Wasatch Mountains: Monte Cristo area

Mt. McKinnon, Wasatch Mountains

This past summer I took a little drive on my day off. Since I’m always in the Uinta Mountains (it seems), I decided to head up to the Wasatch Mountains this time. And I took all 4 dogs. Since Miss Moose isn’t up for big adventures, we did some short walks and a lot of poking around. I decided on Monte Cristo because I’m always up for food-named places and I heard it was beautiful. It’s northeast of Ogden and it’s usually a good 10-20 degrees colder than the valley. I headed up UT39 and took the dogs for a short run/walk on an ATV trail to get some energy out because enthusiasm levels were high, as you can see in the images below. Disclaimer: my dogs are leashed any time I intend to encounter another person. This was not that place, plus it was 7 am so you can see Reina is roaming.

The views driving on UT39 are gorgeous. You can overlook the Ogden Valley and get some amazingly beautiful views. Not many pictures, though, as there aren’t a ton of places to stop and I was driving so no “ shoot out the window and hope it turns out” shots. I did find a nice pull off to experience the beautiful summer mountain flowers. I think those blue flowers below are a type of bellflower. Pretty meadows also give way to mountain landscapes. It’s definitely a great place for nature photography, if the valley inversions behave themselves. There was a bit of haze when I went out, but overall the view was pretty clear.

The girls had a lot of fun both poking around the hillsides and exploring. Dogs are welcome as it’s National Forest, just observe basic trail etiquette. Mt. McKinnon is the high point in the area, and again, the views are gorgeous. We ended up sitting on the side of the mountain for a little bit (Miss Moose mandated it) and just relaxing. We went on a weekday and it was fairly empty, though the campground fills up quickly in the summer.

We did a nice short morning excursion and we’re home in time to play with our foster kitten, Janika! (Gratuitous kitten picture below). Monte Cristo is absolutely gorgeous and only about 1-1.5 hours from downtown Salt Lake City, so perfect for a quick trip to get out of the heat or inversions. I haven’t attempted the route in winter yet, however and I believe part of the route on UT39 is actually closed once it snows.

The map below is pinned a little east beyond where I was on UT39. The National Forest is the green sector.

Roosevelt elk in Olympic National Park

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington is such a unique and beautiful area. The Dagobah-like area sports beautiful waterfalls, dense trees, and ubiquitous moss. The Hoh Rainforest is a beautiful area, and has some interesting wildlife, including the Roosevelt elk.

Roosevelt elk (Cervus elephaus roosevelti) is the largest of the 4 subspecies of elk. There is a large population in the Hoh rainforest, as well as a smaller population in Alaska near Kodiak Island (the Alaskan elk originate from 8 Hoh rainforest elk calves that were transplanted in the late 1920s to replenish a historic population; an additional herd was sent north again in the 1980s). Roosevelt elk tend to have darker hair than Rocky Mountain elk and larger antlers. Their name comes from President Theodore Roosevelt, who designated the Hoh rainforest area a National Monument in the early 1900s to protect the elk herds in the area. The National Monument later became Olympic National Park.

elk_follow_1
Yes, this is how they move elk.
Image source: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/outdoors/hunting_and_fishing/dnr-elk-leader-describes-organized-chaos-of-elk-capture/article_ae82051d-cad3-5e1d-b119-9fb5adf8c11f.html
A beautiful Roosevelt elk cow stands in the Hoh rainforest with rain running down her back and trees and moss in the background.
Roosevelt elk doe in the Hoh rainforest.

We saw this doe (oops, they’re called cows if they’re elk, apparently) from our car, it was a complete chance encounter. I was hoping to see some of the herd, and after hiking for a couple hours we decided the rain was getting too heavy and called it for the day. Just after we packed up and started driving, we turned a corner and saw this elk standing on a hillside. You can see her coat is pretty soaked from the rain. As we saw her in the spring, I have to wonder if she was pregnant or just very well-fed (there’s a lot of vegetation for them to graze in the rainforest!) She gave us a couple seconds of viewing before she went on her way. She definitely was stockier than the Rocky Mountain Elk I’m used to seeing.

Dense pine trees covered in moss stand together.
Moss-covered trees in the Hoh rainforest.

The Hoh rainforest is about 4 hours west of Seattle. It’s not the easiest area to access, but definitely worth seeing especially if you’re heading back east from the coast. As it’s a rainforest, it gets almost continual rain in the later fall through early spring. We went in April and it was pleasant temperatures, but yes, lot of rain.

