Located up Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Salt Lake Valley, Donut Falls is one of the most popular waterfall hikes in the state of Utah. With its close proximity to the city, and short distance, it is an ideal family hike that children will love.
Donut Falls Hike Details
Distance – normally 1.4 miles roundtrip, if the gate right at the turnoff of Big Cottonwood Canyon Road is closed it becomes 3.5 miles roundtrip hike
Approximate hiking time – 1-3.5 hours depends on where you have to start the hike
Elevation at trailhead – 7493 feet
Elevation at Donut Falls – 7830 feet
Elevation gain – 337 feet
Difficulty – Easy
Kid Friendly Hike? – Yes
Trail – Dirt, some rock
Amount of water recommended – 1-2 liters
Bathrooms – At the trailhead
Season to hike – mid April to mid October (depends on snow amounts)
Permits – None needed
Pets – Not permitted
How to get there:
If coming from north of Salt Lake City, take I-15 north to I-215 east. Head south to 6200 South. At the off-ramp, turn left and go south for 1.7 miles. 6200 South turns into Wasatch Boulevard. Turn left at the traffic signal, staying on Big Cottonwood Road for 9 miles. Turn right at the Jordan Pines picnic area and if the gate is open, (typically open from April to October) continue for 0.8 miles to the trailhead. If coming from the south, Take I-15 north to I-215 east to 6200 South. As you are traveling south on 6200 South for 1.7 miles, it turns into Wasatch Blvd. You will see large brown signs leading you to Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. Turn left onto Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, and follow it for 9.0 miles to the Jordan Pines picnic area which will be on your right. Turn in and continue up the road for 0.8 miles to the trailhead. If the gate is closed, just park outside the gate and walk up the road.
(See the Google Map for this hike at the bottom of this post)
Hopefully, you are lucky enough to start the hike from the Donut Falls trailhead. However, every time I’ve hiked up to Donut Falls, either the trailhead parking was full and I had to turn around and park out along Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, and walk up the road to the trailhead. It isn’t a bad walk up the road to the trailhead, but expect for it to add another 30-45 minutes and one mile each way to your hike.
What to know before you go
Donut Falls is located close to Salt Lake City and is very popular. During summer weekends it is common to see hundreds of people along the trail. I remember the first time we hiked to Donut Falls, it was Memorial Day weekend. Oh boy. I think everyone from Salt Lake County was on the hike! The parking lot at the trailhead was full, as was the parking area off of Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. We parked on the side of the road and hoofed it to the trailhead. Once on the trail, there was a spot that we found ourselves waiting in line on the trail. We look back and have a good laugh, but we learned our lesson.
Donut Falls is a great hike, and if you follow this advice, you’ll be able to avoid the crowds. We now hike Donut Falls early in the morning and on a weekday. On a weekday, if you get there by 9am there should still be a couple of spots left. Get there any later, and you may feel like a vulture circling for a space to come open.
Even though Donut Falls is an easy hike, there have been fatalites. Be alert and be safe at Donut Falls. On June 7th, 2014, a 40-year-old woman died after falling 100 feet to the bottom of the falls while climbing a steep, rocky trail that goes above the falls. In the spring of 2003, a hiker died at Donut Falls, prompting the closure. From 2004 to 2007, Donut Falls was closed to the public as it was on private land, but in the summer of 2007, Salt Lake City purchased the property for $1.3 million, and then reopened the falls to the public. Back in 1990, a man fell through the “donut” of the falls and died, so there can be dangers on this hike, so always use good judgment.
Hitting the Trail!
Right next to the parking lot, and just before you hit the trail, is one bathroom. At the beginning of the trail you’ll see some signs with maps and information about the area. Once past the signs the trail begins to gently climb and will pass a small meadow surrounded by tall pines and aspen. The well-marked trail will break to the right as it continues to climb. Before long you’ll hear a stream that is below and to the right of the trail. You’ll reach a nice spot where it opens up a little and you’ll cross a sturdy footbridge across the stream.
After about a half mile from the trailhead you’ll turn left onto an old jeep trail. Shortly after turning onto the jeep trail the trail splits and you’ll want to stay to the left, although both will eventually come together. In just a couple of minutes you’ll find that the stream you crossed is on the left side of the trail, and you’ll have a small rock outcropping that you’ll scramble over. Once past the the outcropping, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the runoff of Donut Falls.
Donut Falls gets its name because the water actually flows down through a hole in the top of a small cave, where the water then flows through some rocks downstream. The hole in the top of the cave was formed after centuries of water wearing down and eventually breaking through and collapsing the rock creating the “donut” where the water rushes through.
In recent years, a rockslide has narrowed the entrance into the small cave. Reaching the small cave requires you to climb and scramble about one hundred feet up over large rocks through the runoff from Donut Falls. It isn’t too difficult if you take your time and the water level is low, if you’re a fit hiker and have some basic climbing skill. Once at the small cave, you can stand up inside it. At the bottom of the runoff, is a pleasant place for children to splash in the surprisingly cold water during hot summer days, as the water is rarely deeper than 6 to 8 inches.
Some hikers want to get above Donut Falls to get a shot looking down at the water dropping into the cave. However, to get there requires a steep, exposed rock climb that I do not recommend. This is the side trail where the most recently fatality at Donut Falls occurred. Your best photos will come from inside the cave and shooting up at the water coming down through the “donut.”
As mentioned, chances are the area near and around the falls will be choked with hikers on the trail and scrambling up the stream, and in the cave , so getting pictures of the falls without people in the shot may prove difficult. I was luckily enough to hike Donut Falls in the late afternoon on a weekday. I saw only a handful of people coming back from the falls. When we arrived at Donut Falls we had the whole place to ourselves for nearly a half an hour.
This is a hike that one can complete in only an hour and a half, and with it being so close to Salt Lake City, makes for a great afternoon hike.
What should you bring?
Some of my favorite hiking gear:
Enjoy the scenery, take plenty of pictures of this unique waterfall!
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