The last time I was out west hiking or camping was in 2009 with some buddies as we traveled across the United States from Tennessee to Wyoming (see blog post Three Friends, A Honda SUV and 2300 miles of Open Road). Recently for my job I was going to have to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah for a few days and decided that I should go the weekend before to do some exploring of the public lands they have there.
Utah is roughly 75% public land, which means there are literally millions of acres that as an American citizen I can go explore for free. I ended up narrowing down these millions of acres to the Wasatch National Forest because of its close proximity to Salt Lake City and because I wanted to avoid the more popular areas of Utah like Zion National Park or Arches. I would love to visit those parks one day, but I have a problem with the big tourist parks. I think the parks are beautiful, but there are usually way too many people in them and it takes away from the wilderness flavor I am looking for. I like areas where I can go off the grid and be away from people, see wildlife in a state that hasn’t been tainted by constant human presence or attempts by people to feed popcorn to animals. The beauty of the national forest system is that you can generally go wherever you want, camp where you want and the only limitations are usually on open fires and camping near water sources and trails.
A quick Google Earth search showed numerous trails throughout the Wasatch National Forest that looked appealing, but one stood out above the rest and that was the Lake Blanche Trail. Lake Blanche (and two other lakes) are a series of perched lakes at about 9,500 ft above sea level and are the remnants of an old glacier that dominated the Wasatch Mountains during the last ice age. The trail itself is approximately 3 miles long and has an elevation gain of 2,700 feet (total elevation approx. 9,500 feet above sea level), not the easiest hike for someone who lives year around on the Gulf Coast.
Now that I had my planned hike/camping area picked out, it was time to plan the hard part and that was what gear to bring and predicting the weather conditions. Having spent some time in the Marines I knew that hiking with a loaded pack is not easy and when you can cut some weight (even ounces) out of a pack you will be much better off. The essentials for camping over night are obviously a tent and a sleeping bag (shout out to Teton Sports http://www.tetonsports.com). I decided against taking my large sleeping bag and opted instead to pack my sons sleeping bag. It is much smaller, but combined with a fleece blanket it would be all that I need to overnight in temperature that could get down in 30’s. Just in case the weather got unexpectedly rough I went ahead and pack my long johns, a pair of wool socks, a beanie and gloves. Probably overkill, but I’d rather sweat a little more carrying extra weight than freeze at night. At the end of this post I will write down my full gear list, but will spare the details here for brevity. The weather was the wildcard here for me. The forecast for the Salt Lake City area had temperatures in the 70’s during the day and overnight lows in the 40’s with mostly cloudy skies. Lake Blanche is at a much higher altitude and due to the elevation the weather could change on me from sunshine to rain to hail in an instance. Either way, I figured I could manage whatever weather came my way for an overnight and felt that I had the necessary warm weather gear to make it through the night. Food was easy, it would consist of protein bars, trail mix and 3 pre-made turkey sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Instead of carrying a bunch of water with me, I bought a water filter at REI so I could drink snow melt. My plan was set and now all I had to do was execute it.
Houston to Salt Lake City
I flew out of Houston on Southwest Airlines and after a brief stop for a beer and a burger in Denver I landed in Salt Lake City. As we made our final decent I could see the last sunshine of the day casting brilliant colors across the mountains I would soon be hiking through. The Wasatch Mountains were already impressive and we hadn’t even touched down yet. I hurried through the airport, grabbed my checked hiking pack at baggage claim and picked up my rental car (it was a Ford Fiesta and for a man my size it felt like a matchbox car). I popped over to Park City to crash on the floor of an airbnb that my buddy rented for the weekend. For $25 the lady that owned the place laid out a pretty sweet air mattress for me. I went to sleep around 10:30 AM with the intent of waking up around sunrise to beat any crowd that might show up to hike.
Rise and Shine….its hiking time
The day started like most days for me, waking up before or at sunrise and drinking the greatest drink ever created by man, coffee. Once properly fueled up with two cups of coffee and a granola bar I hit the road to the trailhead (at the end of this post I will give some detailed instructions of how to the parking lot and where to find the trailhead). After 40 minutes of driving up and over the Wasatch Mountains and up Big Cottonwood Canyon I flew past the parking lot for the trailhead without even noticing. Google Maps will not take you to the correct spot so you have to be careful, the parking lot turnoff is right as you turn the corner on this S-shaped switchback. I backtracked to the parking lot and ended up finding one of the last three spots. I could have parked along the road, but since I was staying overnight I wanted to tuck my rental car into a spot where it was less likely to be broken in to.
