Wandering the West
July 9, 2008
I’m continually stunned by how little of this spectacular state some Utahns see. I worked with a man in Salt Lake once who spent his entire two-week vacation each year staying at Little America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake and ordering room service while watching TV. Another worked in his backyard garden for his vacation, although one year he asked me how to get to Snowbird. He wondered if there were any places open for lunch there in the summer because he was "thinking" about driving up there to see it after living in Utah more than 50 years!
Parkites are more adventurous for sure, but with mountains at our door, I keep running into people who’ve never explored the Uintas and they’re a half hour away. I remember leading a Scout hike to Notch Peak once and was amused by how stunned one of the dads was by the scenery. He had no idea Utah had mountains like that all he’d seen were the ski slopes above town.
Granted, they’re not the Himalayas, or even the Colorado Rockies, but the Uintas are grand mountains filled with tree-choked valleys and streams, rocky cliffs, green meadows and lakes lots and lots of lakes. All it takes is a quick drive out of Kamas and the Uintas feel like a vacation from the Wasatch.
The Uintas are Utah’s highest mountains, and the high peaks are enclosed in the High Uintas Wilderness Area. Farther east is King’s Peak, Utah’s highest peak at 13,528 feet. The easiest access point from Park City is also one of Utah’s most scenic highways: the Mirror Lake Highway that climbs from Kamas into the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and ends in Evanston, Wyo. You’ll need to stop at the visitor booth and pay $3 for a day pass to visit. Back when it was free, there wasn’t enough money to keep the campgrounds, trails and toilets in good repair; the fees collected are now spent on improvements right there and things are looking much better.
Mirror Lake Highway parallels the Upper Provo River and the willow-lined stream banks are good places to spot moose. Stop at the Upper Provo River Falls to see the cascading water drop from one level to another. Make sure kids don’t get too close, as the shoreline can be mossy and slippery.
This is a great trip to introduce kids to more than the falls. A good challenge for them is to point at Bald Mountain and dare them to climb it. It’s an easy hike nearly anyone halfway fit can manage (our dog with four-inch-long legs bounded to the 11,943 foot summit without slowing down). On top you’ve got a 360-degree sweep of the best of the Uintas, and that’s when you’ll see just how many lakes are out there.
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In the Wasatch you won’t find many lakes, but up here they seem to be everywhere. Look for trails that make loops past several backcountry lakes. You’ll find you have them to yourselves for the afternoon. The fish are small at this elevation, but there are catchable rainbow and brook trout in most of them. But these are not swimming lakes unless you’ve got polar-bear blood.
Those who don’t want to hike can stop at a number of lakes along side roads and Mirror Lake Highway itself. Trial and Washington are good drive-to lakes, and each has lakeshore campgrounds. Of course the magnet for the whole trip is Mirror Lake itself, just past Bald Mountain Pass, which tops out at 10,647 feet. There’s a nice Forest Service campground at Mirror, but in summer it has to be the most popular camping destination in the state. Better reserve ahead there or show up midweek to snag a lakeside spot.
The country opens up past Mirror Lake. Here are broad sweeping valleys with the Bear River flowing down from the summit. There are fewer lakes on this side and not as many great hiking trails.
Your options at this point are to drive out to Evanston and come home on I-80, or make a U-turn at Bear River Service (the forest boundary) and double back.
The Uintas were overlooked a generation ago, but they’re a popular destination for the Wasatch Front now. But all it takes is a quick walk down a trail to get away from people, and back to nature.
Kamas to Evanston: 60 miles
Insider tip: People die of exposure up here on summer hikes. There’s serious mountain weather at this elevation, so carry a small backpack with the essentials for surviving a few nights.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.