As we roast in July’s heat down in the valleys, it’s always good to remember that not far away is a cool, alpine wonderland.
That area is Albion Basin at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. There, you will be in a different climate zone and will feel as if you have gone to heaven.
Albion Basin receives over 50 feet of snowfall each winter and is home to at least 120 different species of wildflowers. One might call it the “Refrigerator of the Desert” in the Wasatch Mountains.
Stunning scenery is encountered along the entire road up Little Cottonwood Canyon. To the north, the mountains rise sharply to form spires and chutes, such as White Pine, Tanners Flat, Superior and Hell’s Gate. All are some of the most hazardous avalanche slide areas in the world during winter.
To the south are dense forests, granite boulders and towering cliffs. Deep side canyons empty into Little Cottonwood’s glacier-carved, U-shaped canyon, some of which have roiling waterfalls that cascade out of them like Coalpit Gulch, Hogum Fork and Maybird Gulch.
After you pass Alta Rustler’s Lodge on the right in Alta, you will arrive at the parking area at the end of the canyon. When the area is busy during summer, you may have to park here and take a free town shuttle to the Albion Basin trailheads. If you go early, you can drive the 2.6 miles of improved dirt road from the parking lot to Cecret Lake Trailhead, which is where this week’s adventure begins.
Cecret Lake Trail offers something for everyone. Its elevation starts at 9,500 feet in Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir forest, crosses a small stream on logs and makes its way up to Cecret Lake only one-mile distant via a few switchbacks. Along the trail you will see the rocky face of ominous-looking Devil’s Castle. This peak typically has snow in its chutes year-round. When coupled with dark-green fir trees, bright-green meadows, and wildflowers, such as brilliant bluebell, Indian Paint Brush and red fireweed wildflowers, it makes for a wonderful mountain scene.
The trail to the lake is wide and well-used. Thousands of people hike it every year as it gains only about 300 feet in elevation on its brief route. Along the trail to the lake you may see mule deer, moose, or mountain goats on the face of Devil’s Castle.
Cecret Lake is an ideal place to escape the heat and have a picnic lunch while watching squirrels, marmots and chipmunks scurry between boulders. The lake is perched on a rocky shelf in the shadow of 11,051-foot-high Sugarloaf Peak. Until mid-summer it has snow slides terminating right into the lake. Sugarloaf is a rounded rocky peak that rises well above the tree line and broods over Cecret Lake and Albion Basin.
If a nice family hike is what you’re looking for, Cecret Lake Trail is the answer. If you are looking for more challenge and that “top of the world” sensation, you can continue to the summit of Sugarloaf.
There is no established trail to the summit of Sugarloaf from Cecret Lake, but if you’re careful, you can pick a safe route through the rockslides, snowfields and granite slabs to the ridge that connects Devil’s Castle and Sugarloaf. On this ridge, simply continue west to the summit. The distance from the lake to the summit of Sugarloaf is only about .7 miles, but the leisurely stroll ends at the southeast corner of the lake as you ascend Sugarloaf.
You will gain 1,300 feet in less than a mile from the lake to the summit. Extreme care must be taken to avoid loose rocks. If the peak’s face is snowbound, only experienced, expert hikers should attempt its summit with proper equipment including crampons and an ice ax. If you think the route is beyond your hiking level, level your camera, take a picture and be satisfied. Do not attempt to summit a peak that is beyond your skill.
If the peak is snowbound in early summer, or you have no interest in tackling that difficult route, you can always head north from the lake and tie into the Alta Ski Area service road. Follow this road west up to the pass between Sugarloaf and Baldy Peaks. From that point, head due east up to the summit. This route is simple and much less challenging than a direct approach to the summit from the lake.
Sugarloaf is one of my family’s most favorite peaks. My wife and I try to climb it once a season from the lake. Each time we reach the summit, the views of Mount Timpanogos to the south, Devil’s Castle to the east, Cecret Lake and Mount Superior to the north, and Mount Baldy to the west, are rewarding.
The hike from the lake is not one of the most difficult in the Wasatch, but if you are not used to such climbs, it is best you go with someone who has some experience in alpine hiking.
If you are going to hike above Cecret Lake on the high peaks, make sure that you check the weather. Summer thunderstorms can quickly drop the temperature 20 degrees. If you are unprepared, you could suffer hypothermia. Take a rain jacket with you to be safe. Sunscreen is a must above the tree line in the thin atmosphere. Apply it liberally and re-apply often. If lightning is a possibility, avoid the high peaks altogether. Just like avalanches in the winter, lightning kills in the summer. Be safe and don’t risk disaster.
Lastly, know your limits. If you leave the defined trail and head to the peaks, make sure you use common sense. Remember: if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. These peaks are not the Swiss Alps but they must be respected. Be safe and enjoy the world-class alpine scenery and summer escape just over our eastern horizon in the Wasatch Mountains.
How to get there: Follow Interstate 80 east towards Salt Lake City and then continue east to the mouth of Parley’s Canyon and the junction with Interstate 215. Take I-215 south for about six miles to the 6200 south exit. Turn left under the freeway and follow the signs to Alta/ Snowbird heading south on Wasatch Boulevard. Continue past Big Cottonwood Canyon and head south on SR-210 for five miles. This road will skirt the base of the mountains and then head east into Little Cottonwood Canyon. From the canyon’s mouth to the parking area at the end of the pavement in Alta is 8.2 miles.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Park.