Haystack Lake in the Uintas

Uinta mountains
Flowered meadow (really a bog) up in the Uinta mountains.

I am really fortunate to live in a state that is encouraging people to go outside (safely) and that I can easily find places that are absolutely empty. Go a little ways off the paved road and you’re pretty much on your own (especially if you go on a weekday). We took the Monday after July 4th off and headed up into the Uinta mountains for some fresh air and cooler temperatures. The Mirror Lake Highway is fully open now, and I will again state my preference for the non-Kamas side of you want solitude.

With no real destination in mind, we decided to visit a couple alpine lakes. Apparently to be called an “alpine lake,” a body of water (reservoir or lake) needs to be located over 5000 feet. This was off of Mirror Lake Highway (FR041), there are quite a few little lakes you can hike to and visit. To be fair, the first “lake” — as it was denoted on forest service maps — was really a natural spring that made a bog-like meadow. I’m not complaining, it was beautiful!

Natural spring
Origin of natural spring in the Uintas

The stream from the spring meanders through the meadow/bog and there are quite a few wildflowers in bloom now. Yes, the water was COLD. I don’t think this spring/stream is named that I could find. There is a nice little primitive camping spot and fire ring (metal) in front of the meadow/bog (see first picture, that’s the camping spot, great view!). Didn’t see any animals here (aside from a frog) but saw lots of deer tracks.

Frog
Uinta Frog

The view is absolutely beautiful. We walked across the meadow/bog, it’s a bit squishy but not too bad.

Uinta Mountain Meadow
Uinta Mountain Meadow

From the meadow/bog we continued up and visited Haystack Lake (with a view of Haystack Mountain). There are a TON of great camping spots along the east side of the lake. Some kind person has stacked firewood at them as well.

Haystack Lake
Haystack Lake

I saw a couple fish jumping, and supposedly the lake has Brook and Cuttroat Trout. Only 2 waterlilies were blooming (yellow ones).

There is a trail around the lake, or you can try to go along the shoreline (it gets pretty mucky). The west side has game trails going up the mountain too. We didn’t see any animals here, but heard something that may have been a moose. Or elk. Also saw moose tracks in the mud.

Haystack Lake origin
Haystack Lake origin

The only animal I saw was a chipmunk. Still pretty cute. Overall, a nice place for solitude, a little hike, and great scenery.

Solitude by the Weber River

Hopefully everyone is staying safe and well during the pandemic. Through the shut downs and quarantines, we were still allowed (and indeed encouraged) to get outside for exercise or a drive here in Utah. It’s not hard to be socially distant here if you take the back roads, avoid the popular canyons and parks, and generally just want to explore. A couple weekends ago we wanted to go poke around the Uinta Mountains (strangely the tallest east-west running mountain range in the lower 48 states). We (rightly) assumed the Kamas Mirror Lake road entrance would be crazy busy. So we went in the Evanston, Wyoming route.

weber-river-3-wm

We found a beautiful spot on the Weber River (we were back in Utah at this point). Still running high and cold from snow melt (and yes, that’s still mountain snow!) but so clear and beautiful. We are always looking for things we can see with small hikes or from back road driving. I know, I know. Ideally we would be hiking further, etc. BUT, I have a chronic illness (or two. Or three. It’s all speculation at this point) and sometimes I just can’t go far. Some days I can. This was a “high pain” day. But dammit, I’m still going to travel, explore, and see what I can! This was a mostly driving excursion with some sort hikes to break it up (and heated seats to help sore muscles after).

weber-river-wm

We only saw a handful of people, most were out jogging or poking around their yards. If you don’t mind a drive (and FYI the back rural roads in Wyoming have a 70mph speed limit!) and want some solitude, I highly recommend exploring the Wyoming entrance to the western Unitas.

weber-river-4-wmAlso found this old railroad bridge (Union Pacific!) that is now a back forest road. I was shocked it’s not been graffitied. That’s my Detroit side showing, I guess!

