Utah – August 2021

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Catherine, Martha & Mary Lakes Trail, Alta, Utah

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Another ten days hiking out west in an effort to avoid the heat and humidity of the Florida summer! A week at the Sunrise Lodge in Canyons Ski Resort a few miles outside of Park City and two nights in Salt Lake City. High altitude rock-scrambling, slipping down scree and getting completely lost in the boonies on what should have been an easy multi-lakes jaunt through the Uintas mountains.

Silver King Coffee drive-up hut in Park City became a critical early morning stop en route to our various hikes over our first 3 days of hiking. Even in the late summer in Utah the mornings are cold in the mountains despite the day time temperatures pushing into the high 70’s and low to mid-80’s. Obviously there was no question of a couple of Floridians powering into action in the chilly early mornings without a steaming oat milk latte, an americano and a couple of chocolate-covered coffee beans.

Our first hike of the trip was to Bloods Lake in the Bonanza Flats Conservation area off Guardsman Pass. This is one of the most popular moderate-rated hikes close to the town, so an early morning was essential in order to requisition one of the coveted trailhead parking spaces. We also wanted to get a head start to avoid the anticipated “crowds”. Upon reflection, one person’s definition of a “heavily-trafficked” trail can be quite different to another’s. Most of the trails we hiked over the course of the ten days were quite peaceful. Much of the time we were entirely alone huffing, puffing and gasping for oxygen up various mountainsides and through passes.

Once we’d navigated the minor rock scrambling required and traversed the aspen forest trails we emerged alone at an eerily serene Bloods Lake. Not content with solely continuing uphill to our second destination lake, Geoff wanted to circumnavigate Bloods Lake first – more treacherous scrabbling over avalanche rockfalls (my least favorite terrain – even with my two old-lady hiking sticks).

The route onwards to Lake Lackawaxen weaves relatively steeply uphill through aspen groves and alpine meadows and over more avalanche rockfalls before a much larger lake emerges into view. The clinically insane (and their dogs) can swim at Lake Lackawaxen – so it was considerably less tranquil – the silence broken by screeching teenagers leaping into the frigid waters. But once they had dried off, defrosted and left the lake it was quiet again – just us sitting on a rock with our lunch and a dragonfly flitting around our heads. We watched the reflection of the mountains come and go as the breeze rippled across the water. Lovely.

Returning down the trail to Bloods Lake, it was much busier both on the trail itself and at the lake. Rather than retrace our steps along the remainder of the Bloods Lake trail we spotted a sign which recommended the return to the car park via Kalamazoo trail. Mistake! Kalamazoo heads directly downhill through forest and into a wide, sunny open meadow. By early afternoon it was baking hot without any shade and the further downhill we hiked, of course, the higher we would have to climb out of the valley to the carpark trailhead then high above us on Guardsman Pass. Needless to say the climb out of the valley back through the aspen trees on Kalamazoo was a total ball-buster. 1158 feet of elevation gain over a mere 4.6 mile return hike in the bone-dry heat of Utah feels to a Floridian like climbing Everest 😉

Because it was close to town (and is very beautiful) we hiked the trail to Bloods Lake again one early evening but we didn’t make the same misguided error. The easiest route back is most definitely re-tracing your steps along the entire Bloods trail. Lesson learnt!

Our second day of hiking was intended to be less taxing on our decrepit knees but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Fueled again by Silver King’s caffeinated beverages we parked at the Silver Star Cafe parking lot close to the Silver Star ski base. Guided by various local bloggers, we ignored the sign at the entrance decreeing “No trailhead parking”. We weren’t alone – clearly all the locals park there. Our hike on Dawn’s Trail to Armstrong Loop started in the warm glow of an early morning and an immediate uphill clamber amongst a myriad of colorful scrub bushes and golden yellow wildflowers surrounded by uninterrupted views over the mountains. The 3.3 mile loop trail meanders through pine forest, aspen groves with yellowing aspen leaves shimmering in the breeze and flower-filled meadows. It criss-crosses under ski lifts redundant in the summer and fall. Armstrong is a very popular trail for mountain bikers so once you join it from the end of Dawn’s Trail you have to keep a keen ear out for the crunch of bike tires powering uphill over rock and twigs otherwise you’re in danger of being mown down by mountain bikers far fitter than we’ll ever be.

Compared to the previous day, the Dawn’s to Armstrong trail hike was a relative walk in the park with a barely noticeable 672 feet of elevation gain.

