Guide to 5 Utah Waterfall Hikes close to SLC

By Sarah Ta

As a Utah native, I believe that the mountains are the best escape from anything, especially the heat. If you’re longing to go outside without risk of heat exhaustion, why not cool off in the mountains? Utah is home to stunning waterfalls tucked within the canyons. In an effort to escape the blazing heat, I journeyed to five different waterfalls, all just an hour drive away from the heart of Salt Lake. These waterfall hikes are easy/moderate, kid-friendly (both human and dog), and the perfect way to spend these hot summer days outside in nature.

1. Donut Falls – Big Cottonwood Canyon

Length: 3.5 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 500 feet 

Difficulty: Easy

Crowdedness: Very popular

Parking: Small parking lot at trailhead. If the gate is open, follow the paved road through the Jordan Pines picnic area and private property to get to the lot located on the left.

Almost every Utah native has ascended this waterfall to view the “donut-hole” at the top. Donut Falls is a heavily trafficked hike and for good reason. I recently took my grandmother on this hike, and she loved every minute of it. Due to popularity, the parking lot fills up rather quickly, so arrive early to snag a spot. Parking along the side of the road is allowed, but be sure to read the signs and follow the rules. Heading down, I saw at least three cars with parking tickets sticking out. The trailhead starts just right off the trail from the bathrooms and is clearly marked throughout. The path is mostly packed dirt with the occasional stretches of loose rock. 

Don’t worry too much about the sun because the path is heavily shaded. My grandmother enjoyed the multiple photo-ops throughout the hike, including a small bridge over a stream and an outlook point over the seemingly never-ending trees. Along the hike, plump chipmunks will scurry across and greet many, hoping for a snack. On my recent hike, a little girl was offering carrots; she was surrounded within five minutes. At the end of the trail, there is a ridge of rocks that must be climbed down to reach the waterfall. 

To get to the falls, shoes will definitely get wet. A pair of water shoes is recommended. I opted to wear my trust-worthy Chacos and waded through the water to cross. There is no direct path to cross the stream, so be careful when crossing due to slippery rocks, logs and rushing water. Choose to admire the falls from either below or be adventurous and ascend to the cave and beyond. The “donut-hole” can be reached via a steep, rocky climb. I usually scramble up the waterfall to get to the cave, but the water is extremely cold this season due to the abundance of snow we received this previous winter. The icy cold water makes Donut Falls an even better escape from the heat this summer!

More info via alltrails: Donut Falls Trail 

2. Bridal Veil Falls – Provo Canyon

Length: 1.5 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 120 feet 

Difficulty: Easy

Crowdedness: Very popular

Parking: Parking lot at Bridal Veil Falls Park or drive further ahead and park in the viewpoint parking lots and walk across the bridge to get to the Provo River Trail. 

Personally, Bridal Veil Falls is my favorite waterfall hike because it is quick and extremely rewarding. Due to the steepness of the trail, many families will admire the falls at the bottom. The paved path through Bridal Veil Falls Park has lots of shade, grassy areas, tables and barbeque pits making it great for day-time use. The paved path connects to the Provo River Trail. Many people use this trail to bike, scooter, skateboard, and jog. Motorized/electric vehicles are not allowed on this path. I personally make sure to greet all the furry dogs along this path. After a short walk, the falls is located to the right. Children will play and wade at the bottom of the falls in the pond filled with rainbow trout. To get away from the crowd and ascend to the top, walk past the falls to get to the trailhead. Be warned, there are a couple of unmaintained trails with steep warning signs.These paths are shortcuts, but are very rocky and steep. Be sure to wear shoes with good grip. I made the mistake of unknowingly taking this shortcut and endured the vertical, rocky ascent to the falls. However, it only took me 10 minutes to reach the waterfall. 

The actual trailhead begins in an open dirt area with a table on the right side of the Provo River Trail. The trail is not marked by a trailhead sign but is clearly visible. The beginning of the path is comprised of packed dirt, but the majority of the path is loose rock. Most of the path is cool and shaded. There are a few spots along the trail where the path becomes very narrow, so be careful. Closer towards the falls, the path becomes much steeper and rockier; some climbing is required. However, the sight of the 600-foot waterfall at the end of the hike is well worth it. Cool off in the roaring mists or choose to wade in the water and get closer to the falls. Enjoy getting  soaked while admiring the falls!

More info via alltrails: Bridal Veil Falls Trail 

 3. Upper Falls – Provo Canyon

Length: 0.5 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 550 feet 

Difficulty: Easy

Crowdedness: Almost no one 

Parking: Take the turnoff for Nunn’s Park, drive past the first parking lot and continue to Upper Falls Park. Parking lot has restrooms and a bridge that connects to the Provo River Trail. 

Upper Falls is a short, hidden trail that leads to a 40-foot waterfall gem. While many drive up Provo Canyon for Bridal Veils, Upper Falls is often overlooked since most do not even know it is there. It was difficult to find this trail, but we asked around and managed to find a helpful couple who pointed us in the right direction. After crossing the bridge, turn right and begin walking on the Provo River Trail. Along this path there are old cement buildings covered in graffiti. The trailhead starts behind these cement blocks. The trail branches off to the left, but continue straight up. There is ample amount of shade, but the path is fairly steep with the end half being rocky terrain. Bouldering up the rocks is necessary in order to reach to the waterfall.

