“The experienced mountain climber is not intimidated by a mountain; he is inspired by it.”
—William Arthur Ward
There is a peak in the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area that is seldom visited by anyone but mule deer. It has inspired me for years and defeated me on two previous attempts to reach its summit.
But a few weeks ago, I finally conquered this mountain and experienced some of the most wild country Tooele County has to offer. The peak is 10,018-foot-high “Hickman Head,” and it is the high point midway along the elevated ridge that connects Deseret Peak and Vickory Peak.
The average elevation along the ridge is over 9,500 feet, but Hickman Head stands out prominently, as its summit consists of a large rock dome perched forever gazing westward across Skull Valley and the West Desert.
On the USGS Deseret Peak East 7.5 min. quad map, the peak is unnamed and marked only by its prominent elevation. But for years, I have referred to it as Hickman Head because “Wild Bill Hickman,” a notorious member of Brigham Young’s band of “Danites,” settled the area.
According to an interpretive panel at the trailhead, Hickman hid from the law numerous times in the canyon. East Hickman Canyon, which is a vast and expansive canyon, is named after him.
It is often fun for people to recount tales of the somewhat “friendly” chief Danite, Orrin Porter Rockwell. Hickman was the opposite. A character in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” gives a perfect description of Hickman and it goes like this: “He was cold as the snow and didn’t have no weak nerve.”
Some sources claim Hickman killed over 100 men. All of his incredible and dastardly escapades can be read in the book he wrote about his life entitled “Brigham’s Destroying Angel — Being the life, confession and startling disclosures of Bill Hickman, the Danite Chief of Utah.” I find it intriguing to learn some of the history/folklore (which Hickman’s book no doubt is a mixture of) prior to embarking on an adventure in the desert or the hills. It adds meaning to the terrain as you walk through the aspen and sagebrush.
My adventure started when a group of visiting soldiers asked if I could take them on a “very challenging” hike after work. This was my chance, if I could get them to join me, to finally defeat this peak. I knew the soldiers were well-conditioned and would charge hard toward their destination, motivating me to attain the summit that had eluded me up to this point.
We arrived at the trailhead in East Hickman Canyon at about 6 p.m. I have to acknowledge the Tooele County Trails Committee, because they have installed a parking area that could handle multiple horse or ATV trailers. It also has a covered signboard display that talks about the history of the area and William Adams “Bill” Hickman.
The signs give an area map, distances, waypoints and coordinates. I took a picture of this map for reference on my phone before starting my hike, which is always a good idea.
From the trailhead you have numerous options for exploring, namely a 7-mile loop throughout the canyon via the Stansbury Front Trail. From the trailhead you can see the long summit ridge to the west, but Hickman Head is not visible from this point.
Because sunset was not far off, I threw my gear into my rucksack and we darted up the canyon road. Never rush yourself at the trailhead. Ensure you put all the items you need into your backpack and check it twice. In my haste, I left behind all the food I had purchased for the hike, something I would be sorry for a few hours later.
From the trailhead we hiked about .3 miles up to where the Bear Fork Road Trail breaks off to the right. We stayed on the main road and continued another .5 miles to an old footprint of a long-gone building. Here, the canyon road bends south and climbs steeply up to Hickman Pass, which overlooks Big Hollow. We continued straight past the old building into a hollow where a tiny perennial stream flows. We followed a cow trail up this draw onto a high bench at 7,293 feet where we intersected the Stansbury Front Trail.
We next crossed the trail and left all trails behind as we picked what seemed to be the most reasonable ridge to the summit. This ridge starts out as a moderately steep, open grassy slope with one large, lone pine halfway up and then another marker pine at the top of this grassy ridge at approximately 8,023 feet. The soldiers, being much better physically conditioned, left me in the dust. But when I reached the second lone pine, I was informed by one of them that he was “done!” and he headed back down the hill.
I could see the other soldiers much higher on the ridge, so I pressed on to get to the peak this time. There is a nice bench behind the second pine at the foot of a steep, long incline that leads to the summit ridge. I enjoyed walking through sagebrush and aspen here and took a moment to look back east at Morgan Canyon and its surrounding peaks. What a beautiful area it is, with typical Stansbury Mountain terrain: northeast-facing slopes heavily forested with fir and southwest-facing slopes barren to their summits.
Gasping for breath, I determined that my best chance at gaining the summit ridge would be to head north and follow a deep gouge that has been eroded out of the mountain over the eons up to the ridge. I found an old deer trail and it was a pleasure to climb through large, old trees and along paths covered with rich black earth, pine needles and pine cones.
Most of the trees at this elevation were Engelmann spruce, limber pine and some aspen. I had to be careful not to get too close to the eroded rim because it dropped straight off about 100 feet to the bottom of a steep draw.
As I gained elevation it started to get darker in the trees. The mountain was steep by this point and there were rocky outcrops of gray limestone. It was halfway up this incline that I noticed the last soldier descending the mountain below me. We had agreed beforehand, however, that if we parted ways I was going to take the peak and they could do as they pleased. I now was alone on the mountain.
In next week’s article, I will describe my ascent of the mountain and my challenging descent of the peak in moonlight. If you decide to visit this area, take plenty of water. Trail travel is easy and safe but if you leave the trail and climb the ridges it can be treacherous. Know the limits of your capabilities and take a good map. Let someone know where you are going, when you intend to return and avoid hiking alone.
For more information on this area, visit the website fs.usda.gov/main/uwcnf/maps-pubs and look at the Salt Lake Ranger District Map that covers the Stansbury Mountains.
The Tooele County Trails website is a good resource as well. It can be viewed at: tooelecountytrails.com/trails_map.html
Map: USGS 1:24,000 7.5 min quad “Deseret Peak East”
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.