Category Archives: Hikes

Video: Hike to South Willow Lake

Here are some clips from our recent hike to South Willow Lake in Utah’s Stansbury Mountains.  The angelic voice issuing from my phone in one clip belongs to Miss Zee Avi.  If you must listen to music in the wilderness, it must be hers.


Return to South Willow Lake takes the measure of an underestimated trek

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

What a view! Boo and West stand atop a ridge above South Willow Lake in Tooele County last weekend

The following originally appeared in the September 23, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

I didn’t want to jump into the lake. I really didn’t.  Not just because I find the idea of blindly submitting oneself to strange waters generally disturbing—or that my last encounter with this lake resulted in a bloody foot laceration.

No, it was much simpler than that.  Truth is, South Willow Lake is cold.  Freeze-your-tuckus-off cold.  No matter how long you’ve been hiking or how parched you are when you reach the lake, a dip in South Willow will always be several shrill notches past refreshing.

So what compelled this wary father to take the plunge?  Only the resolute declaration of his 7 year old son: “I’ll do it if you do, Dad.”

The internal debate ended there.  West and I waded out, counted to three, and dove in.

“I think you’re both nuts,” said 9 year old Boo as we climbed back to shore.  He was crouching intently over a puddle at the lake’s south end.   “Check this out,” he called, unwittingly stealing our thunder.  “This has got to be the weirdest bug I’ve ever seen!”

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

By strict geographical standards, the lake is small and rather unremarkable.  But like most alpine lakes, South Willow’s beauty is defined by its surroundings.  The lake is partially encircled by tall limber pines.  It lies at the foot of a sheer 10,685 foot glacial cirque in the heart of the Deseret Peak Wilderness.  Aesthetically, South Willow Lake is the crown jewel of the Stansbury Mountains.

The chameleon waters of South Willow Lake

Judging by various online trip reports, most people reach the lake by following the Mill Fork Trail from Loop Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Last year we took the more direct route from the Medina Flat Trail Head further down the canyon.  This route follows the Stansbury Front Trail to its junction with historic Mining Fork Road, which leads to the wilderness boundary and a final trail to the lake.  This is the steeper of the two options, but it covers more varied terrain and offers striking views.  We decided to take it again this year.

Most trail literature list a 6.8-7 mile round trip distance for the Mining Fork route.  I was skeptical of those numbers after last year’s hike, so I decided to measure it myself this time.  Using a GPS mapping app on my smartphone, I would record our entire track.

We began hiking late in the morning under clear skies and an uncommonly hot sun.  Boo took the lead and set the pace.  It’s his usual role, and he does it well.  The boys had resolved to carry their own gear the whole way.  A clear departure from the norm, it was yet another reminder to me that they’re growing up fast.  I hung behind and to listen to their trail banter.  Among other priceless tidbits, I learned that West is the best basketball player at recess and that Boo is now just as flexible in P.E. as his toddlerhood friend, McCall, who, amazingly enough, becomes less and less icky as time passes.

“Me and her are getting along a little better these days,” he said.

By the time we reached Mining Fork, I regretted packing our jackets.  This is my favorite section of the hike.  The narrow road is believed to have been built during World War II.  It traces the canyon bottom at a steady grade beneath a thick canopy of fir and spruce, passing the remains of collapsed mining cabins along the way.  At times, this road has certain aura that I’d describe as eerie, but that I’ve never been able to pin down.

The road eventually opens into a stand of aspens and a single track trail picks up at the wilderness boundary.  The cirque, which is unofficially referred to as South Willow Peak, looms constantly from this point.   At its foot, the lake is surrounded by a ridge; it isn’t visible until you’re standing on its shores.

The stretch from the wilderness boundary to the lake measured 2.4 miles with a 1,555 foot elevation gain.  It’s the steepest leg of the hike.  We rested often on this stretch, but stops were short—the boys were eager to reach the lake.  When we rounded the last ridge, they tossed their backpacks and waded in.  I checked my phone.  We had hiked 5.8 miles—nearly two miles further than the listed distance.

Our route to South Willow Lake. The push pins represent cool spots along the trail. Total one-way distance measured 5.8 miles (measured using My Tracks for Android)

West and I didn’t swim long.  There was no need to loiter in the frigid depths.  After a letting out the requisite victory howls, we moved onto the very important tasks of drinking warm Gatorade, eating smashed peanut butter sandwiches, and watching Boo’s weird bug drag lines in the mud.  Later, I taught them how to skip rocks.

