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January 17, 2011

AF Canyon A Slice Of Powder Heaven



Lane Lindstrom


If it’s true that good things come in small packages, then put American Fork Canyon on your wish list of places to ride.

This is just a sliver of an area open to snowmobiling but it’s a slice of heaven when it comes to terrific terrain and deep snow.

Located east and a bit north of Utah Valley in the Wasatch Mountains, American Fork Canyon can be accessed from Utah Valley on the west or the Heber Valley on the east. As you look at a map to get your bearings, you’ll notice the snowmobiling spots are surrounded by Wilderness areas, ski resorts and other non-motorized locations closed to sledding. In fact, you’ll think there is little area for sleds (remember, we did say a sliver).

Don’t panic, though. There is still room for snowmobiling.

Good things really do come in small packages and American Fork Canyon is proof positive.

While you’re still digesting how such a relatively small area can be such a good one for snowmobiling, let us throw out a comparison snowmobilers might think twice about. If you want to get an idea of the kind of terrain there is up American Fork Canyon, just look at the number of ski resorts that flank the riding area. These include some of Utah’s most popular and biggest downhill resorts, like Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and, over the mountain, Park City and Deer Valley. Aside from the snowfall figures the resorts tout (upwards of 500 inches, which can be verified by various snotel sites), another number that should pique your interest is vertical drop—which varies from 1,700 to 3,200 feet at those ski hills.

Take What We Can Get

Now we’ve got your attention. Yes, we would really like more riding area, especially in this stretch of the Wasatch Mountains , but we’ll take what’s there because it’s spectacular.

On day one of our ride up American Fork Canyon, we accessed the riding area from Utah Valley on Utah Highway 92. There are two parking areas on the west side: Tibble Fork and Pine Hollow (or as it’s sometimes noted on maps, Mutual Dell). We parked at the Tibble Fork trailhead (the parking area is right next to Tibble Fork Reservoir—elevation 6,392 feet), which was about the only flat place we were all day. Bonus.

There are two groomed trails leaving from Tibble Fork, the 2.6-mile Trail J that leads to Silver Lake Flat Reservoir and Trail D/Mill Flat-Tibble Fork, a 15.7-mile path that goes into Wasatch Mountain State Park and parking areas on the east side.

Don’t be confused with Silver Lake and Silver Lake Flat Reservoir. Silver Lake is in the Lone Peak Wilderness while Silver Lake Flat Reservoir has a groomed trail leading to it.

Sledders need to pay attention to Wilderness boundaries while riding American Fork Canyon. Many of the popular off-trail riding spots go right up next to the Wilderness and it’s the snowmobiler’s responsibility to know where those boundaries are.

We followed the Mill Flat-Tibble Fork Trail to Mary Ellen Gulch, where we peeled off the trail and headed up the gulch toward even higher country. Up Mary Ellen Gulch is the old Live Yankee Gold Mines and Globe Mines with a few abandoned buildings (including an old outhouse that sits on the edge of a cliff, offering great views of the valley below and surrounding mountains).

Our Kind Of Playground

Toward the top of the gulch, there are a few bowls, lots of hillclimbing and great tree riding. We climbed to a ridge just below Twin Peaks (east peak 11,433 feet, west peak 11,489 feet), which gives you an amazing view of Mount Timpanogos, the Twin Peaks, Mary Ellen Gulch, Major Evans Gulch and just about everything else in sight. Some high clouds obstructed some of the taller peaks but the views were still amazing.

From the ridge we dropped into Major Evans Gulch and played in untouched and several inches of new snow. The snow was best below the ridge on both sides of the mountain. On the very top the wind had scoured the ridge clean in some spots.

On the other side of Twin Peaks are the ski runs for Snowbird, which, of course are off-limits.

Once back on the Mary Ellen Gulch side of the ridge, we climbed up onto Merril Flat—which is a bit of a misnomer, it’s definitely not flat—which is behind the mines and below Twin Peaks. From there it was over a ridge to Mineral Basin, where it’s quite a drop through the trees down to the bottom. From the ridge you can see Snowbird’s Mineral Basin lifts. From there it was down American Fork Canyon along a creek to the Mill Flat-Tibble Fork Trail.

East Side

On day two we rode from the east side, parking in Wasatch Mountain State Park heading in the same general direction as where we rode the day before but staying a ridge or two over. From the parking area we boondocked through the trees to Snake Creek Trail and then to Mill Flat-Tibble Fork Trail (the trails were prime condition that day) back to American Fork Canyon, crossing the Wasatch Mountains before reaching AF Canyon. We didn’t ride up into the canyon as far as we were the day before, but headed off the path and up Dry Fork. The area we played in was basically the backside of Alta Ski Resort. Our guide, Dustin Sweeten, told us the area is called Bloody Gulch with no real explanation as to why the name.

The area features challenging, steep terrain that can be unforgiving in places. Other spots are more moderate but if the snow was really deep, it would all be challenging. The day we rode Bloody Gulch, the snow was a bit tracked up and had a good base, allowing us to ride just about anywhere and everywhere. We did head up to the ridge (10,698 feet) that marks the edge of the Alta Ski Resort, staying, of course, on the legal side to ride. Again, once you gain some elevation, the views are amazing. There were no clouds hindering our views on day two and it was a day where it’s easy to see why sledders—and skiers—like this part of Utah during the winter.

Before heading back to the truck, we made a quick side trip to Cascade Springs, which is always a fun stop and easy to get to via groomed trail. Once there you can walk around the springs using the raised boardwalks and wooden bridges. Of course you have to be careful because they aren’t shoveled in the winter so there will likely be snow on the paths. At Cascade Springs, water from the springs flows over terraces, small waterfalls and pools and around vegetation (some of which is green even in the dead of winter) before it makes its way into the Provo Deer Creek. Nearly 7 million gallons of water flows through Cascade Springs every day.

The terrain is more open and not quite as steep near this part of the trail system. There are more open and rolling hills compared to the steep verts on the northern part of the area. That variety broadens the appeal of American Fork Canyon and Wasatch Mountain State Park to sledders of all skill levels. If you want elevation—more than the 9,000-plus feet you’ll get on the trail—then this area’s got it. But, if that’s not your thing, well, then, you can have that too.

So while on paper the area may look restrictive, you can easily spend two or three days exploring the country and only cross your tracks when you head back to the parking areas on trail.

You see, good things can come in small packages.


Itinerary


American Fork Canyon/Wasatch Mountain State Park

Elevation 8,000-9,000 feet

Snowfall 150-300 inches

Miles of Groomed Trails 60 miles

Full Service Town Midway, Heber City, Pleasant Grove, American Fork

Nearest Airport Salt Lake City (45 miles from Heber City; 39 miles from Pleasant Grove)

Getting Started Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce (866) 994-3237 www.gohebervalley.com; Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 222-8824 www.utahvalley.com

Getting There To access American Fork Canyon from the west, take Utah Highway 92 (exit 284 off Interstate 15) into the canyon. Snow plowing of the highway stops several miles up the canyon, where there is a parking area. Or for the Tibble Fork parking area, watch for the signs that indicate to turn left off Highway 92. Then it’s just a short drive up to the parking area. From the east, there’s a trailhead at Aspen Grove, where road plowing stops on the other side of Highway 92 off U.S. Highway 189. There’s also a trailhead near the Midway Fish Hatchery and a couple of trailheads in Wasatch Mountain State Park. The park is located off the northwest corner of Midway.

Getting Around Bring your own sled.

Bedding Down There are accommodations on both sides of the Wasatch Range.

Eating Out There are also plenty of dining options on both sides of the Wasatch.




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