Jewel of the Stansbury’s: Late-summer hike to South Willow Lake, while grueling, is worth the trek (part 1 of 2)

17 Sep

How’s that for a long title, huh?  The following is part 1 of a 2-part series about my recent hike to South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains.  It appeared in the September 8, 2009 edition of the newspaper as a single feature, but due to its length I’ve decided to post it here in two parts.

South Willow Lake lies at the foot of this unnamed glacial cirque (photo by Clint Thomsen)

At 9,160 feet, South Willow Lake lies at the foot of this unnamed glacial cirque (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

It’s evening in the quiet canyon.   A squirrel darts across the narrow dirt road, taking watchful refuge in the rocks of the dry streambed beside it.  Tall pines sway slightly in a breeze undetectable at trail level.  The sun has fallen behind the broad glacial cirque that towers at the canyon’s head, its rays vacated, supplanted now by shadow.

From the meadows at the end of the Mining Fork Road, the view of the unnamed 10,685 foot monolith is arresting.  It’s also downright deceiving.  Because having both climbed and descended its approach today, your legs and feet know it’s much further away than your eyes perceive it to be.

Nestled at the foot of the cirque is a small alpine lake visible only from its shores.  Unlike the massif that cradles it, this glassy pool has an official name—South Willow Lake.  If Deseret Peak and its neighboring summits are the crown of the Stansbury Mountains, South Willow Lake is its jewel.

The peaks and lake are part of the 25,212 acre Deseret Peak Wilderness, created in 1984 by the Utah Wilderness Act.  Among the primary goals of its establishment were the preservation of the land’s wilderness character, protection of watersheds and wildlife habitat, encouragement primitive recreation, and the promotion of physical and mental challenge.

“Basically,” explained National Forest Service Environmental Coordinator Steve Scheid, “The designation allows you to go out and experience nature on its own terms.”

Camping, hunting, backpacking, and horseback riding are allowed within wilderness boundaries, but some restrictions apply.  Commercial guiding and outfitting are prohibited.  Mechanical transport of any kind is also prohibited.  This includes everything from bicycles to motorized vehicles of any type.

Two major routes lead to South Willow Lake.  The more publicized of the two reaches the lake via the Mill Fork Trail and Pockets Fork in South Willow Canyon.  This hike is 7 miles round trip with 1,630 feet of elevation gain.

The second, more direct route is slightly shorter and considerably steeper.  It begins at the Medina Flat Trailhead in South Willow Canyon and cuts over a ridge into Mining Fork, where it follows Mining Fork Road and trail to the lake.  This hike is roughly 6.8 miles round trip with 2,540 feet of elevation gain.

Last weekend the Transcript Bulletin’s editor, Jeff Barrus, and I hiked to the lake with our sons along the latter route.  For Bridger (8), Weston (6), me, and Jeff’s son, Real (8), this trek would be a first.  Jeff had been hiking to the lake since he was in his teens. He relished memories of care-free days and nights on the lake’s shores and was excited for Real to experience this rite of passage.

We got a mid-morning start from the Medina Flat trailhead.  Jeff and I knew the hike would probably take longer than normal because the boys are so young.  They began to prove us correct when they stopped about 100 feet—again at about 150 feet—then again at about 200 feet past the trailhead—trying to catch lizards and grasshoppers.

After about 1/3 mile, the Medina Flat trail met Mining Fork Road, a slender double track that Forest Service employees speculate was blazed during World War II, since most of the ore taken from the mines went toward the war effort.

The road traces the canyon bottom through stands of fir, spruce, and aspen, passing the tin roof sheets and deteriorating planks of collapsed mining cabins along the way.  Steep canyon walls and dense vegetation gave this stretch of the hike a certain tight, though not claustrophobic feel.

Because the road climbed steadily on a moderately steep grade, we stopped often to rest.  Early on, the boys spent these pit stops chasing each other down and back up the trail and lobbing boulders—the bigger the better—into the stream bed.  Only after the first couple miles did they begin to comprehend the concept of conserving energy.


Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow, or check out the full article and Meagan Burr’s excellent photos of the lake at the Transcript Bulletin’s website.


2 responses to “Jewel of the Stansbury’s: Late-summer hike to South Willow Lake, while grueling, is worth the trek (part 1 of 2)

  1. Colette

    December 10, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I’m looking for pics of Deseret Peak to purchase for my husband – want to enlarge to about 20×40. Could I purchase this one?

    • bonnevillemariner

      December 11, 2009 at 5:14 am

      Hi Colette,

      I would be happy to let you use the photo for a negligible fee, but 1) I’d have to make sure I’ve got a high enough resolution version of it to have it look decent at the size you want to print it, and 2) this isn’t a photo of Deseret Peak itself. It’s an unknown summit just north of Deseret Peak. Let me know if you’re still interested.


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