Parleys to Big Cottonwood, Great Western Trail

24 miles in 24 hours. A great ridge-top camp. If lady beetles have a mothership, I camped on it. A gorgeous sunrise and sunset. This tri-canyon traverse along the Great Western Trail (GWT)  is a great workout with epic views.

Since writing last I have become a home owner. My summer this year can be summarized by the ‘joys of home-ownership’. My hiking poles replaced with a grass trimmer; fields of wildflowers now the carefully cultivated flowers I tend to constantly in my garden beds; a peaceful wilderness stream now my 3 tiered backyard waterfall; and the satisfaction derived from a hard day’s hiking now felt after a day spent in the yard. Who said it was cheaper to stay home than go out? Home Depot must have started that rumor.

Anyway, so I was planning another round of home improvement projects this weekend. That is until I watched my newly finished CDT video on Saturday night (my Friday). I went to bed dreaming of trails and adventure. The garden would have to do without me this weekend, I’m going hiking!

Given the last minute nature of my decision, I opted for an adventure close to home in the Wasatch Mountains. Backpack filled and hiking gear on I bade farewell to my happy home and jumped in an Uber. As the car pulled away I surprised myself and the Uber driver by saying “I love my new home…. but I sure do love my tent better. Bye house!”

Day 1 – 18 miles

The journey started in Parleys Canyon at the Lambs Canyon trailhead a couple of miles up Lambs Canyon Road. My plan was to hike from Parleys to Big Cottonwood Canyon via Mill Creek Canyon along the GWT with an overnight somewhere on the ridge dividing the Park City mountains from Big Cottonwood Canyon.

I hit the trail a little late, 11 a.m. to be exact. Not bad for a last minute trip but pretty darn late as far as trail-life goes. My former CDT up-an-hour-before-sunrise self wouldn’t have been impressed. Oh well, she didn’t have an awesome garden.

A Great Western Trail blaze marked the way as I started along the trail. Ahh, trail, I’ve missed you. The first 1/4 mile followed along a small stream that was still flowing well, which was great to see given that it’s now the end of August. The trail was nice, a little steep in sections, but plenty of trees made for almost constant shade over the 2 miles and 1,500 ft to Lambs Canyon Pass.

Crossing over the pass into Mill Creek Canyon afforded a nice down canyon view to Grandeur Peak and Salt Lake City. The 2 miles down to Elbow Fork at Mill Creek Road went quickly as it was relatively steep and spent much of its time in Aspen and Pine forests.

I stopped at the Elbow Fork trailhead for a quick snack and to reapply the sun cream that i’m sure had all dripped off me- it was hot and I worked hard getting up and over that pass quickly. I watched a constant stream of cars heading up and down the canyon on the narrow road. Time to get excited for some road walking!

I’m going to define the GWT as a ‘wanna-be’ long distance trail. It’s visionaries saw a 4500 mile trail extending from Mexico to Canada through Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana. It was selected by Clinton’s Millennium Council as 1 of 16 long distance trails bearing a connection to American history and culture worth honoring and developing. I don’t know that the project has received much funding or attention. Hiking the trail would be a significant feat due to a lack of private property easements and significant road walking sections. But it has been done, by a few brave souls. In any event, it feeds my curiosity and brings me contentment knowing a long-distance trail goes right through my backyard.

The road-walk was about 3 miles from Elbow Fork to where the road terminated at the top of the canyon. The creek paralleled the road for most of the way and seemed to soften the heat radiating from the pavement. It’s a very narrow road in parts, but thankfully the cars were all good about not getting too close to me. The highlights: a car full of young kids who slowing down to stick their hands out and high five me as they passed by; the stinging nettle I stepped into TWICE while avoiding cars; and 3 freshly run down squirrels, their innards actually looking like pomegranates (sorry TMI). Ordinarily road walking is a sobering look at the lack of respect many motorists seem to have for the environment they’re driving through: beer cans, water bottles, diapers and cigarette butts are most common. I was happy to see however that this road was virtually trash free. Well done, Salt Lake City.

I stopped for lunch at the Upper Big Water Trailhead parking lot. The creek was flowing pretty well and so I decided to fill up as I wasn’t sure if i’d be encountering any water between here and Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon. As it turns out I crossed a few streams still flowing well on the way up to the ridge. Better to be safe than sorry though, it was 16 miles to Brighton and I don’t like guessing when it comes to water.

The first mile shared the trail up to Dog Lake and literally every man and his dogs (not dog) was out. I thought back to the many many trips I made up to this lake with Guinness, he sure did love to swim in that lake. I miss the little guy. My mind switched to happier thoughts as I reminded myself that my future hiking buddy, a black Labrador puppy, is now just 6 weeks from being old enough to come home with me! He’s going to hike the CDT with me one day, I can’t wait!

Peeling off from the Dog Lake trail was a welcome relief from the constant stream of hikers. I really don’t love being on busy trails. The trail from there up to the ridge below Murdock Peak by contrast was quiet and very pleasant. It passed through fields of wild flowers, streams and Aspen groves. Upper Mill Creek Canyon is closed to bikes on odd numbered days, and as this is an extension of the Crest Trail i’m sure had I been here a day earlier or later it would have been teaming with mountain bikers.

