If you’re looking for a shorter hike that’s close to Salt Lake Valley, has a stunning destination, and is great for kids of all ages, Donut Falls up Big Cottonwood Canyon is an incredible hike that’s super easy to access. The beautiful scenery, unique waterfall, and countless options for more adventures nearby make this a fantastic hike that won’t disappoint.
Unlike many hikes in the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley, Donut Falls is totally doable all year round. If you are suffering from cabin fever from being stuck inside all winter and need a hike to get you back outdoors, I highly recommend Donut Falls as a winter hike.
Donut Falls is very popular and can get quite busy. I’ll give you some tips to beat the crowds and get the most out of a day hike to Donut Falls.
Trail Details (if there are multiple trails or options, list them here)
From Mill-D Trailhead
Distance: 3.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 538
Dogs Allowed: No
From Summer Trailhead
Elevation Gain: 332 ft
Dogs Allowed: No
There are two possible starting points for hiking to Donut Falls. There are bathrooms at both trailheads, and starting lower adds about 1.8 miles to the hike.
The first starts at the Mill-D Trailhead right off the Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. You’ll want to park on the right side of the road for easiest access to the trailhead (or on the left if the right side parking is full). There is a small parking lot next to the road. To get to the trail you walk a few hundred yards up the side road from the parking lot until you see signs on the left for Donut Falls.
In summer, you can also drive up to the upper Donut Falls Summer Trailhead for a significantly shorter hike. From here there are signs clearly marking the start of the Donut Falls hike. Just make sure you
I’ll describe the hike as if you’re starting from the lower Mill-D Trailhead. The top half follows the same route as if you start at the upper summer trailhead.
From the Mill-D Trailhead, after you hike a short distance along the road and find the trail signs to the left, you’ll follow a nice meandering trail through the aspens and pine trees. The majority of this trail is nicely shaded, so this is a fantastic trail for getting out of the summer heat. In winter the pine trees may be blanketed for snow, making this hike feel like a winter wonderland.
You’ll also cross a few open meadows that can have beautiful wildflowers in June and early July.
After about half a mile, you’ll reach a fork with a connector trail from Spruces Campground. Make sure you stay right to keep going up toward Donut Falls.
After about a mile, you’ll pass the Donut Falls Summer Trailhead. There is a bathroom here if you need to make a pit stop. In summer, the trail will likely be busier from here on up.
You cross through another small meadow and then dive back into the trees. The pine cover here is quite thick and makes it feel like real forest hiking. I love this type of meandering through the trees trail. There’s a lot to keep kids engaged: from wildlife to a perfect little christmas tree that’s often decorated in the winter.
Less than half a mile from the falls, you’ll cross a small bridge over the stream. From here the trail will intersect a wider doubletrack road. Just make sure to stay left to keep heading toward the falls.
This wider trail will cross one last large open meadow, and then you’ll curve left and start to enter a narrow canyon or gulley. This is how you’ll know you are almost to the falls.
After you enter the narrow gulley, you’ll come to a large boulder field and the trail will end. From here you can see the stream cascading over the boulders, but it’s still a few hundred yards before you reach the actual Donut Falls
The last small stretch up to the falls crosses over large rugged boulders that can be wet and slippery. If you are with very small kids or aren’t comfortable with the uneven footing, you may want to stop here. This is a worthy destination in itself with the beautiful stream roaring over the boulders and spectacular cliffs all around you.
If you decide to scramble the last little bit to the falls, make sure you take your time and watch your footing. Ironically, this part can actually be easier in the depth of summer as most of the boulders are blanketed in a thick layer of snow that can give more consistent footing.
To see the actual falls, you’ll enter a small cave-like opening in the rock. The water pours in through a circular hole in the roof before spilling out over the boulderfield. This is what gives it the name Donut Falls.
In summer the mist from the falls will help you cool off, and in winter you can admire the incredible icicles that extend from the ceiling of Donut Falls. This spectacle of rock and water is truly unique and is an amazing reward at the top of the hike.
Hiking Beyond Donut Falls
The Donut Falls Trailhead is the starting point for several longer, more adventurous hikes if you are up for more of a challenge. Most people only go to Donut Falls and then turn around, so if you are looking for more solitude and an escape from the crowds, going farther can get you out into true wilderness quickly.
Kesler Peak towers over Donut Falls to the West. Hiking to the summit of Kesler Peak is steep: the trail climbs almost 3,000 ft in under three miles. While this hike is incredibly steep, it doesn’t involve any real technical scrambling, so it’s a great adventure for families looking for a challenge. To get here, stay to the right about a quarter mile before Donut Falls and look for a steep trail heading farther right.
Starting from the Donut Falls you can also hike up Cardiff Fork into a spectacular glacial basin. This trail follows an old mining road and ends in a beautiful area with some abandoned mines. It’s even possible to make it up to the ridge that divdes the Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and get a view down into the Albion Basin. It travels through potential avalanche terrain, so I’d recommend going this way in summer only.
When To Hike The Donut Falls Trail
The Donut Falls Trail is unique in this area in that it is easily accessible and safe to hike all year round. In summer it makes for a beautiful mountain and forest hike to get out of the heat, but in many ways, it’s even more adventurous and spectacular in the winter.
Donut Falls can become quite crowded on summer weekends, and while it’s still popular in winter, you will definitely run into fewer people. In my opinion, this is a perfect hike to do in winter to avoid the crowds and experience the unique beauty of this season. Hiking season doesn’t have to end just because there’s snow in the mountains.
If you hike Donut Falls in the winter, you will have to start at the Mill D trailhead because the upper trailhead isn’t plowed. Snowshoes are a good idea if there has been snow recently, but this trail is still fairly popular and gets packed down quickly. If it’s been more than a week or two since the last major snowstorm, you can do this hike just in winter boots.
There is a very fun sledding area at the base of the hike, so if you’re bringing kids you could pack a hike and some awesome sledding into one fun, adventurous day!
Tips For Hiking The Donut Falls Trail With Kids
Most of the hike is quite easy and very doable with kids of all ages. There are bridge crossings, tons of wildlife, and a lot of variety on the trail to keep kids engaged.
The last section to the mouth of the waterfall is a scramble over boulders that can be quite wet and slick, so be careful with smaller kids. You may decide to stop at the base of the boulderfield with smaller kids while older kids can hike up to see Donut Falls.
About The Author: Jakob Withyr is an outdoor adventure seeker who collects sunburns, National Park maps, and trail miles. I love anything that gets me outdoors, whether it’s on foot, on skis, on a bike, or on the open road. A Utah native, I’m most at home in mountains and deserts with clear air and bright stars.