As summer heat continues to rise this July, you might consider packing up the family and driving to the high hills along the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway.
This incredible road passes through Utah’s highest range — the Uinta Mountains. The Uinta Mountains are unique in that they are only one of a few mountain ranges in the world that trends east to west instead of north to south. This is Utah’s highest range with King’s Peak, at an elevation of 13,528 feet, being the tallest mountain in the state. Twelve other summits in the range rise over 13,000 feet and dozens and dozens of rugged peaks rise above 11,000 feet.
All of the peaks are set in or on the fringe of the 456,705 acre High Uintas Wilderness Area. To put that in perspective, Deseret Peak Wilderness Area is 25,000 acres in size. This wilderness is over 60 miles east to west, and state Route 150, the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, gets you way up into the mountains on the fringe of this incredible wilderness.
The High Uintas and the Mirror Lake Byway are completely different than most areas in Utah because they receive heavy winter snow and heavy summer rains. There are over 400 lakes in the High Uintas and most drainages have ice cold mountain streams in them. The lakes vary in size and many provide outstanding fishing.
Butterfly Lake, at 10,340 foot high in elevation, is 5 acres in size and probably only 20-30 feet deep. Red Castle Lake in the primitive area is over 168 acres in size and more than 100 feet deep. These lakes are set in an incredible alpine setting with thick forests of lodge pole pine carpeting the basins and other fir, pine and spruce species cloaking the peaks to the treeline.
Above the treeline is a land of piled boulders, rock towers, rounded summits, snow drifts, clear icy sheets of water in high glacial carved bowls and tundra in areas. There are marmots, pika and rock squirrels that will chirp at you from the boulders if you enter this area.
Weather can be severe as violent thunderstorms build up almost every summer afternoon. These storms develop quickly with high winds, plummeting temperatures, pelting hail that can accumulate in inches resembling snow, and torrential rain. Wicked thunder cracks and rolls off of the peaks as lighting strikes and stabs the broken rocks and jagged peaks. Above the treeline is no place to be when a storm develops. The best rule of thumb is to carefully watch the weather. Start and finish hikes before the afternoon storms begin.
Some of my favorite spots along the Mirror Lake Highway include the Provo River Falls. The upper tributary of the Provo River flows over two small cliffs, boulders and slick rocks forming icy pools and a churning river. There is a nice parking area here and good interpretive panels.
Next is Lily Lake and Teapot Lake area. Notch Peak’s 11,268 foot high peak is reflected beautifully in Lily Lake and there is a nice campground near Teapot Lake. Continuing east, climbing ever higher on the Mirror Lake Highway, you will come to an overlook with several dozen parking stalls on the top of some cliffs. This is the Bald Mountain overlook and the cliffs provide amazing views to the west of Haystack Mountain and 11,512 foot-high Mount Watson. The 1970’s series “Grizzly Adams” opening scenes were filmed on these cliffs as Adams saved the bear cub “Ben.”
Another mile or so up the road is 10,795 foot-high Bald Mountain Pass and Bald Mountain Trailhead. This is the highest point on the Mirror Lake Highway. From this trailhead a short 2.5 mile trail leads to the summit of 10,943 foot-high Bald Mountain. The view from this summit is striking. You are well above the treeline on a lone bald peak and every direction you turn you can see alpine lakes dotting the forest below — more than 20 to be exact.
Just beyond the Bald Mountain trailhead you begin to descend into the Mirror Lake Basin and there is a fine observation point called the “Hayden Peak Overlook.” Stop here for a moment and gaze upon the rugged summits of Hayden and Agassiz Peaks that are both well over 12,000 feet-high in elevation. These peaks, as well as Emmons, Kings and Gilbert, were named after early surveyors who explored and mapped the area long ago.
Continuing on from the overlook you will pass the Fehr Lake Trailhead on the right, which is only 1.5 miles long but takes you to a handful of alpine lakes. On the left is the Moosehorn Lake campground beneath the towering east face of Bald Mountain.
Soon you will arrive at picturesque Mirror Lake itself, which the Scenic Byway is named after. Pass Lake, Butterfly Lake, The Uinta Highline Trail, Ruth Lake Trail and many other spectacular destinations await beyond that point.
You can follow state Route 150 all the way to Evanston, Wyoming, and return via Interstate 80, or you can camp, hike, picnic, and then return via the Kamas route. If the heat is what you want to escape, there is no better place than the High Uintas and the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. Take a jacket and rain slicker because the weather is completely different up there, even on the hottest valley days.
For more information contact the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Kamas office at (435) 783-4338 or the Evanston office at (307) 789-3194. One of the benefits of living where we do is the amazing things that are a short drive away. Get out and explore your surroundings and enjoy it.
How to get there: From Tooele Valley follow Interstate 80 east through Salt Lake City, up Parley’s Canyon and past the Park City exit to exit No. 146, which is U.S. Highway 40. Follow this road south and watch for the signs to Kamas (exit No. 4) in the next few miles. Take the Kamas exit and follow state Route 248 up and over the mountain to the town of Kamas. Along this stretch utilize the turn out and gaze down upon picturesque Jordanelle Reservoir and magnificent 11,750-foot Mount Timpanogos in the Wastach Range.
Once you reach Kamas, turn left and proceed north on Main Street, which is state Route 32. Follow Main Street north for a few blocks and then turn right onto the Mirror Lake Highway — which is state Route 150.
While you are in Kamas, be sure to stock up on supplies you will need — food, fuel, water, etc. Several miles up the canyon from Kamas, you will come to a U.S. Forest Service fee station. If you are going to stop anywhere along SR-150, you need to purchase a $6 Recreation Pass here and display the ticket in your window. This booth also provides a nice trifold map of the area that is quite useful as there are dozens of fine interpretive waysides and trailheads that make this pass worth the price.
If you want to camp in one of the several dozen campgrounds along the highway, you will need to pay the camp host directly. If you do this, you do not need to purchase the $6 recreation pass.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah. He has a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Utah, and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He, his wife and daughter live in Stansbury Park. Follow him on Facebook (JD Jessop) for more hikes and travels.