I left my gear in the car while I did a quick recon of the area to make sure I was in the right spot. There were a few informational boards with the typical instructions of where you can/cannot camp and a restroom. At this point I seriously debated not bringing all my gear and instead just bringing a little water and my camera. I was worried that I would end up smoking my legs on the way up and either not making it to the top at all or I would get up there and be so drained that I would have a difficult time getting down. When I left Houston and checked my pack it weighed 40 pounds. The last time I hiked with a pack like that I was in peak physical condition, 18 years old and in the Marines. I am still a pretty big guy, but I know what a heavy pack and high altitude can do to your body and working in an office environment doesn’t do the body good. Failure doesn’t sit well with me, but neither does quitting, so I picked up my pack and started putting one foot in front of the other
Up and Up and Up and Up
The trail from the parking lot starts off as a paved road following alongside a roaring creek that is fed from the three lakes up the canyon including Lake Blanche. After a couple of hundred yards and a bridge crossing the trailhead is marked by a small sign on the right. From here it is nothing but up and I seriously mean that. There are little to no flat spots of downhill legs on this hike. I stepped off around 830 AM and made my way uphill. There was a group of people ahead of me carrying water bottles and they quickly disappeared from sight.
The initial third of the trail really wasn’t too bad. Occasionally I would have to stop to catch my breath and every so often there would be a good spot to take a picture (really just catching my breath). Being a hunter and a wannabe wildlife photographer I couldn’t help but take breaks to look along the opposite side of the canyon for mule deer, moose or maybe even a bear. I love looking for wildlife, it is like a game to me.
As I made my way up the canyon I started to take notice of the change in types of trees (started to see a lot more Aspens) and the temperature change (about 3.5 degree F for every 1000 feet of elevation gain). The temperature change was welcomed because about halfway up the trail the trees begin to thin out and the sun beats down on you just about the rest of the way to the top. The opening up of the trees also gave me my first glance of where I was headed. Just above Lake Blanche is a peak named Sundial Peak. So named because it has the distinct sides to it and looks exactly like a sundial when the sun hits it. From where I was at it looked like it was in a different state, but I knew I only had a few more miles to go. The steady stream of day hikers kept me motivated to keep putting on foot in front of the other and to tough it out.
I didn’t see much in terms of wildlife on the hike up except for what I am assuming were ground squirrels. They looked exactly like a squirrel or chipmunk, but had a network of tunnels with openings that they would pop out of. They didn’t seem too scared of me and were almost entirely focused on looking for food and occasionally standing on their back legs to look out for danger. I also found a few piles of mule deer scat and kept an eye out for them as I made my way up. Being fascinated with hunting whitetail deer in the South, I couldn’t help but want to see mule deer while on this trip. Maybe one day I will try my luck at a public land mule deer hunt out West.
The last half to third of the hike was nothing like the first half. This part was much more brutal on the legs. The steep sections seemed steeper and the multiple switchbacks and crossing over a boulder field made it even worse. On average I had to stop every 100 to 150 yards to let my legs breathe. You know that feeling when you are doing squats or any leg exercise and your legs just feel gassed? That is how I felt after 100 yards. Along the way I ran into this guy carrying a camera that happened to be in the Army and was stationed not far from where we were at. We got to talking about the military and ended up hiking the rest of the way together. It felt good to have someone hiking with me and helping set a pace. Started to feel like I was back in the Marines on a typical hump (yes, we don’t hike in the Marines, we hump). A couple of hundred yards from the top we started to encounter snow/ice, but the view of Sundial Peak from this point was truly unreal. As we walked further up the trail the views just kept getting better.
Started from the bottom now I’m here
Every calf aching, back-breaking and butt burning part of the hike was worth the views while I ate my lunch. The water of Lake Blanche was still partially frozen and the parts that weren’t were as smooth as glass. Snow covered the banks and slopes leading up to the peaks circling the canyon, conifer trees dominated the landscape, some partially covered with snow. It looked like something you would see on a brochure. A few fly fisherman were on the banks trying to catch trout while the rest of the hikers were perched up on the glaciated quartzite rocks that surrounded the lakes eating lunch. The weather felt like it was in the high 50s or low 60s with no humidity and partly cloudy skies. My turkey sandwich and protein bar took all of 42 seconds to eat and after a change of shirts (mine was soaked with sweat) my hiking partner and I headed towards the other two lakes.
Each lake is lower than the previous and they feed water into the next lake via a waterfall. The hike between the lakes are only a quarter to half mile and definitely worth it. Most of the other hikers stayed at Lake Blanche for lunch before heading back down. Cruising over the other lakes not only provided some great views, but it also introduced me to the second wild animal I saw on this hike, the marmot. This thing looks like beaver, but with much more fur. It scurries around the rocks eating vegetation and it has an unmistakable “whistle” as a vocalization. After about the third or fourth time it’s actually quite an annoying sound, but they are pretty cute animals.
An hour later we had cruised the two other lakes and it was time for my hiking partner to head down, but not before he pointed out a sweet spot for me to set my tent. It was a patch of grass on top of large outcrop of glaciated quartzite that overlooked the second lake. This spot gave me an amazing view of Sundial Peak right out my tent door and was close enough to the waterfalls that it drowned out all other sound, even the whistle of the marmots.