The base of Upper Falls is a moss-covered cement block perfect for taking a picture in front of the falls. Be careful when climbing up the wet rocks to get to the base. Cool off in the sprays of the waterfall, or even lean against the rock wall to get right under the water. Possibly the best aspect about Upper Falls is that it is not heavily trafficked. I went on a holiday and saw only one other party during the entire hike. Across from the base of the falls is a little nook perfect for relaxing and eating a snack, but please pick up your trash. We brought an extra bag with us to pick up the litter. The walls of the nook are made up of fallen sticks and logs; it reminded me of a child’s wooden castle or hideout. I set up a hammock among the trees near the snack nook and relaxed to the sounds of the falls. Upper Falls is a quiet hike, and the perfect way to get away from the crowd and heat. 

More info via alltrails: Upper Falls Trail

4. Stewart Falls – Aspen Grove, Alpine Loop

Length: 3.5 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 600 feet 

Difficulty: Easy – Moderate 

Crowdedness: Very popular

Parking: $6 entry fee to park at Aspen Grove. Park for free directly below the tollbooth along the side of the road and walk the short distance to the trailhead. 

Standing over 200 feet tall with two tiers of falling water, Stewart Falls is by far one of the most scenic waterfalls in Utah. There are multiple trails that start at Aspen Grove, so look out for signs that read “Stewart Cascades.” The path is well-maintained throughout. The first half of the hike is heavily shaded by the tall pines of the forest, but sadly it is not too shaded for the last half. The majority of the trail is comprised of packed dirt with patches of loose gravel. The trail is not too steep, but rather has rolling ups and downs. I took a break on top of the circular concrete water tank on the left of the trail. This water tank had amazing views of the lush green mountains which made eating a granola bar far more enjoyable. This trail is very heavily trafficked, so begin early to beat the crowd. I started around 9am and still encountered tons of families. 

The trail begins to slowly incline towards the end before gradually descending to a ridge where the falls come into view. This area is mostly rock and has steep drop downs so be cautious. Standing on top of the ridge provides a wonderful view of both tiers of Stewart Falls. To the left of this ridge is a steep trail that leads down to the base of the falls. The stream at the base is wide and much appreciated by the kids and dogs jumping around and splashing everyone with the cold water. I saw many children standing directly under the falls getting soaked as their parents happily took pictures. There were a few individuals who climbed up next to the first tier of the waterfall in order to get to the second tier. I decided to venture up myself. This climb is steep, wet and very rocky. Do not attempt if you are not comfortable with bouldering. If you are able to climb up, I definitely recommend it. I sat in awe and admired the rushing waterfall pour from one tier down below. Stewart Falls is a gratifying hike with astounding views of the mountains throughout.

More info via alltrails: Stewart Falls Trail

5. Adams Canyon Waterfall – Layton

Length: 3.5 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 1400 feet 

Difficulty: Moderate – hard 

Crowdedness: Very popular

Parking: Plenty of parking in the lot at base of canyon or park along the road. 

Be warned: this trail is not for the faint of heart. Adams Canyon Waterfall trail is rated moderate, but can be difficult for those who do not have experience.This waterfall makes you work for the prize. The trail starts with a steep, sandy switchback with very little shade. I saw many struggling to get through this first portion due to the beaming sun. However, one of the positives about this sandy incline is the stunning view of the Salt Lake Valley. After passing the sandy switchbacks, the shady forest comes into sight. I came across a woman who said that there is an unknown shortcut to avoid the sandy switchback. She pointed out a road across canyon in the residential area and stated that a trail at the end of the road connects to the Adams Canyon Waterfall trail. I tried to research this shortcut, but came up short of any additional information. I did see a bridge that connects to another trail, so there is possibly a way to skip the sandy switchback. 

The Adams Canyon trail is clearly marked and runs along a river which is a great place to take breaks as you go. A tip when hiking on a hot day: Place a river stone on the back of your neck to cool off. The trail undulates throughout and is mostly comprised of packed dirt and loose rock. Lots of wasps hang around the pools of water, but I did not experience any trouble with them. The last portion of the trail is definitely rugged, with steep, rocky climbs in order to get to the falls, but many children are able to cross with assistance. Most wade through the water to get to the falls, but I was able to keep my shoes dry by crossing on top of the river rocks due to the low water level. The trail ends with an amazing 40-foot reward. Many cheered as they arrived at the falls to celebrate their long journey to get there. Adams Canyon waterfall may be more difficult, but it is definitely worth the work.

More info via alltrails: Adams Canyon Trail  

I had an amazing time spending my hot summer weekends hiking to these five incredible waterfalls. On the drive back into the city, I took the time to reflect and appreciate Utah’s remarkable outdoors. Within 60 minutes of driving, one can go from standing in the bustling city of tall buildings and loud cars to the serene canyons with towering pines and roaring waterfalls. The fact that nature is so easily accessible in Utah should not be taken for granted. Turn off the AC and put on some hiking shoes: it’s time to go chase some waterfalls.


This article was originally published on August 7, 2019.