As summer arrives in the west the high mountain snowpack begins to melt off. Utah residents are always concerned with flooding at this time of year. It’s not all bad news though; the summer melt means it’s prime time for waterfall viewing. Sure, the Wasatch Mountains aren’t exactly known for waterfalls, but there are a few great ones if you know where to look. Bells Canyon near Sandy City is home to two impressive falls that make a great day hike for adventurers of all ages.
The main Bells Canyon trailhead is about 1/4 mile south of the intersection of Wasatch Boulevard and Little Cottonwood Road. There are limited spaces and parking fills up quickly in peak season. The trail begins as a gravel footpath through the neighborhood; follow the signs for Bells Canyon to stay on track. Hikers will go down a short, steep trail, cross a footbridge and then ascend a very steep section to Lower Bells Reservoir. From here you get an impressive view of Bells Canyon, and can even spy one of the waterfalls you will be hiking to. Follow the service road around the reservoir and eventually a sign points you to the trail proper.
A pleasant path through the lower meadows will bring hikers across another footbridge. From here the trail begins to get tougher- rocks, loose dirt and elevation gain are the name of the game. The trail is well shaded and stays close to the stream for much of the way. During the melt off season the route is more stream than trail in places- make sure you’ve got proper footwear.
The first waterfall takes some scrambling to get to. An obvious trail splits from the main path towards the roar of the water. Hikers need to negotiate a steep hillside filled with loose dirt. Go slow and hold on to the trees for support if you need it. The falls are eye-popping. During heavy flow the spray from the water can be felt at least 50 yards away! If you’ve still got some energy in your legs return to the main trail and continue on to the second waterfall.
Again the path is a stream/trail, and again it is quite steep. At the 7,000′ mark (approximately two miles in) you arrive at a rocky clearing. This clearing shows signs of heavy camping use with a large fire pit behind a boulder. The views of the Salt Lake Valley are impressive. To the north are the Bell Towers: a favorite amongst rock climbers. If you’re lucky you might see some of these daredevils making their way up the walls. This is also a great spot for raptor viewing. You can spot hawks, golden eagles and other birds of prey circling high in the sky near the canyon walls. Just above the clearing is a cairn (small pile of stacked rocks) marking the path to the second falls. Tucked in a shady dell these falls are somewhat smaller, but every bit as impressive, as the first. A few pine trees grow right out of the center, defying the powerful flow of water. Enjoy the scenery and head back the way you came.
Allow 3-5 hours for this out and back hike. Bells Canyon is a watershed area, so your dog cannot make the trip with you. If solitude is what you seek, this hike is not for you. During prime waterfall season there are hikers of every age and ability level on the trail. Though it may be crowded this is still a worthy hike for anyone who likes a reward for their legwork.
Warning: Bells Canyon has seen numerous accidents and fatalities as recently as last season. Respect the awesome power of the water. Resist the urge to get close to the falls or the stream. Though the stream may appear calm in places remember that this water is ice cold and flowing fast. One slip may be all it takes to turn your hike into a breaking news story. Keep children close and make sure everyone in your group understands the dangers associated with these beautiful waterfalls.