Editor’s note: In this timeless piece on a late summer venture to South Willow Lake, after reaching the shore of the lake, the Transcript Bulletin’s then editor remarked, “This looks the same as it did 30 years ago.” Ten years after that South Willow Lake remains the “Jewel of the Stansburys.” We reprint this feature story and photos from Sept. 8, 2009 because sometimes a good thing is worth repeating. Enjoy Tooele County’s outdoors alone, with your family, or share it with a friend. The beauty available in our backyard is the kind that endures in memories and creates bonds that last. – Tim Gillie
Late-summer hike to South Willow Lake, while grueling, is worth the trek
It’s evening in the quiet canyon. A squirrel darts across the narrow dirt road, taking watchful refuge in the rocks of the dry streambed beside it. Tall pines sway slightly in a breeze undetectable at trail level. The sun has fallen behind the broad glacial cirque that towers at the canyon’s head, its rays vacated, supplanted now by shadow.
From the meadows at the end of the Mining Fork Road, the view of the unnamed 10,685-foot monolith is arresting. It’s also downright deceiving. Because having both climbed and descended its approach today, your legs and feet know it’s much farther away than your eyes perceive it to be.
Nestled at the foot of the cirque is a small alpine lake visible only from its shores. Unlike the massif that cradles it, this glassy pool has an official name: South Willow Lake. If Deseret Peak and its neighboring summits are the crown of the Stansbury Mountains, South Willow Lake is its jewel.
The peaks and lake are part of the 25,212-acre Deseret Peak Wilderness, created in 1984 by the Utah Wilderness Act. Among the primary goals of its establishment were the preservation of the land’s wilderness character, protection of watersheds and wildlife habitat, encouragement of primitive recreation, and the promotion of physical and mental challenge.
“Basically,” explained U.S. Forest Service Environmental Coordinator Steve Scheid, “the designation allows you to go out and experience nature on its own terms.”
Camping, hunting, backpacking, and horseback riding are allowed within wilderness boundaries, but some restrictions apply. Commercial guiding and outfitting are prohibited. Mechanical transport of any kind is also prohibited. This includes everything from bicycles to motorized vehicles of any type.
Two major routes lead to South Willow Lake. The more publicized of the two reaches the lake via the Mill Fork Trail and Pockets Fork in South Willow Canyon. This hike is 7 miles round trip with 1,630 feet of elevation gain.
The second, more direct route is slightly shorter and considerably steeper. It begins at the Medina Flat Trailhead in South Willow Canyon and cuts over a ridge into Mining Fork, where it follows Mining Fork Road and trail to the lake. This hike is roughly 6.8 miles round trip with 2,540 feet of elevation gain.
Last weekend the Transcript Bulletin’s editor, Jeff Barrus, and I hiked to the lake with our sons along the latter route. For Bridger (8), Weston (6), me, and Jeff’s son, Real (8), this trek would be a first. Jeff had been hiking to the lake since he was in his teens.
He relished memories of carefree days and nights on the lake’s shores and was excited for Real to experience this rite of passage.
We got a mid-morning start from the Medina Flat trailhead. Jeff and I knew the hike would probably take longer than normal because the boys are so young. They began to prove us correct when they stopped about 100 feet — again at about 150 feet — then again at about 200 feet past the trailhead — trying to catch lizards and grasshoppers.
After about one-third mile, the Medina Flat trail met Mining Fork Road, a slender double track that Forest Service employees speculate was blazed during World War II, since most of the ore taken from the mines went toward the war effort.
The road traces the canyon bottom through stands of fir, spruce and aspen, passing the tin roof sheets and deteriorating planks of collapsed mining cabins along the way. Steep canyon walls and dense vegetation gave this stretch of the hike a certain tight, though not claustrophobic, feel.
Because the road climbed steadily on a moderately steep grade, we stopped often to rest. Early on, the boys spent these pit stops chasing each other down and back up the trail and lobbing boulders — the bigger the better — into the streambed. Only after the first couple miles did they begin to comprehend the concept of conserving energy.
Historically, hikers have driven small vehicles or ATVs to the end of the road from the turnoff below South Willow Canyon, reducing actual hiking distance to the lake to a mere 1.2 miles. However, the first 1/4 mile of the road has become private property in recent years. Since the U.S. Forest Service has no easement on this section of the road, following it through this stretch is trespassing.
Scheid says a case might be made for a prescriptive easement, given that the road’s entire length was publicly accessible long before the property was purchased. Scheid said the Forest Service has not yet pursued an easement with state courts. At present, Mining Fork Road is accessible to the public only via the Medina Flat trail.
The junction of these two paths marks the wilderness boundary. The road itself was cherry-stemmed from the wilderness to allow maintenance traffic to a water collection weir. So while the road itself isn’t part of the wilderness, the forest on both sides of it is.
Mining Fork Road ends as the canyon opens into a bowl. The cirque, which is informally referred to as South Willow Peak, is constantly visible from this point. The trail continues toward it as a single track, passing through hilly meadows trod by grazing cattle (grazing is permitted in wilderness areas).
“See those cliffs up there?” Jeff said as he pointed our trail-weary boys toward the rocky summit. “That’s where we’re going.”
Large geographical features make lousy mental gauges because they never appear to get closer or farther away. The steepening slope and air that seemed noticeably thinner with each step helped bring the “physical and mental challenge” aspect of the wilderness to the forefront. The rocks and sticks Bridger and Weston kept adding to my pockets and tethering to my pack probably helped with that too.
The boys did better on this final leg than we had anticipated. Whether their minds had finally synced with the terrain or their conversations about cartoons distracted them sufficiently from the trail, we couldn’t tell.
When we finally reached the lake’s southern shore, the boys immediately waded in. Intent on building a raft, they began gathering driftwood while Jeff and I located his favorite camping spot. Bridger, Weston and I would be hiking back down that evening. Jeff and Real would be spending the night.
“This place looks the same as it did 30 years ago,” Jeff remarked.
The lake was modest, but beautiful in its surroundings. Its waters were chameleon, taking on different colors at different angles. At surface level it reflected the forest green of the limber pines along its shores. Walking around the lake and over a hill, it ranged from olive to camouflage gray to deep blue.
A large snowfield remained tucked in a deep recess of the cirque’s 1,500-foot escarpment. Long black streaks marked the paths of small seasonal waterfalls. The lake’s simple beauty had made the hike more than worthwhile.
The boys forsook their raft building effort to build a fire in camp. Despite the grueling hike, they never sat down, choosing instead to scavenge for tinder and various other items to burn. When evening fell, they bristled at the thought of leaving the lake.
The descent offered continuous views of Tooele Valley below with the Oquirrh and Wasatch ranges in the distance. Dozens of grazing cattle watched us from the meadows. Though the forest was draped in shadow, the bright daytime sky above its canopy created a strange, almost eerie contrast.
Back at the trailhead, the boys seemed none worse for the wear, their enthusiasm for the lake completely overshadowing thoughts of the difficult hike. Darkness fell as we packed up the car. A certain crispness in the air reminded me that autumn was on its way. We probably won’t make it up to the lake again this year, but it’s OK. The giant cirque and its chameleon pool have existed for millennia. It will still be there next year.
For detailed information about the Deseret Peak Wilderness and destinations within, call (801)466-6411 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r4/uwc/.