About Donut Falls
Donut Falls (I’ve also seen it spelled Doughnut Falls) was so named because the Mill D South Fork Creek spilled into a pothole that someone imagined was shaped like a donut. Beneath the donut was a natural bridge where the water continued cascading down a series of bouldery slopes to comprise the overall main drop of the waterfall. Mill D South Fork would continue cascading some more before reaching more flatter terrain well downstream. Some of this cascading stretch was what I had to traverse in order to get the view that you see pictured at the top of this page, which I’ll get into the specifics later on this page. As for the waterfall itself, the donut part was towards the top of the cascade that you see in the photo above. As you can see, it was quite miniscule compared to the rest of its main section, which I’d imagine probably dropped around 100ft in cumulative height.
We started our hike right from a paved turnoff for Cardiff Fork, which might also be referred to as the Mill D Parking Lot (see directions below). The Cardiff Fork Road that would have allowed us to drive the remaining mile or so to the official trailhead for Donut Falls was closed by a gate. I suspected that since there was a private community beyond this gate, a compromise was struck between the landowners and the Forest Service to only allow vehicular traffic beyond the gate for residents. So we had to walk the initial mile or so of pavement. And despite the fact that it was on pavement, we had to take the walking a little bit slow due to the high altitude of this section of Big Cottonwood Canyon (the trailhead was at nearly 7,500ft). The road would ascend then briefly dip past some private homes of the Cardiff Fork community before making another short climb towards the designated parking area and trailhead for Donut Falls.
Beyond the trailhead, where there was a little restroom as well as some signage, the trail then resumed its ascent along a pretty wide dirt trail. There was a lot of tree cover, including some groves of the cottonwood trees that probably earned Big Cottonwood Canyon its name (so the Fall Colors here must be amazing). In addition, there was still quite a few patches of snow flanking and crossing over the trail, but for the most part, the hiking was pretty straightforward though the high altitude made our hearts race and our lungs burn. At around a half-mile beyond the official trailhead (or 1.5 miles from the Big Cottonwood Canyon Road), we then crossed over a footbridge, which then promptly intersected with a wider trail that continued south along the west side of the Mill D South Fork Stream. This intersection was noteworthy because it would be easy to miss on the return hike given how much narrower the trail to the bridge was compared to the larger trail paralleling the Mill D South Fork Stream’s west side.
For the remaining 0.3 miles or so, we kept left at the forks and eventually scrambled down a short but steep embankment leading down to the Mill D South Fork. Since we didn’t pursue hiking on the right side of the forks, we can’t say anything more about them. However, I do suspect that it would have led us up closer to the brink of Donut Falls (i.e. closer to the donut hole). If we’re fortunate enough to come back here, I might pursue that to complete the experience. Nevertheless, we then followed the Mill D South Fork until the trail abruptly ended where any further progress involved crossing the very cold and fast-running Mill D South Fork. In addition to signage proclaiming that swimming and wading was prohibited, this obstacle was pretty much the end-of-the-hike for most visitors unwilling to get wet to continue. While the view from here left a lot to be desired given the presence of obstructing trees and how distant the falls was, it was still possible to get decent photos as well as a glimpse of the donut that earned this falls its name.
Since I came prepared with Keens, I did manage to scramble across the Mill D South Fork, which was painfully frigid on the day of our visit in late May 2017. At the time, the depth of the water was about as high as ankle deep (depending on how the route to cross was chosen), and there was a large flat boulder where I managed to get a decent direct look at the Donut Falls. Continuing further to the other side (and letting my feet recover from the exposure to the ice cold water), I then managed to get my best views of the waterfall. In fact, the photo at the top of this page was taken from this spot. It was also possible to scramble up higher to get a slightly closer but more angled look at the Donut Falls, but I opted not to venture any closer to the waterfall from here given the exposure to dropoffs and the slippery terrain (not to mention the presence of snow around the falls).
After having my fill of experiencing Donut Falls from this spot, I then crossed back over to the side of the official trail, changed shoes, and went back the way we came. Overall, we had spent about 3 hours away from the car though I suspected that I had probably spent at least over 30 minutes around the Donut Falls, including the creek crossings. Since the gate was closed when we did the hike, the overall round-trip hiking distance was about 3.5 miles instead of roughly 1.5 miles.
From downtown Salt Lake City, we went west towards one of the on-ramps for the I-15 heading south. We then drove on the I-15 South for roughly 3 miles before taking the I-80 East. We then continued east on the I-80 for roughly 5 miles before keeping right to go south on the I-215 South. After roughly another 5.5 miles or so on the I-215 South (Belt Route), we then took exit 6 for 6200 South then kept left to continue east on UT190. After roughly 1.7 miles on the UT190, we then turned left onto Big Cottonwood Canyon Road. From there, we took the winding road up roughly 9 miles to a large turnoff turned parking area before the gate for Cardiff Fork on the right. This area might also be known as the Mill D Parking Area. In any case, this was where we stopped the car and began our hike. There was parking on the other side of the UT190 though there was a trail for a different hike that started on that side. Overall, this drive took us around 35 minutes including all the traffic lights.
To give you some overall context, Salt Lake City was about 302 miles (over 4 hours drive) north of St George, 234 miles (over 3.5 hours drive) northwest of Moab, 215 miles (3 hours drive) south of Idaho Falls, Idaho, 421 miles (over 5.5 hours drive) north of Las Vegas, Nevada, and 688 miles (over 9.5 hours drive) north of Los Angeles, California.
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