in the thick willows surrounding the area. The changing aspens reflected in the surface shimmer, as if the lake were made of gold. In Utah, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mountain lake that isn’t beautiful, no matter how big or small (or how painful the climb).
Standing on the shoreline of Willow Lake provides gorgeous views all the way around. You can even catch a glimpse of Solitude to the south. For those looking to extend their hike, feel free to walk the perimeter for some extra leg work. The surrounding flat meadow is a welcome change of pace and makes for a perfect stroll if you aren’t ready to leave.
If you’re like me and find yourself itching for outdoor adventure, then you should head to Willow Lake sooner rather than later. Don’t let the initial hill deter you from this alpine lake. Buckle down and make the climb.