Refreshed by lunch at the extremely popular Five5eeds cafe on Snow Creek Drive we decided not to fritter the rest of such a beautiful afternoon. (For future reference, if you are “in the know” you’ll definitely join the waitlist for lunch online rather than sit for 45 minutes in the carpark waiting for your number to come up!)

Our afternoon hike of the day turned out to be far more spectacular. Willow Heights (off Big Cottonwood Canyon Road in the Wasatch mountains) is a 2.4 mile loop through a beautiful sunshine-filled aspen forest. With a mere 633 foot elevation gain it would have been a breeze if our creaky knees hadn’t already clambered up the Dawn’s and Armstrong trails. Once we reached the summit at the lake we tramped around it (since it was flat) in search of moose. We bumped into a family of ducks sunning themselves at the water’s edge but met none of the other larger and infinitely more interesting mammals promised by previous hike bloggers on All Trails.

So – despite our planned easy second day – we had still hiked a total of nearly 6 miles with an elevation gain of 1305 feet – and the corresponding descent, of course 😉

Not particularly demanding, you might think, unless you live at a fully-oxygenated ground zero.

Our third full day of hiking took us further afield into the Uintas mountains close to Kamas. The 5.4 mile moderately-rated Three Divide Lake loop trail begins at Crystal Lake Trailhead off route 150 way out in the boonies. Renowned for its countless peaceful lakes and ponds, I picked it partly because we like lake trails and partly because it was only a 547 foot elevation gain – good news for our ancient knees!

The best laid plans of mice, men … and vacation planners …

All was perfect at the start of the Clyde Lake trail as we meandered clockwise on the loop trail. We passed Crystal Lake and Cliff Lake which were beautiful and peaceful. There were a couple of fishermen casting their lines and the odd lone hiker but largely we were alone which, with hindsight, may have been part of our downfall. For reasons still unknown, somewhere between Cliff, Petite and Linear Lakes we failed to notice the route of the trail in a melee of rocks, footprints, piles of logs and fallen tree limbs and, thus, we blithely veered completely off course.

Chatting and navigating our way through the undergrowth we eventually emerged at the summit of the granite wall of Wall Lake. It might have helped if we’d realized that we had popped out at Wall Lake before we continued along the water’s edge but our GPS wasn’t playing ball and the chief navigator thought that we were somewhere else entirely 😉

Once we had finally worked out our rough location, we were very obviously miles away from the trail and had 2 options available to us. We could retrace our steps along the water’s edge to see if we could find the route we had inadvertently taken and follow it back to civilization. This was my survival plan.

Geoff’s survival plan was undoubtedly more adventurous and drew upon his now somewhat rusty boy scout orienteering skills. He decided (to my chagrin) to follow the contour lines on the map – albeit that the map and the GPS didn’t, in the reality of the cold light of day, tie up in any way useful to solve our predicament. I was outvoted. Geoff’s more exciting “shortcut” route had us clambering on our knees directly up the side of the mountain – a million miles from any suggestion of human footprints – or any kind of recognizable trail at all. We waded over soggy marshes and clambered over rotting trees until we were faced with a steep, forested mountainside where I finally (figuratively and literally) put my dusty-booted foot down and steamed off back downhill determined to locate the now very distant water’s edge of Wall Lake. I might have been more game for the alleged “shortcut” if I’d been a girl scout and if I had picked up any orienteering survival skills whatsoever in my youth. The reality is, however, that my youth was thoroughly misspent and provided me with no skills whatsoever other than picking the right shade of lipstick for my outfit 😉

Geoff was certain that we were close to rejoining the trail if only we could get over the top of the face of the mountainside – and we might well have been – we will never know and, frankly, I didn’t care!

Our exhilarating detour into the wilderness added an additional hour and a half (at least) of hiking in the wrong direction. By some miracle we finally stumbled back on track at, ironically, exactly the point where we had gone astray in the first place. We discovered this because whilst we were recovering from near heat stroke on a rock in the shade, four infinitely more relaxed hikers ambled past us and scrambled straight uphill through a pile of rocks. Needless to say, this looked nothing at all like a trail. With hindsight, it was no massive surprise that we had missed the correct route over the rocks. We followed the hikers (largely through fear of a repeat performance) and emerged at Watson Lake (possibly). We still weren’t quite sure which lake we had found – but at least we were finally back on the official circuit!

