Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wasatch National Forest: Donut Falls Trail (Blog Hike #580)

Trail: Donut Falls Trail
Hike Location: Wasatch National Forest, Big Cottonwood Canyon
Geographic Location: southeast of Salt Lake City, UT
Length: 1.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A short out-and-back, easy until almost the end, to unusual Donut Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Salt Lake City, take I-215 to Road 6200 S (exit 6).  Exit and go east on Road 6200 S.  Road 6200 S becomes Wasatch Boulevard.  Drive a total of 1.7 miles from I-215 to SR 190 (Big Cottonwood Canyon Road) and turn left on SR 190.  Drive SR 190 8.9 miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon to FR 19, which is reached just before mile marker 11.  There is a sign for a trailhead but no sign for Donut Falls at this intersection.  Turn right on FR 19, which starts as asphalt but turns to gravel.  Drive FR 19 0.8 miles to the unsigned but obvious trailhead parking area on the left.  A restroom building and trailhead sit at the rear of this parking area.

The hike: The Wasatch Mountains directly east of Salt Lake City are famous for their rapid elevation gain, world-class ski resorts, and deep, narrow canyons.  Several of these canyons are used by major highways as passages through the Wasatch Mountains.  Interstate 80 uses steep Parley’s Canyon, while Interstate 84 and a railroad use more gradual Weber Canyon.
            Slightly more serene than either of those options is Big Cottonwood Canyon, which is another fairly steep canyon used by SR 190.  The road’s 17 miles through Big Cottonwood Canyon are lined with picnic areas, campgrounds, and trailheads, one of which is the Donut Falls Trailhead where this hike starts.  At roughly 7500 feet in elevation, the Donut Falls Trailhead is more than 3000 feet higher than downtown Salt Lake City, and this elevation difference can make a big difference in weather.  On my visit, when I left the Utah State Capitol building it was 63 degrees and cloudy, but when I arrived at this trailhead less than an hour later it was 46 degrees and raining.  Be sure to plan and dress accordingly.
            Due to the unusual waterfall and the brevity of this hike, Donut Falls is one of the most popular destinations in Wasatch National Forest.  The hike is entirely family-friendly except for the bit at the very end, as described below.  Although the waterfall is on national forest land, the drive to the trailhead passes through private land.  In times past the private landowners refused to allow public access, effectively closing the falls to the public.  Such disputes have been resolved for now, and hopefully if waterfall visitors will respect private property rights they will stay that way.
Donut Falls Trailhead (in the rain)
            The trail starts at an information board that sits between two boulders at the rear of the parking area.  The steepest part of the hike comes in the first 0.2 miles.  Indeed, the trail gains 150 feet of elevation over the first 0.15 miles as it climbs through a forest of aspen and pine trees.  Rocks, some of which feature some interesting calcite deposits, appear in the wide unmarked path.
            At 0.15 miles, you reach a trail reroute where a brown carsonite post directs you to turn right.  This option looks inviting considering the very steep and rough old route that continues straight.  The Mill D South Fork Creek, which flows through one of the larger side canyons in Big Cottonwood Canyon, soon becomes audible on the right.
Climbing toward Donut Falls
            0.4 miles into the hike, you cross the creek on a wooden footbridge to reach an intersection of old forest roads.  As directed by another sign, turn left to keep heading toward Donut Falls.  The trail now climbs gradually through a meadow with the creek audible but not visible on the left.  Ignore unofficial trails that exit right.
            Just shy of 0.7 miles, you reach the top of a small rock outcrop, the bottom of which lies in the creek bed.  What has thus far been a fairly easy hike now may become problematic depending on the weather conditions.  The rock outcrop can be slippery when wet, and once you climb down the rock you have to hike a few hundred feet upstream in the creek to reach Donut Falls.  The unofficial trails mentioned above lead to some side views of Donut Falls, but the unofficial viewpoints are very blocked by pine trees.
Rock outcrop near Donut Falls
Given that I was solo-hiking in the rain with an arm injury, I decided that climbing down the outcrop was too risky and turned around here, so I never got to see Donut Falls.  This rough area near the waterfall makes a rather disappointing end to what is otherwise a nice family-friendly hike.  The trail does not loop, so everyone will eventually need to retrace their steps 0.7 miles back to the trailhead to complete the hike.

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