“Don’t quit, suffer now, and live every day the rest of your life as a Champion.”
For the last eight years, I’ve looked out the back window from my home at a mountain I want to climb. It isn’t the highest peak in the Oquirrh Mountains, but it’s prominent, rising abruptly from Tooele Valley east of Erda.
An interesting characteristic of this peak is a terrace from Lake Bonneville. I don’t think any other location in Utah has a better preserved shoreline created thousands of years ago by the ancient lake. That alone makes the area worth a visit.
To do this hike, my wife, Mishelle, and my dog, Duke, and I, parked the truck near the base of the Oquirrh Mountains in Erda, on a gravel road that extends to the east from the end of Bates Canyon Road after the railroad tracks.
From there the path goes up a steep hill that is sandy, exhausting and annoying. The elevation gain is about 300 feet — in short order. But once you top out on the Bonneville Bench, the road turns south and travels on a level, sagebrush-covered plain for about a half mile.
Along this stretch, Tooele Valley, the Stansbury Mountains and the Great Salt Lake provide a breathtaking view. The bench is only about 100 meters wide and then it falls off in a steep drop to the valley floor. There are some great rocks to sit on and look out. Lake Bonneville was once at this level, and everything you see beyond the rim was submerged!
As you walk along the bench, there are some abrupt rocky faces to the east cut by draws that lead into the higher country. We headed east up a third little draw along this route and followed the main ridge to the high country.
This stretch is off trail and extremely steep. Only people with strong legs and minds should attempt it. For the first half mile, the ridge is windswept, rocky and barren, with only a bit of cheat grass. In the draws, there are some scrub oak and a few lonely curl leaf mountain mahogany.
As we hiked up the ridge, I noticed several deer trails across the snow and through the grass along the slopes of the mountain. We then spooked out a herd of 12 mule deer in a south draw and a herd of more than 50 in a north draw. I’m glad that deer have somewhere to go where they aren’t bothered by people all the time.
I next noticed a long, Union Pacific train wind its way across the bench below in Erda. The view got better with every step of elevation. The climate zone changed, too. Once we topped the ridge, there was more scrub oak and larger and more numerous mountain mahogany. On the ridgeline’s shaded side, there were a few Douglas fir.
We were now 7,780 feet high on the summit of the most visible point east of Erda. To get there, we gained 2,644 feet in elevation in just under two miles from the Bonneville bench. With a full pack on my back, I was feeling it. As usual, Mishelle was way ahead. So too was my dog, which abandoned me on the ridge, preferring to stay with Mishelle as his best chance to get out of this place.
From the top of this peak, we continued east along an intervening ridge and encountered some rock fins that were about 20-40 feet high. We sat on top of one of them and enjoyed the view down a sub canyon toward Lake Point. It was such a clear day that I could see the Raft River Mountains across the Great Salt Lake to the north. Duke threw a fit because he couldn’t climb up onto the fins and felt left out.
The terrain is different at this point. There is a scrubby forest of mountain mahogany, and on the north-facing slopes there are more Douglas fir. Mountain mahogany is an interesting, picturesque tree. They can be in shrub form, or they can grow into impressive medium-size trees of contorted shape. They are evergreen and are an important browse year-round for deer, which probably explains why there are so many mule deer in this area.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is the source for the preceding information. It has an amazing website, containing maps of plant type distributions for the entire U.S., as well as general species information and lots of good links for more in-depth research.
From that source, I came across a reference from a book by Ralph U. Chamberlain published in 1911 entitled, “Ethnobotany of Gosiute Indians of Utah.” In this book, Chamberlain stated that the Gosiutes made good use of the mountain mahogany. The hard wood was used to make bows and the green wood was ground into a poultice and used to treat burns and other ailments.
I also learned the deep, reddish brown wood will accept a polish, which is not surprising since when I come across these trees, some of the tangled branches are highly polished naturally. It’s always fun to utilize resources to learn more about your environment before or after you explore.
The snowpack was several feet deep in shady areas, but the ridges were mostly clear to the rock fins, which is probably usual for this time of year. Beyond the fins, the snowpack was still continuous and required the use of snowshoes. A short distance through the woods from this point, you can reach the summit at 8,073 feet, where I noticed yet another large group of 20-plus deer. The total distance from my truck to the summit is 2.7 miles and 3,087 feet of elevation gain. Add another mile and 400 feet elevation if you park your car at the Bates Canyon gate.
If you attempt to hike these slopes to the peaks, make sure you are in good shape and take plenty of water. Good hiking boots and a printed map of the area are good ideas. If you get uncomfortable, or if there is chance of lightning, turn back. It’s not worth a heart attack or a story-ending Zap!
How to get there: From Tooele City, follow SR-36 north into Erda and turn right onto Bates Canyon Road. Follow the road east to the train tracks and there will be a dirt road turn-around in front of a battered, old green range gate. If you are in a passenger car, this is the end of the road. You can park here and continue on foot.
If you have a 4×4 vehicle, you can cut another mile off the distance by going through the gate, making sure to close it securely after you, and then proceeding east toward the mountains. Follow the most reasonable path, and as the road nears the bench, keep right and follow it around the foot of the hill to the southeast, where it ends at the foot of a steep, sandy two-track. Only the foolish would attempt to take their truck farther than this point. Similarly, the damage done to the environment by those who try is not worth it. Ensure that you park at the base of this hill and use it as your start point.
For more information, visit the following references:
Maps: USGS 1:24,000 “Bates Canyon” (Primary Map) “Farnsworth Peak” “Tooele” “Mills Junction” (Supplementary Maps) 7.5 Min Quads
USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service Website: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=cele3
BLM – Salt Lake District Field Office 801-977-4300