Last week I talked about the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area, its creation and what you can expect to find there. Today I will suggest a different route to scale the range’s highest summit: 11,031-foot Deseret Peak.
Climbing Deseret Peak is a stunning experience. It is located on the fringe where the Basin and Range and Rocky Mountain land zones collide. The Stansbury Mountains are young geologically, rising on block faults similar to the Wasatch Mountains. The Oquirrh Mountains to the east are much older and weathered.
The range is dry and barren in many areas, a true, stark, sagebrush representation of the characteristic Basin and Range system. But due to its elevation, there are forests that are similar to the Rocky Mountains. This mix of climate zones is fascinating to hike and transition through.
The most common approach to Deseret Peak is from the Loop Campground at the end of South Willow Canyon Road. To get there from Grantsville’s Main Street, turn south onto West Street and proceed south for five miles on the “Mormon Trail.” Turn right at the U.S. Forest Service sign for South Willow Canyon and proceed for eight miles to the Loop Campground. The trailhead for Deseret Peak and willow lakes is at the campground.
Make sure you get an early start in the summer because this trail is popular and there is limited parking at the trailhead. There is a vault toilet at the trailhead and a signboard. The elevation at the starting point is 7,418 feet in a mixed fir forest. There are several forest service campsites at the campground, so it is possible to make this your base camp for longer adventures if you plan ahead.
As previously stated, the Stansbury Range is generally a dry range. There are some small springs here and there, and intermittent creeks, but water cannot and should not be depended upon, so bring your own. If you do find water, it must be filtered, boiled or chemically treated before being consumed. If you don’t treat it, you will more than likely get Giardia and begin an unplanned, two-week long intensive and completely disagreeable weight-loss program as your body attempts to purge itself of the bug.
A short distance from the trailhead and you will come to the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area (DPWA) boundary where there is a large, wooden brown sign announcing the same. Continue on the trail for about .07 miles through several switchbacks in aspen and fir forest to where the trail crosses South Willow Canyon Creek.
Depending on the time of year this could be a torrent that takes a moment to figure on how to cross, or it could be a dry river of rocks and logs. Once you cross the creek, you are at a decision point. If you follow the trail to the left and south, you will take the usual Deseret Peak Summit approach up Mill Fork. If you follow the trail right and west, it will take you to South Willow Lake in about three miles.
Take the right fork at this junction and follow it west as it climbs steeply up a spur, crosses several small tributary streams of South Willow Creek and bends around sharply to the northeast as it climbs out of South Willow Canyon. The area in the vicinity of the stream crossings is agreeable with all kinds of water loving plants and ice cold, snow-fed water from Dry Lake Fork of South Willow Canyon just below the massive headwall of Deseret Peak.
As you climb your way out of South Willow Canyon, take a moment to notice all of the numerous water plants and wildflowers. Bluebell, Indian Paintbrush, Coneflower, Arrow Leaf Balsam Root and many others carpet the whole face of the mountain in this area. After admiring the flowers, stop for a second and turn around. You will have one of the most amazing views in the Stansbury Range in front of you. The gigantic snow strewn cliffs and dual couloirs of the Deseret Peak Cirque are on full display with an army of spruce and fir at its base.
After taking a few pictures, continue up and over the ridge and out of South Willow Canyon into a tiny hanging canyon called “Pockets Fork.” In the middle of Pockets Fork is a trail junction. The main trail continues north and climbs out of Pockets Fork, rounds the ridge and drops down into Mining Fork of South Willow Canyon. This is where South Willow Lake is located at the base of the giant headwall of 10,685 foot-high Stansbury Peak. Instead of heading to the lake, turn left and follow a steep-but-decent trail west, up and out of Pockets Fork and you will arrive at a pass nearly 10,000 feet high in elevation. Here you will have your first glimpse of Big Creek Canyon and Skull Valley beyond.
Pockets Fork should really be named “Marmots” fork because these large shaggy rodents will be chirping and squeaking at you the whole time as you hike through their home turf. Notice the extreme avalanche damage in upper Pockets Fork. Usually until early July, you will have to negotiate a large snow drift at the top of Pockets Fork, but with care you can get around it safely. From the Pass at 10,000 feet, the trail heads due south along the west back of the ridge above beautiful Big Creek Canyon. You will notice serious fire damage to the range in this area but it is still beautiful.
Once the trail reaches the base of Deseret Peak proper, it climbs precipitously up the north face, gaining over 1,000 feet of elevation in a half mile. There may be downed trees over the trail and a few tricky spots, but the trail is easy to follow.
At the top of the ridge you are above treeline and there is no vegetation except for low spruce bushes known as krummholz or wind timber. This is no place to be if lightning is a possibility. Watch the weather and turn back if you have to. A peaks summit is not worth dying for.
Lots of different tiny and fragile alpine plants exist up in this area of tundra environment. For this reason, please stay on the trail to minimize damage to this fragile ecosystem. The trail passes right by the notch of the North Couloir of Deseret Peak and the views down that chute are amazing. It is an easy stroll to the summit from this area and the views from there are incredible.
When I hike Deseret Peak via the Pockets Fork route, I usually descend the Mill Fork Trail as both trails end at the Loop Campground, which makes true “loop” hikes entirely possible. Distance via either route is roughly four miles one way to the summit of Deseret Peak.
As stated in last week’s article, Deseret Peak is a gem right in our backyard. We are lucky to have easy access to this amazing wilderness. Study the maps, pack the right supplies, take plenty of water and go out and experience the wonders of the DPWA. Once you have scaled Deseret Peak, you will always be able to gaze upon it from home, work or while transiting the surrounding valleys and think to yourself, “I climbed that and what and a beautiful place that is.”
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah. He has a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Utah, and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He, his wife and daughter live in Stansbury Park. Follow him on Facebook (JD Jessop) for more hikes and travels.