Challenging climbs at Neff's Canyon deliver spectacular mountain and valley views.

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or diehard granola, it seems like there’s never enough time to enjoy a quality day trip to the great outdoors. Inevitably, you’ll spend an hour idling up Little Cottonwood before parking on the shoulder past Snowbird’s avalanche gate, or you and a thousand other Subarus will assault Mill Creek Canyon on a Sunday, off-leash day. Oftentimes our attempts to get outside and get in some hiking leave us stuck behind another “Save Our Canyons”-stickered bumper developing ironic ulcers. 

Well, we have a solution. Rather than stress about who else will be getting out of the city, try venturing away from Wasatch Boulevard’s staple wilderness areas and enjoy the waterfalls of Bell Canyon, the granite towers at Ferguson or the steep grandeur of Neff’s. Tucked between the most popular names along the range, lower-profile canyons offer equally impressive scenery and a more intimate atmosphere than their much-celebrated neighbors.

These lesser canyons aren’t as easy to spot from I-15 as Mill Creek or the Cottonwoods, and residential districts often obscure their trailheads. While both factors limit their popularity, the decreased access makes these spots the ideal cityside escape. So at the risk of spoiling their unspoiled topography, here are some healthy alternatives to the Big Three’s cramped celebrity.

Neff’s Canyon

It’s simply breathtaking, but to get to Neff’s gorgeous meadows and valley views, hikers must pay with a taxing workout and hefty gain in elevation. Due to the narrow cut of Neff’s, few switchbacks ease the straight-shot 2,500-foot climb. Hiking is the predominant activity here, but the cliffside slabs offer excellent climbing. In the winter, snowshoeing around the lower portion of the canyon is a strenuous but worthwhile venture. From start to finish, the difficult trek on the main trail is 5.5 miles. 

Getting there: Take I-215 to 3900 South (Exit 4), turn left onto Wasatch Boulevard and travel north to 3800 South. Turn right onto Wasatch Boulevard (confusing, we know) and travel south to Oakview Drive. Turn left and travel east to Zarahemla Drive, then turn left and continue north to Park Terrace Drive. Turn right and travel until you reach White Way and make another right. The trailhead is located at the end of White Way.

Primary activities: Hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, rock climbing and spelunking (for experts). Contact the U.S. Forest Service for access to Neff’s Canyon Cave.

Dogs: Yes

Lambs Canyon

A protected watershed area, Lambs doesn’t allow dogs, but what this offshoot of Parleys lacks in canine companionship, it makes up for in butterflies. The winged creatures favor this canyon because of its higher elevation in the Wasatch. Abundant plant life—the trail is lined with wild raspberries, grapes and mint in the summer—and lower traffic makes Lambs a refuge from Mill Creek for moose and deer. Still, Mill Creek is only a 4-mile trek from the top of Lambs. The saddle at the pass is the midpoint, so out-and-back hikers are in for a moderate 4-mile trip. 

Getting there: Take I-80 east to Lambs Canyon (Exit 137). Turn right onto Lambs Canyon Road and proceed two miles to the trailhead parking, which sits across the street from the lot. 

Primary activities: Hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing

Dogs: No 

Bell Canyon

Formed by a glacier that touched the shores of Lake Bonneville, Bell Canyon is a geological masterpiece. Towering canyon walls surround the upper reservoir and accentuate its waterfalls before giving way to the sweeping bowl that spills out into the city. The lower reservoir, which is stocked by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is a catch-and-release fishing hole full of cutthroat trout. It provides visitors a tranquil and secluded place to fish just minutes from the suburbs of Sandy. Roundtrip, the out-and-back trail has anywhere from 2,361 feet (upper waterfall) to 4,149 feet (upper reservoir) of gain, a difficult hike and an almost ludicrous bike ride.    

Getting there: Exit from I-15 onto 9000 South. Turn left toward the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon and head east for 6.1 miles. This road becomes East Little Cottonwood Road, where the Granite trailhead (located at 3470 East Little Cottonwood) provides access to Bells. 

Primary activities: Hiking, fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking

Dogs: No

Hit Bell Canyon for sweeping views of the lower and upper reservoirs

Ferguson Canyon

Outside the local population and a cadre of informed rock climbers, Ferguson Canyon is relatively unknown. This anonymity, though appreciated by its visitors, is curious given the locale’s lush vegetation and intriguing rock formations. Ferguson is refreshing proof that the journey is more important than the destination. Clichés aside, the view from the top is pleasant, but not as impressive as the trail itself, which immerses hikers in a continuous grove of maple, cottonwood and oak and a neighboring spring-fed stream. The 3.4-mile roundtrip trek gains 1,650 feet and passes climbing routes like Goldfingers and Extreme Unction along the way. 

Getting there: Drive just past the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to Prospector Drive and turn east onto the access road before making an immediate right onto Prospector. Head south on Prospector before turning left on Timberline Drive. Head north until you reach the trailhead. 

Primary activities: Rock climbing and hiking

Dogs: Yes

Ferguson Canyon's unique rock formations up the climbing ante.

Corner Canyon

Known as the gateway to Lone Peak, Corner Canyon is a hotspot for mountain bikers from SLC to Happy Valley. The trail system provides visitors with an endless variety of multi-use trails. Dogs, horses and hiking are all allowed, but mountain biking reigns. Clark’s Trail rewards travelers with beautiful views of the Lone Peak Cirque. Sewing the numerous trails together creates a popular route known as the Corner Canyon Loop, a moderate 6.5-mile long trail with a 1,190-foot gain, creek crossings and a stop by Ghost Falls. 

Getting there: From I-15, exit at 12300 South and drive east to 1300 East. Head on 1300 East to Highland Drive and make a left. Park at the Andy Ballard Equestrian Center.

Primary activities: Biking, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing  

Dogs: Yes, with restrictions

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