A must-see easy hike for anyone visiting Salt Lake City! The Ensign Peak Trail takes you to a historical marker above the Utah State Capitol via a short, steep, and sweet route. Ensign Peak is a good primer for many of the hikes in the Wasatch Mountains: it's steep, loose, exposed, begins in someone's backyard, and ends with a great view steeped in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints history. While the peak itself isn’t terribly forbidding or sublime, the feeling of stepping into an important scene from the westward expansion of the United States when the Church first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley is pretty special. The Ensign Peak trail is suitable for families, dogs, and anyone who can handle a quarter-mile of very steep hiking. Because of its lack of shade, this is definitely a morning or an evening hike in the summer. Whenever you go, you will have a lot of company. This counts double on the weekends. That such a short and relatively easy hike can attract so many people bespeaks the power of its history and the absolutely fantastic view that you will find at the top.
Ensign Peak Trail is truly a local's tourist hike. Utahns hike and run the trail from Ensign Vista Dr. to the historical marker and overlook at Ensign Peak in droves in order to take in the excellent views of the Salt Lake Valley and Great Salt Lake to the west. If you don't mind a grinding grade for a short while, the hike is an easy way to raise the heart rate quickly after work, to get some air between conference sessions, or just to hike for historical kicks. The Ensign Peak Trail begins less than five minutes from Salt Lake City's downtown and rises just behind the (quite impressive) capitol building. Salt Lake City doesn't provide water or bathroom facilities and the trail is very exposed, so time of day and year are both important. The trail can be hiked at all hours in the right weather, though the winter tends to be a particularly difficult time to try and scale it. Bikes are allowed from another direction but the Ensign Peak Trail is for hikers only.
Coming from the valley, the best place to start is Ensign Vista Dr., where there is street-side parking. At peak hours in the midmorning and afternoon, these parking spaces will be full—all of them. Follow the placards up the very misleadingly but well-maintained stone staircase to where the Ensign Peak Trail proper begins. The trail is a ribbon of hardpack and marbles-over-hardpack gravel scooting nearly perfectly straight up the drainage to the ridgeline. You cannot get lost on the trail (you can pretty much always see your destination), but you can certainly lose your footing. For the first few hundred feet, low oaks and junipers provide limited shade. These disappear as you scale the foothill, replaced by Great Basin sagebrush, wildflowers, and bunch grasses which are pretty and smell beautiful after a rain but are useless for shade.
If you hike in the morning, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, gopher snakes, and common sagebrush lizards will scatter from your path along the way. Coyotes and mule deer frequent the neighborhood and foothills surrounding Ensign Peak from dusk to dawn and sometimes can be seen from the trail. Mountain lions do also live in the foothills but are far and away the least likely animal that a hiker could encounter. Turkey vultures, seagulls, rough-legged and red-tailed hawks are common sights soaring above the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. During the fall and spring, birds of all sizes and descriptions pass through the Salt Lake Valley and the Ensign Peak Trail is a great place to watch for Canadian geese and pelicans.
After nearly a half mile, the dirt gives way to exposed hard conglomerate (loose rocks cemented together like, well, cement) and levels out. The Ensign Peak Trail follows the ridgeline south to the overlook and marker. Again, you cannot get lost since you will be able to see the marker throughout the hike. The ridge is not smooth; the underlying rock juts through and interrupts the dirt trail. This part can be actually kind of fun and presents a pleasantly level contrast to the trail below. Once at the historical marker (more on that below in the "History" section), you will find the marker itself, a small obelisk, plaque, and circular viewing area surrounded by a split rail fence.
The view encompasses the entire Salt Lake Valley all the way to the Traverse Mountains to the south and out to the Cedar Mountains past the Stansbury Mountain Range to the west. During good years, you will be able to see the Great Salt Lake as well, though recently much of the lake south of Antelope Island (which lies to the northwest and is also visible) has dried up and blown away. To the southwest, you will be able to see - or can hardly miss, depending on your point of view - the New Bingham Mine, once the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, girding the Oquirrh Mountains to the southwest. To the northwest you will be able to see North Salt Lake, watch the airplanes leave the airport some twenty miles away, and overlook the industrial Warm Springs area just below Ensign Peak. Not all of these are pretty, but seeing them all at once is pretty amazing. If you are lucky enough to hike before a storm, watching a thunderstorm drape the southern end of the valley in rain and lightning from Ensign Peak is a special experience.
From the overlook, there are a few ways down. A new multi-user (read: bikes allowed) trail that drops off the west side of the ridge will take you down switchbacks to a gravel road that leads either down and back to the Ensign Peak neighborhood and eventually your car, or over the foothills to Bountiful to the north. For those looking for more distance, the ridgeline ascends steeply to meet the City Creek Bonneville Shoreline Trail which can be looped in either direction back to Ensign Vista Dr. for about a five-mile loop either way. If you are considering any of these options, be sure to bring water and sunscreen and lots of them.
Ensign Peak, the terminus of the Ensign Peak Trail, is not a great thing in itself. Even in the reporting of The Ensign, an official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which, if the name of the magazine is any indication, might have some investment in the place, Ensign Peak is a “hill.” Clutching the side of the more impressive City Creek ridgeline above it, Ensign Peak rises just above the lakebed of ancient Lake Bonneville on the floor of the valley. The Warm Springs fault snakes along its base; the loose, gravely conglomerate of the Ensign Peak Trail can be found in gardens a thousand feet below. It is, as a thing, less important for what it is than where it happened to be on an important day: just close enough to the Latter-Day Saints’ camp upon their entry to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 for Brigham Young to be able to drag himself to its summit.
Before their journey West, Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, told his followers to create an “ensign.” Brigham Young, leading the faithful West, claimed a revelation from God that showed him the place which would become their home. At the time that the Church arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Young was suffering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and could barely walk. Still, two days after reaching the valley, he and a party of fellow Saints climbed to Ensign Peak. They unfurled what, for many years, was rumored to be the flag of Deseret. Now, historians and the Church agree that it was probably someone’s bandana. Young claimed to recognize the view he beheld from his revelation and Ensign Peak entered Latter-Day Saints mythology as the place where their sovereignty over the Salt Lake Valley was confirmed and their westward march ended. Jared Farmer argues that Young’s revelation inaugurated the Church’s fascination with mountains and the story is influential enough in Church mythology that one of its official magazines is named The Ensign.
Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Harvard UP, 2008.
Wright, Dennis. “Ensign Peak: A Historical Preview.” Salt Lake City: The Place Which God Prepared, Brigham Young University, 2011. https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/salt-lake-city/3-ensign-peak-historical-preview