Category Archives: Trip Reports

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.


Best Sleepover Ever: Orcas, rays, and a comatose moonlight excursion

Morning view

This post continues my report on the SeaWorld Adventure Camps’ Fathers Day Sleepover that my 8 year old son and I attended at the San Diego park back in June. If you missed previous installments,  check them out here, here, here, and here.

When it came to getting the best sleeping spot in Wild Arctic, skipping the teeth brushing turned out to have been an excellent idea.  But skipping the bathroom part of that last bathroom break?  Eh, not so much.

It hit me at about 2:00 am.  Or at least that was the point when ignoring nature’s call was no longer an option.  Answering it wouldn’t be simple.  We’d have to get up, tip-toe to the exit, take a flight of stairs, wake our chaperone, and trek over to a building by the Penguin Encounter.  First, though, I’d have to wake Boo.

“Hey pal, do you need to go to the bathroom?”  (It would be slightly less embarrassing for me if Boo was the reason we were going.)

“Nope,” came his comatose response.  Wonderful.

He slowly came to as we trudged up the stairway to check out with the doorman.  The balmy air outside contrasted starkly with our virtual igloo.  I walked slowly in order to take in the SeaWorld that very few humans ever see–  middle-of-the-night SeaWorld—when the path lights have been dimmed and that infamous elevator music quieted.

Boo resumed his slumber immediately upon our return.  As I arranged his blanket I noticed that his clenched fist still held a stingray tooth he had found earlier in the evening.  I carefully pulled it away and secured it in a zipper pouch in my backpack.  If he lost it during the night I’d never hear the end of it.  After all, this was no ordinary stingray tooth.

I continued to replay the evening’s events in my head– picking up after the Shamu Rocks show.  After the crowds filtered out of the park, the education staff had gathered us to the orca habitat’s underwater viewing area for a little Whales 101. While a staffer named Erin demonstrated the insulating qualities of whale blubber using clay and ice water, I walked over to the massive viewing window.  Hovering on the other side was 12 year old Sumar.  Sumar seemed to enjoy interacting with me and the other parents.  Like the belugas, his song was audible through the acrylic.

“I heard you can use some of the moves the trainers use to make the whales interact with you,” one father asked.

“Well, we can ask them to interact with us,” James censured.  “Then if they want to, they might.”

SeaWorld campers get a close-up of Shamu and friends in this extraordinarily cheesy photo from SeaWorld Public Relations (copyright All rights reserved.)

Despite his wiry figure and youthful gait, James carried a certain gravitas with the kids and amongst his fellow SeaWorld staffers.  He employed the same sarcastic finesse both to coax the bashful kids from their shells and repress Annoying Kid’s loud interjections.  And though his primary duty was to keep the larger flock together, he still found a way to make each kid feel important.  When Boo lost the polar bear claw keychain he had made, James ducked out of the Shamu show to make him a new one—with the same color beads arranged the same pattern.

The last activity of the night was a visit to the Forbidden Reef, where a few dozen stingrays and a sturgeon that thinks he’s a stingray solicit fish and rub-downs from visitors.  After feeding the rays, Boo spotted a stingray tooth at the bottom of the pool and James fished it out for him with a large net.

“I can’t lose this stingray tooth,” he said.  “It’s a special stingray tooth.”

Boo’s tooth now secure in my backpack and nature’s call finally answered, I finally bid good night to the belugas.

Here are a few clips I shot when I woke up in the morning.  Notice how quiet it is in there.  If you listen closely, you can hear whale song:


The next (and last) installment in this series will feature a video summary of the sleepover.

*Sadly, Sumar passed away earlier this month of unknown causes.  I’m glad we got a few minutes with him that night.


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Best Sleepover Ever: The Adventure Begins

A killer whale launches from Shamu Stadium's 7 million gallon tank in June, 2010

This post continues my report on the SeaWorld Adventure Camps’ Fathers Day Sleepover that my 8 year old son and I attended at the San Diego park back in June. If you missed previous installments,  check them out here and here.

When Meadow rolls her eyes at my obsession with the sea, I tell her she can thank my grandpa for it.  Poppy, as we called him, wasn’t a waterman—he was a heart patient.  When Salt Lake City’s high elevation would begin to take its toll on the ticker, Pop would look toward the western horizon and simply say, “Let’s go.”

It never took much to convince Gran and the kids.  They’d load my mother and her siblings in the van and chase the sunset—sea level or bust.  A few military relatives living in San Diego made these impromptu road trips convenient.  The beaches, zoo, and SeaWorld were secondary, but nice.  So nice that when she grew up and started her own family, Mom continued Pop’s therapeutic pilgrimages.


Memories of those early trips to SeaWorld appear in my head like old 16mm Kodachrome snapshots.  Our routine was always the same:  Be there when the gates open and head directly to the Sparkletts Water Fantasy Show, an acrobatic fountain presentation choreographed to Beach Boys tunes.  Then it was straight to the sea lion and otter show for a performance of “The Ooky Spooky Castle.”  The dolphin and Shamu shows would follow, along with hours of exhibit hopping.

