Two Utah Hikes — 4-5 Sep 2013

I had an opportunity to tag along with the Mrs. to a conference she was attending for work in Park City, UT.  I figured it was a chance to hike out in the west for the first time, so even though I tend to think of Utah as the ne plus ultra skiing destination, I decided to endure the site of barren slopes and still chair lifts for a chance to do some high-altitude walking.  Both of these hikes were in the Wasatch National Forest, in the Uinta Mountain Range, or at least the western section thereof.  Hike #1 was to the top of Bald Mountain, while #2 was into the “notch” in Notch Mountain.  Both hikes were near enough together that you could see one from the other.

No Country for Old Skiiers :-(

No Country for Old Skiers :-(

One striking feature of hiking here is that, at least for the few trails I took, there are no blazes and very few cairns.  There are some signs at critical junctures, but by and large you are left to following the trail by looking at the ground and taking the obvious path.  In a few spots there are some rocks aligned as a kind of curb to guide you around turns.  I never felt lost for more than a few seconds at any point, although these hikes were fairly contained.

Info

  • Map: The only trail map I used was one I picked up for free in a small general store on UT Rte. 150.  It was a double-sided single computer printout sheet describing 6 day hikes in the area.  For a two-pager it had more than enough info, but unfortunately I seem to have lost it on the trip back home.
  • Trails: Bald Mountain and Notch Mountain Trails, both un-blazed.
  • Type: Out and back
  • Distance:  4 miles (#1) and 6+ miles (#2), round trip.
  • Time: 3 to 4 hours each, depending on your hang time at the top, and how much the altitude affects you.
  • Exertion: Moderate–none of these is a killer, in spite of walking above the 10,000 ft. level.  Hike #1 is steeper, but Hike #2 is longer.

Getting There

From Park City, head east on UT Rte. 248 for about a dozen miles into the town of Kamas.  Make a left onto Rte. 32 north, then in a block or two, a right onto Rte. 150 east, AKA the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway.  The trailhead for #1 is after mile marker 29 on 150, and you cannot miss the sign for Bald Mountain.  The trailhead for #2 is after mile marker 26 with a sign for the Crystal Lake TH.  There is another TH and a campground here, so you have to decipher some confusing signage to get to the right parking area.  There are three trail heads off this parking area, so be sure to take the one for Notch Mountain, which should be the first on the right side of the lot as you come in.  BTW, if you drive past a sign within the first five miles on 150 that says “Uinta Information,” pull over and drop into the store and look for the double-sided trail map.  That’s all you’ll need for these hikes, although if you feel generous you might purchase the National Geographic map of the area–or some smoked trout.  Another expense you will have to account for is a parking pass for the Wasatch Forest.   It’s only $6 for 3 days, and there are several stations along the way where you can purchase a pass if the kiosk is manned, or do a self-serve pass, which entails filling out an envelope, stuffing the $6 in, and dropping in a locked box.  This is all fine unless, like me, you do not typically carry writing instruments with you while hiking, nor is there one in the glove box of your rental car.  In this case I relied on luck, and presumed that they could always match up the pre-printed serial number on the envelope with the one on the tag I hung on the rearview.

Hike #1 (Bald Mountain)

Bald Mountain’s moniker is obvious once you see it.  About five miles away on Rte. 150 it pokes out of the woods and greats you with its barren loftiness.  As you approach the turnoff, there is a scenic pull off to the left if you just wanted to take pictures of the promontory, but go around the hairpin turn and the trailhead sign will point you to the left into the parking area.  Your first view of the mountain is imposing–and very bald:

Bald Mtn from the Base

Bald Mtn from the Base

The summit is just under 12,000′, but not to worry, because (as the groaning engine on my rented Nissan clearly attested) you’ve already climbed a hell of a long ways up into the Uintas, so there’s only about 1200′ of vertical gain to conquer from the lot.  The sign at the trailhead is cautious:

About the Trail...

About the Trail...

