A canyon on the way to nowhere is a place to make your own fun
To say that Salt Lake is a canyon explorers’ paradise might be the understatement of the year. With our surrounding Wasatch Range and Oquirrh Mountains, many a Salt Laker can spy a canyon out their back door. From City Creek, Red Butte, Emigration, Parleys, Millcreek, Little and Big Cottonwood to Corner, Butterfield, Harkers and Bingham canyons, residents flock to these inviting crevasses to cool off on hot summer days. But when the snow starts to fly, hikers shy away, unless the canyon is on the way to another city or a ski resort.
Millcreek Canyon is a different animal. It keeps to itself. Its entry point is hidden in an East Bench neighborhood, marked with maybe the smallest sign I’ve ever seen.
You’ll find a few cabins and homes here, as well as a wedding venue and a charming restaurant. The rest is nature—hikes and trails at every turn. Far from loud and commercial, it’s hidden and modest. And in winter, it’s even quieter, attracting devotees of people-powered sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Traveling up the canyon’s well-maintained road, it’s obvious there’s much cold-weather fun to be had. Don’t have enough money for a lift ticket? Hike to a small downhill ski run in Millcreek such as Burch Hollow. If you favor Nordic skiing, Millcreek’s groomed trails are the perfect way to kick and glide the day away. Simply start where the canyon road is closed to maintenance and ski up, and then down, the slight incline. However, for more off-road skiing, access other marked trails from the main canyon road.
If your dog has cabin fever as much as you do, bring your buddy along for the ride. Millcreek welcomes canine companions which, on odd-numbered days, can even travel the trails off-leash.
After researching online, and in favor of simplicity, I decided my first foray into Millcreek as a winter explorer would be on snowshoes—admittedly intimidating for a first-time experience. Luckily, there are guides to keep novices like me on their feet. Utah Mountain Adventures (801-550-3986, UtahMountainAdventures.com) and Wasatch Adventure Guides (435-200-4885, WasatchAdventureGuides.com) offer guiding and instruction in Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and even split-boarding, all popular Millcreek pursuits.
To rent snowshoes or Nordic skis, check with the University of Utah Outdoor Adventures Rental Shop (801-581-8516, CampusRed.Utah.edu/programs/outdoor-adventures) Canyon Sports (801-322-4220, CanyonSports.com) and Sports Den (801-582-5611, SportsDen.com), all of which offer thifty deals, from $9-$13 a day.
The community at Snowshoe Utah (SnowShoeUtah.com) provides advice on everything from safety to trails, and even offers $5 snowshoe rentals. Popular snowshoeing trails in the canyon include Porter Fork, Desolation, Church Fork and others.
Even in the more trafficked areas of the canyon, especially on the canyon road just beyond the closed gate, Millcreek remains surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Despite icy patches of snow, dogs running off leash and people nimbly skiing by me, there are astoundingly few collisions.
Beyond the closed gate, the canyon road continues for about four and a half miles, with a slight yet persistent incline and a small stream that parallels the road for your listening pleasure. Being among the trees in winter is delightful, and I found myself constantly looking up, distracted by the canyon’s beauty.
After a somewhat exhausting hike, I was tired yet invigorated by the fresh mountain air. Millcreek is popular for these short outings and just the spot to start or end your day. You can also drive up after dark and experience a snowy evening in the canyon, including moonlight snowshoeing and Nordic skiing, though on those nights, it’s best to stay on the road or very near it.
Once back at the closed access gate, Log Haven (6451 E. Millcreek Canyon Road, SLC, 801-272-8255, Log-Haven.com), hailed as one of the most romantic restaurants in the country, is only about a half-mile down the road and is just the spot to end the day. Log Haven might have the reputation as a fine-dining cabin on the hill, but the restaurant and its intimate bar are open to all canyon lovers, even those in ski clothes. “There is no dress code here,” Brenda Gomez, Log Haven’s longtime bartender, says.
Gomez says that Log Haven’s cozy charm makes it ideal for an après-ski bite and drink. “I wouldn’t work somewhere that I didn’t like,” she says, which might explain why she’s been working the bar for almost 12 years.
Gomez will even mix something up specially for you if you ask. Manager and co-owner Faith Scheffler recalls many times when Gomez quizzes patrons about the liquors and flavors they like and then creates a specialty drink for them. “Brenda is a great mixologist. People really remember the drinks she makes. They take that experience with them,” Scheffler says.
Gomez also mixes monthly specialty drinks, from a hot-buttered rum to an Old Fashioned and even virgin options such as her Blackberry Fizz. Gomez’s personal favorite is the Bitter Sweet, made with Jameson Whiskey Sour and bitters and then shaken. To finish it off, red wine is floated on top.
Pair it with an after-ski bite such as the alpine nachos, the brownie tart or bread pudding, if you’re craving something sweet.
Gomez acknowledges that in winter, patrons might be deterred by the snow. “People think it’s hard to get here. But the fresh snow is beautiful,” she says. “And they keep the canyon [roads] very clean. We’ve even gone down and picked people up before. We’re all about accommodating the guest.”
It’s hard to improve upon sharing a drink and a meal with a friend at Log Haven—especially after a day of getting worn out by skiing or snowshoeing. “People are always welcome here,” Gomez says, with a warm smile while sitting next to Log Haven’s crackling fire.