I went for a nice early season walk in North Willow Canyon with my family last week. Some trails or roads that you wouldn’t consider to hike in the late spring or summer are an absolute pleasure during the late winter or early spring.
Being in the fresh mountain air and feeling the first warm rays of spring sunshine recharges the batteries, so to speak. North Willow Canyon is one of the largest canyon systems in the Stansbury Mountains and the setting is really fantastic.
Stansbury Peak at 10,685 feet above sea level, and North Willow Peak at 10,520 feet above sea level, tower over North Willow Canyon and form an imposing headwall that provides striking views of these peaks’ 1,000 foot-high cliffs when seen from the east.
Every time I approach the mountains from the east in this area I’m in awe of the scenery. Similarly, when I travel Interstate 80 heading west, the massive escarpments of these peaks are an incredible sight. North Willow Canyon drains the area immediately to the east of these great cliffs.
To get there, follow state Route 138 west into Grantsville. This road is also the Main Street of Grantsville. Continue all the way through town and turn left and south onto S West Street which is known locally as the “Mormon Trail.” Follow this road south for about four miles to where a brown sign on the right-hand side of the road announces “North Willow and Davenport Canyons.”
Turn right and head west towards the mountains. You will notice the large berm of Grantsville Reservoir on your left. Just past the reservoir the road changes from pavement to dirt, but the road is good and most cars will have no issues unless it has rained recently. If it has there could be mud and deep ruts.
Continue west to the base of the mountains until the road bends sharply to the south. At this point you can continue straight into Davenport Canyon, but instead, stay on the main road and round the mountain to the south into the mouth of North Willow Canyon. If you go here during the winter or early spring, there will be a locked gate just after you enter the canyon. There is a little room to park a vehicle or two near an old yellow cattle guard here so don’t worry about the gate.
Some fools like to drive around this gate on ATVs and other types of 4X4 vehicles when it is closed for the season. They think they are getting over on the system but what they are doing is causing serious erosion and damaging the environment. Don’t be lazy if you go here. Respect the fact that the U.S. Forest Service closes the road to protect the area during early season. Get out and walk for heck sakes.
There are many reasons why I like to visit North Willow Canyon and the views of the giant peaks rising up through the trees are only one. A principle attraction is one of the finest perennial streams in the Stansburys flows through the canyon. The range is a dry one, so it’s refreshing on a summer day to find a cool stream crossing the road in aspen and fir higher up.
During my early season visit, there was quite a respectable flow in the creek in the lower stretch of the canyon — spring runoff no doubt but the rocks in the creek were covered with moss. It was the thick hairy kind that takes time to grow and requires lots of water to sustain it, so the creek must be dependable here.
It was a bright, sunny day and we walked past a cowboy who had made camp with his horse near the creek. There’s something about campfire smoke that just says “mountains” to me. As we walked up the canyon, the sun shone brightly and the high peaks were white with snow while the lower canyon was free and coming to life. It was nice and warm and we passed half a dozen excellent campsites near the creek along the road.
Another interesting thing about lower North Willow Canyon is the crazy mix of trees and plants you find there. The mountains can’t decide if they are a desert range or a Rocky Mountain range, so they mix both types of vegetation together. Large tangled cottonwoods line the creek as you might expect. What you might not expect is the Douglas fir, white fir, box elder, chokecherry, elderberry and aspen that are mixed in with cottonwoods at 6,000 to 6,200 feet above sea level, which seems unusual. Along with the higher elevation trees and plants, there are lower elevation Utah Juniper, sagebrush, prickly pear and rabbit brush. This veritable smorgasbord of creekside vegetation makes for an interesting scene.
We walked up about a mile beyond the parking spot where we found some large rocks to sit on and have lunch near the creek. At this point the creek was about 10 feet wide and 1.5 feet deep maximum — flowing strong and cold. There were multiple large logs that had fallen across the creek, forming bridges and my daughter and dogs had a great time playing “balance beam” on them as they crossed the creek. In some areas people had made small rock dams that created deep pools that the dogs appreciated.
When you walk up the canyon during early season, you don’t run into too many other people, which is always nice. The options for exploring are endless as well. Many different forks of this canyon and the Stansbury Front Trail offers easy access to Mining Fork of South Willow Canyon, which is the next main canyon south or Davenport Canyon to the North.
If you visit this pretty places, please be respectful of the environment and keep out of areas that are fenced off and don’t drive around locked gates. Pick up after yourself and if you’re of a mind to, pack out some fool’s trash as well. Have a great time and enjoy our beautiful mountains.