“Well, I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
There are few things in life that compare to the rush of climbing a high peak. The challenge — to step out of your comfort zone — enriches the soul.
In Tooele County, we are fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of the Wasatch Mountains, which offer year-round, world-class outdoor adventure. There are trails and climbing routes for all abilities.
The Wasatch range is my wife’s favorite place and she asked me last weekend to take her on a hard hike that would summit a peak. Many summits in the Wasatch fit such a request, but Mount Superior stands out.
At 11,032 feet high, Mount Superior is not one of the tallest Wasatch peaks. But it rises abruptly from Little Cottonwood Canyon above Snowbird and Alta ski resorts, creating a visual mountain spectacle. Mount Superior also sits atop the Superior Slide Area, which is one of the most avalanche-prone areas in the world.
Avalanches routinely thunder down this slope during winter, and sometimes block the canyon road with deep snow. One partially buried and slammed through the lobby of Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge years ago.
The route to Mount Superior’s summit is not a long one — only 2.5 miles from the start to the summit — but you will earn every inch of vertical.
The trail starts 8.4 miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon on the left side of the road near the Town of Alta office. The trail is not marked, but the first 1.5 miles are well-defined. Find a parking spot along the road and then follow the paved spur past the Town of Alta office and police station. Continue on the dirt road as it cuts back west, up through aspen trees.
On this September day the aspen were like torches, ablaze with autumn fire. The dirt road switchbacks again to the east, and you will notice a snow-measuring station marked by an enclosure of 20-foot poles and signs on your left-hand side.
At this point, the main road continues east towards Grizzly Gulch and another two-track heads north into the aspen in front of the snow-measuring station. Leave the main road and follow the road north through the aspen as it bends to the west in a long, steep ascent.
Here the trail climbs above most of the trees into an area known as “Toledo Bowl.” The aspen here are bent and stunted from deep snow and avalanches. Massive avalanches ravage these slopes on an annual basis, sometimes wiping the larger vegetation clean in the process.
Along this stretch are numerous mines, tailings dumps and other signs of mineral extraction operations. In the 1870s-1880s, there was a lot of prospecting done here and centered on the town of Alta. High-grade silver ore was obtained from the Emma, Flagstaff and numerous other mines. There are countless side excursions and adventures that can be had exploring this area.
Approximately seven-tenths of a mile from the start point, a foot trail breaks off to the west from the old mining road. Follow the footpath west as it climbs past an ancient stump perched on the edge of the hill. The trail then switchbacks east and climbs to a hanging meadow.
This little meadow is at 9,700 feet above sea level and is covered with a forest of pointed and straight sub-alpine fir trees. The meadow is also a great destination when the wildflowers are in season. The slopes on approach are covered with arrow leaf balsam root, bluebell, mountain paintbrush and other wildflowers.
From the meadow, the trail climbs steeply to 10,003-foot-high Cardiac Pass. This pass is a saddle between 10,277-foot-high Cardiac Peak to the west and 10,362-foot-high Toledo Peak to the east. When you climb the short trail to Cardiac Pass, you’ll quickly understand the name: You ascend over 1,000 feet in a short distance and it makes your heart pound from the effort.
After Cardiac Pass, the route gets even more interesting. A faint footpath heads west on an upward angle along the south face of Cardiac Peak. This footpath crosses a yellow-colored mine dump, and as it does, the hiker is exposed to possible peril. One misstep while crossing the tailings may result in a head-long tumble into Toledo Bowl. I always keep my eyes on the narrow footpath as I cross it, and am thankful every time I safely reach the other side.
Once you are past the mine dump, the trail wraps around the ridge and the massive red bulk of Mount Superior comes into view. The trail traverses the upper Hells Gate bowl just below the ridgeline. Along this stretch, Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge is visible below. Old, limber pines with twisted branches, tangled roots and large, round pine cones, struggle to survive in the harsh environment at treeline.
At mile 1.7 from the trailhead, after traversing the long and frightening Hell Gate ridge, you will arrive at the base of Mount Superior in a saddle I call Hell Gate Pass at 10,090 feet high. From here, the wide, forested expanse of Cardiff Fork spreads before you. The gray, abrupt cliffs of the Reed and Benson Ridge rise to the east and the lone rocky bulk of 10,403-foot-high Kessler Peak forms the west wall of the fork.
Catch your breath and gather your courage in Hell Gate Pass because from here it gets serious as you ascend Mount Superior, gaining nearly 1,000 feet in under a mile. The entire stretch requires experienced hiking skills. Route finding and scrambling is necessary and you will experience a significant amount of exposure. If you are afraid of heights, this peak might not be for you.
The route to the summit mostly follows the south face of the summit ridge. While on the ascent, the route crosses onto the north side briefly and then transitions back to the south side before the final push to the summit.
A pair of good gloves and hiking boots are recommended. You will need both hands and sturdy footing as you climb, cling and crawl up the mountain in some areas. Heart pounding and sweating, you will emerge onto the 11,032-foot-high summit of Mount Superior. And be ready to experience one of the most awe-inspiring views found in the Wasatch.
To the west is the 11,132-foot-high white tower of Monte Cristo Peak and the 11,330-foot-high Broads Fork Twins. To the north are Mount Raymond, Kessler Peak and 10,242-foot-high Gobbler’s Knob. To the east are the high peaks above Brighton Ski Area and Albion Basin of Little Cottonwood Canyon. There are also Mount Wolverine, Sunset Peak and 10,920-foot-high Devils Castle. To the south you look straight down Superior Slide for 2,000 feet to Snowbird, with 11,068-foot-high Mount Baldy and the 11,493-foot-high American Fork Twin Peaks rising behind.
Mountain goats thrive in this area. On our hike last weekend, we ran into three groups of the shaggy beasts. One enormous male was on our path and wouldn’t move.
Although this is a short climb, it is only recommended for the experienced hiker who is comfortable with vertical exposure and route finding. Take plenty of water and apply sunscreen, as you will be exposed above the treeline most of the hike. Best maps of the area are the USGS 1:24000 Dromedary Peak quadrangle.
Indian summer has gifted us with a few more weeks of good hiking weather. If you’re up for a serious challenge with a tremendous payoff, tackle Mount Superior.
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.