Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Autumn Leaf Loop - Mirror Lake

Recently, we took a grand-loop tour up Immigration canyon, through the Uinta Mountains by Mirror Lake, around through Woodruff and down Monte Cristo, by Causey Dam, into Huntsville and over Trappers Loop, up Weber Canyon to Morgan then over East Canyon until… finally, reaching Immigration Canyon again.   [Those of you who have never heard of these places, trust me, it's a long way for a day-trip.]

A bit more than one deliberately sets out to take in one fell-swoop; but, once you get going, it's hard to stop… until you can't, and it's just plain "shorter" to go around than go back.   Especially when you think you remember all the places you're seeing – and even more especially when you're talking about the Uinta Mountains where most of us had spent many a summer.

In fact, this is the second post about the "Autumn Leaf Loop" we took a few days ago – today's is about our stop at Mirror Lake.   The trip can be taken any time of the year just to "cool off" but is spectacular in the fall when the leaves show brilliant orange in front of the deep forest green of the conifers.   [For a free Google Earth file of this route see: Autumn Leaf Loop]

Mirror Lake - High Uinta Mountains

The loop is on paved roads but quickly leaves I-215 in Immigration Canyon in favor of the mountain back-roads of nine counties – Utah's: Salt Lake, Morgan, Wasatch, Duchesne, Rich, Summit, Weber and Cache; and Wyoming's: Uinta.   It does take a full day but allows time for extended stops at Provo Falls, Soapstone/YMCA Camp Roger and Causey Reservoir with Lunch at Mirror Lake and dinner at East Canyon.

I-215 or "Immigration Canyon" as locals prefer to call it is a good way to start the trip, if for no other reason than it gets you out of the city heat and smog very quickly.   We'd been over through Park City the week before so we didn't even need to exit there.   The quaint city of Kamas is the gateway to the High Uintas from the west side and quickly you're in the mountains passing the "suburb" of "Samak" (Kamas spelled backward), the nudist camp and the fish hatchery.

Our first stop, as we have done several times, was at Soapstone.   Near the ranger cabin was where grandpa Allred camped his family for summers while he was building roads, bridges and culverts all over the area with the US Forest Service.   We also have experience with the YMCA Camp Rogers at the same turnoff, where the Utah Diabetic Association held Camp UTADA for many years.   Good to see that both were still there!

The Uinta Mountains are one of the few mountain ranges in North America that run east to west rather than north to south.   Within them are about 2000 lakes – some 900-1000 full of trout!   The Uintas are number two at having more contiguous area above timberline than any other continental United State.   Its many lakes, meadows, wildflowers, and rugged peaks (along with proximity to the largest Utah metropolis) make both solitude and crowds easy to come by, depending upon which trailhead you are at and at what season.

The largest of the many WILDERNESS areas in Utah, the High Uinta area splits the mountains into three parts, the other two being the Western Uintas and the High Bollies (Eastern Uintas). Doing anything except "passing through" requires one of the new "fee passes" that are available at vendor stations all over the place.

Despite that, the area attracts lots of visitors; the government even has seen fit to leave a few token ATV trails open although they are not very well known. Hiking, backpacking, fishing, hunting, canoeing, camping, climbing and even scuba diving all ARE well known however and draw thousands of visitors.

Provo River Falls are another convenient place to stop when in your "Sunday clothes" and your "offroad-challenged" vehicle.   This whole stretch of river gives a new meaning to the term "portage" for canoes; but, here are some of the most picturesque. If it weren't for the major parking lot they would be completely hidden under the forest canopy and would rarely be noticed except for their sound.

There are hand-rails and paved foot-paths down to some overlooks which could probably be navigated by a "jazzie," except we didn't try it. This, however, is pretty much the only path in the whole area which is "senior friendly" due to the exclusionary rules of "wilderness areas."

Baldy is about the next landmark, except for all the named lakes along the road, and is a huge round top mountain, bald on top and rimmed, like a bad haircut, by conifers at the tree-line.   One of its claims to fame is that it overlooks directly Mirror Lake and is climbable for that purpose with a moderate amount of effort.

It is this "lake of mirror" which we have sought as a convenient place for lunch.   There is a ranger station there and, as a landmark, it is probably one of the "heaviest draws" for the whole area.   There is fishing, camping, canoeing, swimming, diving and a trailhead for many of the "wilderness treks" we used to take in younger years.   In short, it contains about all the Uinta's have to offer.   Moosehorn, across the street, is a mecca for climbers and even the rangers have nature walks and talks at the place.

Mountain Bikers Report:
The High Uintas Classic is a yearly, grueling 80-mile bike race from Kamas Utah to Evanston Wyoming completely through the park.   This next year [2011] it will be held June 18 - 19.   You start at the Kamas City Hall on the 18th and finish whenever you can drag yourself over the finish line just short of the hospital in Evanston.

There is a shorter finish line for other events at the 47-mile mark in Christmas Meadows. If it wasn't already enough of a vehicle obstacle on these narrow roads, I'd say you ought to go see it. But the last thing anyone needs is more vehicles on the roads with the bikers. I've seen the San Francisco marathon and this "heartbreak hill" tops them all!

