Hikes in American Fork Canyon

American Fork Canyon

The American Fork Canyon is part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and is located southeast of Salt Lake City off State Route 92, a popular scenic byway that attracts over 1 million visitors a year.  As a result, entry requires a $6 three-day pass, a $12 weekly pass, a $45 yearly pass, or a National Parks pass.

I spent three weeks in Salt Lake City, and of the five areas to hike within 60 miles east of the city, Emigration Canyon, Mill Creek Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Little Cottonwood Canyon, and American Fork Canyon, I favored the latter.  The hillsides dotted in aspen and lakes tucked beneath glacier carved peaks are simply spectacular.

The American Fork Canyon offers visitors several hiking options from easy to hard.  Some of my favorites include: Stewart Falls, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Silver Glance Lake and Emerald Lake.

Stewart Falls

Stewart Falls is located just on the other side of the easterly pay station on Hwy 92 next to Sundance Resort.  The large parking lot accommodates visitors who wish to take Stewart Falls Trail to the left or to take Aspen Grove Trail to the right for a very hard climb to Emerald Lake and Mount Timapanogos.

The easy roundtrip hike to Stewart Falls is 3.6 miles with only 300 feet of elevation gain both coming and going, as the trail peaks before it descends through intermittent aspen groves, some leveled by recent avalanches, to the falls.

While the trail can get very busy in the summer and on weekends, a mid-morning weekday hike in the fall proves somewhat tranquil.  Any waterfall lovers will enjoy spectacular viewpoints of the cascades both at its base as well as about half-way up.  Some brave souls even take a dip in the upper pool.  Though rocky at times, this is a great trail for light hikers.

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

The Timpanogos Cave National Monument is a network of three caves that were connected together by the Civilian Conservation Corps around 80 years ago.  It is currently under the protection of the National Park Service.

Anyone may hike the steep 1.5 mile paved trail up 1,000 feet to the cave, but in order to go inside, a $12 tour is required.  The popular attraction sells out regularly, so it is best to purchase a ticket in advance online. 

The time slot purchased indicates when visitors begin the climb to the cave’s entrance which takes the average person an hour.  The ranger at the visitor center will assign the tour time which is 1.5 hours after the time printed on the ticket. 

Upon reaching the entrance, a ranger will guide a group through the cave.  Should the preceding time slot not sell out, it is possible for fast hikers to join an earlier tour.  Once inside the cave, the tour lasts 50 minutes. 

While some rangers have a pre-determined spiel, our guide claimed that spiels are annoying, so it was up to us to ask questions.  With that, we began our exploring.

Hansen Cave

The first, and smallest cave, Hansen, so named for its discoverer Martin Hansen, was discovered in 1887.  Hansen invited many friends to the cave, and as a result, most of the formations were damaged or removed.

Middle Cave

The second, Middle Cave, features the largest chamber.  The cave is deep enough into the mountain that no true light penetrates the cavern.  As such, when the ranger turned off the lights, our eyes could not adjust.  Whether we opened or closed our eyes, the darkness remained the same.  We couldn’t even see our fingers wiggling in front of our face.  It was a little disconcerting!

Timpanogos Cave

The third cave, Timpanogos Cave, displays one of the largest collections of rare helictites, formations that look like they defy gravity as they grow in peculiar directions.  The caves also include the usual formations such as columns, stalactites, stalagmites, and drapery.

Of the caves I’ve visited, this network was small and lacked prolific formations.  Given it takes hundreds of years for a formation to grow an inch, perhaps this network is just younger.  While the steep climb to the cave isn’t for everyone and may deter some from visiting, both history buffs and geologists will like the interpretive markers along the way.

Silver Glance Lake

The moderate 5.9 mile hike to Silver Glance Lake might be one of my favorite hikes near Salt Lake City.  Just the drive to the trailhead past an aqua reservoir, to a winding dirt road which climbs through aspen groves to Silver Lake Flat is a treat.  That doesn’t even count the magnificent views of towering peaks.

Silver Lake Flat in American Fork Canyon
Silver Lake Flat

The trail begins in an aspen grove and slowly climbs through colorful shrubbery to magnificent views of the canyon valley below.  A waterfall trickles down the limestone cliff to the left as the trail climbs to Silver Lake tucked beneath a semi-circle of cliffs.

The climb to Silver Lake isn’t too steep and stopping here for a snack is a great option.  The additional ¾ mile to Silver Glance Lake ascends 900 feet through steep terrain.  While Silver Glance Lake isn’t as pretty as Silver Lake, it is all natural and doesn’t have a man-made dam like almost all lakes in the nearby canyons.

The hike up to Silver Glance Lake (or down I should say) provides spectacular views of Silver Lake and surrounding slopes peppered in fall color.  While the view alone makes the steep ascent worth it, rumor has it there is also an Excalibur sword cemented into a nearby peak!

Between waterfalls, lakes, fall color, and man-made props this trail offers something for everyone and the shorter distance to Silver Lake makes it a nice option for many a hiker.

Emerald Lake via Aspen Grove Trail

The difficult 10-mile hike to Emerald Lake in American Fork Canyon is spectacular.  The Aspen Grove Trail begins at 6,500 feet in a shaded forest.  Soon it climbs from the shade to the sun on paved trail.  It is a little unusual for a path to go from dirt to paved in the middle of the wilderness, but the asphalt only lasts until reaching the first of many lovely waterfalls which makes for a nice stroll for the typical tourist.

A second waterfall sprays down the grey cliff just a few minutes later before the trail turns sharply right and enters into a series of switchbacks.  The trail continues its gradual climb past a combination of flowers and fall colors for another mile while providing commanding views of snow dusted peaks ahead.  Along the way, hikers pass several small cascades and places indicating snowmelt runoff.

View on Aspen Grove Trail in American Fork Canyon

Soon the trail climbs steeply through limestone terraces at the top of Primrose Cirque.  The narrow path hugs the cliff and anyone who has a fear of heights might not like this mild exposure.  This ¾ mile stretch with at least 1,000 feet of elevation gain leads hikers to a high meadow.

After one more gradual ascent, Emerald Lake, tucked beneath a prominent peak, comes into view. Upon arrival hikers may take cover from any wind in the nearby dilapidated shelter, look for a local herd of mountain goats, check out the cool waymarker in the center of the lake, watch snowboarders snake down the glacier, or simply have a snack in a glorious setting.

Anyone who still has energy may continue the hike through the saddle and up to Mount Timpanogos for a 14-mile trek, just be sure to get an early start and wear sunscreen.  What a hard, yet rewarding trail.

American Fork Canyon

American Fork Canyon offers hikes for everyone, from easy to difficult.  The terrain and beauty is magnificent.  Be sure to visit American Fork Canyon when in Salt Lake City.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

7 thoughts on “Hikes in American Fork Canyon

    1. Yes. I usually seek out Moab, Bryce and Zion in the winter, but had an opportunity to go to SLC so I found some other places. Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are also great. I will be posting about them soon. Thanks for reading and commenting

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