There is something magical about moonlight on the peaks, across the desert and in the trees that draws me to it like a moth to flame. Everything changes, from the clouds in the sky to the rocks you step on.
Even the most mundane landscape features seem to come alive. If you have never taken a walk in the moonlight, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be in the mountains or desert, either. A walk around your neighborhood can be enjoyed as you make observations about the visible world that is painted in an otherworldly light.
I made a primitive camp in the Onaqui Mountains earlier this week and while there enjoyed a full moon’s light. I headed to the mountains late and arrived near Johnson’s Pass around 10:30 p.m. Each time I have driven east over the pass from Dugway Proving Ground, I have noticed a small, two-track road that breaks off of the main road just east of the pass.
I have always wanted to explore it, so I took the little trail in my truck. After about 100 meters into the junipers, and where I was comfortable my vehicle was not visible from the main road, I parked it, grabbed my pack, put my K-Bar on my belt and headed east through the trees.
It was a beautiful, warm July night in Tooele County’s mountains. The temperature was 78 degrees and the winds were calm. The bright, silvery light of the moon covered the landscape and all objects cast dark, thick shadows. I followed the two track for a bit and then left it heading south up to a ridgetop.
Even in the strange, diminished visibility of the moonlight, I could tell that there was some serious destruction of vegetation in the area. There were piles of old crushed sagebrush bones and knocked down junipers. Old stumps were sawed off close to the ground as well. I wasn’t sure if this was done to improve the range for grazing, but it did give me something to think about as I continued.
Once on the ridgetop, I could look down through a gap in the mountain to a hazy Rush Valley where a few lights of Vernon were visible. I stopped and observed my back trail and realized I had gained enough elevation to see over Johnson’s Pass and into the desert. Words cannot ever describe the scene as the Big Dipper stood in the sky above the pass with the hulk of Vickory Mountain to the north. Illuminated to a degree, I could almost pick out individual trees on the slope.
On the ridgetop a warm breeze passed through the trees and made a different noise than when the wind blows through aspen or pine. The dense foliage of the juniper tree causes more of a “swooshing” noise, as if the trees are sweeping the wind. I continued east along the ridge and I could see the characteristic “W” of the Cassiopeia constellation in the sky over Tooele. As I gained elevation, pockets or “eddies” of cool air mixed intermittently with the warm air, which was a nice relief from the searing heat of the day.
The bright moonlight covered the dirt and rocks, and black shadows from the trees silently stabbed this canvas. It is amazing to me how dark these shadows seem. You can completely conceal yourself from any view if you stand in the shadow of a tree out in the moonlight desert, which depending on the situation, may prove useful. Thoughts of a cougar in the trees or a coiled rattlesnake in the rocks crossed my mind, so I kept my eyes peeled and senses alert for trouble.
Hiking at a slow, yet deliberate pace, I reached the summit of a rocky knoll that was my destination. The knoll overlooks the Clover Spring Campground area and almost all of the eastern portion of Johnson’s Pass road.
The summit is a limestone ridge that trends north and is covered with junipers and other bushes. The mountain falls away abruptly to the east and the rim of the knoll provides a vantage point from which you can observe the terrain.
After 11 p.m., it was quiet and still up there in the moonlight. The only noise was a few crickets and an occasional gust of wind through the trees. I found a nice flat rock of chair height, which provided a view of the scene. After a quick sweep with the flashlight for any creepy crawlies, I sat down to watch. That was the only time I used my flashlight on the hike because a bright light out in the hills will severely diminish your “night vision,” so if I can get away with it, I don’t use a light.
I could see twinkling lights of Rush Valley and the trace of Johnson’s Pass far below. As I looked at the road and Clover Springs, I thought about The Civilian Conservation Corps Camp that was located there and what Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Goodyear” convoy must have looked like snaking its way up the pass back in 1919.
I noticed other things in the dark from this vantage point that you cannot perceive in the daylight, such as the blink of radio towers on the summit of Farnsworth Peak to the north, the strobe of an aircraft on approach to Salt Lake City above the spine of the Oquirrh Mountains, and the far off light of a solitary vehicle climbing the old Jacob City road against the black bulk of the Oquirrhs. That made me realize I was not the only crazy person who likes to stir about in the hills under a full moon.
Taking walks in the desert or hills on such a night can be a magical event that you’ll never forget. You do, however, need to consider some basic safety principles: Make sure you are familiar with your surroundings and the area you are hiking. Take plenty of water and a good flashlight. Avoid complicated terrain and watch out for critters, like snakes and spiders that tend to move around at night.
Also, listen to your senses; if something feels wrong, it probably is — so get out of there. Always go with another person. I often travel alone in the hills because in my mind I’m still an invincible 19-year-old Marine. But if something goes wrong, the next story about me could be some hunter finding my carcass, so be safe and follow the buddy system.
I hung around up there until after 1 a.m., and then after some flat, smooth clouds began to appear in the sky, I headed back down the mountain to my vehicle. This small adventure is one I will never forget. I highly recommend a night walk in the desert or mountains. It’s a whole different world out there in the moonlight, just waiting to be seen and explored.
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.