Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hiking Mt Timpanogos via Timpooneke Trail, Utah

Mt Timpanogos is neither the highest nor the most prominent in Utah but it is certainly the most infamous summit of the state. It remains a favorite of both casual and hardcore hikers.
Classic view of Mt Timp's impressive head-wall and glacier
First view!
If we were to compile a list of the most well-known mountain of every state, it would not simply be a list of the tallest or most massive. Certainly the record-breakers of Mt Whitney, Mt Hood and Mt Rainier would make the list. But so would Mt Timpanogos, Mt Clark (NV), Mt Rushmore, Camel's Hump (VT), Stone Mountain (GA) and Lookout Mountain (TN). None are remarkable in terms of elevation compared to their state's highest mountains. Why the tallest mountain isn't necessarily the most famous is an interesting blend of lore and geography.

Mt Timpanogos is the second highest mountain in Utah's Wasatch range and not nearly as tall as the state highpoint of King's Peak. Nevertheless, its imposing ridge dominates the Wasatch Metro Area and is far more sought-after than nearby Mt Nebo. 

While this trail is probably the most heavily trekked in this part of the state, it is still considered strenuous. Starting at about 7,400' and topping out at 11,752' in 7 miles is no easy affair. Its an all day hike for just about every hiker. Water sources exist at the lower elevations but become scant after 9,000's.

It might not be evident on the topographic map, but the elevation gain of the trail is more like a staircase than a constant uphill. There aren't any flat sections but there's many sections of steep ascents and comparatively lighter elevation gain. The pace of the trail is somewhat modulated by this.
At the lower elevations
From the summit, looking down at the glacial basin
In the first mile, Scout Falls can be seen by taking a 100-yard detour. The falls are about 30 feet tall and are a nice spot for a break in the hiking. The trail continues a series of quick bursts of elevation and plateaus which offer panoramic vistas of the northern Wasatch summits near Park City. 

Imposing subsidiary summits dominate the skyline as the trail continues to switchback in a southerly direction. There isn't a single point on the trail where there isn't a magnificent view which is probably why it is so popular. Despite the crowds at the trailhead, the trail itself is long enough that the crowds quickly thin out and I was mostly alone on the trail. Saturdays are, of course, quite busy but any other day of the week makes the trail feel empty. 

From roughly 8,700' to 10,000' the trail gains steady elevation until the sharp summit of Mt Timp comes into view-
Mt Timp, striated with snow and rock, even in mid-September
The glacial basin below Mt Timp is about as scenic as the summit itself and it would not be unfortunate if this ended up being a turn-around point. Utah's only glacier is plainly visible off to the southeast as is a significant portion of the Wasatch Range. I stopped for lunch here and enjoyed breathing the crisp alpine air. 

A notch is visible separating Mt Timpanogos from the other northern summits and this is where the trail eventually leads. It continues to swtichback and climb the steep face of the ridgeline but its never more than a Class I hike. Another popular lunch spot is the notch itself which is at 11,000' and about 45 minutes away from the top. From here, the entire front range metro area is visible as well as Utah Lake. Its a fantastic albeit crowded spot. 
Plateau before the final push for the ridgeline

No shortage of views

Utah Lake and the Wasatch front metro area

The notch before the summit- a very popular resting point
The trail to the summit from the notch may be harrowing for some. Its exposed and on lose rock in some sections- I would recommend hiking poles here. There aren't any particularly cliffy sections but a slip could still be dangerous. Temptingly close, the summit is still a struggle to get to. Even for this experienced hiker, I found myself stopping often to catch my breath in the thin air. The trail gets congested towards the top as hikers slow down due to the strenuousness of the climb and tricky footwork. 

Finally at the top, there's a curious pyramidal shelter with a summit register. No fewer than two dozen people were at the summit on this fine, early-autumn Sunday and I'm sure it gets much more crowded on Saturdays. Nonetheless, the views were phenomenal, as expected. Its easy to appreciate the glory of Utah's most famous mountain at this point. Even I was a little squeamish looking down from the head-wall over the glacial basin. 

