The following article originally appeared in the March 12, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
by Clint Thomsen
As we loaded into the minivan last Saturday, the boys were donning snow boots and coats. Exactly how they emerged at the trailhead wearing sneakers and hoodies, I’ll never know — though I understand the quixotic hope that changing dress will make the seasons change too.
Astronomical definitions aside, most meteorologists define the beginning of spring as March 1— which falls about two months after I’ve decided that cold and snow have overstayed their welcome. This explains my urge to search eBay for ukuleles when daffodil tips surface in our flower bed.
But like the daffodils, which bloom cheerily until they’re ripped to shreds by latent winter winds, I always jump the gun on spring. The boys call this meteorologically ambivalent period “fake spring.” It’s a cruel trick Mother Nature plays on us every March, resulting in an aggravated strain of cabin fever.
Fortunately, Tooele County has established a number of local trails that offer opportunities for year-round family recreation. One of these is the Smelter Road Trail near the mouth of Pine Canyon. It’s not a mountain trail. Nor is it exotic. In fact, the term “trail” may be inapt, since my idea of a trail is a narrow dirt path marked by rock cairns. To me, the Smelter Road Trail is more of a plain old “route.”
That’s not to say it’s not scenic or rewarding. As its name implies, the 2.3 mile long trail has a set of dedicated mixed-use lanes on both sides of Smelter Road. The road/trail combo leads westward from Tooele and curves along the Oquirrh benches. The low-elevation route is both paved and accessible, making it popular year round with joggers and walkers. And because it’s sufficiently isolated from the city and affords great views of the valley, the Smelter Road Trail is an ideal way for families to rid themselves of cabin fever.
When we parked at the trailhead early in the afternoon, mist swirled over the road’s surface. In the distance, Clipper Ridge and Markham Peak were partially shrouded in a light fog. Their foothills were dusted with a thin layer of semi-fresh snow.
“Here Dad, you hold my sword,” said 3-year-old Coulter as he followed his older brothers toward a frozen roadside puddle. Whenever I’m hiking with Coulter I can always be sure of two things: That he’ll bring his plastic pirate sword, and that I’ll end up carrying it for him.
I’m OK with that. I’ve learned that one of a father’s major roles on hikes with young children is to carry stuff — Coulter’s sword, 5-year-old Weston’s Gatorade, whatever cool rocks 7-year-old Bridger collects along the way but can’t be bothered with carrying himself. Cleaning out my pockets after a trip is an adventure in and of itself.
When I caught up to the boys at the puddle, Weston stood crouched at its edge, boulder in hand, painstakingly calculating his toss. “Aim for the top of that bubble,” Bridger coached him like some kind of Olympic trainer. “Nice and easy…”
Bull’s-eye! Weston’s rock shattered the ice bubble. Then it was on to the next puddle, and the next. Another thing fatherhood has taught me is that hiking with kids is like herding pigeons.
Smelter Road rises at a moderate grade along the Tooele Valley Overlook, offering spectacular views of the valley and the southern shores of the Great Salt Lake. The trail officially ends at a turnabout on the overlook just below the site of the old ore smelter, but the road continues unmaintained for another 0.8 miles up to the Kennecott gate.
About 200 yards past the turnabout on the south side of the road is one of several entrances to Carr Fork Wildlife Management Area, a swath of land owned by the Atlantic Richfield Company and maintained by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The Carr Fork WMA is open to foot and horse traffic, but because of wildlife sensitivity, DWR officials ask that human activity within the fence line during the winter season be kept to a minimum.
According to DWR biologist Tom Becker, a variety of animals can be seen from the road, including mule deer, bobcat, coyote, wild turkey, and neotropical migrant birds. Becker told me the best times to view wildlife in the Carr Fork area are early morning and early evening. The boys and I heard several bird calls but were unable to spot their sources.
Continuing on, the road leads past a black canyon-like network of slag. These slag piles are remnants of the International Smelter, which was built in 1910 and played a significant role in Tooele’s economy. The smelter processed copper, lead, and zinc. The first ore was delivered to the smelter from mines on the Salt Lake side of the Oquirrhs via a 20,000-foot aerial tramway. Later, ore was supplied by an 11,000-foot tunnel and the Tooele Valley Railroad.
The smelter’s copper operations ended in 1946, but lead and zinc were processed until it was shut down and partially demolished in 1972. ARCO graded and vegetated the site before entering into the conservation easement with DWR. The property within Pine Canyon itself was sold to Kennecott in 1985. Since then, the canyon past the gate has been totally off-limits.
I looked into the canyon, wishing I could explore just a little further. The air was calm and warm — fake spring had been kind to us. The sneakers and hoodies were okay after all.
When we reached the van, Bridger handed me his Gatorade bottle, which he had filled with snow somewhere along the way. “Dad, we’ve got to get this to a freezer. Quick.”
I didn’t ask questions. I just set it down on the seat along with Coulter’s sword.
Thanks to Curt Hall of Expedition Utah for the trail suggestion.