Family Adventures at the Millcreek Canyon Yurt

The Millcreek Yurt

About 2 miles into our 4.5 miles journey, we knew we were in trouble.  It was raining (rather than snowing), and raining pretty heavily at that.  The snow was getting softer and softer and our pace was getting slower and slower.  We debated turning around and then decided to keep going.

The Millcreek Yurt is located at the Big Water trailhead at the top of Millcreek canyon, a beautiful and rugged alpine canyon just outside Salt Lake City.  During the summer the top half of the canyon is a popular area for hiking, mountain biking, and picnicking.  In the winter, the road is closed half-way up at a “winter gate”–after which the only means of travel is by foot, ski, or fat bike.

When we grabbed an early-December yurt reservation, we knew the weather conditions could be iffy.   There might not be enough snow for skiing, we thought.  But it never occurred to us that there might be plenty of snow on the ground but rain falling from the sky.

Thankfully, despite the fact that Blair and I were getting soaked, our 4 year old, P, was dry (albeit bored) sitting inside his Chariot.  Even before the poor weather and snow conditions, we knew that getting a young child and overnight gear to the top of the steep canyon would be a challenge.  Blair was pulling the Chariot (mounted on Polar Stroller skis) with his fat bike, and I was pulling a “pulk” (aka a sled) on my xc skis.   Inside, I was carrying our sleeping bags, pads, stove, food, and lantern.  We both had backpacks with personal items and spare clothes as well.

Skiing and fat biking in Millcreek Canyon

The higher up we got, the more challenging the soft, wet conditions became on the fat bike.  I was exhausted but still making progress on the skis.  We finally agreed that I would go ahead, drop our gear off at the yurt, and then come back to help Blair with the kiddo.

I made it to the yurt shortly before dark and tried to get a fire started, but after a few minutes of trying to no success, I put on my headlight and headed back down to find the boys.  As I was leaving, two search and rescue snowmobiles showed up looking for a hiker who was soaked thru in the bad (and now increasingly cold) weather.  I promised we would let him in the yurt if he came knocking in the night.  (He never did).

Fortunately, Blair and P weren’t too far down the road, but Blair had now resorted to ditching his fat bike on the side of the trail and pushing the Chariot uphill.  I took the Chariot from him and he turned back for his bike.  It only took a few minutes for me to get P back to the yurt just as it turned to pitch-black night.

It was snowing by then and because I was soaked to the bone, it was important to get warm fast.  All of my spare clothes that had been in my backpack were soaked thru.  P and I tried to make a fire but were unsuccessful.  The wood had probably been restocked earlier in the day, and it was wet and difficult to get lit.  We finally gave up, I stripped to my underwear, and we huddled in a couple of sleeping bags until Blair returned.

I felt somewhat redeemed when Blair had trouble getting the fire going as well, but as soon as he did, the atmosphere improved 100%.  It took a while to warm up, but we quickly got our things drying in front of the fire and some warm food in our bellies.  P, who had every reason to be a cranky 4 year old by this point, was happy and joyful and kept the mood light.

The Millcreek Yurt

During the night, it snowed heavily and we had to get up several times to keep the fire going.  P slept like a baby, and Blair and I slept less well but were content.  We were happy to wake up to LOTS of snow and sunny skies.

After a breakfast of yogurt, chocolate donuts and hot tea–and a game of Go Fish–Blair and P got to work.  They shoveled out the deck and path to the road, bathrooms, and woodpile.  P really enjoyed this, and happily worked on his own while I helped Blair haul in more wood.  The first skier of the day showed up around this time, and P animatedly retold the story of how the skier asked him if he was shoveling our way out.

As it turned out, we really DID need someone to shovel our way out.  The 18” of new snow, while beautiful, made the trip back down the mountain challenging as well.  P tried to ski down the first part, and had trouble in the deep snow.  Blair also was having trouble pedaling in the powder and the Chariot was getting stuck.  What should have been an easy downhill cruise, yet again, became a struggle.

Biking down Millcreek Canyon

Fortunately, after the first couple of miles, the snow because less deep and there was more traffic packing down the trail.  Blair and P were able to speed down the canyon from there, although I took a bit longer pulling the heavy load on my pulk.

Although the trip was far more epic than intended, I don’t think a single one of us regretted it.  We got back to the truck feeling happy, content, and well exercised!  The canyon is a beautiful, magical place in the winter, and up higher, fairly lightly traveled.  (Down low expect lots of crowds).  We went home, showered, ordered Chinese food, and laid on the couch until, mercifully, we could all go to bed.

Millcreek Yurt Logistics

Interested in staying at the Millcreek Yurt?  Fear not, your conditions are unlikely to be as bad as ours were.  That said, understand this is still a difficult outing, especially with kids.  The yurt is at the top of the canyon, meaning that you have to travel a long way UPHILL to get there.  There is pretty minimal gear at the yurt, so you have to carry your own.  Make sure you’ve done some easier winter trips before trying this one.

That said, the Millcreek Yurt is a memorable adventure and I would encourage any adventure-loving family to try it.  Here’s another blog post of a couple who did it with their 9-month-old baby.  Kids are resilient and the earlier you start them doing these types of adventures, the more capable they will be in life.

Reservations

The cost for the yurt is $75 per night and can be made thru Salt Lake County.  Be aware, reservations are tough to get.

Recreation Fee

In addition to the yurt fee, there is also a $3 recreation fee when you leave the canyon.

Keys

Be aware before making a reservation that they make the key pick-up/drop-off process rather difficult.  You have to pick up and return the key to the Salt Lake County recration office in SLC.  (There’s also a $200 safety deposit).   If you are going on a weekend, you have to pick up the key before 5pm on Friday and return it by 5pm on Monday.  Not the most convenient arrangement…..

Packing List

Of all the yurts I’ve stayed at, this one provided the fewest amenities.  So, what is provided at the yurt?

  • A wood-burning stove and plenty of wood
  • A lantern with propane
  • Bunkbeds (no mattresses!)
  • A picnic style table
  • Two benches and a work-bench-type table
  • A shovel
  • A broom
  • An axe and hatchet
  • Outhouse with toilet paper
  • A large pot and a tea kettle that you can use to melt snow and boil water on the stove

And what you need to bring (at a minimum):

  • Sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pad
  • Water
  • Matches and newspaper for starting a fire
  • Food
  • Plenty of warm clothes
  • Trash bag (you have to pack out your trash)
  • Flashlight/headlamps

Hauling gear (and kids)

We made our own pulk with a plastic sled, PVC pipe, and some nylon rope.  We then put our sleeping bags and pads in a Rubbermaid bin, and put it and some other smaller items in a tarp, and used bungee cords to hold it all down.  This worked well.

As for hauling kids, if you have a Chariot, you can buy the xc ski kit or buy Polar Stroller skis like we used.  The polar stroller skis will work for other types of trailers/jogger strollers as well.  Alternatively, you can make or buy a pulk to pull kids in also. Remember that your kids won’t be working hard like you are, so take extra care to keep them warm.  We put P in a sleeping bag and give him a thermos with hot chocolate.  This seems to keep him comfortable and happy.

When P was a baby, I xc skied with him in an Ergo carrier or Kelty hiking backpack which is a good option for infants and toddlers.  Staying close to your body will keep them happy and warm.