With evening coming, Boo gazed up at South Willow Peak.  “We need to climb that sometime,” he said.  “I bet it’s cool up there.”

We reluctantly packed for the return trek.  Our legs were sore.  It was a sweet sore, the kind of sore you get from a good, long hike.  The boys were hesitant to leave, as they always are when it’s time.  Nothing’s better than hanging out lakeside after a hike, and nothing’s worse than the prospect of leaving.  In my mind, the end of this hike marked the end of summer.  Yellowing leaves on surrounding trees reinforced that notion.

I reset my GPS app.  When we arrived back at the trail head, the readings matched up—5.8 miles with a 3,364 foot cumulative elevation gain.

“How deep do you think that lake is?” West wondered on the way home.

“I don’t know, but I think I’ll try swimming next time,” Boo answered.

I think they’re both nuts.


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Martin Fork hike makes ideal prep course for tougher challenges

I finally understood the purpose of Dad’s conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.

Happy trails!

The following originally appeared in the September 9, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

For the analytically minded, there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to break down a complex circumstance into tidy causal chunks.  Of course, the impulse to dissect each and every condition can be maddening, especially when it comes to those that aren’t so cut and dry—such as love for the outdoors.

And yet I continue to try.  When I describe it here, I tend to illustrate those specific moments of actualization, like reeling in that big fish or watching that incredible sunset.  What’s sometimes overlooked—at least when pen hits paper—are the outwardly mundane, laborious processes that make such moments possible.

Nobody understands the principle of work before reward like my dad.  An avid backpacker, Dad lived for his summer treks to the High Uintas.  He’d begin preparing weeks before each trip—carefully organizing gear, transferring food items from their bulky retail packaging to Ziploc baggies, pitching his tent and taking it back down again.

Most curious to me were the walks he’d take around the neighborhood wearing his boots and fully loaded pack.  When I was about 10 years old, he gave me my own external frame pack and invited me along.  We’d tread for what seemed like miles, waving to amused neighbors as we passed.

I finally understood the purpose of these conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.  It was one of the more memorable adventures of my childhood.

My sons feel the same way about the climb to South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains, which they’ve spoken of frequently since we made it late last summer.  Interestingly, their memories center on the few hours we spend at the lake itself, rather than the encompassing 6.8 mile round trip hike.  Yet were it not for those punishing miles, they wouldn’t recall the lake with such enthusiasm.

Since the two older boys and I will be returning to South Willow Lake in two weeks, I thought a short conditioning hike was in order.  A moderate climb in the Stansbury’s would reacquaint the boys both with the work and the reward that would ensue.  The 2 mile Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail would be the perfect practice route.

The Stansbury Front Trail stretches 25 miles along the eastern face of the Stansbury Mountains between Clover Creek Campground and West Canyon, bordering the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area along most of its route.  The narrow single track dips into and climbs out of canyons like a roller coaster as it traverses rarely seen areas of range.  Though the more remote sections of the trail see mostly mountain bike and motorcycle traffic, day hikers frequent the mid-course trail heads at Big Hollow, South Willow Canyon, and North Willow Canyons.

We caught the trail at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon on Saturday evening.  The path rose sharply under a canopy of pines as we wound our way up to the canyon’s eastern ridge.  Boo, 9, and West, 7 scampered ahead while I nudged 4 year old Coulter along behind.

Coulter loves the mountains—he called the Stansbury’s “my mountains” when he was a baby—but he’s usually averse to hiking any further than about 20 yards.  The boy was kind to me that night; he walked a whole half mile before begging me to carry him.

“But I’m already carrying Deedle,” I told him, pointing to the 1 year old mini linebacker who was enjoying the ride from the comfort of his baby backpack.

Deedle’s presence served two purposes: conditioning weight and comic relief.  He squawked something unintelligible to his brother, which Coulter correctly interpreted to mean “back off, pal!”

From the ridge top, the trail bent southeast, offering a sweeping view that included Tooele Valley, Mining Fork Road, the glacial cirque that looms over South Willow Lake, and Deseret Peak.  Still visible below were The Narrows portion of the canyon road and the historic U.S. Forest Service cabin.  I had hiked this section of the trail before, but had never noticed that most of the canyon’s gems were viewable there in a single panoramic glance.

The glacial cirque above South Willow Lake, taken during last year's hike

When we caught up with Boo and West, they were chasing a snake through the brush.

“I got a good look at the tail,” Boo assured me.  “No rattle.  We’re good.”

