Most people who visit South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains do so by following the trail at the end of the road in South Willow Canyon that starts at the Loop Campground. There is good parking here, restrooms and a well defined path through fir and aspen.
The views along the more popular South Willow Lake Trail from this starting point are incredible as you gain elevation and crest the ridge with the enormous bulk of Deseret Peak along your back trail. While this is a fine trail, I suggest taking the “trail less traveled” to partially borrow a phrase from Robert Frost.
To do this, you only need to travel half way up South Willow Canyon (approximately 4 miles) to the Medina Flat Trailhead. There are restrooms here and down by the creek is the “Scout” Campground. This trail head is set up nicely for those who are going to take horses or motorcycles along the “Stansbury Front Trail,” which is accessed here.
So, for South Willow Lake, park your vehicle at the trailhead and get your bearings from the large brown wooden map sign board if the paint is still legible. There are several of these signboards along the route of the Stansbury Front Trail but they are severely weathered and hard to read. It would make for a great Eagle Scout project if some young buck would take on the task of repainting and rehabilitating these signboards. But I digress.
Head north on the Stansbury Front Trail for about a quarter mile. The trail is wide, dusty and much traveled in this area. It will round the ridge on a gentle grade through the juniper and fir and then drop down into the bottom of Mining Fork of South Willow Canyon. This is a substantial canyon that is not often visited. At the trail junction, turn left and head west up the canyon through the forest.
As you climb higher, the forest changes from mixed cottonwood and river bank type trees to Douglas fir, white fir and aspen. If you follow this trail in late May through June, the open hillsides higher up will be literally covered with the golden flowered arrow leaf balsam root. Mix that with the green of the forest, blue sky and sheer cliffs of the canyon headwall and you have a brilliant scene.
Eventually you will reach a trail junction where the sign states that you can head straight to South Willow Lake, turn left and south and head to the Loop Campground in South Willow Canyon. If you turn right at this junction and head north, you will climb up and over a high ridge (9,000+ feet) and then drop down into upper North Willow Canyon.
Instead, continue straight on and wind your way up past a giant old lone evergreen to the top of the green, seemingly smooth hills that ring South Willow Lake on the east aspect. These green hills are glacial moraines — remnants of ice age activity below the face of 10,685 foot Stansbury Peak, which rises straight up from the lake to its summit and makes for an impressive backdrop for a good several miles on approach to the lake via Mining Fork of South Willow Canyon.
Once you have arrived at the lake, you have entered yet another forest/climate zone. The principal trees in this area are the stick like, uniform sub-alpine fir and an occasional limber pine, which is scraggly in comparison and sometimes mistaken for the ancient bristlecone pine. The lake makes for a nice picnic spot if you bring your lunch with you. The total distance one way from the Medina Flat Trailhead to the lake is nearly 4 miles, so it is a bit longer to reach the lake via this route but it is a nice change of pace if you have never approached the lake from this canyon.
Numerous circuits are possible if you want to make a much longer loop hike and return to the trail head via South Willow or North Willow Canyons. As always, consult a good map and contact the U.S. Forest Service if you have lingering questions. Take plenty of water. Even though there is a fine stream higher up for a stretch, consider all water in the Stansbury Range tainted with giardia — a tiny micro organism that does not at all agree with the human digestive tract. All water must be boiled or filtered in order to avoid serious stomach cramps and prolonged diarrhea. I got it once — and I never want it again.
This is a less traveled but pretty well defined trail. You will cross into the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area so be mindful of Wilderness regulations and make sure that if you pack it in….you pack it out. Lastly, have fun exploring a large, beautiful canyon that you might not have previously been aware of — sandwiched between South Willow and North Willow Canyons in the Stansbury Mountains of Tooele County, Utah.