Category Archives: Hikes

Snowshoeing in South Willow Canyon

Yesterday afternoon I strapped on the snowshoes and headed up South Willow Canyon.  Here are a few pictures I took with my cell phone.

A view toward the head of South Willow Canyon from the road

About a foot of snow rests on this bench in the Cottonwood Campground. Snow on the road and various trails was deeper.

A pool on South Willow Creek

My tracks in the snow. The sun is sinking and black clouds are moving quickly down the canyon behind me.


Posted by on December 14, 2009 in Hikes, Outdoor Adventure, Trip Reports


Staying connected in the outdoors may require uplugging yourself

The following originally appeared in the September 17 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

by Clint Thomsen

From the top of Deseret Peak in the Stansbury Mountains, the communities in Tooele Valley look like tiny collections of etched traces and capacitors on a vast computer circuit board.  That was one of my first impressions of the view when I crested the 11,030 foot peak last summer.

There’s a reason why topographically prominent peaks—called “ultras” in peak bagging circles—are the most sought after summits.    In addition to elevation, ultras have high independent stature.  So they offer the best views and the most tangible sense of isolation.  Deseret Peak is one of just 57 ultras in the lower 48 states.

I had driven 8 miles up a canyon and hiked 3.25 miles, climbing 3,613 feet via switchback and rubble fields to reach this jagged quartzite platform.  If I wasn’t on top of the world, I was sure close.  Exhausted and satisfied, I threw down my pack and sat at the edge of the summit to ponder my feat.

After chugging a bottle of water, I reached for my cell phone, which doubled as my watch.  As I turned it on, I was surprised to see that I had full service—both voice and data.  Instinctively I checked my email.  Then I called my wife, Googled some information about the return trail, checked my work email, and read the latest news.

By this time, my hiking companions had also discovered this miracle of connectivity and were calling spouses and dialing up info too.  Others were busily checking pedometers, shooting video, and programming GPS receivers.  For a little while, Deseret Peak was a regular cyber café.

While the knowledge that I had this technological lifeline in one of the most remote and dangerous places in the county was truly a comfort, I felt like the whole internet part of it was somehow wrong.  Not morally wrong, but out-of-place wrong– like listening to Christmas music in July or drinking milk from a Coke can.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had violated some unwritten outdoor code.

Part of me wished I would have left the phone on my belt.  The other part spent a good chunk of the return hike wondering what other cool gadgets I could employ in the wilderness.

Aside from my wife, Meadow, I have two other loves: the outdoors and technology.  Regular readers of this column are no doubt aware of the first.  And when I’m not outside (or at work or changing diapers), I spend what little free time remains in front of a laptop—shopping online, reading news, and drooling over electronic gadgets I’ll never be able to afford.

Meadow says I’m addicted to computers, to the internet, to my phone.  I assure her I can stop at any time, that I’m in complete control.  She remains unconvinced.

Despite what some may think, technology and the outdoors often complement each other nicely.  I blog, Facebook, and tweet—mostly about the outdoors.   I do most of my research online and I get many outdoors ideas from online forums.

In the field, who can argue against the benefits of GPS and the ability to call for help in emergency situations?  And if you can check email and stream YouTube– all the better, right?

Some outdoor purists consider these assets as cheating.  They argue that wilderness should be experienced solely on its own terms.  The tougher the mental and physical challenge, the greater the reward.

I get the idea,  but I wonder if experiencing nature in full is always practical or even desirable.  The great explorers and pioneers were more in tune with nature than I’ll ever be, yet they probably would have given anything to enjoy modern technological conveniences.

We casual adventurers sometimes forget that while our predecessors enjoyed the wild, more often than not they were there out of necessity, not hobby.  They aimed more to survive nature than to fawn over it.

Still– if only at the subconscious level– their connection with the mountains, trees, and trails must have given them a certain fulfillment that the modern outdoorsman can only attain in fleeting bits and pieces.

I’m not an ideologue when it comes to these matters.  If my goal is to experience nature in the raw, I ditch the gadgetry.  If the kids are along, it’s got a dedicated pocket for it in my pack, with extra batteries.  The point isn’t to abandon technology altogether.  It’s to prevent the entertainment aspects of it from overshadowing the greater outdoor experience.

I’ll admit that balancing the organic experience with the digital isn’t always easy.  It’s difficult for me to check my tech tendencies at the trailhead.  If I’ve got a connection and I start using it, I tend to focus on it until my head is completely in cyberspace (though I of course remain in complete control).

I faced such a temptation last month on a hike in the Deseret Peak Wilderness area.  I was delighted when, after a 3.4 mile hike to South Willow Lake, I pulled out the smartphone and noticed I had full data coverage.

I had made the hike with the Transcript Bulletin’s editor, Jeff Barrus and our sons.  When we reached the lake, the boys happily waded into its shallows.  The view of the 10,685 foot glacial cirque surrounding it was amazing.  I sat down on a large boulder on the lake’s shore.  My first thought: How cool would it be to post a Twitter update from up here!

I fired up my web browser and feverishly navigated to the Twitter home page before finally catching myself, remembering Deseret Peak.  I assured myself that I would thoroughly document the hike online, but later.  Right now it would be, well, just wrong!  I put the phone away and didn’t get it back out that night.  And I didn’t even open my laptop until the next day.  Funny how that worked.


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

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.


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

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.


