“It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”
East of Adobe Rock, at the base of the Oquirrh Mountains, there is a small canyon that cuts through a Lake Bonneville bench and takes an unusual course. The place is called Coyote Canyon.
In a previous article, I described a route over a foothill ridge into the canyon. Now I will describe an access to the canyon’s mouth and what you can expect to find if you explore there.
What attracts me to Coyote Canyon is its great scenery, its closeness to Tooele Valley’s northern communities, and the chance to experience a “bushwhack” through Gambel oak.
Viewed from the west, the mouth of Coyote Canyon is distinctive because it’s a deep cut into an ancient shoreline. The north wall of the cut is 30- to 40-foot-high limestone cliffs. The bottom of the canyon is rocky and filled with big tooth maple.
Park your vehicle and continue east on foot. There are no trails in Coyote Canyon and because it’s clogged with vegetation and rocks in its bottom, I usually follow the south rim of the canyon up the hill and then merge into the canyon higher up.
This area is mule deer country, and you will likely spook a few or notice them on hills across draws. Once you enter the canyon from the west, it makes an abrupt 90-degree turn to the south. This is what makes the canyon unusual. The north/south trending portion of Coyote Canyon is hidden from Tooele Valley by a barren ridge that rises to a 6,400-foot-high sub-peak.
Once the canyon reaches the foot of this sub-peak, it makes another 90-degree turn to the east and becomes incredibly steep, terminating on the Oquirrh summit ridge almost directly between the sets of communication towers on Farnsworth and Little Farnsworth peaks.
The lower portion of the canyon is choked with dense vegetation mainly consisting of Gambel oak and big tooth maple. Both of these trees’ leaves turn to stunning shades of red and reddish brown in the fall. The Oquirrh Mountains rise above the tangle of the canyon floor to the east in shelves or buttresses of limestone. Some of these cliff bands are formidable and I have often wondered if the lost gold from the old tale of Croslin’s Ledge is up there.
The vegetation within the canyon makes for an interesting place. Some people hate the “Scrub Oak, ” or Gambel oak as it is often called. But I find this area fascinating and challenging.
According to Utah State University’s extension website, Gambel oak grows in clonal groups and forms scrubby dense stands. The trees in the area of Coyote Canyon are 20-30 feet high and their canopies are about 15 feet wide.
In places these canopies intertwine and create nearly impenetrable obstacles to foot travel. They cover the foothills and lower slopes of numerous mountain ranges in north, central and southern Utah. They are deciduous trees, which means they lose their leaves every autumn.
The leaves are deep green and about 3-4 inches long. The trees produce acorns that turn from light green to dark brown when ripe and are covered by a tan cap. The acorns contain tannic acid. Unless you know how to prepare them, it’s best you don’t eat them.
Gambel oak is important habitat and vital winter range for mule deer. Their twigs, branches and leaves provide important food for deer, elk and other animals. The trees can grow up to 60 feet in height, but that is rare for this area. The trees spread mainly through sprouts, and do so rapidly after a fire and are drought tolerant. They are perfectly suited for our county’s environment .
While the trees are interesting, travel through them can be nasty, and in some cases, impossible. If you go to hike off trail through an area where Gambel oak occurs, bring the patience of Job with you because you will be in for a challenging event. This type of hiking is called “bushwhacking.” In extreme survival cases, a machete would be a good tool to have — to “whack” your way through the “bush.”
But I believe this is an unnecessary destruction of trees. Instead, I recommend wearing long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, good leather gloves and boots, and eye protection.
Coyote Canyon is a beautiful place close to our communities. It does take work to fight through the Gambel oak and get to the ridge top. But when you do, the views of the Great Salt Lake, Stansbury Island, Stansbury Park and Lake Point are rewarding, especially at sunset. If you visit there at that time, I can just about guarantee you will hear the lonely wail of a coyote.
If you go to Coyote Canyon, check the weather first. Rain or snow will render the roads impassable. The roads should only be traveled by high-clearance 4X4 vehicles. But depending upon conditions, passenger cars can make it a good distance along the described approach.
Also, take plenty of water, food and have good footwear on your feet; the limestone in the area can ruin ordinary shoes. If you go when it’s warm, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.
In this area the west slope of the Oquirrh Mountains is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, Salt Lake City Field Office. For more information, call the BLM at 801-977-4300.
How to get there: From SR-36 turn onto Canyon Road in Lake Point, proceed east to Foothill Road and then turn right. Follow Foothill Road south to the railroad tracks where the pavement ends, and then continue across the tracks onto a gravel road. About a half-mile beyond the tracks, there is a dirt road that heads east to the mountains and is protected by a stock gate. Turn left, pass through the gate and close the gate behind you. Follow the road east a few miles to where it terminates at a rail fence. From there, turn left and follow the old roads up to the bench of the mountain.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.