Despite the crowds, most other hikers were well behaved and respectful of the mountain. Other popular mountains I've hiked have had a higher ratio of totally oblivious day trippers; on this mountain, most people were pretty courteous. I made some new friends on the trail. 
Looking back towards the ridgeline
I liked this hike- normally I don't like ultra-popular hikes. But this was a long enough trail to keep out most of the riff-raff and challenging enough to keep me motivated. I would certainly hike it again when I'm back in Salt Lake City. The alternative route though aspen grove looks equally enjoyable. I wish I lived here!

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Autumn Hike of Flat Top, Oquirrh Mountains, Salt Lake City, Utah

Flat Top Mountain is the prominent yet obscure high point of the Oquirrh Mountains which overlook the Salt Lake Valley and Lake Utah. It is an infrequently climbed mountain that is publicly accessible through a hike that crosses both public and private lands. 
View from the Summit
Flat Top misses most people's radars when there's already a massive network of trails in the nearby Unitah National Forest. As a stand alone summit, the mountain is impressive. It tops 10,620' and has 5,370' of prominence (more than Mt Timpanogoos). The greater Oquirrh Range is more famous for the collosal Bigham Canyon Copper Mine, the largest open-pit mine in the world. 

The majesty of the Oquirrahs is more well known for their abundant natural resources which have caused significant development, especially on the northern part of the range. Ophir itself is a relic of a long-gone age of smaller, independent mining. These days the massive operations of Bingham Canyon Mine and Mercur Mine continue. However this trail tends to stay in the wilderness portion of the range which keeps the larger areas of development hidden. 

Hiking up the mountain is pretty straightforward by Utah standards. Its about 9 miles round trip and involves significant elevation gain. Here is a map-

The trail begins just northeast of the town of Ophir, Utah. Note the road does become dirt/gravel outside of the town limits. Free range cattle roam the road and may or may not move for your car. The parking area is public and there's plenty of space. Check for any signs of changes in landownership or restrictions on hiking before you go. Note that the path taken above is the most common ascent up the mountain. Other ascents are possible but they have not always been open or legal- if you deviate from this route, make sure you have necessary permissions.

The trail is a slow incline at first. The summit is not visible in this picture
Glorious colors this time of year 
Initially, the trail sets a steady pace of climbing as it seamingly veers away from the summit. This is a wide, 4x4 road that is likely only passable by boots and ATVs. As it turned out, I was the only one on foot today although a thundering heard of ATVs wound around the trail on their way to Porphyry Hill- another popular destination. Once the trail reaches the saddle, there's a 4 way crossing. Heading to the left takes the hiker towards the rideline and summit. The trail quickly ends and becomes more of a herd path. It is easy to miss the beginning of the herd path but it starts at the very left side of the dead end ATV road. 

From here the trail gains quite a bit of elevation through many switchbacks. I imagine multiple routes exist here as the trail is unmarked and not very trod. Thick, spiny desert plants make long pants a necessity, even in the heat of the summer. High top boots are helpful as well. The trail switches back endlessly as comes up to 9,000'.

Flattening out and taking a first look towards the Unitas
Fall colors vary by elevation
From here the trail hugs the mountainside and generally doesn't gain nor lose any elevation. This part can be confusing as it seems that the hiker will miss the summit entirely. It dips a little bit before coming though a creek area lined with dense foliage. Views of the nearby Unitas and Utah lake become outstanding on this section. Fall colors continued to permeate the otherwise stark desert landscape. The trail sharply doubles back at the far ridgeline and climbs to a saddle.

Though scenic, the trail from the saddle to the peak is very rough and mostly unmarked. Again, numerous networks of trails exist and not all of them are cleared. Stickers and sharps were common and I was again thankful for long pants, high socks and high boots. 