Stay safe and healthy, all. We’re all in this together. 💜

 

 

Mailbox Peak Hike

More snow

More snow

So let me start the story with the following; the hike was a 6.4 mile roundtrip with a 4200’ elevation gain, no I didn’t die, yes my legs almost fell off, and the recovery time was three days. Warning: all pictures were taken by my friend with a cell phone so they

 

We were planning a trip to Seattle to visit some friends of ours and the husband and I were planning a one day hike. Two days before we arrived, we were discussing options and he mentioned that he had two options; both were about a 6 mile round trip but one was a lot harder than the other. Naturally, I requested the harder of the two since I love a good death march. We were going to climb Mailbox Peak.

There’s a bit of background that’s important here. My friend Adam is in training to climb Mt Ranier this summer (He’s raising money for the National Park. Go here to donate and here to pick up a t-shirt or sticker) and is in fantastic shape. To quote Archer, “Someone get some duct tape, because this guy is ripped!” I should also add that I happen to be a tubby guy (round is a shape!) and I may have been suffering from delusions of grandeur. On the drive out for the hike he mentioned that he was excited that I’d chosen to climb Mailbox Peak since it’s considered the best hike to train for Mt. Rainer because of how steep it is. That should have been more foreboding than it was but all that occurred to me was that Mt. Rainier must be an easy 14000’ mountain to climb. We stopped at a grocery store for supplies (sunflower seeds and granola bars for me, Ramen for Adam) and then finished the drive to the parking area at the base of the trail. We shouldered our packs in the 41 degree rain (hey I did say it was the Pacific Northwest, right?) and headed up the trail.

Things started off easily enough. There was a constant but modest incline and a lovely stream that we were following. The buds on the vines and trees were just starting to open up and the waterproofing spray I’d applied to my jacket was doing its job. That was the first ten minutes. After that, the trail got narrower and steeper. The rain wasn’t too heavy so footing was good and the trail was well graded so the slope was constant. After 40 (hard) minutes of hiking, we took a quick break to eat a granola bar and check our progress on Adam’s trekking app. The report was 0.8 miles. The general consensus was that the app must be broken. As hard as we were working, there’s no way we’d only been averaging 1 mile per hour. More confident in our ability than our equipment, we continued.

Trees

Such trees. Wow.

 

After that, the trail steepend. We kept running across places where erosion had created big steps where tree roots had stabilized the soil above but not below them. The bright side to these steps was that my quads started to burn from the frequent, irregular, two foot high steps instead of just my hamstrings burning from the slope. 20 minutes later it was time for another food and water stop. Another check of the app reported that we’d only covered another 0.4 miles. We *knew* that the app had to be misreporting things at that point.

 

It was at this point the hike started to get harder. Those tree steps became almost constant. The places between those tree root steps turned to soupy mud. How mud stayed attached to a 45 degree slope is beyond me. The trail also became less distinct. Fallen trees had trapped some of the mud from sliding down the hill and covered the trail. We meandered around a bit randomly (well the left and right were a bit random but we kept heading up) while looking for the white blazes that marked the trail. We’d site one and head over towards it. Sometimes we’d pick up the trail for a little while and sometimes we wouldn’t. The one constant is that we never went downhill, not even for one step. The trail just kept going up. There some sections that only had a slight upslope. When I hit them, it felt like I was floating it was such a relief.

 

After a while, I noticed that the blazes had little messages written on them. I only remember a few of them. About halfway up, one read “This is a no quit zone” and then about two blazes later, one read “The Flying Spaghetti Monster Believes in You!” With the Flying Spaghetti Monster on my side, I knew I could make it!

A note of encouragement?

A note of encouragement?

Then it started to snow. The flakes were big, fluffy, wet, and numerous. And they were sticking. As we climbed, the snow started to blanket everything off the ground in a lovely layer of white and we started to encounter patches of packed snow/ice on the trail. We saw some smart hikers going up and down who had thought to bring yak-tracks so they could actually walk up the slick surface rather than flailing wildly and clawing your way up the slope. My jealousy knew no bounds.

...and so it begins.

…and so it begins.

Rain, sleet, snow...

Rain, sleet, snow…

Luckily (sort of) after 15 minutes or so of struggle, the falling snow got deep enough that the icy layer stopped being a problem since we were slogging through 6 inches of snow instead. When there would be a break in the trees, we were able to confirm that the wind was howling and there wouldn’t be a view from the top.

Best view we're going to get...

Best view we’re going to get…

The trail continued relentlessly until a big change finally happened. We came out of the trees and into the boulder field that was mentioned on the hike review I’d read before we left the house. That meant that we were near the top (good) but that we were also leaving the shelter of the trees and stepping out into that wind (bad).

