Sky Pilot, Lambstongue Groundsel, Owlsclaws, Cliff Anemone, Prince’s Plume, Elephant Head Lousewort, Whipple’s Beardtongue, Hooded Ladies-tresses, Rosy Pussytoes, Nettle-leaf Horsemint and Sticky Cinquefoil, are a mouthful to say but pure beauty to behold.
If you would like to put a name to a face, so to speak, slip on some light hikers, strap on a daypack, slather on some sunscreen and you are ready to search for the high mountain’s secret stash of beauty: meadows painted like murals with wildflowers.
And if you think wildflowers only bloom in the spring, think again. Due to the high altitude of our peaks, wildflowers have a much later window for gracing the meadows and lake shores of the Wasatch. Late July through early August is the prime time to head up high for a concentrated cataclysm of Kodachrome. The ephemeral enchantment of high altitude blossoms is condensed into a display that lasts a few short weeks.
To help you witness the Wasatch at its most glorious, here are three hikes with wildflower jackpots:
Little Cottonwood Canyon
Cecret Lake-Albion Basin reflecting Devil’s Castle; flowers: fireweed, asters; photo by David J. West
Ten thousand years ago, at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the longest glacier in the Wasatch was born. The glacial ice created Albion Basin, a natural amphitheater and left Cecret Lake, a pretty glacial tarn. The gentle trail to Cecret Lake is an absolute must if wildflowers are on the agenda for a whole family outing.
A mere 1.2 miles each way, gaining only 450 feet, the trail crosses a footbridge and wanders through a meadow filled with wildflowers. Pack a picnic, find a rock ledge for lounging, and revel in the rampant display of color where once lay a solid sheet of ice. If you still have energy to burn, continue up to Sugarloaf Peak for brilliant views of the lake, basin and Alta Ski Resort.
Arguably the best blooming hike in Utah, arrive early to snag a parking space or use the free shuttle provided by Alta Township on summer weekends. No dogs in the watershed.
Timpooneke Campground, Alpine Loop, American Fork Canyon
Timpooneke Trail; flowers: Indian paintbrush, lupine, seep-spring arnica; photo by David J. West
The Timpooneke Trail leads to the top of Mount Timpanogos, the most bagged 11,000-foot peak in Utah. There is no need to summit if wildflowers are on your mind. Climbing 3,210 feet, the trial switchbacks up the Giant Staircase, five glacial benches, before reaching the upper glacial bowl, a perfect indentation to cup thousands of wildflowers.
Indeed, everything that would make a hike perfect is found here in spades. Wildflowers, waterfalls, a small glacier, a herd of Rocky Mountain goats, stunning vistas and high alpine meadows all combine to make this an unforgettable day. You may feel a Julie Andrews/Sound of Music moment coming on when surrounded by the uncountable colorful blossoms. Expect the well marked 6.5-mile trail to Emerald Lake to take six to seven hours round-trip. The trail is open from mid July and welcomes dogs. Come midweek or Sunday for more solitude. $6 fee to access the National Forest Area.
Mill Creek Canyon Road
Alexander Basin Trail to the peak of Gobblers Knob is not for the faint of heart. Climbing 3,100 feet in 5.5 miles, this is a strenuous, steep hike. Filled with wildflowers and spectacular views, if you can hack it, this hike is worth the effort.
The trail kicks into high gear from the get go, climbing steeply through a thick forest of fir providing welcome shade. Just after a mile, the cirque valley starts to open, chock-a-block with blooms, highlighted by spiky blue penstemon. Throw off your pack, grab a snack and look high and low for micro or macro beauty.
Climb out of the valley on a very steep trail if you need to reach to the top. The peaks of the surrounding canyons applaud you for a job well done. Expect the hike to take 4-5 hours, more if you nap in the meadow. Dogs run free on odd numbered days.
The well-signed trailhead is 7.5 miles up the canyon. $3 Millcreek Canyon fee.
Utah Flower Festivals
Cedar Breaks National Monument Annual Wildflower Festival takes place July 5–20. Located above Cedar City, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is a huge natural amphitheater filled with spires, columns and pinnacles in hues of mauve, rust, cream and cinnamon, a beautiful backdrop for the profusion of wildflowers that blooms on the rim. The festival offers photography and journaling classes from Zion Canyon Field Institute as well as twice daily, guided hikes.
The Wasatch Wildflower Festival is held the last weekend in July; this year the dates are July 25–27. In its ninth year, the all-volunteer festival holds hikes at each of the resorts in the Cottonwood Canyons. Friday sees Brighton host in the morning and Solitude in the afternoon. Saturday belongs to Alta and Sunday is Snowbird. Step out on a trail, ride a chair lift or tram, and join a local expert to learn about our high alpine zone in the brief window when it is cloaked in raiment of color.
Meet the Pro
Photo by Adam Finkle
Richard Middleton is an actor, his stage a trail, his audience those with a yen to learn about wildflowers.
Retiring to Salt Lake City in 2004, Middleton wanted a way to connect to people and his new environment. His passion for hiking started as a boy growing up in the Welsh Mountains, his passion for wildflowers with an organized evening walk where he was “absolutely astounded at the amazing variety of flowers in such a short distance.” Due to his enthusiasm, he soon found himself a volunteer naturalist guide for Cottonwood Canyons Foundation. During training at Silverlake, he saw 72 types of flowers in ¾ of a mile. “I love it, absolutely love it,” he exclaims.
From the first Wasatch Wildflower Festival in 2005, Middleton has been in the thick of things. He says it is a phenomenal mental experience to engage with people from all over the world, experts and neophytes, old and young alike. When asked about a favorite hike that gets little attention, he immediately mentions the walk from the plaza deck at Snowbird. “It is underrated because it’s flat but it has great flowers.” The Wasatch wildflowers are a draw for international visitors, but Middleton would like to see more locals make the drive.
Connect with Middleton through the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation. 801-466-6411, email@example.com
Get the Gear
Wildflowers of the Mountain West
Written by local horticulturists, Wildflowers of the Mountain West is a great resource for hikers who wonder at trailside flora. Full color photos and distribution maps make identification easy. $24.95, King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S.1500 East, SLC, 801-489-9100
Flora of the Wasatch app
If you prefer to get your information digitally, this app is sure to please. An easy-to-use identification system at your fingertips, you can search for wildflowers by type, color and shape. Compatible with most devices. $7.99, highcountryapps.com
Osprey Axis Daypack
More pockets than a mob of kangaroos to hold all the gear you need on wildflower forays. Half zip makes interior contents visible, bungee system cinches shed layers outside. Lifetime guarantee. $69.95, Kirkham’s, 3125 S. State Street, SLC, 800-453-7756