The only real challenge here is the altitude, which for whatever reason does not really seem to bother me much.  Occasionally I would have to stop to catch my breath, but considering that Mount Marcy at 5344′ was the highest point I had made it to on foot to date, it was surprisingly not an issue.  The other thing to consider is that, should a thunderstorm roll in from the south, which apparently they tend to do in the later afternoon in these here parts, being exposed out on this… well, bald mountain mountain might be detrimental to one’s life expectancy.  The one-pager trail map has a warning in ALL CAPS about DESCENDING IMMEDIATELY if thunderstorms blow in.  On the plus side, once you gain some altitude, you can see the thunderheads coming in from miles away.  The only trick is judging how long it will take before they threaten to make you a headline in tomorrow’s local paper.

The trail begins to climb immediately with several switchbacks.  Then there is a long traverse along the base of the mountain going steadily upward.  The view is nice, even though you’re only a few hundred feet into the climb.

Just the Beginning

Just the Beginning

Once the long traverse switches back you start a climb through some stunted pine trees, just like the ones you see in the krumholtz sections of the Adirondacks.  Eventually the trees fade out, and you’re left walking on a barren field of rocks, although the actual path of the trail has been mostly cleared.

Rock Field

Rock Field

The hump right above the field in the photo is a false summit, but the real one is not far beyond that.  You stroll through the debris on a gentle upward slope, traversing to the eastern side of the mountain now.  The next section switches back along the eastern face getting into terrain with larger and larger boulders.  The views to the east show you the heart of the Uintas, including Hayden Peak at almost 12,500′.

The Uintas

The Uintas

Several times you scramble over some rocky steps, convinced you’re at the top, only to see another bit of climb after that.  But it was around 90 minutes from the start that I finally hit the peak, decorated with two large cairns, one of which is in the picture below.

The Summit of Bald

The Summit of Bald

The view from here is about as spectacular as one could imagine.  By my guess, it’s at least a 50 mile view.  The weather was clear (as you can see) with almost no haze.  All four directions have postcard views.  Here’s one from the northwest, with the tip of Reid’s Peak poking up along side us.

Reid's Peak and Northwest

Reid's Peak and Northwest

The usual 45 minute hang time ensued, consumed by picture taking, lunch eating, and chatting with two other guys who had followed me up with their dog.  With mid-afternoon approaching, we observed some rain clouds moving in from the south, as promised by the morning’s weather forecast.  It was only about ten minutes into my descent when it did start to rain, but only lightly for about 15 minutes, and no lightning!  The trip down was uneventful, but I took my time and enjoyed the scenery.

Once back at the car, I continued a few more miles on Rte. 150 to its namesake, Mirror Lake.  Unfortunately the rain was a little steadier by then, but donning my trusty Cape Cod windbreaker, I took the 1.5 mi loop around the lake, which is shadowed by Bald on its eastern side and the main Uinta range on its west.  The rain reduced the lake’s mirroring power to some degree, but you can get the idea.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Hike #2 (Notch Mountain)

Keeping with the well-named peaks scheme, the following day I was back along UT 150, stopping this time a few miles back to go for the Notch Mountain Trail.  The map clearly labels this edifice as one mountain, but it sure looks like two to me.  You be the judge…

Notch Mountain--One Peak or Two?

Notch Mountain--One Peak or Two?

When I finally did get up there into the “notch,” the bumps on either side looked totally different.  I suppose if I were a geologist I might be able to describe how a glacier ripped across this ridge and formed the notch, but I’m not, so who the hell knows?  Anyway, this is another relatively moderate trek with only about 500′ of vertical gain.  The compensations are that it has a little more distance, a little more varied terrain (including some pretty lakes), and there are still great views from the notch.

The first mile is a pretty flat walk to Wall Lake, which again is in keeping with our theme of apropos appellations.

Wall Lake

Wall Lake

The peak right behind it is Mount Watson, not part of the Notch.  The trail skirts along the southern shore of the lake, crosses a small wooden bridge over a stream going down from the lake, and into more flat meadows.  A couple more lakes are passed by, with a puncheon or two to get you over the swampy parts of the meadows.

