There is a road in Tooele Valley that bisects SR-36 in the vicinity of the Stansbury Park/Erda interface. It is called “Bates Canyon Road.”
If you head west on it from the highway, you will see Stansbury High School on your right in a few blocks. If you head east, you will climb the alluvial remains of Lake Bonneville to a set of railroad tracks and a dirt turnaround with a closed cattle gate. This is the entry point to Bates Canyon Country. To access the canyon, open the gate, drive through and then close it so livestock doesn’t roam down into nearby neighborhoods.
From this point, you can either park your vehicle and walk to the canyon mouth that is due east from you below the highest peak, which is Nelson Peak at 9,359 feet. Or you can follow the road northeast (Via the most logical ascent. Do not try to follow the straight up four wheeler tracks. A reasonable road heads north and switches back to the south and east) and up to the top of the Bonneville Terrace.
Once on top of the terrace, you follow the bumpy, rutted, rocky and sorry-excuse-for-a-road to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) boundary fence. If you stop here you will be at the starting point for Pole Canyon. For Bates Canyon, continue south along the fence and you will drop down into a drainage filled with gambel oak and come to another boundary fence. This is the start point for Bates Canyon.
Given the difficult access, you may ask “is it even worth it?” My answer is “yes!” This is one place where solace still exists in the notch of a canyon that is near the city but far away when you are up there. Bates Canyon, from the foot of the Oquirrh Mountains to the top of the highest peaks on the west side of the range, is mostly BLM administered public lands. There are pockets of privately-owned lands along the access roads and even in the canyon, so please be respectful of the property owner’s rights and stay out of posted “No Trespassing” lands. Similarly, from the top of the summit ridges east is all Rio Tinto land and the public is not allowed on that property.
The main attraction to this canyon is a fully developed Rocky Mountain-type forest that many people who drive by on SR-36 don’t realize exists. The trail from the parking spot and gate up Bates Canyon starts as an old stock road and is quite level for a good mile or so. Along this stretch of trail there is an abundance of gambel oak and other types of deciduous mountain trees.
The foothills and fingers of the Oquirrhs are scrubby here with lots of sagebrush mixed in with oak. The views are wide open. To the east you can see the windswept bald face of peak 9,175 and to the south the summit ridge is choked with aspen, oak and a few Douglas Fir all the way to the summit.
As the canyon closes in the trail narrows to a wider footpath and starts to climb but the grade is still gradual. The trees here are a bit taller and they lean in from either side to form a canopy overhead. When the fall colors change it is quite beautiful along this stretch as these trees’ leaves turn a bright red and the aspens turn their characteristic gold.
Further still the trail comes upon a large rock slide to your right and an old camp of some kind that consists of several old huts or cabins and various junk that you would expect to be lying around an old stock or hunting camp. At this point you will be several miles from the locked gate and there are now large douglas fir and aspen about. It is cool and dark down in this area and there is moss on the boulders. Just to the north across the draw, due to the angle of the sun, there are no aspen or fir but just scrub oak in the boulders. This is common in the Great Basin as north facing slopes are guarded from the summer sun and retain the moisture of winter snowpack much longer than do south facing slopes.
Beyond the line camp the trail turns to rich black forest dirt and becomes fainter in the tall grass and aspen. It eventually disappears altogether roughly a mile from the camp. The hike into Bates Canyon is a long one if you follow it to the end of the trail. Again, the main draw to the place is solitude in some serious forest below two seldom visited 9,000 foot peaks. I have hiked Bates several times and I rarely see another soul. I’m sure that would be a different story in hunting season, but 90 percent of the year, you will be alone in this place.
If you start from the gate at the end of the 4X4 road, you are looking at roughly three miles one way to the end of the trail in the canyon. If you start at the stock gate by the railroad tracks at the end of Bates Canyon Road, add another one to 1.5 miles on to the distance depending on how you choose to access the canyon mouth.
In next week’s article, I will describe adventure beyond the end of the trail in Bates Canyon and that would be a hike to the top of 9,359 foot Nelson Peak. The peak is the highest in the northern Oquirrh Mountains.