Due to the recent heat wave, I thought it might be enjoyable to explore one of the most beautiful areas in the State of Utah that is very close to the populated areas of the Wasatch Front. The tiny resort community of Brighton is located at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. This alpine wonderland is incredibly accessible as it is only 35 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City. Most people will equate Brighton with the world class ski resort that is located there, and while the skiing is supreme in the winter time, summertime is my favorite season at Brighton.
The tiny hamlet of Brighton sits in a glacial bowl surrounded by high peaks on all sides. There are numerous lakes to fish in, 8 peaks towering above 10,000 feet which can be climbed, and more trails than can be followed in one life time. Brighton takes its name from William Stewart Brighton who came to Utah from Scotland on September 11th, 1857 with his family as early pioneers of the Mormon Church. City life didn’t suit William too well and sometime in the 1860’s he moved his family to the area of Silver Lake up Big Cottonwood Canyon and made a homestead.
Silver Lake used to be called “Trout Lake” but Mrs. Catherine Brighton changed the name to “Silver Lake” because according to her, when you see it in the morning sun, it gleams like silver spangles. The Brighton family was involved with planting fish in lakes, timber cutting, road building, mining, and merchandising as they operated “Brighton’s Store” which was famous from Park City to Alta as a half way and re-supply point. It was said that you could always get a meal of fresh trout at the store.
This Silver Lake area was quite famous back in pioneer times. The Latter Day Saints would hold their 24th of July celebrations up there. Sir Richard Burton gives the following description of one such event in 1860 “ After the preliminaries had been settled, the caravans set out from the (Salt Lake) holy city. There were 1,122 souls, 56 carriages, 163 wagons, 235 horses, 159 mules, and 168 oxen. Bands lustily played “God Save the King, Star Spangled Banner, Happy Land, and Du-dah” There were feasts, dancing, and horse races in which the fair sex participated.” Sounds like it was a great time.
Orrin Porter Rockwell busted up just such one event in 1857 when he and some others charged into the festivities to warn Brigham Young of the advance of Johnson’s Army. It is also said that Colonel Patrick Edward Connor’s men cut timber near Silver Lake and used these materials to construct the first buildings at Fort Douglas.
As I travel up the Canyon Today, I often wonder why the side canyons are named Mill A, Mill B, and so on through Mill F. Turns out that at each side canyon mouth where there was sufficient flow of water, the Mormon Pioneers constructed sawmills to utilize the power of the water. Salt Lake City determined early on in the 1800s that Big Cottonwood Canyon and the Brighton Area in particular was an invaluable watershed. For over 100 years now, this area has provided most of the culinary water that Salt Lake City uses on an annual basis.
What is there to do up at Brighton now? Well for starters, due to its elevation, lakes, dense Rocky Mountain Forests of Aspen, Spruce and Limber Pine, and craggy snow capped peaks. It is an excellent destination for people who want to escape the summer heat. Fishing is available in any of the many lakes in this area including Lakes Mary, Martha, Catherine, Dog, Silver, and Twin Lakes Reservoir.
At Silver Lake there is a wheel chair accessible trail that is half boardwalk and half gravel that goes completely around this lovely lake. Fat little gophers run up and down the boardwalk as you walk by. Ducks drift lazily on the water and on one occasion, I witnessed two Bull Moose lock horns out in the lake and thrash about. Moose are a common sight at this lake and the rangers are constantly warning visitors to give them a wide berth as they can be grumpy animals. There is also a Forest Service visitor’s center at Silver Lake where on the weekends, rangers staff the desk and answer questions. There are restrooms in this facility as well.
Across the street from the Silver Lake Interpretive Center is the Brighton Store which serves limited groceries, snacks, and drinks. The hours are from 7am to 9pm in the summertime. There is also a Café inside the store which serves sandwiches and things until 3pm daily. The Brighton Lodge is nearby and it consists of 18 simple rooms, none of which have a TV. There is a common area with a VCR and the host tells me they have over 200 movies to choose from. There is a hot tub there and a little bar called “Molly Greens” which is a private club for members, where for about $5 adults can get a three week membership and enjoy a drink with the special of the day which could be anything from Salmon to Steak. The Brighton Resort main number is 801-532-4731.
My favorite attraction at Brighton is the wonderful network of Forest Service Trails, Alpine Lakes, and High Peaks. This is an area where you can in the span of 3 miles and about 3 hours, pass by 3 lakes, walk through unbelievable wildflowers, cool dark forests, and scale one of several 10,000 foot peaks that have good trails to their summits. It is a totally possible day trip from the Salt Lake City area. I will often times do several errands in Salt Lake City and then head up the Canyon for a short hike.
