From late 2005 through mid-2008 I had a lot of fun writing a monthly column for a local southern Utah lifestyles magazine. Each topic could be pretty much anything I chose to write about, but the themes were consistent: hiking and geology. Since this was a popular magazine and not a technical journal I tried to keep the geology as basic as I could without “dumbing it down.” I also didn’t want to write trail guides but just wrote about my experiences in the hope that readers would be able to carve their own personal experience without being directed to hike 1/2 mile and then watch for a cairn.
Recently I started sifting through some of those articles and the photos I had taken during the years I wrote the column. It was a thrill at the time to receive so many positive comments from friends and acquaintances; when I finally stopped writing due to my busy school schedule, people often mentioned to me how much they missed my columns. I must have been doing something right.
I am dusting off the cobwebs that have accumulated on these articles from my very first paid job as a writer and will post one every week or so for the next few months.
Backpacking in the Uinta Mountains had been on my bucket list ever since I moved to Utah in 1990, so that’s the reason I chose it as the first article to be reborn as a blog post. It took me a few years to get there but I finally made it in the summer of 2007. I hope it isn’t my last visit.
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Henry’s Fork drainage and Gunsight Pass
Whenever anyone mentions the High Uintas Wilderness, an image forms in my mind of ancient mountains weathered by the elements of time. I have wanted to hike these mountains for years but the opportunity never presented itself until this summer when a geologist friend suggested backpacking to Dollar Lake and dayhiking to 13,528 ft Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah. We would go the week of August 20th and would need to prepare, said Ben, “for any kind of weather including snow, sleet, hail, and clouds of low-flying mosquitoes.”
It seems backpacking is becoming a lost art among us aging baby boomers. I started backpacking in the early 1970’s while attending the University of TN in Knoxville in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. I plan to keep at it until I am no longer able to crawl out of my tent on my hands and knees and stand up.
I would hike in on Monday, a day earlier than Ben and Jeff and Jeff, to give myself as much time as possible in mountains I may not see again for a while. We would regroup at Dollar Lake Tuesday afternoon, hike to King’s Peak Wednesday, and hike down Thursday. From the outset I didn’t think I would do the peak, but that was fine. To me, the journey is the destination, wherever that might be. “OK, then,” said Ben. “I’ll see you on the mountain.”
According to current geologic thought, the Uintas are a result of a northerly-trending rift that occurred sometime around 1 billion years ago on the western edge of the ancient North American proto-continent of Rodinia. A 2nd rift formed perpendicular to this; by around 800 million years ago, sediments from adjacent highlands had deposited into this 2nd rift basin. Uplift of these sediments 50-70 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny (mountain-building) formed the Uinta Mountains.
The previous week our weather had been unsettled and stormy but the forecast called for clearing skies. If storms threatened I would just wait it out until my friends arrived the next day. These mountains create their own weather – clear skies at the trailhead were no guarantee of the same at higher elevations.
I gave my brother Larry my itinerary – which drainage I’d be in, when my friends would arrive, which day I expected to hike out. I stayed in Roosevelt 2 days then headed for highway 191, an extremely scenic route north from Vernal. This spectacular drive across the eastern flank of the Uintas has road signs describing the geologic formations. When I saw signs for the Precambrian (older than 540 million years) Uinta Mountain Group I had to toss some rocks into the back of my car. Really old rocks just knock my socks off. These are not the oldest in Utah but at nearly 1 billion years old they have a story to tell.
As I pulled into Henry’s Fork trailhead on the north slope of the Uintas around 9am, a car pulled in behind me and 2 people about my age got out. They introduced themselves as Tim and Patricia from Rochester NY and were setting out to camp at Dollar Lake with the intent of hiking to Kings Peak on Tuesday. We talked for a few minutes and then fell in to hiking together the entire 7 miles to the lake. Surely they thought “Oh this poor woman with her heavy pack – we can’t let her hike alone!” We laughed and talked like we had known each other for years, and soon morning passed into afternoon. I had planned on 7 hours hiking. We took lots of breaks, savoring our moments in time as we gained elevation to nearly 10,800 ft. So as we hiked further into the High Uintas Wilderness we related our personal stories to each other, and the mountains listened, and whispered their own story.
The first few miles passed quickly but then climbing became steeper and walking slower. I considered jettisoning my binoculars along the way (Why in the world did I bring those?). By the time I crawled in to my tent that night I was totally hammered. My pack had weighed a ton. I was coughing; my feet, ankles, and knees ached. I was desperately searching for those pesky oxygen molecules I knew had to be there somewhere at that elevation. But I made it! I had wanted to hike the Uintas for a long time, and finally made it.
Sheepherder with border collies
Tuesday, Tim and Patricia left at dawn for King’s Peak. I had a leisurely morning sitting on a log in the quiet woods, eating pop tarts and drinking chocolate coffee. Mid-morning I set out for Gunsight Pass at 12,000 ft on the route to the peak. Henry’s Fork drainage is an expansive glacier-carved U-shaped valley with steep cliffs on both sides. Nearing the pass in the headwall of the drainage the trail skirts the eastern cliff. I wondered if I would be scrambling up a steep scree slope, but at the last minute the trail switchbacked up to the right. It was easy going, not too steep, and pure joy without a heavy pack. At the next switchback I found a flat rock to set myself upon and watched 3 border collies and a sheepherder on horseback make their way up the trail. It was cool and breezy and sunny and warm. Gunsight Pass was at eye level from my rest spot, the trail contouring gently along the mountainside. I continued on, studying some exposed bedrock at the pass. Most of the valley floor consists of rock debris left from the retreat of the last glaciers around 10,000 years ago, so finding this bedrock was exciting.
Slowly, because I wanted to imprint the view in my memory, I made my way back to camp. On my tent was a note that Ben and Jeff and Jeff had arrived. I needed to refresh after 2 days on the trail – Dollar Lake was too inviting not to just wade in and plop down to cool off. It was cold but felt wonderful! All that aching and soreness disappeared. Tim and Patricia came back around 7pm with stories of their day. I was glad they were safe. Wednesday morning they said goodbye and headed down the mountain. I’d had an unexpected good fortune in meeting and hiking with them, and hope they have as good a memory of me as I do of them. Ben and Jeff and Jeff were off to Kings Peak early, but since at this point I had no desire to “bag the peak,” I just moved my tent nearer to theirs and again had a leisurely morning.
It is a sublime experience to doze in a tent in the shade of evergreens and have absolutely nothing else to do, so that’s what I did. Early afternoon I shook myself awake and moseyed up the trail to meet my friends on their way down. These guys are strong hikers and they were exhausted, so I was glad I hadn’t gone. I’d probably still be up there. Alicia and George from SLC arrived to hike to the peak the next day, so that evening we relaxed in the deepening dusk as we passed around the flask. Our weather had been perfect. I had counted 3 mosquitoes.
In the morning I hiked out with Ben as we spoke of glacial advances and retreats, billion-year-old quartzites, ancient mountains weathering by the elements of time, and how our fascination with the geology of the Uintas allows us to peer ever so slightly into eternity.