Salt Lake City's Millcreek Canyon

Here's a family walking in the snow. Here are two hard-core crosscountry skiers, both of them in stretchy lycra and expensive fleece vests. Here are two backcountry skiers headed into the high country. Here's a young couple on snowshoes, maybe even on a first date. Here are two crosscountry skiers with a tangle of dogs snooping through the snow. It's Sunday afternoon, and it seems like everyone is out.

Sun blazes through the trees. The creek runs full and ice-crusted. Snow piled high on trees sifts down. The occasional car cruises by. Every city has a great park, but Salt Lake City's Millcreek must be one of the best.

Check out a map of Salt Lake City. There are a few urban parks down in town. But to the center right, just where I-215 meets I-80, is another great expanse of park-green, this being U.S. National Forest land that drapes back toward 11,000-foot mountains and formidable snowbowls. This is Millcreek Canyon, and it begins where the city ends.

For years, Millcreek Canyon has been a refuge for city dwellers. When the first white people came into the Salt Lake Valley in the 1840s they headed up the canyon to cut trees - hence the name 'mill.' Later, families came up to picnic and play and escape the heat. More recently, people have built summer homes and planned ski areas, though the summer homes are few in number and generally well hidden, and the ski area thing never worked out.

Millcreek is the most heavily wooded of all canyon abutting Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Valley is basically desert, and when settlers showed up in the 1840s they found trees only right along watercourses. The canyons east of town were logical places to turn. At the height of its use, there were 20 sawmills in Millcreek Canyon plus a few gold mines, and a well-used road chugged up about seven miles of the canyon, and had sidetracks that wound up side canyons.

These days, the trees have grown back. Now, in summer the canyon is filled with picnickers and hikers and mountain bikers and people driving up to the canyon's two restaurants, both of which are great. In winter, everyone is out on snowshoes and crosscountry skis. In the spring, it's wildflower hunting. Fall, foliage viewing. All the time, the canyon is a quiet alternative to the city, and has plenty of deer and beautiful creeks.

About five miles of Millcreek Canyon's road is plowed in the winter - this takes the driver past a huge Boy Scout camp, the two restaurants, the Church Fork, Thayne Canyon and Porter Fork trailheads, and the Box Elder and Maple Cove picnic grounds. Past five miles, the road is gated and not plowed, a gracious gift to skiers and snowshoers.

Crosscountry skiing or snowshoeing, I think, is a great alternative for someone who has come into town to ski for a week but decides midway through they want a break. Both skis and shoes are deliriously cheap to rent - $5 to $10 per pair - and there is only a $3 charge to use the canyon. I took my parents and brother crosscountry skiing in the canyon a few years ago when they were out from Texas on a ski vacation, and even though my mom fell on her skis, couldn't get up, and got mad, I think they would all secretly say they liked it.

In summer, the paved road is open another six miles above the winter trailhead; it leads past a group of summer homes, a handful of campgrounds and a half-dozen or so picnic areas with names like Clover Springs, Evergreen and Elbow Fork. The road also leads past trailheads that head off to Alexander Basin, Mount Aire, Wilson Fork and Big Water Gulch.

For me, the canyon has been a refuge and recreation spot for all seasons. Once, I skied up the summer road with my friend Oakley and her dog Smedly. It was spring and the snow in the shadows was deep, but in the sunny spots the road had melted through and we had to carry our skis across a few bare patches. Another time, cramming for a spring-quarter English final, I came up here at 2 a.m. to escape the hell of academia. Another time, two buddies and I skied in from Big Cottonwood Canyon to Little Water Gulch and spent the night in a snow cave. Countless times I have mountain biked up Big Water Gulch to Dog Lake. The first time I ever took Porter skiing we headed up Porter Fork* (*no relation) and he chased and snapped at my ski tips the whole way. In 1997 my friend Steve and I and our dogs went up Porter Fork all the way to the divide between Gobblers Knob and Mount Raymond - we telemarked all the way back down and around the litter of a huge avalanche that carried smashed trees and debris two miles down the canyon. A few years ago I had a workfriend named Brian whose family had a cabin at the Firs and during Christmas break they would ski up the road with food and books and a VCR to relax away the holiday. Most recently, I came up here with my friend Lynn and her dog Sadie; we went up Porter Fork until our breath froze and condensed as ice on our scarves. We came down just before sunset and had dinner at the Red Iguana.

At work, I have a picture of Lex, my first dog. It is in the snow. He has just come up from tunneling through a snowdrift, something akin to diving into an ocean wave which he liked to do. There is a tuft of snow on his black nose, and around him is a snow-sparkled scene of snow-heavy trees and brilliant sunlight. That picture was taken one February just a few months before he died, and the two of us had had a great Tuesday. The picture was taken in the middle part of Millcreek Canyon, and I remember the day like it just happened. And that how I like to think of Millcreek Canyon: a great place to go with good friends.

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