Autumn colors

Autumn Colors
The rest of the range visible from near the summit
Several false peaks keep the hike going before topping out on the bare summit. Flat top is somewhat flat with an antiquated radio tower at the top. The summit log is in a mailbox and most the signers are local hunters. There were a few signatures from folks like me who were going for the "America's Ultras" challenge of climbing all 57 Ultra-prominent peaks. No doubt I would have missed this mountain myself had I not been on this quest.

Views are phenomenal, naturally. The whole of Utah Lake is plainly visible as are the rising summits of the entire Unita Range. Mt Nebo's pyramidal spire appeared as a razor's edge in the distance. To the west was the summit I climbed three days prior- Deseret Peak and the rush valley separating these ranges. Fortunately, none of the large mines of the range were visible. Flat top retains its wilderness character on this hike.

The way down was the same although I've heard that loop hikes exist. Again, always check permissions first as the majority of the land around Flat Top is privately owned. People have been cited and fined for trespassing in this area. 
Last look at fall color
At the summit
Overall, its a pretty straightforward hike. It pales in comparison to the more rugged summits of the Unitas and the Deseret Range but its an enjoyable hike nonetheless. I don't think I'll remember it as fondly as I do Mt Nebo, Mt Timp and Ruby Dome but I would hike it again.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Autumn Hike of Ruby Dome, Mountains and Wilderness, Elko, Nevada

No doubt the highlight of the trip was going to be a trek through the Ruby Mountains in Nevada's beautiful Northeast. The Ruby Mountains are not famous to anyone except for a few tele-skiers and photographers. Despite overlooking Elko and Spring Creek, the peak is remote and infrequently visited.
Ruby Mountains  as viewed from the summit of Ruby Dome
To the untraveled, heading 250 miles West of Salt Lake City must seem unusual. After leaving the greater Wasatch Front Valley, route 80 runs 45 miles across what could likely be considered the straightest and flattest stretch of any interstate highway. Not even the roads of my now home-state of Illinois could compare to this particularly uninterrupted parallel. After crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats, the road crosses into Nevada and West Wendover, where Salt-Lakers go to sin.

From here, the road takes a starkly different tone as the pyramid of Pilot Mountain looms to the north. Wave after Wave of 10,000 and 11,000 foot mountain ranges speckle a harsh but glorious high desert. Few have ever inhabited such an arid but cold landscape. To the adventurer, however, this is one of the largest uninterrupted playgrounds of wilderness south of the artic circle.

Like its neighbors Utah and Idaho, Nevada is essentially known to the public only by its largest city. Not surprisingly, the federal government owns somewhere between 80-85% of the state (far exceeding 2nd place: Alaska). Other than the infamous Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada Test Site (think, Area 51), most of the northern and central parts of Nevada are either under the Bureau of Land Management or the US National Forest Service. Naturally, much of those facts cause endless questions regarding conservationism and public v. private land ownership. But for budget adventurers with a hankering for unspoiled wilderness, its a perfectly legitimate reason to travel 250 miles west on Route 80.

The Ruby Mountains in morning glory
After a half dozen mountain passes and deep valleys, Route 80 dips into greater Elko. This town is massive by not-Las Vegas, Nevada standards. An unusually fast growing area, Elko would be an ideally situated place for any hiker to set up home base. The Ruby Mountains tower over the valley like a gigantic granite wave. I couldn't wait to get up there.

Here's a map of the route, which can be zoomed for more specific details. Note that it is a route and alternatives may exist-

In the fall, Quaking Aspens put off brilliant hues of yellow which vary in elevation. This magnificent display of color matches those of New England but with western subtly. There generally arent the vibrant purples, reds and oranges such as those in the high mountains of New Hampshire. Nonetheless, every imaginable shade of yellow could be observed on this hike. The complexion ranged from a olive tint at the lower elevation to a delicate goldenrod color at the 9,000 foot level. Not even the most realist of painters would have been able to capture such intricacy. 

