Trip Report: Day Hike - Hike With a Ranger

Day Hike - Hike With a Ranger
By Paula McFarland
HIKE 09/02/2023 NTD

Our Hike with a Ranger on the Donut Falls trail in BCC (Big Cottonwood Canyon) was a very fun and interesting activity. After carpooling to the trailhead, our group met with Matthew Hales, US Forest Service Trails Crew Foreman. Matt introduced us to Avery Kjar, who co-led the hike and offered his expertise as a bird and mushroom expert. Matt started by giving the group a briefing on what he planned to cover and confirmed that all were prepared for our 1.6-mile hike.
Matt’s presentation covered a lot of the history of BCC, starting with evidence of the first human inhabitants during the last part of the ice age, approximately 14,000 years ago. The most prominent inhabitants were the Freemont Indians, who lived in BCC from around 300 A.D. until 1300 A.D. They were followed by the Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Ute tribes, who shared the canyon until they were displaced when the Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847.
As the Pioneers began farming the valley, they decided to manage water collectively, rather than privately. They realized early on that water from City Creek alone would not be adequate to support the population, so they developed a series of agreements to receive water from both BCC and LCC (Little Cottonwood Canyons). At that time, BCC was primarily used for sheep and cattle grazing, logging, and mining of silver and other precious metals. Other businesses also supported BCC inhabitants including sawmills, a slaughterhouse, and inns. At the mouth of BCC, beehive-shaped kilns served as smelters for the mines and filled the valley air with sulfuric acid. In 1850’s, there was also a toll booth at the mouth of BCC, which lasted for several years until a local sawmill operator, Alvie Butler, got fed up paying the toll and threatened to beat the toll booth operator with a sawed-off log. Mr. Butler, along with other protesters, was allowed to pass without paying the toll and eventually the toll booth was removed.
Matt shared several more fun stories of early characters who lived in BCC. One notable story was about the Maxfield brothers who ran a logging operation in Mill A gulch where they found silver-bearing ore. Since they were loggers and not miners, they sold their mining claim for a wagon, a team of mules and $80 cash. The Maxfield mine eventually made more than $1M in gold and silver - an excellent return on investment! The Maxfield mine also led to the formation of the town of Argenta, with 200 inhabitants, a good hotel, tri-weekly stagecoach service, and the only post office in BCC. When the mines began going out of business, Argenta residents began moving away and the town now no longer exists.
The early mining, grazing, and logging activity denuded the watershed and led to deteriorating water quality, as well as timber shortages. These issues were happening all over the country, which led to the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. Salt Lake City reached out to the Federal Government for help. In 1902, Albert Potter (future assistant chief of the Forest Service) toured both BCC and LCC, as well as most of Utah. He proposed several boundaries for Forest Reserves in Salt Lake and Grantsville, and they were established in 1904, as proposed, by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1905, the US Forest Service was established, with Gifford Pinchot as its first chief. Mr. Pinchot toured BCC with Reed Smoot, a Utah Senator, who was a strong supporter. Shortly thereafter, the Wasatch tree nursery was established where the Spruces Campground is now located. The nursery operated for 12 years and produced millions of seedlings. Each year for the next 12 years, men planted hundreds of seedlings on the bare slopes of BCC. It’s estimated that, at its height, the tree nursery produced 5 million trees.

When the tree nursery closed, the site was converted to a community camp for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) who completed various improvement projects in BCC during the 1930’s. One of the CCC’s crew foremen was none other than ski-jumping champion Alf Engen. Mr. Engen was instrumental in building a ski jump, an ice rink, and a bobsled course where tournaments, lessons, and exhibitions were held. From 1939 – 1941 the community camp was converted to a public site and what is now the Spruces Campground.
After sharing some great BCC history, Matt asked us all to look around and notice that most of the trees we now see in BCC are either Engelmann Spruce or Sub-Alpine Fir. These trees grew from Wasatch nursery seedlings that were most adaptable to BCC. Because of the major tree-replanting activities done in the early 1900’s, these trees are all about the same age, which would be unusual in a typical forest.
We were surprised to learn that the Wasatch National Forest was one of the first national forests in the country. The forest in BCC is primarily used for recreation and is managed in cooperation with the Salt Lake City Watershed and the Salt Lake Ranger District, as well as local Governments, non-profits such as the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, and other volunteers including the Wasatch Mountain Club. Due to cooperative efforts, the water quality was restored in BCC and is still maintained to this day. Salt Lake City continues to receive around 35% of its water from the local canyons.
Along with BCC history, Avery identified multiple mushroom types and several species of birds that we spotted along the way. Several in our group collect mushrooms and were particularly interested in identifying edible versus non-edible varieties. Avery discussed various characteristics of edible versus non-edible mushrooms, but strongly cautioned us not to eat anything that we’re not 100% sure of, especially those with gills.
Our hike ended a short distance from Donut Falls. Matt expressed his sincere appreciation for the WMC’s support and trail maintenance volunteers. In turn, we expressed our appreciation for them taking time to hike with us and educate us about the forest. After a snack and water break, Matt and Avery left us to make our way back to the trailhead while they went on to do some work in the area. At this point, some in our group went on to explore Donut Falls while the others turned around and headed back to the cars. On our return trip, WMC member Robert Turner identified and discussed various wildflower species found along the trail. All in all, it was a very interesting and informative hike. We all came away with a greater understanding and appreciation for one of our local treasures.

View Photo Album