A little clip I like to call “South Willow Lake”

The trek to South Willow lake is anything but boring.  From the overgrown mining road running through an old-growth pine forest to the hidden lake at the foot of the massive glacial cirque, it’s a long and rewarding hike.  The lake sits at 9,110 feet above sea level.  The boys and I hiked there yesterday.  Below is a short video clip I took of the area:

I apologize for the quality of this video. If anybody’s got any good tips on creating a decent-looking YouTube vid from mid-sized .avi’s, let me know…


Ophir hike proves if a river runs through it, boys will get wet

The following originally appeared in the June 18, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Bridger Thomsen stands in a stream in Ophir Canyon during a hike. The canyon’s small rivers criss-cross along the trail.

Bridger Thomsen stands in a stream in Ophir Canyon during a hike. The canyon’s small rivers criss-cross along the trail.

by Clint Thomsen

We called it Coney Island. Where we got that name, I’m not sure, because at around 7 years old, my cousins and I weren’t exactly fluent in east coast geography. It was a little rocky island in the middle of a little rocky river. But we had discovered it, named it, and claimed it as ours.

Summer after summer, Coney Island was our headquarters. If you were to come looking for us during our annual family reunion, you’d likely find us there or at nearby “Waikiki Beach” fishing for albino trout with our hands.

We must have forded that portion of the Upper Provo River in the Uintas hundreds of times. A pair of double-knotted sneakers was all it took. We took great pride in our fording skills, often using them to impress groups of young women from the various girls’ camps along the river. The stream could be crossed at any point, we argued. It was just a matter of finding the right method. To Matt, Adam and me, nothing was more thrilling.

It’s been several years since I last set foot in the icy waters of the Provo, but I was reminded of those times last weekend during a hike in Ophir Canyon. My sons Bridger, 7, and Weston, 6, were there with me and the Transcript Bulletin’s editor, Jeff Barrus, and his 7 year old son Real. The little trail at the upper end of the canyon is a favorite of Jeff and Real’s, and the two would be our official guides for this hike.

Somehow we had chosen the only non-rainy afternoon so far this month for our hike. The flora in the canyon was vibrant and eager to soak in as much moisture as Mother Nature would send it before the inevitable summer famine.

“There’s really no good way to keep your feet dry,” Jeff told me as I paused to calculate the driest bank-to-bank route at the first stream crossing along the trail. Apparently, the passing of a decade or two had eroded my enthusiasm for getting my feet wet.

Bridger and Weston were less wary of getting wet than they were of stepping onto slippery rocks under moving water. They’ve forded a few creeks in their days, but they seem to approach the first crossing of each season with a bit of hesitance. It didn’t take me long to shed my reserve and I walked in to help them across. Real found a nice walking stick and used it to steady his way over some exposed rocks.

The small single track interweaves with the creek, crossing it many times as it climbs the Ophir Canyon drainage. The trail also crosses several vegetation zones before reaching the back of the canyon at the Lowe Peak/Rocky Peak cirque. Both peaks are accessible from the trail.

We had no specific destination in mind this hike. We decided to let the kids set the pace and lead the way. It was their hike. Frequent stops to analyze spiders and caterpillars were expected and enjoyed.

A small snake sunned itself near one of the crossings. “Pick it up, Dad!” Bridger said, subtly mocking my ophidiophobia. “Come on, it’s obviously not a rattlesnake.”

“Yeah, but what about his mom?” I asked. “She’s got to be close, doesn’t she?” I have no idea whether mother snakes defend their young like bears do, but the fact that Jeff echoed the idea when he and Real arrived made it all the more credible.

What fear Bridger lacks for carnivorous reptiles—he’ll grab any lizard or snake without a second thought—he more than makes up for in his morbid fear of ants. Specifically African driver ants (thanks, Discovery Channel). In Bridger’s mind, every ant is potentially an African driver ant. After seeing a few ants on rotting logs, Bridger became our official driver ant spotter.

When it came to fording the creek, I took the straight through approach—not out of laziness but because I love to feel the current. Jeff and Real stopped at each crossing to strategize. Using a combination of exposed rocks and downed timber, they sought the driest, neatest route possible. Bridger and Weston followed suit, but with less care toward staying dry.

Not that anybody really stayed dry. There’s no feasible way to follow the trail and avoid fully stepping in the creek at some point. That may pose a problem during the cold months. But for us, on that one non-rainy summer afternoon beneath a light, green canopy, the stream was the perfect trail complement.

We passed Picnic Canyon and stopped in a thick aspen forest above Powder Gulch. Hundreds of names were carved into the aspens along the trail, some of them quite old and scarred over beyond readability. Real grabbed his pocket knife and carved his, Bridger’s, and Weston’s initials into white bark before it was time to return.

The boys grew more proficient with each stream crossing, often branching out to brave a stronger current or deeper pool. That’s when I noticed the same gleam in their eyes that was in mine when I discovered the joy of rushing water when I was their age. Had we the time, they would have spent hours wading and exploring. The Upper Provo may be bigger than Ophir Creek, but the gleam was the same.

The small snake greeted us again as we passed his grassy peninsula on the way out. I was tempted to prove that I really wasn’t afraid of snakes, until Weston repeated my warning about his undoubtedly vengeful mother. I’m sticking with that excuse until Discovery Channel proves me wrong.

The Ophir Canyon trail is a primitive single track trail on public land that begins just outside the small town of Ophir. To get there, drive through Ophir and continue up the dirt road for approximately 1.5 miles to a small parking area. The dirt road is rocky and 4WD or high clearance vehicle is recommended, as it crosses the stream several times.


Unique wonderstone is only one marvel of unassuming Vernon Hills

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.