Many times we have discussed buying a dedicated hiker’s GPS – now we have one on order for our next hiking vacation in Colorado in late September. Better late than never, I guess!

By the time we had circumnavigated Clyde Lake, North Twin Lake and Hope Lake (the perfect spot for a picnic) we were finally breathing more comfortably in the knowledge that we were unlikely to be eaten by wildlife or fall from a rock face to untimely deaths. The trail skirts the end of the enormous Wall Lake. We rested for a moment marveling that quite a few hours earlier we had stood entirely unintentionally at the summit of the wall of granite (for which the lake is named) neither knowing where we were nor how we had got there …

By the time we were on the final leg of the trail (passing Lily Lake and Ponds Lake with the car park in sight) we were on our actual last legs. It was a spectacular hike and we would do it all over again – but preferably without the unexpected detour. I don’t know how many miles we hiked or how much elevation gain and descent we actually made but for us it was most definitely not as advertised!

Time to rest the legs for a few days with some less energetic evening walks.

Aside from our second jaunt up to Bloods Lake one evening (without the extension to Lackawaxen) and a quick late afternoon spin up Dawn’s trail to Armstrong again, we also visited Silver Lake trail over in Big Cottonwood Canyon. This is a flat, easy boardwalk and dirt track loop of less than a mile. That might have been just about the perfect length after the exertions of the previous few days, however, I had read about extending the flat, lazy potter around the lake to the Twin Lake loop – just 3 miles and only a 754 foot elevation gain. What I hadn’t realized is that all of that 754 feet of elevation gain was pretty much immediate and pretty much vertical. After a breath-taking haul we popped up out of the rock-climb at a dammed lake. I’m not a fan of ghastly giant concrete dams so we didn’t linger for long. The official route would have been a rock scramble back down the very same 754 foot incline. As luck would have it, however, there was an alternate route along a dusty, forest service track which meandered at a slightly less dramatic incline following the ski trails of Brighton Ski Resort where we ultimately emerged at ground level before retrieving the car parked back at the Silver Lake Visitor Centre. Not a particularly interesting nor scenic hike but it was good exercise.

Park City is renowned for its restaurants and upmarket shopping. Neither of us could care less about the posh shops (sum total of shopping for 10 days was 6 postcards and 6 international stamps) although one or two of the art galleries are worth a stop.

During this visit to Park City we ate lunch at Five5eeds (as above); we had dinner at Purple Sage which was good but not amazing; we ate a surprisingly good emergency post-hike pizza at Fuego; and the dinner of the Park City leg of the vacation was undoubtedly at trendy farm-to-table restaurant Handle which was one of the best meals we have had in recent memory. The talented chef also owns another restaurant in Salt Lake City – HSL – for future reference.

Windy Ridge Bakery in the Ironhorse District is reputedly Park City’s best bakery (all of the sugary offerings I generously offered to test in the name of research passed muster). Ritual Chocolate Factory and Cafe serves excellent hot chocolate and coffee. I’ll confess, in sugar-depleted desperation, I also bought one of their chocolate brownies. Normally (short of a dire emergency) I wouldn’t touch brownies with a double-length barge pole but this one was gluten free, low on sugar and literally melted in the mouth. If only they were all like this (instead of the traditional boring dry slabs of brick) I might be converted to the most popular dessert in the USA. Better for my ever-expanding COVID waistline, of course, that they aren’t all that delicious … They also bake a very respectable cheese and leek scone. So good that we bought 2 more for our picnic for the following day.

It was a tough choice for coffee shop of the trip – but Ritual Chocolate was just pipped at the post by Atticus Coffee, Books and Teahouse on Main Street which won the award for “oat milk latte of Park City”.

It wouldn’t be a vacation in Park City if we didn’t visit the Chinese-run Oasis Massage Spa on Bonanza Drive. They couldn’t do much about the state of our wonky knees but they managed to straighten us out sufficiently well that we could at least stand upright for the remainder of our hiking days.

Off to Salt Lake City for the final weekend (coincidentally also one of the busiest holiday weekends in the US – Labor Day). The Inn on the Hill looked quite romantic online when I was searching for hotels so I thought I’d give it a shot. The building is historic and had some lovely old features. We booked Snow Canyon which looked bright and cheerful with huge windows and a glass door to the porch.

