On any given weekend, the road up Big Cottonwood Canyon is dominated by skiers and boarders headed to get their powder fix. More than a few cars will pull off to the side of the road on the first bend of the S turn, however. They are headed to a more secluded day in the Wasatch, and some are finding it at Lake Blanche.
Blanche is one of the most popular hikes in the canyon and strikingly beautiful, or so I’ve been told. Just a few weeks ago, I set out with my friend Claire to see how it holds up to the hype.
Our day was perfect- blue skies, warm (for February at least), and no fresh powder. Within fifteen minutes of closing our car door, we were approaching the split from the large, mildly graded main trail to the narrow, steep footpath leading up to the lake.
Since the heavily trafficked trail hadn’t seen much snow, the path was beaten solid for us and we ditched our snowshoes. The road was nearly full of cars, but we saw others only intermittently and never had to dance that awkward tango of maintaining the appropriate distance between parties.
The trail is more or less a straight shot back and up into the canyon. It maintains a medium grade for the majority of its three miles before steepening out near the top. We gained 2,700 feet of elevation along the way, but the serene atmosphere helped me forget the altitude. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and I fully expected to see Bambi run by us at any moment.
At least, until we hit the last quarter. To my great misfortune, I spied Sundial Peak, the mountain that borders the lake, poking just over the ridge in the background. I thought we were getting close, maybe five more minutes.
Forty minutes later we were still trekking. Up near the top, the sun crept over the far ridge and landed on the snow, softening it. Until this point, the hike had been in shadow, keeping the trail nice and firm. Now, every step was a roulette spin as to whether or not we’d end up crotch deep in snow. The hiking turned to trudging, but the view increased exponentially.
We persevered and soon were topping out and enjoying the flat ground. The lake is completely snowed over and could be hard to pick out if we didn’t already know where it was. Sundial stood proudly in the background, urging me to think of warmer weather and a time when I could return to climb it.
After the traditional end-of-hike Clif bar and pictures, we started the return trek to the car. On the way down, we saw the fresh tracks of the split boarders we had seen at the top, and we couldn’t help but be a little jealous. Still, by the time we were cozy back in the car, our consensus had become clear: Blanche was not an overrun, over-hyped trail. It was worth it.
Photo by Nick Halberg