I remember leaving the park at night, thinking how cool it would be to stay and hang out with the sea life overnight.  I smiled a few years ago when, after a night time Shamu show, Boo vocalized that same thought.  Now we were there with our official Adventure Camps t-shirts and name tags, watching killer whales launch themselves in tandem from the depths of Shamu Stadium.

The evening’s events began with dinner—an all-we-could-eat spread of Spaghetti, chicken strips, and watermelon at the Shiprwreck Reef Cafe.  James joined Boo and I at a table by the sea turtles.  We shot the breeze about SeaWorld history and a resident dolphin named Stein that Boo had befriended a few years ago, and who recently passed away after a long battle with liver cancer.

Stein, the toothless dolphin (photo by SWCali)

Stein was always easy to spot in the dolphin pools because he had lost all of his teeth from old age.  In fact, Stein was SeaWorld’s oldest dolphin, having lived to his mid-40s (about 25 years past normal life expectancy).  Many of the dolphins at Rocky Point Preserve today were sired by Stein—a  notion that Boo’s 8 year old brain can’t quite comprehend, but one that makes him very glad nonetheless.

After dinner we trekked back to Wild Arctic for a demonstration on Polar Bears.  Polar Bears 101 continued in a classroom behind Shamu Stadium as the sun began to set.  These sessions were led by an enthusiastic edu-staffer named Allen, and Boo eagerly absorbed every word.  After making a polar bear claw key ring, our group joined the other Adventure Camps groups at the crowded stadium to watch the Shamu Rocks nighttime show.

Polar Bears 101 at Wild Arctic

Shamu Rocks runs all summer, but tonight would be different—at least for Boo and I.  When the waves tapered away and the fireworks smoke dispersed, the rest of SeaWorld’s visitors would be ushered out of the park.  Soon the lights would dim and the lushly vegetated walkways would be silent.

Soon we would have the park to ourselves.


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Best Sleepover Ever: Explanation and background

Beluga dreams (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Mother, mother ocean,
I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all,
You’ve seen it all.

Watched the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
That few have ever seen, Most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams.

-Jimmy Buffet, from “A Pirate Looks At Forty”

Back in June I published a teaser post that I fully intended to follow up on (“Best Sleepover Ever,” June 19, 2010). Unfortunately, poor reception from both my mobile carriers thwarted my efforts to liveblog that night, and I haven’t had much free time since. Well, it’s time to make good on that teaser, and the next few posts will do just that.

I’m not sure how apparent it is on this blog, but the sea occupies a very distinct and permanent spot in my mind– like a perpetual background process on a computer. Even though I’ve never lived anywhere close to the ocean, I think about it almost constantly. My tastes for culture, food, and music are based largely on my fascination with the sea– with the islands, waves, and sand, and the mindset I’ve associated with them.

I haven’t exactly pinned down the source of the ocean’s appeal to me. Some of it must be innate. Some of it might have something to do with what they say about the therapeutic effect of ocean waves on the A.D.D. brain. Some of it certainly stems from family vacations to San Diego when I was young.

Those short trips included at least one day on the beach and one at SeaWorld. Back then, like today, one child was chosen from the audience during each Shamu show to “meet” Shamu. Today, this “meet” is a glorified photo op with lucky kid and killer whale safely separated by 6 inches of acrylic. Don’t get me wrong– that’s cool. But it’s nothing compared to the early 80’s, when lucky kid was ushered right to tanks edge where he or she got to feed, pet, and even hug Shamu.

Yes, hug Shamu.

One 1980-something Shamu show was especially memorable to me– first because I lost my first tooth waiting for the show to start (thanks, Uncle Josh), and second because I was chosen to meet Shamu. That’s me in the photo below:

Yours truly with Shamu. How about that outfit? Somehow I don't think this type of "meet" would fly today.

Call it cheesy, but that moment was unforgettable. SeaWorld has been one of my favorite places on the planet ever since.

My love for the ocean and SeaWorld seems to have rubbed off onto young Boo, who told me at about age 4 that he’d like to become a beach bum when he grows up, “because they just hang out on the beach all day and surf, and eat snacks.”  Boo himself has a certain history with SeaWorld, which I may touch on in upcoming posts.

This obsession with the sea and SeaWorld seems to be exclusive to Boo and I.  My wife detests the ocean and the other kids could take it or leave it. So when Meadow saw an ad for SeaWorld Adventure Camps’ Father’s Day Sleepover, she knew just what she’d do.  It would be– as even she put it– the best sleepover ever.  For Boo and I, that is.  She’d be more than happy to spend the night back at the hotel.

To be clear, SeaWorld Adventure Camps are geared solely toward kids.  Attending parents are there more for chaperoning purposes.  But if you’ve got small children, you know how fulfilling it is to watch their dreams come true.  The evening would consist of several classes and activities, after which Boo, me and about 35 other SeaWorld “campers” would  settle in on the cold concrete floor of the park’s Wild Arctic exhibit, next to the beluga whale tank, to spend the night.

Snoring to whale song.  Heck yeah.

