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Bells Canyon Waterfall Hike

By Alice L. Beesley

Purple petals point to the sky; yellow daisies droop under the sun's gaze; clumps of tiny white flowers look like clusters of snowflakes, and pink bell blossoms bow as I tread by. Pebbles crunch beneath my boots. Birds whistle to the beat. The hum of insects cuts the air, while long grasses shush.

This is the beginning of Bells Canyon hike, a small side canyon leading to Lone Peak. The trailhead is located near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, about 100 yards east of the intersection of Little Cottonwood Rd. (98000 s.) and Wasatch Boulevard. There is another access on Wasatch Boulevard and 10400 south.

This moderate to difficult trek includes two reservoirs and two splendid waterfalls. Elevation from the lower to the upper reservoir is 5300 feet to 9400 feet. That's an elevation change of 4100 feet. It is 4 plus miles one way and takes about 6 hours to reach the upper reservoir.

From the Little Cottonwood Canyon trailhead, the first section of the trail rolls up and down and curves around to a reservoir where I stop and sit on a boulder beside the water. Specks of sun ride on ripples, blinking on my face like strobe lights.

I follow the dirt road that takes me upstream away from the reservoir. Moisture slips over rocks and slides into the man-made lake from a brook along the right side the road. The road swings off to the left and winds back around to the right.

About a half mile up the road from the reservoir, I reach a sign on the left side of the road that directs me to the Bells Canyon trail. A butterfly flits back and forth before me. Leaves cast lacy patterns across the path. Soft new needles of pale green growth paint the tips of pine boughs. Spicy pine, fresh dirt and bitter brush make a pungent potpourri.

On both sides of the trail viney maples twine, bushy cedars twist their trunks and fat spruces squat. High ahead on a ridge, slender pines stretch tall.

My waffle tracks stamp the sand. Sand turns to gravel. Gravel turns to granite, covered with silver sparkles. The trail takes me into the forest where it crosses a creek. White bubbles boil beneath a wooden bridge, bumping over brown speckled boulders.

After crossing the bridge, the route forks to the left and rises rapidly, slowing my footsteps. My feet scramble up a dry creek bed, which closes in on both sides creating a stone staircase. Bright rays make my back wet and warm beneath my pack. My forehead and cheeks shine with sweat. My heart pounds in my head. My lungs burn for breath and my legs lift like lead.

I stop to guzzle lukewarm water from a bottle during a break next to the stream that borders the path. Water thunders over rocky barriers. I stick my hand in the freezing creek and feel the force of its forward motion. Along the bank, gold flecks glint in wet gravel. Meanwhile, a spindly spider clings to a dewy web and an ant crawls across a twig like a tightrope walker suspended over the rapids.

As I continue on after catching my breath, the route levels out, meandering through a shady glade. All at once, the forest breaks to reveal a view of the vast valley floor. Smooth slopes fall from jagged peaks that jut up to poke a watercolor wash of wispy white and blinding blue.

Above, a steady roar, like the wind through aspens, calls my tired feet onward and upward. The path leads me into the woods to a steep descent and a 40 to 50-foot waterfall that seems to drop from the sky. Here, I stand and tip my head back to take in the top of the falls. Lowering my eyes and head, I follow the foaming water as it plunges into a pool below.

I check my watch and note that it took me around an hour and a half of hiking to reach this first waterfall. Below the waterfall is a flat rock outcropping that makes a good place to stop for lunch.

The trail carries me up the right side of the falls. The sound of rushing water vibrates, as my tender toes and tired fingertips scale the last and steepest section of solid shale.

About a half-mile above the first waterfall the path dips back into a glen. The earth becomes spongy and the temperature drops a few degrees. Waves dive down a rocky terrace. At the top, where the sky caresses the mountain, a sheer white curtain of water flaps from a gray stone cliff. I sit and soak in the cool mist that sprays from the powerful shower. This waterfall is smaller than the first, maybe 20 or 30 feet high, but no less impressive.

For day hikers, this is a good place to turn around and head back down the mountain. Backpackers can cross the creek again over a makeshift bridge below this second waterfall to a meadow and the upper reservoir. There are good camping spots just before and after the upper reservoir.

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