Lovely.

Lovely.

And it thickens!

And it thickens!

Up the boulders we went. The combination of snow and wind prevented us from seeing much the trail so we couldn’t judge how far we were from the top but we were constantly sure that we were almost there. The snow was so heavy that I has to frequently clean my hat off because of the build up.

It's how much further?

It’s how much further?

A few hardy souls passed on the way down but there didn’t seem to be anyone behind us (at least no one else who was in good shape and moving fast). We even saw a couple of pooches heading down. The first couple looked relieved to be heading how but there was one hardy dog who looked ready for more.

Cute little guy!

Cute little guy!

Finally, after 3.5 hours of struggle, we sighted the peak and headed up to the top. The snow was up to knee deep in places and it was clear that winter hadn’t left the mountain yet.

The summit

The summit mailbox

Summit

Adam added our names to the record book (I was too tired to write) and we turned and headed down the mountain again. I know that most of the time heading back down a hill is way easier than faster than climbing it but in the case, I think it was harder for me going down than going up. I tried to always keep my knees bent to avoid the impact of descending on my knees and my legs were quickly protesting. On top of that, without the work of climbing, the wind quickly numbed my hands and ears so I stumbled as quickly as I could to get back down to the tree line and out of the wind. That took about 30 minutes….

The trees shielded us but it took a long time to warm up as we slipped and slid back down the snow-covered slopes. I kept having to grab onto the ice covered tree trunks and prop myself up on the snow covered ground. Those are really cold when you don’t have gloves!

It kept warming up as we descended and the air got noticeably thicker and dropped below the snow line after a little while. We found a spot next to the trail that was sheltered from the still falling snow and Adam whipped up a batch of Ramen while I munched on sunflower seeds. It felt good to hold that cup of near boiling water in my hands and I finally warmed up a bit. Adam dumped the water he’d been carrying as ballast (he’s serious about training for his Mt. Rainier climb) and we resumed our hike. We left the snow behind and went back to enjoying the rain and the mud.

After a while (maybe 45 minutes) we were passed by someone heading up the mountain even less prepared for the weather than I was. It was an Asian girl shorting calf a light jacket, calf length yoga pants, and mesh running shoes with no socks. I shook my head and mentally wished her good luck and kept trudging.

By now I was really hurting. The muscles/tendons connecting my knee caps to my shins were on fire. Stopping to rest didn’t really help since they would start twitching and I would almost fall over. I was able to walk but it HURT! I kept my legs moving as best I could and we kept going. Eventually those muscles went numb (which was an improvement sort of) and mostly stopped responding to my requests. My legs just kind of flopped around and gravity pulled my feet down the hill but at least I was able to keep walking. I told Adam that if my legs fell off he was welcome to roll me the rest of the way down the hill.

It was about that time that we started to hear a stream. That meant we were starting to get close to the bottom. To celebrate, we stopped for some water and a granola bar. That was when the unthinkable happened. The girl who I was worried would get frostbite an hour before came into view above us. She wasn’t just walking faster than us, she was running; actually running down the trail. We watched as she came down the switchbacks above us, passed us, and continued down the trail, around the switch backs, and disappear out of sight. I can’t remember the last time I felt so unmanly. Adam consoled me by telling me she probably hadn’t gone to the top (and considering her outfit he was probably right) but it wasn’t especially helpful at the time.

We resumed our march as the stream got louder and louder until we could see it again. It came into view as a lovely little waterfall and was a sign that we were down to 30 minutes of hiking. The trail started to level out a bit and the going started to get easier.

The rest of the hike was pretty boring so I’ll spare you the details. We made our way back to the car and headed back to Adam’s out. The wife and I made bacon, prosciutto pizza for the group and I introduced Adam (a big peanut butter fan) to the joys of cookie butter. The next day we went to the REI flagship store and I got lots of confused looks as I staggered up and down the stairs like a 100 years old man. Once I explained that I had climbed Mailbox Peak the day before, a wave of understanding washed over the faces of all of the people I talked to.

Anyway, the hike was fantastic and I highly recommend it if you’re into death marches especially when you can see the view from the top (I’m told it’s nice). I might even climb it again the next time I’m in Seattle. Don’t forget to support Mt. Rainier and the National Park and grab a t-shirt or some stickers by going here!