Donut Falls Hike
John Badila | Salt Lake City, UT
Donut Falls is a short hike with a big payoff. Just under three-quarters of a mile of easy hiking brings you to a unique waterfall that plunges through a hole in the rock and into a small cave.
The trail passes through spruce forest, aspen, and open meadows before entering a narrow, rocky drainage below the falls. The stream and drainage the route follows are known as Mill D South Fork. The alphabetical naming system for the side canyons in Big Cottonwood Canyon originated in the 1850s, when sawmills were built at the mouths of each drainage. While property issues and liability fears threatened access to this area for some time, Salt Lake City purchased the falls and surrounding land in 2007 as a protected watershed.
From the Mill D South Fork Trailhead the trail winds generally south into a forest of spruce and fir with occasional aspen stands. Note the trail to Spruces Campground, which forks off to the left (east) near the trailhead. At 0.4 miles the trail crosses a footbridge over the stream and then joins an old mining road. The route continues to the left, passing through an open meadow and a grove of mature quaking aspens. When the road forks about 0.1 mile from the bridge, stay left and follow the trail into the rocky drainage. Continue upstream a short distance for your first view of the falls.
In spite of the recently-placed "danger of falling" sign, you'll be drawn to climb up the jumbled boulders below the falls to get a better view of the water crashing through the donut. Depending on the season and water flow, this may be treacherous and require getting wet, so evaluate the conditions and be especially careful bringing young children or inexperienced hikers up to the falls. The safest route climbs over the large boulders on the west side of the stream, staying to the right of the lower falls. Once you've reached the top you can see Donut Falls plunging through a hole in the rock. Below the donut the rushing water has formed an open grotto about 10 feet by 20 feet. Ducking inside the grotto may allow the adventurous to view the falls from behind while remaining mostly dry, depending on the season and water flow.
For those who are tempted to climb up above the falls, be aware that slick rock and loose gravel make this more dangerous than it may appear, especially when the rock is wet. Hikers have been seriously injured and killed here when a slip leads to a fall into the water and through the falls.
On the hike out, note the views of Kessler Peak to the west and Reed and Benson Ridge to the east. Donut Falls is worth a visit at any time of the year, but bear in mind that Cardiff Road is closed in winter and early spring, and hikers will have to park at the parking area at Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. This adds some easy walking along the road and makes the route about 3 miles round-trip. Snowshoes are rarely necessary here because of the high traffic, but they may be useful if the area has seen a recent heavy snowfall.
Pros: Easy hike to a unique waterfall.
Preferable Season(s): Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Day-Use/Parking Pass Required: Not Required
Total Distance: 1.50 mi (2.41 km)
Trailhead Elev.: 7,493 ft (2,284 m)
Net Elev. Gain: 337 ft (103 m)
Trail Uses: Hiking
Trail type: There-and-back
Dogs allowed: No