In last week’s column, I introduced Tooele County’s Sheeprock Mountains as a seldom-visited place that is ideal for hikers to explore.
The column ended with an initial description of North Oak Brush Canyon. This canyon contains the best surviving forests in the range, but there are many other places in these mountains that merit exploration.
Even though the Sheeprocks are tucked away in the southeast corner of the county, intense prospecting there from the 1870s through the 1950s have left two-track roads in various stages of decay in most of the canyons.
Some of the roads go to high elevations. While most of them are reduced to walking paths, some can be driven in a 4X4 with care. My favorite one is an old-two track that heads east from Erickson Pass on the west slope of the Sheeprock Mountains.
To get there, follow the Pony Express Trail west from SR-36 just north of Vernon. Stop at Lookout Pass for a moment and admire the view of the west desert beyond and then continue down the mountain and out to Skull Valley where you will intersect a main north/south trending dirt road.
A sign there will tell you to turn left and proceed south 11 miles to Erickson Pass at an elevation of 6,258 feet. There is enough space to park a vehicle here if you don’t want to scratch and beat up your truck, and you want to continue on foot.
If you want to challenge your vehicle, continue east on a faint two track from Erickson Pass that runs through dense juniper woods and then across burned out barren bench lands towards 9,274 foot-high Black Crook Peak. This is the highest peak in the range and looms large over the area. After approximately 1.3 miles from Erickson Pass, a two track will branch off to the right through a draw, eventually arriving at some old mine works at the foot of Black Crook.
Stay straight or left at this point and follow the road up over a bald knoll and then along a small water course that may or may not have a trickle of water in it depending on the year. You will pass a relic gambel oak forest on the right here that owes its existence to a perennial spring at the head of this steep draw. This is one of my favorite spots in the range, as it is concealed and quite unexpected when you come upon it. The gambel oak here have formed actual trees with thick trunks and their canopy provides shade and habitat for various animals that would otherwise have nothing on these barren rolling hills.
Gambel oak, or “Scrub Oak” as it is sometimes referred to, is important for mule deer and smaller creatures such as squirrels that depend on the acorns produced by these trees. Gambel oak doesn’t grow straight and tall but rather its branches twist in a haphazard fashion. Young stands can be impossible to pass through without getting a lot of scrapes and swearing. This particular oak island consists of larger trees and if you time your visit right in the fall, it is radiant when the leaves turn. I found a nice deer shed in the piled leaves within these trees on one visit.
Just past the oak trees the road makes a nearly impossible ascent straight up the flank of a finger ridge of the mountain; 4X4 Low Range setting and some nerves of steel are required to continue, but once you top out you will be rewarded with views of the desert north along Government Creek. Large, bald finger ridges stretch east from the base of Black Crook Peak. These ridges average 7,800 feet in elevation and the wind howls across these barren ridges and piles snow deep on the north facing slopes in enormous drifts that fill the breaks and last until the first of June most years.
This steep jeep trail tops out on one of these ridges and follows its crown to the base of Black Crook Peak and ends at about 8,100 feet in elevation. The last time I climbed Black Crook, I parked my vehicle on this finger and then climbed straight up the steep ridge to the summit gaining over 1,000 feet. It is a short but intense lung buster of a hike to the top of a seldom-visited summit.
Many years ago, there were stands of fir cloaking some of the highest ridges and almost up to the summit of Black Crook Peak. But lightning caused fires have left behind stark white fir skeletons, some of which look to be 50 feet or higher.
Fire scars notwithstanding, the back bench of the Sheeprock Mountains is a scenic and unique area. The high land fingers are swept clean of any vegetation and the views of the Simpson Range to the west are stunning, especially at sunset. The low, almost tundra- like vegetation that intermingles with the limestone turns the hills bright green in the springtime and make for a most beautiful scene.
If you ever visit this place be respectful of this fragile environment. I doubt if I will ever drive on top of that ridge again due to the fragility of the ecosystem and the amount of time it would take for any damaged plants to recover. A better option would be to park near the relic oak forest at the base of the steep incline and then hike on foot from there.
If you venture out into this area on the backside of the Sheeprocks, keep in mind that you will be in the extreme wild. There is no cell phone service, no water that isn’t fouled by livestock and there is little chance of running into anyone else — especially after you leave the Erickson Pass area.
Go prepared with plenty of food and water and know the limits of your vehicle and your legs. Tell someone exactly where you intend to go and when you plan on being back. Few things are more beautiful than the Milky Way spread across the desert night sky when viewed from the backside of the Sheeprocks, so be prepared and then go out and enjoy.
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.