Salt Lake City served as a much-needed change from the sweltering heat of Utah’s desert national parks. A city that I had once overlooked my first time in Utah truly surprised me the second time around. There are a seemingly infinite number of hikes around Salt Lake City, ranging from hikes along the Great Salt Lake to high-altitude alpine thrillers. One of my favorite hikes in the area was the trail up to Lake Catherine. We loved it so much that we continued all the way up to the summit of Sunset Peak.
We went pretty blindly into this hike. Big Cottonwood Canyon is no secret. I’d driven through before on my first trip to Salt Lake City, but never hopped out for any hiking. This time around, I was determined to experience what it had to offer. As usual, our goals of waking up early to beat the crowds went unfounded. It was around noon when we finally arrived at Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the roads and parking lots were packed with cars. As a result, we just kept driving past all of the trails we had considered doing beforehand.
It wasn’t until we arrived at Brighton Ski Resort that we found plentiful parking and a seemingly promising trail. I’d vaguely looked into the Lake Catherine hike before, and decided it’d be good enough for us. We set off with Clif Bars and cameras in hand, ready to take on this high-altitude alpine adventure.
How To Get To Lake Mary – Lake Catherine – Sunset Peak Trailhead
The drive itself was pretty straightforward. From Salt Lake City, drive to Big Cottonwood Canyon Drive. Follow the scenic Big Cottonwood Canyon Drive and don’t stop until reaching Brighton Ski Area. Find a spot at the huge parking lot and follow the path along the right side of the ski resort buildings. There will be a sign marking the hike, as well as some moose and bear warnings. Follow the trail and people up the trail along the ski lifts and keep chugging along.
Part 1: Up To Lake Mary (& Detour to Dog Lake)
Most hikers on this trail are only in it for Lake Mary. Lake Mary’s the biggest of the lakes known as the Three Sisters. Although you aren’t allowed to swim at Lake Mary, it is a beautiful place to relax and take in some stunning sights. To get up here, you’ll need to hike about a mile and a half up the mountain. It’s almost entirely incline, so take it slow. The distance isn’t particularly long, but the high altitude and steady incline can make it challenging for some. According to AllTrails, the trip to Lake Mary is 2.6 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 849 feet.
Along the way, you’ll pass a sign marking a detour to Dog Lake. This will only add about 10 minutes to your total hike, so I think it’s well worth the detour. The wildflowers in this part of the hike are stunning. There aren’t as many people as at Lake Mary, so if you want something a little quieter, this is a good spot to post up.
Part 2: Lake Martha, Wildflowers, and Inclines
Once you get past Lake Mary, the hike flattens out a little bit. It isn’t exactly flat, but it is nowhere near as steep as the earlier stages. The scenery also changes, erupting into vibrant colors. The colorful wildflowers become more abundant, blanketing the fields in purple, red, yellow, and more. As you get higher and higher, the views of the surrounding region change as well. You’ll soon pass by Lake Martha, the smallest of Brighton Lakes’ Three Sisters.
After passing Lake Martha, you’ll encounter some more incline. However, the trails are marked well and pretty developed. This next stretch shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Just be wary of mountain bikers zooming down the trail. After about another mile and 400 feet of elevation gain from Lake Mary, you’ll find yourself at Lake Catherine.
Part 3: Lake Catherine Up To Sunset Peak
Our original plans had us ending our hike at Lake Catherine. We had four hours to kill between check out and check in at our Airbnbs, and Lake Catherine was the perfect amount of time between each. However, the day was still young and our legs were still fresh. It felt wrong to quit on such a beautiful hike on such a perfect day.
From the shores of Lake Catherine, we could see hikers on a nearby summit. And as my motto goes, why not? At the beginning of the hike, we had no intentions of summiting any peaks. We barely even had any knowledge of what the hike was going to be like, let alone what any of the surrounding peaks were called. It wasn’t until after finishing the hike and a quick Google search did I even know where we’d even hiked to.
From Lake Catherine, we set off slowly back to the main trail. Our hopes of seeing a moose had gone unrealized yet again. We would see one in Grand Teton National Park a week later, but we didn’t know that at the time so our spirits were still a bit dashed. Regardless, we trudged on along the trail towards Sunset Peak. The main trail branches off in a few different directions. Follow the trail up the mountain and you’ll soon run into a big wooden sign directing traffic. Follow the trail straight into the woods and along the right side of the mountain.
Part 4: Summiting Sunset Peak
The views from here on out are to die for. You’ll see panoramic views of the mountain ranges in every direction. Seriously, I had no idea Utah was so beautiful. I’d only known it for the desert before this, having spent most of my time in Arches National Park and Southwestern Utah. Here, I was getting shades of my time hiking in Patagonia, specifically Bariloche. This part of the trail is undeniably the hardest, though it is pretty short.
You’ll have gone quite high up in altitude by now, as the altitude at Sunset Peak reaches 10,590 feet above sea level. If you were starting in Salt Lake City, you’ve more than doubled your altitude in just a couple of hours. However, keep pushing on. The distances are short, with only about a mile separating you from Lake Catherine to Sunset Peak. Enjoy the views throughout, as some of these, you’ve yet to see until this point.
Once you reach the summit, take it all in. There’s only a small area for hanging out at the summit, but thankfully, not too many people make it up here. We ran into half a dozen other hikers in our half hour up here. I can imagine it’s called Sunset Peak because the sunsets here must be incredible. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay that long and started working our way down.
This hike had far surpassed our expectations, and turned out to be one of our favorites in all of Utah. The weather was fantastic, never getting too cool or too hot. The views were ever-changing. Though the earlier parts of the hike were a bit crowded, the crowds definitely thinned out the further along the trail you went. All in all, this is easily one of the must-do hikes in the Salt Lake City area, only about 45 minutes away from the city.