A group of motorcyclists passed just before the trail dropped 400 feet to the bottom of Martin Fork.  By that point, the boys had managed to stow their sweaters and water bottles in the cargo pouch of Deedle’s pack.  Bring it on, I thought.  Conditioning.  I’ll end up with most of their gear on the big hike anyway.

The boys had mastered pacing by the time we headed back.  The lake hike will be longer and steeper, but they’d be ready to take it on.  Coulter, having finally realized that riding in my arms was not an option, made the return trip in good spirits and at decent speed.  We finished the evening off with snacks and a campfire at Boy Scout Campground. The cold front that had kindly waited to approach until we were done finally began to blow in.

“Man,” West said as he coaxed the a few last sparks from the dying embers.  “Nothing like a good hike, some pepperoni and a nice fire.”

Profound analysis from a young outdoorsman.

Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail is accessible via posted trail head at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Distance to the fork and back is approximately 4 miles.  The trail is narrow, featuring sharp rises and drops over non-technical terrain.  Trail head parking is available at the adjacent Medina Flat trailhead 1.7 miles from the Forest Service gate.  No fee is required.


A hike in the Uintas

The family and I spent some time last week in the Uinta Mountains.  Here are some video highlights from a hike between Washington and Haystack Lakes that I took with Boo, West, and Deedle (the hefty mancub rode on my back).

A storm turned us around just shy of Haystack, but you’ll see some decent footage of Washington, Tail, and Shadow Lakes.  Ever wonder why fathers and sons need these kinds of hikes?  Listen closely to West talking about his “best dream ever” in the final clip (transcript below the video box).


WESTON: Once I had a best dream ever.

DAD: Tell me about it, West

WESTON: There were these kids that- they didn’t have a house or a mom and they had to cry themselves to sleep.  And I came walking along and saw them, and then in a couple of days I helped them out.


Here’s  a map of the Washington-Haystack area:

Click to see interactive map of the area on ACME Mapper

By the way, I shot this video with a refurbished Flip Ultra HD camcorder that I bought cheap online.  Video quality is pretty good, though the editing tool for it leaves quite a bit to be desired.  I have yet to figure out how to convert mp4 to a format I can edit with real software.  Until I do, you’ll have to live with the oversized titles and simple cuts.


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Hiking West Canyon

Last weekend I took my trusty lab, Ziggy, on a hike in West Canyon in the northern Stansbury Mountains.  The trip will be documented fully in Thursday’s TTB and here next week, but here is a video clip and a few photos from the hike.  Please excuse the extremely poor quality– I discovered my camera was dead at the trail head, so my wobbly cell phone camera would have to do.

Thanks for the travel info!

The gateway to this mysterious, undocumented canyon

My trusty companion, Ziggy


Mysterious black towers bear testament to abandoned tramway that once held life and death in the balance

Both Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer woke up that day in 1962 anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

This 1950's era photo shows the 7th and last tower in the old KSL tram line, which ran from the Flying J area in Lake Point to the transmitter cluster atop Farnsworth Peak. This photo appeared uncredited in a 1995 Deseret News article and was likely taken by the FAA.

The following originally appeared in the March 18, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Alan Larsen or Gray Meyer?  Gazing up at the snowy slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains, I’m not sure whose boots I would have rather been in on that frigid morning in 1962.  Both were young, skilled Federal Aviation Agency technicians.  Both woke up that day anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the 2 inch thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

Six of the seven massive black towers of the old KSL tramway still stand today, oddly camouflaged against their Oquirrh backdrop.  Most visible are the tram building and towers 1 and 2, located behind the truck stops in Lake Point.  The rest take a little squinting to spot, but they’re there, rising stately and quietly in a neat line—rusting tributes to their storied past.

Though I had read a paragraph here and there about the tramway, I didn’t give it much thought until a curious reader called the Transcript Bulletin’s offices asking what they might be.  This request immediately raised two questions for me:

1) was there an interesting story behind these towers, and 2) are at least a few of them hikeable?  The answer to both questions, it turns out, is a resounding “yes!”

The tramway dates back to the early 1950’s shortly after KSL-TV installed a transmitter atop the 9,066 foot Coon Peak (renamed Farnsworth Peak in 1969.  The M*A*S*H style bubble helicopters of the day couldn’t operate safely at that altitude, so technicians had to hike or ski to and from the summit every week.  Various solutions were considered before KSL purchased the tramway from a mining company in Ketchum, Idaho.

