CRUNCHING DOWN A PATH through a Technicolor carpet of wildflowers in Mineral Basin, I think: Wait a minute, that was too easy. A 40-minute cruise from the Salt Lake City airport and a 9-minute tram ride had gotten me here―to 11,000 feet, the breezy tippy-top of the Wasatch Range, taking in The Sound of Music scenery I’d have been willing to lug a 40-pound pack to reach. As the buzzing of bees fills the vast silence, I look around wondering: Where is everybody?
Summer typically means overcrowded campgrounds and overpriced hotels, but not in Utah’s Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, where four off-season ski areas offer jagged granite scenery and knee-deep wildflowers, a lazy summer-camp vibe, cheap sleeps―and hikes that deliver a lot of wow for very little work.
For that backcountry feel
WHERE: Mineral Basin, Snowbird
LENGTH: 3.5 miles
Why sweat it uphill, when a gut-dropping tram ride can zoom you from Snowbird’s village to views across the mountaintops into the Salt Lake Valley, in minutes? From the top, hoof it downhill into Mineral Basin across green slopes colored with lupine and monkshood. When you’re done, you only have to climb halfway back up the hill, where a cool-as-lemonade pedestrian tunnel has been thoughtfully bored through the mountain, leading to your free ride down on the Peruvian Lift. Tram $12, $10 ages 7–16, ages 6 and under free; snowbird.com
APRÈS-HIKE: Find a friend and spring for a massage―you don’t have to be a guest to take advantage of the Cliff Lodge’s “buy one treatment, get half off another” summer offer, which includes all-day access to the rooftop swimming pool. Massage from $49 for 25 minutes; at Snowbird; snowbird.com/spa
For zillions of wildflowers
WHERE: Albion Basin, Alta
LENGTH: 1.5 miles round-trip
You have to love a hike that starts at 9,500 feet―like the trail at Alta’s Albion Basin, just up the road from Snowbird. With 500 inches of winter’s snow finally melted away, July is spring green fresh and bursting with more than 100 types of wildflowers. Climb to Cecret Lake and views you can’t help feeling were more than you’ve earned.
APRÈS-HIKE: Alta is famous among skiers the world over, but in the summer, it’s locals only. Join them for a lavish Sunday brunch on the sunny patio at the Alta Lodge ($22; 10230 E. State 210; 800/707-2582).
For slopeside fun
WHERE: Lake Solitude, Solitude
LENGTH: 1 mile round-trip
From Solitude’s faux European village, the Sunrise Lift whisks hikers up the mountain, turning a 3-miler to Lake Solitude into a stroll through the forest. The reward: a shimmering lake set in a granite bowl (sorry, no swimming). Afterward, play a game of disc golf, or, if you brought your bike on the lift, zigzag down across slopes of Indian paintbrush and bluebells. Lift $6, ages 6 and under free.
APRÈS-HIKE: Down by the base of Sunrise, take your pick of patio tables at Kimi’s Mountainside Bistro. $$$; at Solitude Mountain Resort; 801/536-5787.
For a stroll around a lake
WHERE: Silver Lake, Brighton
LENGTH: 0.75 miles
A 2-mile drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon from Solitude, Brighton is an old favorite of Salt Lake snowboarders. Nearby is Silver Lake, where, in summer, shimmering golden grass bumps up against the bright greens of aspens. The boardwalk circling the lake could hardly be called a hike. Dads teach their daughters to fish off the deck, and parents push strollers as they watch for grazing moose and beaver dams. The effect is so soothing, it makes you wonder why anyone would choose to huff and puff up the Granite Lakes Trail.
APRÈS-HIKE: Take the turnoff just below Brighton for Guardsman Pass, a scenic road through the alpine backcountry that’s open just a few months every summer and fall. From Silver Lake, it’s an hour’s drive up and over into Park City.
Where to stay
The Cottonwood Canyons are about 30 miles southeast of downtown Salt Lake City.
Little Cottonwood Canyon
FOR RESORT-Y FUN
On summer weekends, the village at Snowbird draws day-trippers from Salt Lake City. With a zipline, alpine slide, and mechanical bull, it has a festive feel. At night, though, the resort is left to the few who’ve come from elsewhere, snapping up Web specials that offer rooms in Snowbird’s four lodges for less than half of what they go for in winter. The Cliff Lodge has top-of-the-line hotel rooms; the Iron Blosam has kitchens. Every lodge has a pool. From $59 per person per night, including breakfast and tram ride; snowbird.com
FEEL LIKE CAMPING? Pitch a tent on the slopes at Alta with trailheads right at your Albion Basin Campground site. From $15; reservations required; recreation.gov
Big Cottonwood Canyon
FOR A QUIET HIDEAWAY
Virtually no one seems to have gotten the news that Solitude ski resort (from $125 per condo per night, third night free in summer; skisolitude.com) built a village and rents condos year-round. The few who stay overnight have the run of the joint. Choose from newish studio, one-, or two-bedroom condos with kitchens, patios, and gas fireplaces. A mile down the road, Silver Fork Lodge ($$$; 11332 E. Big Cottonwood Canyon; 888/649-9551) is a locals’ favorite for dinner.
FEEL LIKE CAMPING? Spruces Campground lets you sleep under the stars up Big Cottonwood Canyon. From $18; reservations required; recreation.gov