Unique wonderstone is only one marvel of unassuming Vernon Hills

27 Apr

The following originally appeared in the April 23, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The unassuming Vernon Hills, a low-lying mountain range in Tooele County, is littered with Oligocene-era volcanic wonderstone

The unassuming Vernon Hills, a low-lying mountain range in Tooele County, are littered with Oligocene-era volcanic wonderstone, and make for a great family adventure -Photograpy / Clint Thomsen

by Clint Thomsen

“Whoa, Daddy!” scolded 1 year old Ella, her double pigtails bouncing with each bump on the dirt road.  She gripped the sides of her car seat in dramatic fashion so as to fully convey her disapproval.  I had apparently rounded the corner a bit too recklessly for the world’s littlest back seat driver.

I can’t say her concern is unwarranted.  After all, the last time she rode along on one of my adventures, I got us stuck axle-deep in sand on top of the Stockton Bar.  And she can’t help it either.  From her first sentient moment, it seems, she’s considered herself some sort of universal caretaker.  It’s why she tries to clean tables at restaurants and fusses at her big brothers when they don’t tuck their shirts in right.

It’s why I knew she’d call me to task for my rough driving, and why I had pre-adjusted the rear view mirror so I could witness her priceless expression when she did.

Our trip to the Vernon Hills would mark several firsts for our little band of explorers.  Since Ella was along this time, she’d take 3 year old Coulter’s old spot in the baby backpack.  Coulter, who normally doesn’t go 20 yards without asking me to carry him, would be consigned to make the entire trek on his own two feet.  For all of us, this would be our first visit to this low-profile mountain range.

That’s right, the Vernon Hills are actually the Vernon Hills Range, as classified by the U.S. Geological Survey.  Still, according to Utah Geological Survey geologist Jim Davis, the standalone range may actually be a northern extension of the West Tintic Mountains.

The southern portion of the range consists of rock deposited between 490 and 340 million years ago.  The northern hills are slightly younger, consisting of rock from the Oquirrh group, which was deposited roughly 300 million years ago.  The entire region is littered with ash-flow material from volcanic activity in the nearby Tintic ranges.

The Vernon Hills lie just over two miles to the northwest of the small community of Vernon along SR-36. Our day had begun there with breakfast at the Silver Sage Emporium, Vernon’s historic all-in-one pit stop.  Cook Rick Shumway, who is also Vernon’s mayor, gave me hiking suggestions and directions for a backdoor route into the Vernon Hills.

The boys filled their bellies while Ella stood at the door, dutifully opening and closing it for amused customers.  After confiscating and returning the Snickers bar she had taken (no doubt as compensation for her door greeter stint), we loaded into the van and headed for the hills.

Our destination was an unnamed 6,300 foot summit along the western ridge.  The dirt road narrowed at points, but remained mostly minivan-friendly.  We followed it past several offshoots into the heart of the hills– an area marked by isolated tracts of Moab-red dirt and sparse juniper forest.

We forked toward the east side of the ridge and parked at its base, then continued to follow the road on foot.  When it disappeared into a dry wash, we followed that nearly straight up to a low saddle.

Along the way, the boys collected bits of wonderstone, a type of volcanic rock known for its folded cream and maroon bands.  Wonderstone consists of a welded-vitric tuff (that’s geo-speak for “folded glassy ash chunks”).  The rhyolitic curiosity is popular among rockhounds, and is the Vernon Hills’ primary claim to fame.

One disc shaped piece that 6 year old Weston picked up featured a coiling white stripe that gave it an otherworldly look.  Unfortunately, it fell out of his pocket somewhere on the ridge.  Note to future visitors: If you happen to find a piece of wonderstone that looks like a Star Wars prop, I know a little boy who’d like it back.

Aside from a few reddish bellied lizards, which 7 year old Bridger tracked and made valiant, if wildly unsuccessful efforts to catch, we didn’t see much wildlife at all.  Had we been lucky, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Tom Becker says we may have seen deer, antelope, and a variety of birds including the Red-tailed hawk, and Golden Eagle.  A large feather we found stuck between two rocks near the saddle almost certainly came from one of the two.  But since Federal law bans the possession of any part of an eagle, including its feathers, we left it be.

From the saddle, we continued southward up to the top of the summit.  Coulter had selected a fine juniper walking stick near the bottom and with it had kept pace with his older brothers.  When we reached the rocky summit, Ella, who had so far been surprisingly reticent, tightened her arms around my chest.  This was her first summit, and the vast valley below made the ridge’s western face seem sheerer than it really was.

Vernon looked like a speck in the mostly empty Rush Valley with the Sheeprock Mountains rising beyond.  To the east were the East Tintic Mountains and Thorpe Hills.  I was amazed that such an easy climb could afford such views.  I marked a GPS waypoint and assured a now less wary Ella that it was time to go.

Back at the saddle, Bridger handed me two sprigs of Indian paintbrush.  “Will you hold this for Mom?” he asked.  “The other one’s for Ella.”

When we arrived at our van, Ella gave me a smile, which I interpreted as less of a “that was a blast, Daddy” smile and more of a “I can finally relax” smile.  The “that was a blast” smile came later in the rear view mirror, after she let a few questionable turns slide without comment.


To get to the Vernon Hills drive south from Tooele on SR-36 for 29 miles toward Vernon.  A sign marks Vernon Hills Road just north of town.  The hills are also accessible via an unmarked dirt road off SR-36 4.5 miles southeast of town.  The range is mostly BLM public land with some marked private property.  Wonderstone may be collected from piles behind the western-most ridge.  For more information, contact the Utah Geological Survey at (801) 537-3300.


One response to “Unique wonderstone is only one marvel of unassuming Vernon Hills

  1. Kristine Shreve

    April 27, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    That first paragraph is priceless! I love the image of Ella as a backseat driver. Too cute.


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