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

18 Sep

The following is the second in 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.

Bridger, Weston, and Real take it easy in Jeff's hammock, which he got in Bali 10 years ago, and which ripped apart shortly after this picture was taken (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Bridger, Weston, and Real take it easy in Jeff's hammock, which he got in Bali 10 years ago, and which ripped apart shortly after this picture was taken (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

Mining Fork Road ends as the canyon opens into a bowl.  The cirque, which is informally referred to as South Willow Peak, is constantly visible from this point.  The trail continues toward it as a single track, passing through hilly meadows trod by grazing cattle (grazing is permitted in wilderness areas).

“See those cliffs up there?”  Jeff pointed our trail-weary boys toward the rocky summit.  “That’s where we’re going.”

Large geographical features make lousy mental gauges because they never appear to get closer or farther away.  The steepening slope and air that seemed noticeably thinner with each step helped bring the “physical and mental challenge” aspect of the wilderness to the forefront.  The rocks and sticks Bridger and Weston kept adding to my
pockets and tethering to my pack probably helped with that too.

The boys did better on this final leg than we had anticipated. Whether their minds had finally synced with the terrain or their conversations about cartoons distracted them sufficiently from the trail, we couldn’t tell.

When we finally reached the lake’s southern shore, the boys immediately waded in.  Intent on building a raft, they began gathering driftwood while Jeff and I located his favorite camping spot. Bridger, Weston, and I would be hiking back down that evening.  Jeff and Real would be spending the night.

“This place looks the same as it did thirty years ago,” Jeff remarked.

The lake was modest, but beautiful in its surroundings.  Its waters were chameleon, taking on different colors at different angles.  At surface level it reflected the forest green of the limber pines along its shores.  Walking around the lake and over a hill, it ranged from olive to camouflage gray to deep blue.

A large snowfield remained tucked in a deep recess of the cirque’s 1,500 foot escarpment.  Long black streaks marked the paths of small seasonal waterfalls.  The lake’s simple beauty had made the hike more than worthwhile.

The boys forsook their raft building effort to build a fire in camp. Despite the grueling hike, they never sat down, choosing instead to scavenge for tinder and various other items to burn.  When evening fell, they bristled at the thought of leaving the lake.

The descent offered continuous views of Tooele Valley below with the Oquirrh and Wasatch ranges in the distance.  Dozens of grazing cattle watched us from the meadows.  Though the forest was draped in shadow, the bright daytime sky above its canopy made created a strange, almost eerie contrast.

Back at the trailhead, the boys seemed none worse for the wear, their enthusiasm for the lake completely overshadowing thoughts of the difficult hike.  Darkness fell as we packed up the car.  A certain crispness in the air reminded me that autumn was on its way.  We probably won’t make it up to the lake again this year, but it’s ok.
The giant cirque and its chameleon pool have existed for millennia. It will still be there next year.

For detailed information about the Deseret Peak Wilderness and
destinations within, call (801) 466-6411 or visit


Click here for part 1 of this story, or here to read the whole thing in the paper.


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