One of my favorite places to go for a short hike in Tooele County is the Oquirrh Wave. This area was terraced out of the west bench of the Oquirrh Mountains in the Bates Canyon area east of Erda thousands of years ago by the relentless wave action of Lake Bonneville.
As most residents of the county know, our entire area was covered by a massive Pleistocene lake named Lake Bonneville. Lake Bonneville was a product of the last ice age and it would have been amazing to see glaciers from the Cottonwood Canyons of the Wasatch Mountains calving into its deep blue, fresh, icy waters.
Estimates suggest that the ancient lake was the size of Lake Michigan and over 1,000 feet deep on average. These facts combined would have meant that most of the Utah West Desert mountain ranges would have been islands in this inland sea.
As you travel around the area, you can plainly see evidences of this lake by virtue of its wave cut scars on the knees of the mountains, especially at the point of the mountain near the Utah State Prison, the north end of the Oquirrh Mountains near Black Rock, and the Kennecott Smelter. Scars are also visible on benches left on the Stansbury, Cedar, Silver Island, Newfoundland and other desert ranges, and of course, on the islands of the Great Salt Lake.
The most prominent and most interesting wave cuts from this lake are located near the mouth of Bates Canyon directly east of Erda. These profound ancient beach lines and their benches are far above the flat of the valley and prominently displayed when viewed from that location.
A hike along the bottom, sides or top of these benches gives one a sense of the true magnitude and enormity of the long gone lake. To get there, follow state Route 36 to Bates Canyon Road and then head east towards the mountains up the hill from the intersection.
The road will cross some railroad tracks, so use caution and look both ways. Once across the tracks, ordinary cars can park in the turnout and you can continue on foot or mountain bike from there. If you have a 4X4 vehicle, open the gate and continue straight up the road towards the mountain without deviating to the left or right. Make sure that you always close the gate up tight behind you so that the cows that might be present don’t get out. Similarly, respect the rights of private property owners and stay on the road. Make sure that you only drive on existing trails in order to prevent erosion and that you don’t litter.
As you drive east on the bumpy, rocky trail, look east/southeast at the bench and you will see a steep 4X4 track going almost straight up the bench. Use that as a guide and follow the road, which is pretty intuitive to the base of that climb.
The flat area at the base of that pitch is where I always park when I walk the Oquirrh Wave. I would discourage anyone from driving up that steep trail because it causes lots of erosion. Take plenty of water, a sack lunch depending on how far you are going to go and a camera because the views of this unique geologic structure, the mountains and the valley are quite picturesque from up there.
Park at the turnout and walk up the steep incline. As you go, look south at the level of the bench and its slope. The water was at an amazing depth at this point considering you would be hundreds of feet below the surface in your present location. Once on top of the bench, you have sweeping views of the valley below and the Stansbury Mountains to the west. There is a good two-track on top of the terrace and surprisingly it is wide for a stretch where the orange rock slides terminate at the base of the mountain on top of the terrace.
Large boulders lie about in sagebrush and some of them are ringed by scrub oak and rabbit brush. This area would make a fine place to stop and have lunch on the rocks as you survey the scene. The knees of the bench are an interesting place as well because they are round and smooth on a steep grade. Small ravines have been eroded out of them and there are tiny communities of Rocky Mountain Maple trees hiding in the shadows of the ravines.
The two-track continues south along the terrace top below the rocky slides and outcrops of the mountain, passing a few minor steep drainages. The two-track then abruptly terminates in a small round turnout as does the terrace you have been walking on.
At this point, a deer trail continues south and around the knee of the mountain. Use extreme caution here because a slip would be catastrophic. On eyebrow trails such as this, I just look down at the ground until I’m past the vertigo part. This deer trail could be followed all the way to Flood or even Pass canyons by various deviations, all the while providing excellent views of Tooele Valley and the rock formations that are found in this part of the Oquirrh Mountain Range. You will likely encounter mule deer, various birds and possibly a coyote along this stretch, so bring some binoculars and have your camera ready.
Remember to tread lightly, don’t litter and don’t cut trails. This environment is fragile and with the expanding population of the valley, it will only become more pressured so do your part to keep it beautiful. For more information visit the Tooele County Trails website at www.tooelecountytrails.com. This is an excellent little trail map that you will find extremely useful.
Pay particular attention to the Oquirrh Wave/Serengeti Trail system. Bullet point #1 on this trail map is the Bates Canyon trailhead that I mentioned earlier. The Green “Alternate” Trail right up against the mountain is the one I described. Go prepared, be safe and enjoy the view from the Lake Bonneville terrace.