Running the Mountains in Big Cottonwood Canyon

David W. Eckhof

From our cabin in the community of Silver Fork there are basically two directions that you can run into the mountains. One is to the south up Silver Fork Canyon, over to Honeycomb Canyon and returned via the Solitude Return Trail. The other is to the north up Willow Creek, around Mud Lake and environs, and returning via the old wagon road down into Silver Fork. Years ago I used to run these two routes regularly. But over the past couple of years our visits to the cabin have been cut back for a variety of reasons — mostly medical and health related. Consequently, my mountain runs have been few and far between. Now we were going to spend two nights at the cabin, and I would have the opportunity to do both runs during the same visit. Wow! Silver Fork Canyon On Sunday morning I decided to run the South route up Silver Fork Canyon. This route starts out in Silver Fork, heads down just below the highway on the old Silver Fork Drive, goes down across Big Cottonwood Creek (over a two log bridge) past the old Lost Emma Mine, back into Silver Fork and up a steep trail into Silver Fork Canyon, up a steeper old logging road to Honeycomb Canyon, down the Solitude Return Trail, returning to Silver Fork Community. The overall distance is four to five miles, but in that terrain mileage doesn’t mean anything. It’s the elevation difference that gets you. And the steepness of the trail in places. I estimate that the elevation difference is about 1000 feet.

On Sunday morning I was pretty fresh, but those hills were tough. The winter snows and winds had resulted in many trees falling across the trails. After a while the small impediments add up to a lot of energy-depleting hassle, but in the beauty of that environment the word “hassle” doesn’t even enter your mind. Two years ago in the autumn I was taking in the colorful scenery and not paying attention to the running path. I tripped over a rock, fell to the ground and received a large gash on my forehead, just above my right eye. Twelve stitches. So much for beauty! Nowadays, if I want to look, I stop. And it’s just as beautiful when you stop as it is when you are running.

There are two routes up Silver Fork Canyon, one along the Forest Service access road on the western side of the canyon, and the other through the trees up the east side of the canyon along an old waterline route. I much prefer the latter, because it is a much more forested and peaceful environment. It especially fits in with a Sunday morning run. Coming down the Solitude Return Trail I encountered a young woman jogging uphill. This was the first person I can remember having seen jogging up that trail. I thought to myself, “good for her.” And then I saw it: she had her iPod plugged into both ears. She couldn’t hear any of the sounds of nature on that gorgeous Sunday morning! Returning from Solitude Resort to Silver Fork on the old hiking trail, there are several areas that are very wet and support thick vegetation. Several years ago I was running through this area, again not paying very much attention, and a low-lying root that was hidden in the vegetation tripped me up and sent me flying. This Sunday as I neared the area, I was thinking about the prior embarrassing event. And wouldn’t you know, that same root almost got me again!

On Monday morning I decided to run up to Mud Lake. It had been two years since I had been there. In the past this has been one of my favorite autumn runs. It is most special when one of the first white powdery snowfalls of the season is decorating the forest. It’s nice to imagine that you’ll be the last person up there this season. Some of the meadows and glens off to the east of Mud Lake are particularly quiet and comforting, especially during that last autumn run. I had forgotten how steep the climb is up to Mud Lake. This time I had to walk about three fourths of the way up, saving my energy for those stretches of the trail that allowed me to run it at all. Like the route up Silver Fork Canyon, this trek also has nearly a 1000-foot elevation difference (about 700 feet to Mud Lake). Willow Heights where Mud Lake is located is a gorgeous setting. The lake is currently inhabited by a small beaver colony, and they have embellished the man-made dam that creates the Lake. When you first reach the Lake and turn around you can see a panorama of the community of Silver Fork and Silver Fork Canyon behind it. A spectacular view, especially in the morning.

Willow Heights and Mud Lake, with Meadows and Snow Patches to the Southeast.

Just off to the east of Mud Lake is a small rise. It was on this rise that some of the dairy facilities were located. When I first started running up to this area the old milk cooling cellar building was still largely intact. This day I had a major disappointment. Someone had pulled down the building and used the logs to make a large fire pit area at the crest of the hill. It was particularly disconcerting, because there are not supposed to be open fires anywhere except in a campground. Tragic and stupid! I ran around the east side of Mud Lake and decided to go a short ways up the trail to Dry Lake. It is very steep and dangerously close to the rock strewn creek bottom. I decided that I would take that trail some other day. I swung back to the east side of the Lake, turned to the east, and headed up into some of the secluded glens that I mentioned above. I got couple of hundred yards up the trail when I encountered an area of numerous fallen trees. It appeared as though a large microburst had really done extensive damage in the area. Nonetheless, the quiet, secluded forest glens offered soft and delightful welcomes. They are some of my favorite spots in all of Big Cottonwood Canyon. To me they epitomize peacefulness. Some of the glens were adorned with a few remaining snow banks. Coming down from Mud Lake I took the old wagon road. It is very steep and rocky in places. Consequently, the going was kind of slow, which wasn’t all that bad. You just have to watch your step to make sure that you don’t twist an ankle or have your feet slide out from underneath you.

Both of my runs (Silver Fork and Willow Heights) were exhilarating, even though both involved substantial periods of walking. But who cares? As mentioned previously, there were times recently that I thought I would never do either of these two runs again. I am so lucky to have reasonably good health and the ability to get out and run (or walk if necessary).