Box Elder Canyon is one of the larger canyons in the Stansbury Mountain Range, but probably one of the least visited due to its location just south of South Willow Canyon.
Most people who visit the Stansbury’s don’t venture past the South Willow Canyon turn off on the Mormon Trail, but if you go just over a mile further south, you will see a sign on the west side of the road that reads “Box Elder Canyon.” Turn right and follow the dirt road west towards the mountains for about three miles to where it becomes impassable for most vehicles. I usually park somewhere off the side of the two track in this area.
If you have a major 4X4, you can get past this point, and you’re lucky if you do, because the road is in decent shape for a good distance after that. The canyon is wide open along most of this area. It is sagebrush country with wildflowers mixed in depending on the season.
The canyon starts to gradually close in a bit as you go along and you eventually enter the juniper forest belt. The U.S. Forest Service has installed a new sign with some backcountry information on it. From here you have numerous options as where to go. Box Elder Canyon starts heading to the west and then bends southwest in an arc between Little Bald Mountain on the left, and Bald Mountain on the right. Box Elder Canyon is a complex of numerous forks and sub canyons. These canyons, from north to south, are Cedar Fork, Martin Fork, White Pine Fork, Bald Mountain Fork (Un-named on USFS Maps), and Abbots Fork.
The roads in the canyon bottoms are easy to follow in most areas and eventually turn into footpaths. The trails up Martin Fork and White Pine Fork eventually run into the Stansbury Front Trail 031, making longer circuits or overnight excursions possible.
Box Elder Canyon and its sub canyons are typical Stansbury Mountain vegetation and terrain being broad and windswept with sagebrush and mountain grasses on the southwest facing slopes and heavily forested with Douglas fir and aspen on the northeast facing slopes. Bald Mountain frowns over the entire area but the sub canyons are distinct from one another. I have hiked all over in this canyon but my favorite area to venture into has to be White Pine Fork.
One day in late May, we decided to take a hike up White Pine Fork. USFS Ranger Paul Dart had told me that there was an old, overgrown trail that would provide access to the Stansbury Front Trail and then up to Box Elder Pass overlooking Hickman Canyon. I had noticed this trail on maps before, but Dart stated that it was in disrepair. However, I could look for old forest service blazes on tree trunks as they were still visible and could guide my way.
We parked at the point that I described previously where the rocks get too rough, and proceeded west and southwest past the entrance to Martin Fork at 3.3 miles from the Mormon Trail to the entrance of White Pine Fork, which is 4.2 miles from the Mormon Trail. The main dirt road in the bottom of the canyon continues southwest up Abbots Fork, but the way to White Pine is clear across an open grassy flat in the canyon bottom on an old two track that branches west from the main road and passes through an old stock fence.
After this point the road turns into a trail and we lost it several times in the bottom of the wash but eventually found it again on the south side of the canyon just above the wash. From this point the trail was faint and then completely indiscernible. Some areas were great and then in others, if it wouldn’t have been for the old blazes on the trees that Dart told me about, I would have been lost for sure.
It was hot that day and the heat was kind of oppressive down there in the wash. As the trail climbed, we got into more fir forest and some tall and slender aspen that were being choked out by evergreens. We finally reached the Stansbury Front Trail and followed it past a few springs and a tiny creek up to Box Elder Pass. It was interesting to see some of the old concrete troughs built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
By the time we reached Box Elder Pass, we had hiked roughly four miles from our vehicle, but we decided that wasn’t enough. We headed straight west from the pass up to the top of peak 9,241 immediately east of 10,230 foot-high Hickman Peak. It was a steep climb to get there from the pass.
The effort was worth it though as the views were spectacular. To the immediate west were the dark places of Hickman Peak that were still strewn with old snow. To the south was Hickman Canyon and Vickory Mountain with its dense aspen and evergreen forests. At that altitude the sagebrush was matted to the ground no more than about four inches high with limber pine here and there. There was pointed sub alpine fir clinging to the northeast face of this peak. As with many of the remote peaks that I climb after surveying the scene, I thought to myself: Wow, I have a long way back to the vehicle. Why the heck did I come up here? I guess it’s just the call of the wild to borrow a phrase. We descended the horribly steep slope to Box Elder Pass, yet at every step we had excellent views into White Pine Fork of Box Elder Canyon and Tooele Valley.
If you decide to venture into Box Elder Canyon, take plenty of water as springs and streams are undependable and fouled by livestock. Mountain flowers, fir forests and amazing views are the attraction here as well as some long, steep hikes into the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah. He has a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Utah, and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He, his wife and daughter live in Stansbury Park. Follow him on Facebook (JD Jessop) for more hikes and travels.