“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”
I took a detour on the way home from work the other day and drove east over Lookout Pass and then south to the Sheeprock Mountains. This high, compact, somewhat barren range of mountains is located due south of Vernon.
The range separates Rush Valley from the massive, bleak Sevier Desert to the south. The highest peak in the range is Black Crook Peak, which rises to an elevation of 9,274 feet approximately nine miles southwest of Vernon at the head of North Pine Canyon.
To the casual observer from SR-36 near Vernon, or from the Pony Express Trail to the north, the Sheeprocks seem like just another desert mountain range with barren ridges and empty canyons. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The nooks and crannies of this range harbor interesting desert relic forests of aspen and fir.
My favorite canyon in the range is North Oak Brush Canyon. It contains the most developed forest, small perennial springs, high mountain scenery, a fairly decent 4X4 road, and last but not least the “Sheeprock,” which is a 50-foot outcrop at the head of the canyon that is surrounded by aspen and fir.
As I approached the range from the north, cruising south on Harker Lane in the late afternoon, I wondered to myself if there would be any leaves left on the trees. There was a light haze in Rush Valley, as is often the case in the desert, so it was difficult to tell if there was any color on the mountains. As I got closer, I noticed a giant flood of brownish red emanating from the vicinity of North Oak Brush Canyon, and I recognized this to be the dense gambel oak forest that chokes the bottom of the canyon and the plain near its mouth.
I also noticed several little rivulets of bright yellow gold in the draws of Harker’s Canyon and I realized that today was going to be a good day in the mountains. I reached the end of Harkers Lane where the road T’s and I headed west following the most used path, which eventually took me through junipers into a scrub oak forest and up North Oak Brush Canyon.
This road is quite good in some areas; in others it is a rotten, rocky 4X4 path that possesses the potential to do serious harm to your vehicle. If you venture beyond the junipers in your vehicle—go slow, use caution and be warned—you may end up changing a tire or high centering on a boulder.
Crummy road notwithstanding, it is worth the effort to get up into this little canyon that reveals none of its secrets to the valley observer. Higher there are nice mature stands of quaking aspen and several perennial springs that feed tiny North Oak Brush Creek in the draw. On this day the aspen had recently shed most of their leaves and the golden leaves fairly carpeted the ground.
It was quiet up there. Extremely quiet. The only noise was the trickle of water over and between the moss-covered rocks. Collected pools of the creek were completely covered with aspen leaves and the gold of the leaves contrasted sharply with the deep greens of the moss mounds.
There was an icy chill in the air along the creek at about 7,200 feet in elevation. There was a skiff of snow on the ground partially covering oak leaves, acorns and other desert litter. Higher on the mountain slope, the white bark aspen with their golden torch leaves gave way to dark green of the Douglas fir and higher still, the fir trees were frocked with fresh snow. Above all of this was the rocky rim and blue sky, which made a fantastic scene complete.
I followed the creek for a bit—jumping it here and there, being careful not to sink up to my ankle in moss, muck and leaves. I ducked under this branch and that and then jumped over several logs and made my way back to the old mining road. I then proceeded to climb up the south-facing slope of the canyon wall through dense oak, mountain mahogany and cliffrose. It is amazing how different the forest can be from one side of the canyon to the other depending on the angle of the sun.
I surprised a family of mule deer and counted seven individuals. It is not surprising to find them in large numbers here because the oak forest provides them with a veritable smorgasbord to browse—twigs, leaves and acorns. From my vantage point on the south ridge, I could look up canyon to the headwall and see the “Sheeprock” rising from its forest surroundings. Again, if someone viewed this range from the valley, they would never believe the stories of the forest because it is completely invisible from down there.
The headwall of the canyon here is over 9,000 feet and extremely rugged. On this day it was powdered with fresh snow and appeared frozen. I have hiked to the crest before from the Sheeprock and followed it to the summit of an unnamed 9,000 foot peak that overlooks Harker’s Canyon. The views from up there to the north and the Oquirrh Mountains are amazing. When you turn around, you see the expanse of the Sevier Desert and the sea of sand dunes that is the Little Sahara. You could probably climb to the summit of Black Crook Peak from this area, but it would be some expert mountaineering crossing the high rocky ridges.
Autumn in the Sheeprock Mountains is a beautiful and magical time; there is golden splendor where it really shouldn’t be. This is a relic forest from the last ice age, hidden deep within the recesses of the timeless desert basin range.
To visit North Oak Brush Canyon, located within the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, head south of Tooele on SR-36 for 33 miles to the town of Vernon. Make sure you stop at the Silver Sage Inn and pick up any last minute grub and supplies. Where SR-36 makes a sharp bend to the east, turn right and west off the main road onto Sharp Road.
Follow Sharp Road to Harker Lane and then turn left and follow this road south towards the mountain where it will end at a T-intersection. Turn right and stay on the most used path and follow your nose over to North Oak Brush Canyon. The road in Oak Brush Canyon is Forest Road 090.
The Sheeprock Mountains are relatively close to Tooele and provide opportunities for backcountry hiking and solitude. Get out there and enjoy them while this weather holds since winter is approaching fast.
For more information on the Sheeprock Mountains, contact the Wasatch-Cache National Forest – Spanish Fork Ranger District. A map of the Vernon Unit can be found at the following link: http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5414976.pdf