Monday, October 1, 2018

Salt Lake County: From Lowest to Highest

I find it fascinating to observe the differences between native Utahns and émigrés. I often find that those who have always lived here are the most complacent and not particularly well-travelled in their home state. "Oh, Zion? Yeah, I've been there once." Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it probably does breed apathy.

I've lived in Salt Lake for half a decade now, at the foot of the Wasatch mountains. And each year, I've seen my adventures get farther afield. More remote. Rather than going on a dayhike in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I'll go up to the Uintas, or the Winds, or the Sawtooths. That is, I too have begun to neglect my own backyard. Most of my Wasatch exploration, I'm ashamed to admit, happened in the first couple years I lived in Utah. Since then, I've occasionally revisited a few old favorites, but mostly, I've just burned a lot of gas driving to other destinations.

I needed to change all that. So, in late September, with plenty of time and no excuse not to do it, I finally did an extended trek in my own backyard.

The concept of Lowest to Highest is an interesting one. A brilliant guy by the name of Brett Tucker mapped a 130-mile route a few years ago that originates in the lowest point in the Lower 48 (Death Valley, 282' below see level) and terminates at the highest point (14,505'). I've had my eye on his route for years, and decided to apply the same concept to my home county - Salt Lake County. Because everything needs a name and an acronym, I dubbed it the Lowest to Highest of Salt Lake County - the SLCL2H.

My route began at the lowest point of the county - the Jordan River, near where it flows into the Great Salt Lake (4,200'). The terminus, the American Fork Twin Peaks, towered over Snowbird ski area (11,500'). Between the two endpoints, the route climbed out of the Salt Lake Valley and traversed the main Wasatch crest. I calculated it to be 60 miles of pure autumn splendor. 

Day 1: I began my hike at a sewage canal that runs alongside the Jordan River. I started a few miles from the lake itself, but it was as close as I could get without trespassing on private land. In addition, the "lowest point" of the county is quite undefined, as mud flats are sometimes dry, sometimes wet, and it's hard to say where exactly the lowest point on "land" is. But in any event, I crossed the Jordan (neglecting to build an altar out of 12 stones), and walked east, first through an industrial park, then through a business district, then through a richy-rich neighborhood in the foothills. After approximately forever on pavement, I finally hit a dirt road that led up North Canyon, above the town of Bountiful. Dirt road soon turned to trail, trail turned into vague overgrown path, and vague overgrown path turned to a bushwhack. All the while, I gained elevation - a 5,200' continuous climb, a full vertical mile. 

Progress was slow along the ridge that formed the north wall of City Creek Canyon, but the day was beautiful and the scenery likewise. I headed east along the ridge toward Grandview Peak, the highest thing in this corner of the Wasatch. As I neared Grandview, I encountered some moderately rough terrain which slowed me further. I summited just before sunset, and had just enough time to make a cowboy camp at a tiny, cozy flat spot in the lee of the peak itself. 

Day 2: Not long after hitting the trail, I met a bevy of hunters. I had seen several herds of deer the previous day, so I understood why hunters were in the area. I was, however, very grateful for my orange regalia. Shots periodically rang out through the mountains, and I saw 3 or 4 hunters hauling out bucks. I joined the Great Western Trail after a mile or two, marking a dramatic improvement in the quality of the trail tread. I would follow the GWT for most of the next two days. 

I crossed a paved road, Big Mountain Pass, around noontime, and continued on the crest toward Parleys Summit, where Interstate 80 crosses the Wasatch. The views remained huge and the fall colors remained spectacular. I had a little trouble crossing the freeway, as the wildlife bridge (am I considered 'wildlife'?) at the summit is still under construction. I ended up walking the shoulder of the freeway for a few hundred yards before I reached an underpass where I could cross. I watered up at the crappy gas station (my first water source in a day and a half) and climbed through another ritzy neighborhood, sleeping in a backcountry ski smoke shack on top of the ridge overlooking Park City. 

Day 3: Well, the morning stunk. I got up, hiked a half mile to the top of Summit Park Peak, and then spent the next 3 hours in a truly horrendous bushwhack. I stayed on main Wasatch crest, but there was no trail to be found, and scrubby oak grabbed at me, tearing up my pants. Progress was slow and frustrating until I topped out at Murdock Peak.

Murdock offered tremendous views, and kicked off the real scenic highlight of the SLCL2H. I followed the Wasatch Crest Trail, staying on the spine of the range as it rose higher and higher, finally reaching 10,000' for the first time on the hike. I detoured off the ridge briefly to water up at Desolation Lake, and then continued on to Guardsman Pass, just north of Brighton ski area. From Guardsman, I climbed a pair of peaks, mostly off-trail, before camping, once again on the ridge, above Brighton. As I drifted off into the Land of Nod, I saw two rutting moose tussling, bellowing and chasing each other down the mountainside. Not an experience I will soon forget.

Day 4: I continued my off-trail traverse along the top of Brighton, summiting 3 named peaks, and earning dramatic views of the entire Wasatch Range. My objective was now clearly in sight. I drifted down into Albion Basin in Little Cottonwood. From here it was a quick hike up past Cecret Lake and into Snowbird, where the American Fork Twins awaited. 

But it was not to be. The trail to Cecret Lake was closed off, with a Forest Service closure order stipulating that the area was closed due to emergency dam repairs. My only option for detour would be to drop all the way down to the floor of Little Cottonwood and climb all the way up and around, which would cost me several miles and several thousand feet of elevation gain. More importantly, the detour would destroy the aesthetic beauty of the line I had followed thus far, staying on the ridge, following the most scenic and elegant line.

So I bailed. I was only a few miles short of the finish, I'd been there before, and I had no desire to take a decidedly anticlimactic detour simply for bragging rites. After all, I was the one who had mapped this in the first place.

But, despite the premature end, the journey was in no way a letdown. The route was stunning from start to finish. The fall colors were gorgeous. I spent 4 days revisiting old places, seeing them in a new light, and even visiting some new places. I finally returned to my roots in the Wasatch - and I was not disappointed.

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