The “Coon Peak Express” consisted of seven towers positioned strategically on slopes and ridges between terminal buildings at Lake Point and on the summit.  Its three-mile route climbed about 4,700 feet up ridiculously steep slopes and across deep canyons, taking an unprecedented 30 degree turn from the sixth tower to the top.  The 5,000 foot stretch between towers 4 and 5 over Big Canyon constituted the longest unsupported span in the world, besting the Glen Canyon Bridge by 1,000 feet.

The tram carried its first passengers in 1957 and operated almost continuously for 27 years.  Many passengers found the 45 minute gondola trip to the summit at least a little unnerving.  One new technician quit his job halfway up his first ride (his supervisor made him finish his shift).  On some stretches the tram rode 1,000 feet above the ground.  It’s small, square carriage was often tossed about by powerful cross winds.

Tower 1 with tower 2 in the distance (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Journals document a number of incidents with the tram—iced cables, a broken wheel shaft, failed gears.  Given weather conditions, the intense slopes and the later realization that a 30 degree turn on a tram line is an engineering no-no, the fact that so few incidents occurred with such regular use is amazing.

Even with the outstanding safety record, you might say something like what happened to Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer on November 19, 1962 was inevitable.

The trouble began after the carriage passed through tower 6 when a poorly-welded counterweight broke away, causing the carriage to plummet.  The flailing cable snagged inside the terminal building, seriously injuring operator Cloyde Anderton.  After a sickening series of yo-yo’s, Larsen and Meyer were suspend 50 feet above the forest floor.

“I hit the floor [of the car] and I see this pine tree in the window.  It would come up and it would go down.  Up, then down again,” recalled Meyer when I reached him at his Salt Lake City home, over 47 years after the incident.

When it came to a stop, the carriage was only partially attached to the rail cable.  The two technicians hung there, frozen, for three hours until technician Vic Moulton arrived on snowshoe to throw them a rope.

“There wasn’t a hell of a lot said between us,” Meyer said of the wait.  “It was cold and we were shivering.  I thought we were going to shake that thing off and it was going to come down.”

Larsen and Meyer escaped without major injury.  Anderton suffered broken ribs and cracked vertebrae.  Even at age 90, he says those injuries still give him trouble.  It’s no surprise that, with over 400 tram trips under his belt, he wasn’t sad to see the tram retired in 1984.

Increased regulations and escalating expenses had made the tram less practical.  Newer helicopters could fly higher and were much less expensive than maintaining the rickety tram.  They cut its cables in 1985.

“It’s like the covered wagon,” Anderton told me.  “It was great for when it was needed, but then we got cars.”

The old KSL tramway may have gone the way of the covered wagon, but interested hikers can visit the towers.  At least the first three towers sit on BLM land.  I visited towers 1 and 2 last weekend.  Standing beneath them after hearing those stories was an awesome experience.  Walking from tower to tower I spotted the tram’s pull cable partially buried in the dirt.  Tower 3 stood high on a ridge above a large scree field at 5,600 feet, with tower s 4 and 5 visible in the distance.  Tower 6 was behind a ridge.  Tower 7 was dismantled in the 80’s.

Above them all stood the ever-present beacon cluster blinking perpetually in the afternoon haze.  I imagined that final ascent to the top.  It must have been one heck of a ride.

Remains of the tram's pull cable lie partially buried between towers 1 and 2 (photo by Clint Thomsen)


To visit the lower towers, follow Droubay Road north until it becomes a rough dirt road and curves into Foothill Drive.  Turn east at a livestock gate 1.5 miles from the pavement’s end and follow it, taking all left forks, for 2.2 more miles to a horse gate.  This road traverses private property, so do not leave it.  Only non-motorized traffic is allowed on the BLM land beyond the gate.  The tram building is heavily fenced, but towers 1 and 2 are a short 1.4 mile hike away.  Please explore responsibly.


Solitude of South Willow makes for ideal snowshoeing

Following tracks in the snow is a fascinating pursuit—especially when they’re your own.

An ice-crusted South Willow stream is one of the highlights of a winter trip to South Willow Canyon (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the December 17, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The lone set of snowshoe tracks swerved gradually back and forth as they climbed the canyon road.  Back-tracing them, it was easy to reconstruct my entire run.  Here—where the tracks sink in deeper than the rest—is where I stopped to shed my coat and gloves.  Small deviations in my route showed where I had cut over to examine a large canine paw print, where I took my eyes off the road to monitor the advancing storm above, and where I stopped to listen to my heart pound against the insulated silence of the snow-coated canyon.

