“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The gate in South Willow Canyon is locked for the winter, which always makes me sad. It seems to take forever for the gate to reopen in the spring.
But even when the gate is closed, there are great opportunities for the outdoor adventurer in the canyon. The main road is an excellent route for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. There are also several good sub peaks that can be climbed during winter, too.
One of my favorites is a section of the Stansbury Front Trail that starts at the Boy Scout Campground approximately two miles above the locked gate. The section leads to a beautiful overlook of Martin Fork Canyon and provides the hiker with two options: a 7,684 foot-high peak to the east, or a 7,688 foot-high peak to the west.
I prefer the east peak because it’s more isolated from the main ridge. From its summit, you have an un obstructed view of Tooele Valley, lower Martin Fork Canyon to the east, and the Great Salt Lake to the north.
The trail starts in dense Douglas firs where the soil is rich black dirt, thick with needles and cones. The trail heads east as it climbs and then veers west over a few switchbacks and emerges onto an east-facing slope that is treeless.
To the east are some eroded rocks that look like gigantic Rice Krispies Treats. The trail here climbs west to a crest from which you have stunning views of South Willow Canyon and “Stansbury Peak,” which at 10,650 feet high, is the second highest peak in the range.
You also have a great view of a large limestone reef that blocks the bottom of the canyon. Over eons, South Willow Creek has cut through this reef and a similar reef higher up the canyon to form two slots known as lower and upper narrows.
During a recent hike on the trail, I walked out to the edge of the crest through mixed fir and aspen to a rocky ledge for a better view. While there I noticed several small white snail shells about the size of a quarter. I’m not certain if these shells were deposited recently or if they are part of the fossil record. The slope of the mountain is covered with large, bluish-green sagebrush mixed with aspen, juniper and fir forests.
From this overlook, the trail heads steeply south up a side canyon. The views along this stretch of the high Stansbury Crest are impressive. To the north there is a large, rounded summit on the ridge that separates South Willow Canyon and Mining Fork of South Willow Canyon above the Medina Flat Trailhead. Just east along the ridge is a large, orange outcrop of rock that stands out from the surrounding terrain.
Heading south up the hill again, the trail is well defined but damaged by erosion in a few areas, probably due to motorcycle tires grinding into the hill at steep spots to get traction. One great thing about this trail is your four- legged friend is allowed. My dog “Duke” was my hiking buddy on this day. We eventually topped out at the “divide” elevation of 7,425 feet after about a mile of hiking and 925 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead.
From this divide you have incredible views to the south of the upper bowl of Martin Fork Canyon, which is a forested mountain bowl where sagebrush meets a mixed aspen/fir forest. From this divide you can call it a day, or choose the east or west peak as the final destination for your adventure. Steep trails lead to the summit of both peaks.
When there is snow on this trail you have to zig-zag and switchback a bit to reach the peak’s summit, but since we climbed it just before the snow, we were able to go straight up the trail to the peak. Distance from the divide to the summit of either of these sub peaks is only 1/10 of a mile but the views from the top are amazing.
The entire distance to the east peak from the car park at the locked gate is 2.9 miles one way with an elevation gain of 1,784 feet. Now that there is snow on the route, a good pair of snow shoes or cross country skis are recommended, at least for the canyon’s bottom portion. Snow shoes might be a better bet for the higher portions of the route. With the long holiday weekend ahead, don’t let winter hold you back from getting out in the hills. Dress warm, start early and go out and enjoy the beautiful mountains of Tooele County.
How to get there: In Grantsville proceed to West 4th Street and turn left. Follow it south for five miles and then turn right at the sign for South Willow Canyon. Proceed to the locked gate and park. The first section of this adventure is a two-mile road walk up to the Boy Scout Campground. The scenery is good; however, there are lots of cottonwoods along the creek and interesting rock formations on the hills. In particular there is a large, limestone knob that juts nearly 100 feet from the canyon floor and up through the fir trees on the south side of the road.
Once you reach the Boy Scout Campground sign, follow that road left and south across the creek where there are three large culverts under the road. There is usually a good flow of water in the creek at this location year- round. Follow the road as it bends to the left and look for the Stansbury Front Trail sign on the right or “hill” side of the road. The sign states that from this point it is 1.9 miles to Martin Fork and 2.4 miles to Hickman Canyon.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.