The next few posts will recount this adventure.  The last in the series will feature some video I shot that night.


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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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Skull Valley springs spout from marvel of desert geology

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

A tributary runs through Skull Valley near Horseshoe Springs. Looking down on Skull Valley from the Stansbury Mountains shows a secret water world in the desert (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 27, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Nothing says “desert” like a mouthful of dust.  Or an eyeful or a couple nostrils full, for that matter.  You might say I should have known better than to get out of my car so soon after stopping along a dirt road in the dead of summer—that I should have considered the mile-long dust wall that was cresting behind me like a giant breaking ocean wave.  I blame the lapse in judgment on curiosity.  Curiosity and the genius who posted a road sign typed in an 8-point font.

The sun had barely risen above the Stansbury Mountains and Skull Valley was awash with soft light.  I was about a mile out on the road that bisects the valley and leads to a place called 8 Mile Spring on the flanks of the Cedar Range.  No sooner had I shut my car door than the raging wall of alkaline particulate swallowed me whole.

Call it evidence of the desert’s endless ability to overwhelm the senses—a poignant reminder that out here things are rarely as they seem.

Take the landscape, for example.  At first glance, Skull Valley can appear to be completely desolate.    But a closer look reveals an array of natural oases where unorthodox fauna abound.

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

At the heart of Skull Valley’s wetland system is a collection of geothermal springs that issue warm, brackish water.  Though understated, these springs are a major component of Skull Valley’s geology.  They’re also the source of the valley’s original namesake—Spring Valley.

Historians haven’t definitively concluded on the reason for the name change, but it’s possible that “Skull Valley” also derives from the springs.  According to legend, Spring Valley became Skull Valley upon the discovery of an inordinate amount of buffalo skulls on the valley floor near the springs.  Local historian Don Rosenberg thinks an unusually harsh winter was to blame.

Rosenberg theorizes that heavy snows drew herds away from the mountains and down to the springs, whose warm surrounding terrain remains snow-free all year.  Once the all the exposed grass around the springs was eaten, the herds had nowhere else to turn and died where they stood.

Understanding the science behind these springs can be daunting—especially since no exhaustive study has been conducted on them.  Worse yet, geology is yet another facet of real life where my Political Science degree has proven less than useful.  Terms like “forced convection” and “Quaternary fault scarps” make me quake in my boots.

An unnamed pool near Iosepa. Look past the moss lining the pool-- that's crystal clear brackish heaven in there (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Fortunately, the guys at the Utah Geological Survey regularly make painstaking efforts to demystify these concepts for me.  UGS geothermal expert Robert Blackett described the recharge/discharge cycle to me as a function of precipitation, gravity and pressure.

The process begins in the mountains with rain or snow melt.  While much of this precipitation travels down toward the valley in streams, Blackett said a certain percentage percolates into the ground and seeps slowly downward through the bedrock via fractures.  When the water hits a geologic dead end, it’s forced back upward and is discharged from the ground as a spring.

In the case of thermal springs, water is heated by the earth’s interior as it travels.  A thermal spring’s discharge temperature depends on distance traveled and obstacles encountered along the way.  Deep-reaching water that rise quickly without mixing with cooler water discharges as a hot spring.

The Skull Valley springs are believed to mix with cool ground water before discharging as warm springs.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a warm spring as any spring ranging in temperature between 68 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  The average temperature of the Skull Valley springs is 70 degrees Fahrenheit—about 8 degrees cooler than the average swimming pool.

The temperature and water chemistry differ slightly from spring to spring, but some are probably interconnected and all are brackish from the minerals they’ve picked up along the way.  Several support populations of planted fish.

According to UGS documents, Skull Valley’s 8 major thermal springs collectively discharge 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.  Discharge flows northward and eventually drains into the Great Salt Lake.  Blackett said the recharge cycle for thermal springs tends to much longer than that of cool springs.  Citing the lack of study of the area as a caveat, Blackett said it’s possible that the warm water discharged from the Skull Valley springs fell as precipitation as far back as the last Ice Age.

If you’ve been to Skull Valley, you’ve probably stopped at the twin Horseshoe Springs, which flow together to form a distinctive inverted “U.”  I grew up swimming in the deeper north spring.  Diving to the source with goggles was always an eerie endeavor, as it very literally is a portal to another world.

The Horseshoe Springs were designated a Federal Wildlife Management area in 1990.  The pools sustain a small population of carp and largemouth bass.  Fishing is permitted, but good luck catching anything.  This hole is famous for its belligerent fish.  Many an angler wonders if the bass there haven’t simply caught on to our hook-and-bait scam.

On my way home that morning, I stopped at Horseshoe Springs to pay regards to the elusive bass.  I considered jumping in for old time’s sake, but didn’t.  Hearing the gurgle of water against this barren backdrop was satisfying enough.


Some of Skull Valley’s springs are visible on the valley floor west of SR-196.  Some are located on private property, others on BLM land.  Horseshoe Springs is publically accessible year-round.  Bug repellent is a must. For more information, contact the BLM at (801) 977-4300.


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