I was alone in South Willow Canyon, which is not an uncommon occurrence.  I inaugurate each spring and winter season with a run in this intimate Stansbury Mountains chasm.  South Willow sees a large number of visitors during the summer, but is virtually people-free the rest of the year.  It’s especially quite during winter when the closed Forest Service gate restricts the canyon’s upper half to foot traffic.

My winter run is decidedly tougher because snowshoeing is much more rigorous a workout than regular walking or running.  A 2002 study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association showed that snowshoeing on packed snow at four miles per hour is equal to walking on a treadmill at six miles per hour.

Increase your snowshoeing speed even slightly and your energy expenditure doubles that of treadmill walking.  According to a 2004 study by the University of British Columbia, running in snowshoes is twice as difficult as running on the road– and they’re talking packed snow.  It’s estimated that breaking trail in unpacked snow is up to 50% more taxing.

Last year a few snowmobiles and other snowshoeers had broken my trail for me.  If the trail was already broken this year, I would run about 2 miles to the Medina Flat trailhead and hike another 1/3 mile to its intersection with Mining Fork Road, a narrow double track that leads into the Deseret Peak Wilderness toward South Willow Lake and a colossal glacial cirque.  The rarely traveled road is publically accessible only from this junction. If I pushed myself and timed things right, I’d have time to snap a few pictures and return to my car by dusk.

(photo by Clint Thomsen)

Forest sign (photo taken during last year's run)

Why Mining Fork?  Why now?  Because when I hiked it last summer I couldn’t get over how utterly lonely it was.  Beautiful? Yes, but alarmingly dreary.  If there’s any place in these mountains I wouldn’t want to be alone during winter, I thought to myself that day, it’s Mining Fork Road.

So that’s precisely where I was headed.  It would be a rite of passage– my annual coming to terms with a season marked by chill and unease, a season with which I’ve always had a love-hate relationship. I love its simple, cruel beauty and the concept of the Great Reset, but I’m no fan of the cold, and I approach wintertime adventures with a degree of unease.

Outdoors writer Brion O’Connor wrote that “the backcountry isn’t always a benevolent place.  In reality, it’s unaware of our presence, unconcerned about our fate.”

Nothing epitomizes this notion than winter, and nowhere are the odds more stacked against the lone man than in a winter mountain canyon.  Play it smart and you’ll leave the canyon intact with a rewarding workout under your belt.  But one misplaced step could spell disaster—especially if you’re alone.

No sooner did I walk past the Forest Service gate than I realized Mining Fork was out of the question.  A light snow fell as I strapped on my snowshoes.  The dark olive-colored cloud that loomed in the mountains ahead was spreading quietly down the canyon toward me.

The road beyond the gate was unbroken, covered by a pristine blanket of unconsolidated powder at least a foot deep.  Breaking a trail would delay my arrival at the Medina Flat trail head by at least 45 minutes.  Assuming I even recognized the trail to Mining Fork, I wouldn’t arrive there until dusk.  I didn’t like those calculations.

Bridge over South Willow Creek (also from last year's run)

I decided to stick to the canyon road.  I ran to where the creek disappears into a weir, pausing to listen to the haunting call of a bird somewhere on the mountainside.  At about a mile in I decided that the way the road’s slope framed my snowshoe tracks below the stormy peaks warranted a photo.  If it turned out well I could apply black and white and caption it with an inspiring quote about breaking trail.

I continued exploring for a few more minutes before putting my coat back on.  A stiff wind tore through the canyon, whipping a fine wall of powder against the canyon’s southern wall.  Dusk was upon me.  The olive cloud had advanced to my position.  I didn’t hurry out of the canyon.  I walked, calves burning and mind invigorated, back over the snow I had packed.  I may not have made my exact destination, but I think I was sufficiently winter broken.  And I’ll be back—preferably after a few snowmobiles or a large snowshoe party.

Snowshoeing South Willow is an excellent workout.  To get to South Willow Canyon, turn south on West Street in Grantsville and drive 5 miles to the South Willow Canyon turn-off.  Follow the road 3.2 miles past the cabins to the Forest boundary.  The road is paved up to the gate and the dirt road beyond it is snow-packed.  The gate is closed as the campgrounds don’t operate in winter, but the rest of the road is open to foot traffic and is accessed by walking around the gate.  Cottonwood Campground is 1 mile from the gate, but the road continues up the canyon for 3 more miles, ending at the Loop Campground.  The road is well-packed in some spots, but most everything beyond the gate is impassable without snow shoes or cross-country skis.  Before venturing into any canyon in winter, consult the Utah Avalanche Center’s website at