The best hike in the area has to be the Lake Mary Trail. Begin from the signboard at the east side of the Brighton Ski Area parking lot. On this signboard is a large area map and a table of distances of lakes and peaks that can be reached by trails emanating from this point. The trail follows ski service roads for the first ¼ mile and then enters luxuriant meadows of wildflowers which give way to tall pines and after ½ mile you will come to a trail junction with a fine overlook on a rock outcrop with a small stream cascading over it. If you turn left at this point, you will reach Dog Lake in about .2 of a mile and 10,721 foot Clayton Peak summit in about 2.5 miles.
Continue straight ahead for Lake Mary. As you go you will notice a trail sign in about another 100 yards which tells you if you follow it through the granite boulders and pines to the west, you will end up at Twin Lakes Reservoir. Again, continue straight and before you know it, you will walk below the ancient looking early 1900’s Lake Mary Dam. When I walked by it last, there were small cracks in it with water seeping. Believe me, I didn’t hang around in front of that old structure. After the creepy face of the dam, the trail winds up to the south and you emerge on the west shore of the most beautiful lake in the Wasatch Mountains.
Lake Mary used to be called Granite Lake and as you look at the granite boulders all around and 10,452 foot Mount Millicent to the west across the lake, it is easy to imagine why. It was renamed in the 1800’s after Mrs. Mary Borneman, wife of then famous New York artist Hartwig Borneman, who no doubt painted this wonderful scene. The Lake is a favorite destination for fisherman as it is only 1 mile from the parking lot to this lake. Granite boulders and tall pines ring the lake and 10,645 foot Mount Tuscarora mirrors its image into the lake from the south when the waters are calm. The lake is about 23 acres in size and 30 feet deep on average with the deepest point being 92 feet.
Some of the animals that you may encounter in the Wasatch Mountains are Black Bear, Elk, Deer, Moose, and Mountain Goats. There are also cougar, bobcat, beaver, raccoon, porcupine, badger, fox, rabbits, weasels, and pika which you will more than likely find screaming at you from the boulders as you climb the higher peaks.
Continuing south along the Lake Mary trail, you will climb a little higher and arrive at Lake Martha in less than a mile. This is a small lake with an interesting little pine island that looks like a pirate ship. Mount Tuscarora rises precipitously in the background. Farther still, you will eventually come to Lake Catherine which is named for Catherine Brighton, wife of William S. Brighton. Legend has it that one morning after artist Borneman was leaving the hotel, Mrs. Brighton asked him to write her name on a rock, throw it in the water and name that lake after her. The artist took his equipment to the lake and did just as Mrs. Brighton asked.
Lake Catherine is a high alpine lake set in a glacial bowl beneath white pointed 10,440 foot Pioneer Peak to the east and 10,648 foot Sunset Peak to the south. Many are the year that you will find snow slides clinging to the base of Sunset peak, terminating their icy fingers into Lake Catherine in late July and August. This lake is a mere 2 miles from the start of the trail.
In another .5 mile along the trial you will arrive at 10,000 foot Catherine Pass. If you turn back to the north you will see all three lakes – Catherine, Martha, and Mary in a chain and it is one of the most beautiful scenes anywhere. From this point if you continue straight, in another 1.5 miles you will arrive at the Catherine Pass trailhead in the Albion Basin near Alta. If you head left you will arrive at the summit of Sunset peak in .5 miles. If you turn right you can scale via a faint trail, the rocky peaks of Tuscarora and 10,795 foot Mount Wolverine, upon the summit of which, you have in my opinion, one of the finest Wasatch Scenes possible.
All of the hikes and destinations described along this route can be easily climbed in just a few short hours. Families and persons of all ages and abilities can enjoy the outdoor splendor of Silver Lake via the boardwalk. Space and time does not permit the full explanation of what this area has to offer the outdoor enthusiast. One thing to keep in mind, due to its status as a watershed, no dogs are allowed in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Once you have explored the area in the summer time, go back and ski / snowboard the terrain in the winter and experience a whole other universe of the Wasatch Mountains & Brighton. To get to Brighton, follow Interstate 15 south out of downtown Salt Lake City. When you come to the junction with I-215, head east towards the mountains and take the 6200 south exit. Turn right and follow this road to Hwy 190 (Big Cottonwood Canyon Road) and turn left. It is about 16 miles from this point to Brighton. For more information visit the Brighton website at http://www.brightonresort.com/ . You can also visit the Wasatch National Forest website from the Links section of this website. Have fun, be safe and enjoy this corner of the magnificent Wasatch Mountains of Utah!