I found some adventure last weekend in the Wasatch Mountains with a great payoff at the end: a series of small waterfalls rumbling down the mountain in the forest.
When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes take us up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the White Pine Slide area and then we would explore and climb on all of the massive granite boulders that litter the canyon floor.
This was a fun thing to do as a kid because the boulders were large and difficult to get over and around. Each time you topped out on one, you would have an incredible view of the high canyon walls, the piled broken rock and the forest all around.
While on a weekend errand trip to Salt Lake City, I took my wife up the canyon to show her where we used to explore as kids.
We drove up Little Cottonwood Canyon to an area one-half mile past the Tanner Flat Campground where there is a wide parking area on the north side of the road banked with a boulder retaining wall. This is where we parked, crossed the road to the south, and immediately encountered Little Cottonwood Creek down in the draw.
This is a beautiful spot. There is crystal-clear water running over boulders in tiny falls that form deep pools and down small rock chutes. There were a lot of old, piled logs and some larger old trees that had fallen across the creek, so we had to choose our steps carefully and balance as we crossed.
On the south side of the creek, we followed a faint path through a spruce and fir forest with thick forest understory consisting of various bushes, flowers and plants. We broke through the edge of the forest onto boulders — and this is where the fun begins. It’s like a maze because you will walk across the top of one giant boulder and then end up at a drop that is not feasible to cross, which then requires you to backtrack. Some of these boulders require that you use all fours and climb down or up to the next level so that you can continue.
When you top out on a boulder in the middle of this rock field, you have some stunning views of incredible geology and alpine scenery. According to the Utah Geological Survey, between 30,000-10,000 years ago, Little Cottonwood Canyon was filled hundreds of feet of glacial ice. This Pleistocene glacier carved out one of the most beautiful and best examples of a “U” shaped valley in the world. The glacier was about 12 miles long and up to 800 feet deep.
As the glacier ground out the canyon, and tributary glaciers carved horn peaks and hanging valleys, giant boulders the size of cars and houses were deposited in great heaps, piles and windrows near the canyon mouth creating terminal moraines.
While climbing on the rocks you have to be careful. If you slip and drop your leg down into a crack between rocks, your body weight could potentially snap your leg like a twig. Some of the voids between the gigantic boulders are deep, too. If you dropped a camera, phone or water bottle, it would be gone forever in some areas. I thought that these boulders must have been deposited by glacial action, but, surprisingly, that was not the case.
A fantastic free resource is available to anyone considering a drive or exploration up Little Cottonwood Canyon called “Geologic Guide to the Central Wasatch Front Canyons” — Publication Information Series 87, Utah Geological Survey. This PDF product is available on the web at files.geology.utah.gov/geo_guides/c_wasatch/pdf/pi-87.pdf.
The publication describes the geologic history of these beautiful canyons and is full of color maps, charts, diagrams and pictures of interesting geo sights. Page 21 is specific to Little Cottonwood Canyon and it states that this boulder field was created by an enormous prehistoric rockslide.
My wife and I had a great time climbing all over these rocks, and as we neared the middle of the canyon bottom, we began to hear a dull, rushing sound. As we continued south towards the canyon wall, it became louder and louder until we realized that it was not the wind in the aspen or fir trees, but the noise of rushing water — and lots of it. Excited by this discovery we continued on towards the noise because whatever was making it was concealed in the evergreens.
We finally emerged on the edge of a fast rushing stream that was rumbling down the canyon wall at a steep angle like a roller coaster in a series of turbulent water falls. The water was white and churning as it rushed down the mountain through the trees. The area around the stream here was cooler than the rest of the canyon and refreshing on a hot day in late July.
After admiring this hidden waterfall, which I assume is White Pine Creek, we made our way back to the boulder field through various bushes that had white and bright red berries on them, coneflowers and aspen and then climbed up and across the boulders, across Little Cottonwood Creek and back to the parking lot.
This is a great little adventure not far from Tooele. It does not take a lot of time but gives a tremendous payoff to the intrepid explorer. There is no trail here. The creek crossing can be difficult and should not be attempted during peak runoff due to significant danger of drowning.
You need to have good shoes, strong legs and a good sense of balance if you go there. I loved this place as a kid and I still do. Be prepared, be safe and go enjoy the mountains because summer is going fast. I highly recommend an exploration here if time and schedule allow.
MAP: USGS Dromedary Peak 1:24,000 Quadrangle.
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.