Tom Kelly’s Sunday Drive: On top of the world

Tom Kelly

Sitting alongside an ancient pine tree atop a high alpine Ridgeline, I was mesmerized by the peacefulness. To the south, rays of morning sun were touching Mount Timpanogos. Northward, the ridgeline between Alta and the Snowbird tram station on Lone Peak was coming alive.

Few drivable mountain tops in the Wasatch give you that top of the world sensation as much as Mary Ellen Gulch. But you have to earn it with a four-mile rock-strewn drive from American Fork Canyon 3,000 feet below.

Sunday Drive has taken you on a few Jeep outings this summer. But this one is a true adventure! It is a narrow trail winding its way alongside Mary Ellen Creek before switchbacking up the cirque to a saddle overlooking Snowbird’s Mineral Basin. Along the way you’ll pass through wildflowers and pass by the remnants of century-old mines like the Yankee and Globe Mines.

So who is Mary Ellen and what’s the big deal about her gulch? Mary Ellen Oakley was the boardinghouse cook during the heydays of mining in the early 1900s.

Mining began in American Fork Canyon in 1870 with a new narrow gauge railway built to haul ore. The Pittsburgh Mine was opened and the town of Forest City grew at the base of what is now Miller Hill. But it was short lived with the railway closing down less than a decade later.

But at the turn of the 20th century, businessman George Tyng moved to Utah and brought mining back to life with a series of big ore strikes around his base on Miller Hill and in adjoining Mary Ellen Gulch. Sadly, he lost his life when a huge avalanche swept him away while he worked in his office shack in 1907.

The journey up Mary Ellen Gulch is ideal for a Jeep or other narrow-body off road vehicle. It begins with a two-mile climb up a narrow, rocky trail where tire placement is critical to avoid undercarriage damage. Think about it every time you put a tire onto a rock! It’s barely one vehicle wide, so always be thinking about how you’ll manage if you encounter someone coming the other direction.

After a couple miles, the trail opens up into a broad mountain meadow with stunning views in every direction, with mine tailing piles documenting the history. While the meadow offers a brief respite, the trail now heads right up the face of the cirque with a narrow trail and switchbacks that will require you to make some tricky Y-turns.

At the top, you get your reward as the trail breaks out in the saddle over Mineral Basin. While it’s the end of the trail for your Jeep, you are welcomed to hike into Mineral Basin or on the Mary Ellen Gulch ridgeline.

A big part of any Jeep adventure is meeting a challenge. The bonus on any outing is being treated to breathtaking high alpine views. Mary Ellen Gulch delivers on both with a ride back into history.

If you are a backcountry skier, it’s one of those summer experiences that will have you wanting to come back in winter. It’s very accessible from Mineral Basin!

The Details

Overview: Plan on six to eight hours from Park City to explore Mary Ellen Gulch. Take the Snake Creek Trail from Midway up and over Pole Line Pass down into American Fork Canyon. Plan your trip on GPS as there are dozens of interconnected trails. Mary Ellen Gulch is a four-mile route, starting at 7,500 feet at the trailhead and ending at 10,300 feet in the saddle overlooking Mineral Basin. 

Fun Stuff: In addition to a high energy Jeep adventure, take the time to hike to the old Yankee Mine buildings. Park the Jeep so you don’t disturb Mary Ellen Creek and walk in to visit the old mine buildings. For your safety, stay completely out of any mine openings or buildings!

Dining: This is definitely picnic territory, with many great high mountain meadow sites to enjoy lunch with a view. You can stop in Midway for dinner on the way home.

Tread Lightly: Anytime you’re in the backcountry with a vehicle, please tread lightly. This is fragile alpine terrain through the Wasatch National Forest and private land owned by Snowbird. Stay on the marked trails and abide by closed areas.

Next Week: Next week we’ll take it easy, with a simple trek down to Provo Canyon visiting Bridal Veil Falls.


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