Early summer’s the season for spring foliage in the surrounding mountains

08 Jun

The following originally appeared in the June 4, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Chokecherry Blooms in South Willow Canyon are a great subject for foliage photography. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Chokecherry Blooms in South Willow Canyon are a great subject for foliage photography. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

“Have you ever wondered about the life cycle of a leaf?” ponders professional photographer Jacquelynn Buck on her blog.

“It begins in the cold damp of the spring as a tight bud on a tree, close knit, trying to keep warm as it shivers on the branch.  Then as the sun begins to thaw the earth and life bursts forth from the barren and cold overwintered ground, the leaf too breaks forth from its cocoon and spreads its points to the sky.”

Buck is based in Ohio, but her words rang true as I balanced on the rocky banks of the mountain stream Monday morning in an attempt to photograph the some of the season’s spanking new greenery upstream.  The sun had yet to fully penetrate the canyon, and as far as I could tell, I was completely alone.

Meteorologically speaking, spring has already come and gone.  Ground vegetation in the valleys is already browning, and the peach fuzz covering the foothills peaked weeks ago.  The kids are out of school and the weather has forsaken its springtime ambivalence to embrace a bold summer warm.

But in the mountains—at least for the flora—spring has just begun.  I was reminded of this apparent seasonal delay last weekend as I drove south toward Tooele.  Khaki fields along SR-36 gave way to olive-colored benches.  A lush patchwork of green cloaked the mid-section of the Oquirrhs.  Snow still covered the rocky summits above.  I felt like I was witnessing all four seasons at once.

“It’s elevation dependent,” Tooele County Agriculture Agent Linden Greenhalgh told me when I described the view to him.  “The higher you go, the season comes later and is shorter.”

I consulted Greenhalgh in an effort pin down the best time to view spring foliage in the foothills and mountains.    For droves of people, the changing of leaf colors in fall merits a special excursion.  Unfortunately, many relegate spring foliage to mere ambience—a beautiful, but an ultimately mundane phenomenon.    Few actively seek it out.

According to Greenhalgh, the best time to view spring foliage in the mountains is any time during the month of June.   “I especially like to see sego lilies,” he said.  “They are very beautiful, not too common, and only appear for a short time.”

The rare white-petaled perennial was declared the official state flower by the Utah State Legislature in 1911.  They are currently in bloom and may be found in the foothills.

I’m not a big botany fanatic, but I kinda dig leaves.  I like them most when they’re green.  Maybe it’s because I think they’re pretty.  Perhaps it’s because they personify renewal and vibrancy.  Psychological minutiae aside, let’s just say I like leaves because they just plain make me happy.

And this time of year I know just where to find them.

The Stanbury Mountains are unique in that they are climactically more similar to the Wasatch Mountains to the east than they are to other ranges of the Great Basin.  This is due, in part, to their elevation and topographic prominence.

With the 11,030 foot Deseret Peak as their crown, the Stansbury’s are the most prominent range east of the Ruby Mountains in Nevada.  Thus, they receive large amounts of orographic precipitation, which occurs when a storm encounters and is forced upward by a physiographic obstacle.

The heavy snows that occur at the peak feed many perennial streams, the largest of which flows through South Willow Canyon.  A drive up this deep, intimate canyon provides a tour of a wide range of vegetation types, and is arguably the best way to experience spring foliage in the county.

I had started out before dawn so that I could see the sunrise from within the canyon.  Dense populations of Bigtooth Maple, Scrub Oak, and Gambel Oak choked the stream bed, setting the floral tone for the rest of the 6 mile drive.

I parked at Boy Scout Campground 1.7 miles past the Forest Service boundary.  The lower campgrounds were still closed from last summer’s Little Bald Mountain fire, though little visible evidence of the blaze remained.

I walked toward the campsite where my wife and I stayed for an entire week one spring.  The morning was warm and the ground slightly moist from overnight rainfall.  The boulders banking the stream were slippery, but I braved them for photography’s sake.

I continued my drive and turned around at the Loop Campground, where the road ends and the Mill Fork Trail begins, winding its way through mixed aspen forests and old-growth pine before topping off at Deseret Peak.

Many of the photos I took came out fuzzy– probably because it was still too dark when I took them, or because I have yet to learn what all the little icons and acronyms on my camera’s display window mean.   Jacquelynn Buck would have known what to do.  When I got back, I asked the self-taught photographerf or a few tips on capturing spring foliage.

“Chase the light,” she said.  “The best times of day for photographing flowers are the most inconvenient – but the most wonderful.”  She’s right.  I snapped photos of a chokecherry bloom and a scene at the Upper Narrows that came out decent, thanks to the soft morning light.

Buck also suggested trying new angles, experimenting with macro settings, and cropping photos to emphasize certain aspects of the subject.  Lastly, she told me, “Go back.  Just because you’ve been to a place before doesn’t mean you have taken all the photos there are to take at that place. The difference a day can make is astounding. The sky can change. The light can change. The photo will change.”

Darn.  It looks like I’ll have to return to South Willow Canyon yet again.

To get to South Willow Canyon, turn south on West Street in Grantsville and drive 5 miles to the signed turn-off.  Other great spots to view spring mountain foliage include Bates, Middle, and Settlement Canyons in the nearby Oquirrh Range.


Thanks to photographer Jacquelynn Buck of Photography by Jacquelynn Buck for letting me excerpt her blog post and for the tips.  Check her out [website | blog | twitter].

new logo mottled jacquelynn buck


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