I reached the ridge at about 4:30 p.m. and ate a snack. I studied my map to see that the next approx. 9 miles stayed up on the ridge. Yay, I love ridge walking and camping! Except if there’s lightning in the forecast, in which case I hate it more than about anything in life. I checked my Weather Bug app and was excited to see that the nearest lightning strike was over 400 miles away and tonight’s forecast was for clear skies, no precip and calm wind. If you don’t have Weather Bug you should definitely get it, especially if you’re hiking in areas where you’re likely to have cell reception, not only does it give an hourly weather forecast, but it also has a very cool lightning radar. Thanks to Trish for turning me onto that app last summer as I was starting into Colorado’s high country.

Given my late start to the day, my plan was to hike until close to sunset. I really enjoy hiking in the late afternoon/early evening hours, the light has a really beautiful softness to it. The trail stayed up, on or near to the ridge the whole time and I caught some pretty epic views of the peaks of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. This section of the GWT is also called the Wasatch Crest Trail and is extremely popular with mountain bikers. I rode it a couple of years ago with Emily and Keith, although I was so focused on the trail in front of me that I don’t think I really appreciated the magnificent views. The Wasatch Mountains are so rugged and impressive looking. I’m so lucky to live here!

I milked every last second of light out of the day hunting for a suitably stunning peak to set up camp on. I found a couple of good spots however someone had littered the ground with apples and some kind of grain feed from the ridge to about 15 yards down into the Park City side of the ridge. Not just a few apples, but twenty or so at a time. I’m guessing hunters looking to establish a grazing route for animals they want to hunt when hunting season sets in? I’m not sure what it was, but as a backpacker looking for a place to sleep, I’d like to tell those hunters… not cool! It’s not safe to camp near that kind of food because of the inevitable animals that will come wandering through your camp curious about the food. Leave no Trace matters!

Just as I was about to get out my head lamp for some night hiking I came across a great flat peak to camp on. It had stunning 360 degree views over Park City and Big Cottonwood Canyon. Lucky me! If you’re looking to pitch your camp there, it was probably 3 miles past the Desolation Lake turnoff and a couple of peaks before Scott Hill.

I climbed into my tent feeling tired and content. Given it’s just a quick overnight trip I’d opted to forego the weight of a stove and so ate a couple of pieces of cheese and a chocolate bar for dinner instead. Who doesn’t love chocolate for dinner? My Apple Watch told me i’d burned 2,200 moving calories, so I didn’t feel one bit guilty.

Day 2 – 5 miles

I slept like a baby! It’s great to be back in my tent. I woke at about 5 a.m. as the first hint of light spilled over the horizon. I love this time of day, it’s one of my favorite things about backpacking. I snapped a few pics then fell back asleep until about 6:30 when the sun was a little closer to actually rising. I ate a delicious Mountain House meal of Granola with Blueberries, I’m not sure how but I still enjoy that meal.

Sunrise was spectacular, I got some great pics of all of my favorite Wasatch peaks. I could see all of the Big Cottonwood Peaks as well as some from Little Cottonwood sticking up above ridgelines. Salt Lake Twins, American Fork Twins, Pheifferhorn, they were all out to say good morning. Such a great vantage point.

As I packed up my camp I kept finding lady beetles climbing over my stuff. I’d actually noticed an unusual amount of them crawling around last night too. I looked closer at the shrubs around my tent and oh my goodness, there were at least a hundred of them all moving around. It’s like i’d set up camp in a nest of ants, except they were cute little lady bugs. How odd! I’ve never experienced this before. I thought of my good friend Kelly, who refers to me and vice versa as ‘be’el’ short for beetle. Nicknames are funny things, and it’s odd the ones that stick over the years. This one has been around since around 2002. Kel and I were walking along the river one afternoon in Brisbane near our university listening to the Beetles Anthology, one earphone each, if you’ve listened to that album you’ll remember a funny little skit where one of them is going on with “hello beetle” (say with thick British accent for full effect) and we thought that was pretty funny and started calling each other Be’el.

After taking way too many photos of both the view and the beetles, I was on my way. I passed a grove of Aspen trees whose leaves had just started to turn gold, the start of fall is here. A few early bird mountain bikers were already out enjoying the Crest. I traveled up their trail for about a mile and a half before peeling off down a dirt access road just short of Guardsman’s Pass. In case you’re coming off the ridge thirsty, there was a small stream of water about a half mile down this road before it intersects with Guardsman’s Pass Road.

As is often the case heading off a trail, crummy road turns to gravel road, gravel road turns to paved road (lower Guardsman Pass Road), paved road turns to highway (Big Cottonwood Canyon Road).  Like I said earlier in this post, the GWT has a LOT of road walking between trail segments. This kind of road walking is pretty darn nice though with sweeping views out over Brighton and Solitude ski resorts.

My IT band was bugging me pretty badly and so I shelved my tentative plans to continue along the GWT through Brighton and up to the ridge between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. I hiked the GWT from Provo Canyon to Little Cottonwood a couple of years ago, so it would have been cool to link it up. Oh well, another day. My IT Band Tendonitis that plagued me towards the end of the CDT last summer has never actually gone away and I’ve found that hiking downhill ever since has been problematic. While ignorance (or maybe denial) has been bliss, I think it’s time I head back to physical therapy and get it sorted out.

I had cell reception so I opted for an Uber instead of hitching down the canyon. Such great technology, I could see him coming up and over Guardsman’s Pass as I was still walking down it. He was a hiker and so we talked about hiking, camping and travel all the way back to my house. My garden looks even better after spending a day away from it, maybe I’ll have to do some more backpacking this fall!

Thanks for reading.



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