It’s time to get back to the roots of being outside. The #vanlife craze has transformed the once simple joys of camping into a gear-driven lifestyle of competitive overconsumption. Before you peg me as some bitter luddite who can’t afford a tricked-out adventure van (I am), remember that the best part of enjoying the outdoors is actually being outside. So gather the family, load up the backpacks and head into the hills for an overnight backpacking getaway near Salt Lake City.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be saying. “Backpacking with the family sound like a bit of an ordeal.” I won’t say it doesn’t take some strategizing but think about the last trip you took the local park. Between a change of clothes, the snacks, the sunscreen, the blanket, the soccer ball and the water bottles, you’re basically backpacking already. Just add a little character-building sweat equity and get out into the mountains already. With the Wasatch, Uinta and Stansbury Mountains all within striking distance, Salt Lake City is the perfect base camp for a quick overnight hike with the whole family.
Here are a few of our favorite backpacking spots near Salt Lake City. We have everything from short jaunts perfect for newbies or those schlepping an infant into the backcountry to strenuous hikes into alpine terrain perfect for those with kids who, let's be honest, are probably fitter than we are. Best of all, they're easily done as a simple overnight trip. If it’s your first time backpacking with kids, make things easy on yourself by organizing and packing your gear the day prior to your departure. Wrangling gear while trying to rally the crew for an early start is an exercise in futility. Enjoy the views up there. You’ll earn them.
Easy: 2.2-mile loop, 636 feet of elevation change
The hike to willow lake is short, but the trail’s steepness packs a serious punch with more than 600 feet of elevation gain in just over a mile. Fortunately, the abbreviated distance makes it easy to push through the tired legs. The trailhead starts right near the Silver Fork Restaurant and heads up Silver Fork to an extremely picturesque lake just up the trail. Camp up near the lake and enjoy the views before heading back down in the morning. Big Cottonwood Canyon is part of the watershed, so no dogs or swimming here.
Easy: 2-mile loop, 262 feet of elevation change
The relatively flat trail up to Ruth Lake makes it a first-time backpacker's dream. The gorgeous loop through wildflower-filled meadows goes around the lake with suitable campsites all along the way. Though the trail can be busy during the day, it will clear out by dusk providing an excellent evening of solitude. Don’t forget to bring swim trunks to cool off with a dip. Swimming and dogs are permitted.
Moderate: 5.4-mile loop, 540 feet of elevation change
The Three Divide Lakes Trail is a bit longer than the previously listed hikes, but its elevation gain over the 5.4-mile loop isn’t severe. You can camp near any of the numerous lakes along the trail, meaning you can make either the first or second day longer, or keep them even. Twin lakes is a perfect place to post up for the night. Swimming and dogs are permitted.
Moderate: 4-mile out and back, 1,100 feet of elevation change
The route from the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon to Lake Catherine is short, but steep at over 500 vertical feet per mile. The abundant wildflowers and views of magnificent Wasatch peaks will make the distance pass quickly. The hike may feel strenuous at times, but it’s one of the most accessible routes into the Wasatch's alpine terrain. The Cottonwood Canyons are part of the watershed, so no swimming or dogs are permitted on this hike.
Moderate: 7.7-mile out and back, 1,100 feet of elevation change
The hike to Ibantik Lake has a nice consistent grade, and once you’re up through Notch Pass the crowds dissipate and it feels like you’re deep in the wilderness even though you’re just a few miles from the car. If you have the energy to spare upon reaching the lake, you can scramble to the summit of Notch Mountain before cooling off with a swim in Ibantik Lake. Swimming and dogs are permitted.
Difficult: 7.5-mile out and back, 2,221 feet of elevation change
Starting from the south side of Little Cottonwood Canyon at the White Pine Trailhead, the trail to Red Pine Lake climbs up the mountain, steepening significantly in the last mile. The push to the top is more than worth the effort once you reach the large alpine lake. Thunder Mountain looms above to the east and the mid-to-late summer wildflower bloom is difficult to beat. Red Pine Lake is part of the watershed, so no dogs or swimming, and remember to camp at least 200 feet from the water’s edge.
Difficult: 6.9-mile out and back, 2,700 feet of elevation change
Beginning at the S-Turns in Big Cottonwood Canyon, switchback up through aspen trees and meadows before scrambling up rock and scree below Lake Blanche. Incredible views of the imposing Sundial Peak greet you at the water’s edge. Though the hike is quite popular during the day, especially mornings, people will clear out in the late afternoon and evening. Moose are frequently spotted along the way, so keep your eyes peeled. Don’t join them in the water, however, as Lake Blanche is part of the watershed. No dogs are permitted either.
Difficult: 8-mile out and back, 2,381 feet of elevation change
The Stansbury Mountains in the Deseret Peak Wilderness are an oft-overlooked gem near Salt Lake City. The South Willow Lake Trail winds steeply from the Loop Campground through gorgeous scenery to the lake below the Deseret Peak ridgeline. Like the other routes listed in this section, the hike to South Willow Lake requires some decent effort, but if the kids are experienced hikers it’s nothing they can’t handle. In addition to views of the high mountain cirques, you’ll be treated to panoramas of Tooele Valley and the Great Salt Lake. Dogs are permitted on leash.