Winter in the Wasatch backcountry sure can be intimidating. It is a vast and potentially dangerous land that deserves to be respected. It seems like there are so many highly trained outdoor enthusiasts in Utah that it can be a bit overwhelming for an newbie. Sometimes it is hard to know where we can safely enjoy the beauty of a snowshoe adventure without putting ourselves in harm's way. While there is always a certain amount of danger when leaving the comfort and safety of home in winter, I find it just as dangerous for our spirits to stay cooped up all season indoors. So with that in mind, here is my list of five safe and easy winter hikes in Salt Lake City for those who want to get out but aren't sure where to start. All of these hikes are relatively short and have relatively low avalanche danger.
Bells Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in Salt Lake during the summer months. When you get a fresh coat of snow on the Wasatch benches, Bells quickly becomes the prime location for an easy snowshoe in the valley. This is not a difficult hike, and it's close to town and has a low avalanche risk. You will only need actual snowshoes if there has been a large and recent snowfall. Micospikes or even boots often work well on the packed down trail. The sunset views of Salt Lake Valley below and of Bells Canyon above are particularly stunning when the area is covered in snow.
Ferguson Canyon is lesser known than Bells Canyon, but it can still be pretty busy in the winter. One great thing is that dogs are allowed to join you here, unlike the other hikes on this list. Located just south of the mouth of Big Cottonwood, the steep but beautiful trail offers many dynamic features along the way. You'll see granite cliff walls, waterfalls, and even a lookout over Salt Lake if you go far enough. This trail is always high on my list thanks to its close proximity to town.
Donut Falls is really fun to hike in the winter even if you have done it in summer. The traffic subsides in the winter, but the hike is a bit longer after they close the gate in winter. The trail is packed down by hikers and drivers alike, so full snowshoes are rarely needed. The hike is pretty much flat, making it easy for most skill levels. The frozen waterfall and the small cave you can enter at the top make it a fascinating and unique winter journey.
Hidden Falls is the shortest and easiest of the hikes on this list, and it is located up Big Cottonwood Canyon at the trailhead of Mill B North. The very short trek takes you to a small frozen waterfall and by an abandoned mine located just beyond where the trail heads east up Mill B. This can wet your whistle if you are looking for a really quick trip, or you can continue up the actual Mill B Trail if you are properly prepared.
Tanners Flat is normally a campground in the warmer months, and it is located halfway up Little Cottonwood Canyon alongside a large creek. When the gates are closed for winter it becomes a decently sized playground for several winter activities. Snowshoe and cross-country ski tracks crisscross the snow-covered roads and wind throughout the grounds. Cross the river to access the mountainsides, enjoy the open meadows, or cut a path through the maze of trees. This area is great because total amateurs can find just as much to do as the regulars. You never get too far from the road, so the danger of getting lost is very low.
Remember that, while these are hikes on the safer end of the spectrum, there are zero days that are completely free of danger outside during the winter. Always check the conditions at the Utah Avalanche Center and avoid red, black and maybe even orange days on these "safe" trails. Many of us rely on our cell phones for emergencies, but the cold can drain the batteries very quickly or even shut them off with half power. I always bring a USB battery charger to make sure my lifeline is working properly outside all day. Bring water and snacks even on these shorter trails, use the buddy system, and let people know where you are headed and when you plan to return. A small pack with some dry shirts, gloves and socks is never a bad idea, nor is investing in a pair of gaiters to keep the snow out of your shoes. Hiking in the winter requires a little more preparation, awareness and discipline to be done safely year after year, but it is totally worth the effort. I recently took an in-depth avalanche safety class, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying winter in the Wasatch.
By the way, Ferguson Canyon and Bells Canyon are located below the dreaded inversion layer, and hiking them might not be very enjoyable on days with unhealthy air. Hiking these two on clean air days is best for the views and for your lungs as well. If the air quality is poor, you still have many places where you can escape. Learn more about those hikes by checking out my Salt Lake Inversion Survival Kit.