The route weaves in and out of the creek and the hiker can appreciate the scarcity of water in the high desert. Near the creek, the foliage is almost impenetrable and there's a deafening sound of insects and birds. Just a few hundred yards up the valley walls, vegetation is stunted and scarce, permeated only by proudly gnarled junipers-

Stark contrasts of flora as one travels further from the creek
At 7,500'
Autumn Aspen Tunnel
The effects of autumn vary by elevation
Subtle changes in color
At roughly 8,000', the trail exits the aspens and ascends mostly on bare granite. Cairns help guide the way in some sections but there's evidence of numerous routes. In the late summer, the route is more beaten which can help with path finding. I could imagine that a hiker is mostly left to their own devices in the late spring and early summer. 

I encountered a hidden gorge just below Griswold Lake and unintentionally captured this photo-

Dry Gorge below Griswold Lake
Griswold Lake stood at the bottom of an imposing cirque of mountains with the impressive headwall of Ruby Dome hovering to the south. Campsites abounded but people did not. It was an odd feeling to see such clear evidence of a regular town off to the north, yet feeling very alone in this rugged country. I had grown unaccustomed to this solitude living in downtown Chicago but it was a welcome return. At this point there was very little wind and only a few birds- an almost perfect silence. 

The route rounds the eastern shore of this small tarn and quickly gains elevation on its way to the headwall. At 10,000', I crossed an unexpected plateau which was only partially evident on a 1 in = 3.95 mi topo map. It felt positively alpine now- there was no longer a trail but a route through jagged rocks. Patches of grass proved some evidence of life but it was mostly snow and scree. Springs existed well up to 10,700's and I was never far from water.
Glacially carved cirque and Griswold Lake
Griswold Lake

Quickly gaining elevation to the plateau
Looking back on the 10,000 foot plateu and small subsidiary summits
Gully to the summit
There are a few ways of tackling the final 1,000 vertical feet. The very obvious summit looms over a tarn with no outlet and one can either take the hidden ravine to right (west) or take the exposed ridge-line to the left (east). I chose to take the ravine to the summit which is a solid class III and might be nerve-racking to one not used to scrambling. I did not take the same route down- the ridge-line sufficed. Either will involve quite a bit of scrambling but the rock is quite stable. Note that the ravine is not obvious until just below the beginning. 

Ruby Dome is just 300 vertical feet above the terminus of the ravine. Air was now noticeably thin, slowing my pace to a minimum. However this was hardly noticeable with a grand view of the Great Basin and Range. 

From the summit, most of the 130-mile ruby range is visible. The dome itself is actually quite a bit removed from the main spine of the mountains which adds to is phenomenal view. There's very little room to celebrate on this knife's edge pinnacle. 

A lonely cairn with no marker serves as the high point
Looking North towards the rest of the range
The knife's edge ridgeline towards the narrow col separating Ruby Dome and the nearly identical East Peak 
Ruby Dome's headwall
The best way down, in my opinion, is the eastern ridgeline. It offered little protection but was less steep. In the end, I would recommend ascending either the ridgeline or the ravine but only descend using the ridgeline. It added perhaps another painstaking quarter mile of rockhopping but made for a simpler descent. Other climbers may feel differently.

Back on the 10,000 foot plateu, the sun was already very low in the sky and I enjoyed the brilliant appenglow on the various peaks. Its a sight I've rarely seen outside of the Sierras and Rockies. Already the lights of distant Elko were beginning to twinkle but they did not interfere with the brightness of the northern Nevada night sky. As I crept back towards the trailhead, I preferred keeping my flashlight off as to not take away from the silver arc that was the Milky Way. 
Last Look
Descending in twilight
I miss stars. For all the lovely things about living in Downtown Chicago, starry nights are an unfortunate sacrifice. Thankfully, I enjoyed them to their fullest on this dark night. It wasn't even disappointing that it took me over 14 hours to ascend this wilderness peak. I hope I return soon. 

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