Tip – don’t book Snow Canyon … It’s on the ground floor where anyone working in the gardens or wandering around the wrap-around porch can see straight in to the room from any angle … the billiards room was just above us and every time a cue made contact with a ball we knew about it (let alone when one was actually successfully pocketed because the ear-splitting crack reverberated through our room) … there are night lights worthy of the 1940’s security system at Colditz Castle … and to top it off there isn’t any double-glazing and trucks and cars raced up and downhill on State Street all hours of the day and night. It was like trying to sleep in a well-illuminated section of the central reservation of the M25 around London (or the I-95 through New York City – for the American reader). Thank goodness we were there for only 2 nights because even our extra-effective Mack’s ear-plugs failed to muffle the racket and beaming light from the security system bored like daylight through our eyelids despite improvised eye masks.

Still, moving from Park City to Salt Lake City (one of the US’s more bland and sterile cities seemingly always coated in a layer of thick smog) allowed us the opportunity to hike in the far reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon – otherwise a little too far to travel from Park City which has better access to Big Cottonwood Canyon.

On our arrival afternoon we checked-in to the Inn, abandoned our bags and drove an hour into Little Cottonwood Canyon to the hiking trails of Alta ski resort. I knew Cecret Lake was far from secret and parking at the trailhead might even be impossible but it was late afternoon and we figured that most hikers would have already been and gone. We paid our $10 entry fee and continued winding up through the mountain pass with our fingers crossed. This is a very short 2 mile hike with a perfectly manageable elevation scrabble through the rocks of 465 feet. Short enough to make a pleasant late afternoon hike and a good introduction to the Alta trails. Still, don’t expect to be alone whatever the time of day since there is also a small campsite at the trailhead.

Bright and early the following day we repeated the same one hour’s drive, paid another $10 entry fee to access the Alta/Albion Basin area and arrived just after 8.00am bagging the final parking space at the Catherine Lake Pass trailhead. It was almost freezing (35F), we wrapped up in every item of clothing we had in the car and set off shivering up the trail in the deep shadow of the mountain. Surprisingly, as we ascended, there were people descending the trail back to their cars. I’ll assume they had night vision hiking goggles and a desperate desire to photograph sunrise …

Tackling the three Lakes hike – Catherine, Martha and Mary – from the Alta/Albion end of the trail (as opposed to starting it the other way around from the Brighton Ski Resort at the other end of the pass) was probably harder on the knees and thighs with a lot more elevation gain and descent to deal with but the views from the Alta trailhead over the mountains and through the meadows before descending to Catherine Lake was absolutely breathtaking. The meadows were dotted with the last flowers of summer and the first signs of fall color. The blue lakes are set against a backdrop of craggy rock and pine trees and despite the popularity of Lake Mary we found a rock suitable for lunch, undisturbed by other hikers, with a view of the sun glittering on the water. The most beautiful lake was Martha but I wasn’t allowed to stop there for lunch because Geoff wanted to break the back of all 3 lakes. Since he was carrying the picnic I wasn’t in a strong position to object 😉

We must have clambered up and down .. and up and down … and finally up and down at least a couple of thousand feet before making it back to the trailhead during the 6 mile round-trip hike.

It was a close run contest – my vote for most beautiful hike of the Utah trip was Lakes Catherine, Martha and Mary – despite the hard slog in various places via Catherine Pass. Geoff’s vote was for Three Divide Lake loop – even with the unnecessary “off-road trailing”. So I guess they are both unmissable!

With a distinct sense of achievement we made it back to the car and hobbled into Oriental Massage Asian Health Centre on E900 S back in Salt Lake City for 90 minutes of deep-muscle digging before passing out through exhaustion.

Aside from the convenience of accessing the Alta hikes from Salt Lake City another notable additional benefit of staying in downtown was an evening at Post Office Place – hand-crafted cocktails and superb Japanese food created by the chef from Takashi in the connected building next door. Alone this was worth flying halfway across the country. A few minutes walk across downtown we found Monkeywrench in the Gallivan Centre. Very possibly the best peanut butter chocolate vegan ice-cream we have ever eaten.

Our final evening was spent at trendy Current Fish and Oyster which was obviously the most popular restaurant in town given the wait for our table and some elements of the service. Still, Geoff lucked in – he ordered 6 oysters and (due to the chaos in the kitchen) the server delivered a dozen by mistake … he didn’t complain too vociferously in the circumstances.

So, Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon successfully provided another fabulous escape from summer in Florida – mission accomplished!

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