Rock Climbers report:
Technical rock climbing is not usually done in the Uinta Mountains because of the fractured nature of the rock. HOWEVER, there is some good rock though around Anchor and Notch Lakes in the Western Uintas and Lightning Lake in Upper Rock Creek Basin in the Wilderness Area. Moosehorn, Cliff and Ruth Lakes are also becoming popular climbs as well.   Several others are better elucidated in this site.

Backpackers, Hikers and Equestrians report:
It's the wilderness area which hogs all of the highest peaks in the mountain range – in fact, everything over 13,000 feet in the whole state. And, because of the exclusion of ORVs in wilderness areas, nearly all of the hikes to their summits are too long for one-day climbs, at least for mere mortals.   A few of the peaks are 40 miles round trip from the nearest road.   The highest peak in the wilderness area, and Utah, is Kings Peak at 13,528 feet, way above the timberline at 11,000 feet.

Although many areas have become quite crowded and receive heavy use (such as Naturalist Basin, Henry's Fork, Smith Fork, etc), some other areas are seldom visited, trails are fading away and the mountains yield up the solitude for which they have always been known. Some entire basins are usually empty even on summer holiday weekends, while other areas may have full parking lots, and a line of hikers.

Interestingly, no mountains in the wilderness area have a trail to the summit and as such are "free form" wandering through the forest and boulders – although a beaten path is slowly appearing on Kings Peak.

Swimmers/Boaters report:
For a "land of 2000 lakes" swimming and boating is a tad bit "primitive" from what one might expect for two main reason's: it's cold and they're small. There's no prohibition against swimming except for the natural one that it takes an un-naturally hot day, rarely seen in the mountains, to overcome ones natural aversion to the ice-melt-fed lake's bone chilling temperature.

The same holds true for boating. With no motors allowed the portage from any access point to nearly all lakes is prohibitive and it's rare to find a lake large enough for a raft or canoe to maneuver in; even if you dared the wrath of fishermen with large sharp objects on the ends of things they can propel at you!

Scuba Divers Report:
On the other hand, if you have a dry suit (nearly always a good idea) a dip below the waves can be interesting – if not invigorating; but no spearfishing is allowed. Mirror Lake is shallow up to about 30 feet and not anywhere near as clear as it looks from the surface – being full of greenish suspended particles – producing visibility of 6 to 9 feet.

Summer water surface temperature is about 60 degrees with no appreciable thermocline. Common entry is at the parking area [GPS N 40° 42.089' W 110° 53.249']. In the shallows, moss covers a muddy bottom with protrusions of tiny green plants and small darting fish. In deeper areas, the bottom is covered with six inches of brown detritus very easily disturbed requiring good buoyancy control. You might see an Albino Trout from a distance but natural-colored trout will appear suddenly out of the green gloom then disappear again.

Another easily accessible lake, Trial Lake [GPS N 40° 40.774' W 110° 57.303'] is shallow to around 25 feet, clear tea-colored with a bottom of sand and rock and visibility of 12-15 feet. Surface temperature in late summer is 59 degrees with no appreciable thermocline so dry suits are a good idea.

The water clarity makes it easy to hunker down to wait for the fish to find you – perhaps a little Cheez Whiz will aid their efforts; therefore this is a great place to photograph trout.

Offroaders/Snowmobilers report:
There is a plan to accommodate ORVs, although it's pretty common knowledge that usurping the entire central portion of the mountains for a Wilderness Area pretty much decimated the activity and only a fair amount of visibility has prompted authorities to actually plan for the ubiquitous sport in Utah. However, grandpa's forest service roads around Soapstone, Murdock Basin, Broad-head Meadows and East Portal are still open and link to about 20 miles of ATV trails.

The main road (UT-150) is not plowed in the winter and only remains open to snowmobilers with one or two other side trails. Designated route trail maps are available at the Kamas forest service office and are necessary to remain legal.

Fishermen report:
Not anywhere near the fishing mecca that it once was, the area none-the-less remains a very popular destination. The Fish and Game's Put-Grow-and-Take philosophy pretty much keeps families and most "fair-weather" fishermen confined to the corridor along easy access which can become elbow-to-elbow on holidays in good weather. They also experiment with fish stocks which might survive in small lakes that freeze and which, hopefully, provide angler excitement as well. State catch limits apply.

Backcountry lakes are a different experience entirely. Success is quite variable, from: good and small in "managed" lakes, to nothing in some smaller lakes, to virgin-forest-Jim-Bridger-huge in an occasional, frustratingly-random, hard-to-get-to backwater. This video may whet your appetite for the aquatic creatures, even if it's a bit "touristy."

Our lunch over, we continued our Fall Foliage Trail [Google Earth Map] northward out the "back-door" of the Uinta's toward Evanston Wyoming. You are pretty close to Evanston before you exit from the trees and onto pretty well cared for farm land – high mountain lakes, trailheads and campsites all along the way. I have placed waypoints on the map for many (but not even close to all) of the areas lakes, just so you can have a feel for how magnificent the Uinta's are.

We talked about our next stop, "Monte" and "Causey," in the last post. Next time: East Canyon.


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