Another Nice Little Lake

Another Nice Little Lake

Puncheon Thru the Meadow

Puncheon Thru the Meadow

After about another mile or so, the trail begins to climb into the Notch–not very steeply, with plenty of switchbacks and a very clearly defined path.  When I arrived in the Notch, I went a little beyond to (a) be sure I had really passed the high point, and (b) to see what was on the other side of the mountain, so to speak.  We’ll come back to the Notch views in a second, but the valley on the other side of the Notch is quite spectacular: silent and pristine, like you’re the only person in the world.

Valley Behind the Notch

Valley Behind the Notch

I walked down no more than a quarter mile, maybe two hundred feet descent tops.  With more time and energy, I would probably like to keep following this trail, which curiously after another 7 miles or so would take you right back to the trailhead for Bald Mountain, without going over that peak of course.  Then I walked back up to the Notch for some squat time, lunch, and photos.  Not 360-degree views like yesterday, but respectable nevertheless.

View from the Notch

View from the Notch

Instead of encountering two guys and a dog like yesterday, I ran into one guy with two dogs.  We traded photo takes, so here’s mine:

Me from the Notch (no dogs)

Me from the Notch (no dogs)

The windbreaker was necessary at the top here because there was a pretty stiff wind a-blowin’, and I would not have been too comfortable sitting there for very long.  All the way up and back down, though it was just shorts and a T-shirt.  Pretty lucky weather for a place that within a month will probably be covered in snow!  In line with continuing coincidences I and my temporary companion noticed some thunderheads moving in from the south.  So this hastened the start of my descent, although I had certainly had a good fill of scenery, quiet, and relaxation.  The trip down was easy, the scenery being more varied than yesterday.  Back at Wall Lake I stopped for some shoreline strolling, but got a move on when I began to hear the rumbles of those thunderheads.  Continuing with the serendipity of these two days, I arrived back at the parking lot, leisurely changed out of my hiking boots, took a whiz in the dank and foul rest room, and was unlocking my driver’s side door just as the raindrops began to fall.  By the time I was back out on Hwy 150, it was pissing rain, with thunder and lightening.  Driving back along the road I could see that the showers had moved through there earlier, dropping significant rainfall.

Coda

The next day (Friday) was our fly-home day, so no hiking was in the cards.  Since we had a red-eye flight back, we had some time to kill in Salt Lake City, so we dropped by Temple Square and took the tour.  All very nice, the young Mormon missionaries were so very friendly, and the buildings and grounds spotless and groomed.  I won’t delve into any of the religious aspects of the tour, at the risk of driving away the one or two readers I might have.

The Temple

The Temple

Just as we were leaving the square we witnessed what I can only call a kind of sandstorm in downtown SLC.  After coming out of the Vistor’s Center it seemed like there was a smokey haze all over, as though a fire was burning nearby, yet no on was concerned.  The wind had picked up while we were inside, and was blowing dirt, dust, and debris into our faces as we walked back to the car.  It seemed to me that the skies would open up an any minute, delivering a drenching downpour, but that never materialized.  As we drove away toward the lake on I80, we could see the dust cloud engulfing downtown.

Speaking of the Great Salt Lake…  I’m probably not the first correspondent to report that the only thing “great” about it is its size.  I think this has been a very dry summer, so the lake has receded some, and we had to walk out about a half mile on this black, stinky sand to get to the water, which we never quite got to as the sand became too mucky.  I remember many years ago driving through SLC and stopping off to see the lake, disgusted by the millions of fleas living along the waterline.  The fleas are still there, living in the damp sand now, as well as a good number of bird carcasses.  Perhaps the Lake is something of an acquired taste, as I did see some people walking about as though they were enjoying themselves, not to mention a woman in a wedding dress being photographed near the shoreline.  I guess this is just payback for all of the great scenery that lives up in the hills above town.

The (So-called) Great Salt Lake

The (So-called) Great Salt Lake

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