Hundreds of hikers, and a few renegade mountain bikers, traipsed across the path to Donut Falls last weekend. By going early in the season they were mostly avoiding the crowds, which can be unrelenting at the popular Big Cottonwood Canyon attraction during summer weekends. But one thing they couldn’t avoid was the mud.
Early in the day, crusty snowpack formed islands between stretches of ooze along the 3.3-mile trail. By mid-afternoon, though, the snow began to melt under the strain of the 80-degree heat, creating one continuous slippery, gooey slog to the waterfall. As a token of their effort, each traveler received brown stains on everything from their calves to their backs to their behinds.
Scenes like that are common around Utah in the spring, as residents and tourists begin to trade their skis and snowboards for knobby tires and hiking poles. And they stress out Lora Smith, the executive director of Mountain Trails Foundation, a trails conservation organization in Park City. She said hiking and biking through — and around — muddy sections can have worse consequences than embarrassing brown stains on one’s britches.
“The reason we don’t want people on muddy trails,” she said, “is because it severely accelerates the erosion of a trail.”
Some erosion, Smith said, happens when mud sticks to shoes and tires, moving it from one part of the trail to another. In addition, the track of a tire can become a path for rainwater to follow, which can cause the trail to become “cupped,” Smith said. When that happens, the trail begins to resemble a long canyon with steep sides, making it uncomfortable for walking and difficult to ride.
“If it sticks to your heels or wheels,” she said, quoting a popular Mountain Trails Foundation motto, “it’s time to turn around.”
To avoid turning treasured trails into uncomfortable slogs long after the mud has dried, Smith suggests picking trails at lower elevations in the spring or in the days after a rain or snow. Then, checking the trail reports. Often reviews on AllTrails or Trailforks note trail conditions (One posted Monday called the Donut Falls trail “deathly muddy and slushy with snow.”) In addition, Mountain Trails Foundation and Basin Recreation — which according to its website oversees more than 2,000 acres of open space in the Snyderville Basin near Kimball Junction — have interactive websites that give trail conditions. Currently, the Basin Recreation map has 76 trails listed as “good to go” — nearly twice as many as at the start of the week. Another 11 carry the “tread lightly” tag while five are still considered snowpacked.
Smith noted that the designations can be deceiving, wherever they are found. A trail could look dry and clear at the base but be a mess further up the line. It all depends on the trail’s aspect, or the direction of the face of a slope in relation to the sun. To deter people from assuming the trail is usable, the Mountain Trails Foundation purposely leaves fallen trees and brush on trails as a deterrent when they aren’t fit to be traveled.
“It’s not like we have a shortage of people and are scrambling to get to the trail,” Smith said, noting the foundation has nine people lined up to perform trail maintenance. “It’s just simply that we are intentionally leaving them.”
So, where can someone enjoy the emerging sunshine while still treading lightly? Here are a few options to consider:
Quarry Mountain, 2.7 miles, easy/moderate, Park City: This hike-only trail begins next to the famous McPolin Barn (aka the white barn). It climbs 740 feet, offering great views of the barn and the Park City ridgeline. It’s a relatively steep trail through oak and sagebrush. The McPolin barn offers restroom facilities, a historic homestead and a great lawn for a picnic.
PC Hill, 1.3 miles, 475 feet elevation gain, easy/moderate, Park City: This short hike leads to the top of PC Hill and is is a great family option with plenty of parking. From above the iconic “PC” you get a 360 view. At the base of the hill is an interpretive trail through the wetlands behind Treasure Mountain School. There are public bathrooms behind Treasure Mountain, but it’s a fair walk across the field from the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.
Huber Grove Trail, 1.8 miles, easy, Wasatch Mountain State Park: The trailhead of this perfect children’s hike is located across the street from the visitor center. It wanders through to the historic Huber Grove, one of the first orchards in Heber Valley, with apple trees that are more than 120 years old and should be in blossom. The nature trail also leads through an aspen grove and is good for birding. Dogs are allowed on leash.
Sardine Peak, 7.9 miles, moderate, Snowbasin/ Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest: A relatively gentle trail without too many inclines that ascends (nearly) to the top of Sardine Peak. It offers beautiful views and wildflowers but is at elevation, so bring your jacket. Dogs are allowed on leash.
Avenues Twin Peak, 3.6 miles, easy/moderate, Wasatch Canyon/Avenues: A mellow trail that still gives a sense of accomplishment. It provides expansive views of Salt Lake City but it can get hot in the summer, so spring is the perfect time to attempt it. Bikes and dogs on leash are also allowed on the trail.