Best Camping Spot I’ve Ever Had
The size and shape of this piece of grass on top of this outcrop could not have been more perfect for my four man tent. I had my choice of direction to face my tent door and the obvious choice was to have a clear line of sight of Sundial Peak. I hastily made camp, threw all my gear in my tent and let my feet breath for a minute while I soaked in the sights and sounds. The waterfalls provided a nice dull roar to would no doubt make for perfect background noise while falling asleep, but it also reminded me to get some water.
Water weights about 8.5 pounds per gallon and there was no way I was going to hike up all that extra weight when I could not only reduce the amount of plastic I use, but I could be drinking probably some of the coldest and freshest water I’ve ever had the chance to drink. Before I left Houston I stopped at a REI and bought a filter and 16 ounce pouch set. Basically the pouch is filled with water, screw on the filter and either drink straight from the filter and pouch or squeeze it into a container. This thing was easy to use and will be a future gear item in my backcountry style hunts. No more packing in bottles of water.
While filling up with water I overheard a few guys that were down on the third lake and they sounded like they were having a good time. Not to be one to miss out on a good time I walked over near them to see what was going on. I met two guys that were doing some fly fishing just downstream of the second waterfall that fed into the third lake and struck up a conversation. Both Utah natives and friends for almost half their lives, they had been coming up to this lake for the past 16 years to drink a few beers and do some fishing. It was the exact thing I would be doing if I had some company on this hike, something that weighed on my mind to be honest. Part of my love for the outdoors is experiencing it with other people, kind of like watching a movie with someone when you have already seen it.
The two guys ended up having a rod and reel that they weren’t using so they offered it up. After a quick lure change I was doing one of the things that I love to do most, fishing. All around me was snow-covered banks, the sound of a waterfall only a few feet away and the camaraderie shared by three people who love the outdoors. It took only three to four casts before I finally hooked a cutthroat trout that ended up jumping off the lure. A few casts later I landed my first trout. It was a brook trout and was only 6 or 7 inches long, but the atmosphere is what made it a fish I will always remember.
Speaking of atmosphere, not long after landing that trout the weather completely changed and I felt the sudden face stinging pain of hail. The heavens had opened up with an afternoon shower/hail storm. I shouted a quick thanks to my fishing buddies and they scurried off to get down the canyon while I took off uphill to my campsite. Under the protection of my tent I wrapped up in my fleece blanket to read a book (Steve Rinella’s: Meat Eater, Adventures from the life of an American Hunter).
After a few hours of reading, writing and taking a cat nap I had a decision to make. I had been out of contact with the world since 730 AM and I didn’t know what time I would get back to the car the following morning. I had set out on this hike not so much to just camp overnight, but to prove to myself that I could still get this 31 (32 in a few more weeks) body up a mountain with all my gear. It wasn’t an easy task, but I did what I had set out to do. Now I had the idea of my wife worrying about me and also being late with emailing a report that I had to send out the following morning for work. In the end I decided that it was best to head down before sunset in order to get back in touch with the world. It was a little bit of a bummer, but I knew I would be back one day.
The hike down really wasn’t any easier than the hike up. In fact I would be willing to say it was actually harder. Halfway down I started to get an excruciating pain in my right knee from the impact of all my weight plus my pack. I kept thinking to myself that I was glad I was getting this over with now instead of waiting to do it at sunrise. I also kept thinking of that sweet air mattress that awaited me in Park City when I got down. Just as I was about to get off the trail onto the paved road to the parking lot, I ran into a man, his wife and their four daughters. They were nice and told me I could pass, but I declined saying that I liked the pace their toddler was setting. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of the times I brought my kids hiking in the National Forest near our house. Here was another dad just getting his family outdoors and they were all smiles and laughs. I was a little jealous of the experience they were having, even though I knew they wouldn’t get to the place I had been previously. They were doing what I love to do and that is being outdoors with my family. One of these days I will do like this dad was doing and bring my family back to this canyon, but for now my hiking was done for the day and I was off to Park City to start a new hiking/fishing adventure the following morning.
-The Family Outdoorsman
Check out my website www.thefamilyoutdoorsman.com for more posts on the outdoors and galleries of wildlife/landscape pictures.
Tent, sleeping bag, long johns, wool socks, poncho, 2 extra pair of socks, extra t shirt and shorts, yeti water canister, beanie, lunch/dinner, trail snacks, camera with tripod, emergency phone charger, headlamp and flashlight (with extra batteries), firestarter, water filter and pouch.
All in all my gear weighed 40 pounds which was surprising. Had I brought cooking gear I would have topped out over 50 I think. All the more reason to bring an extra body with you to split up the weight.
Directions to Lake Blanche trail
Assuming you are coming from Salt Lake City, head East on Interstate 80, south on Interstate 215 and exit 6200 South. Follow 6200 South for a few miles and then turn left on highway 190 (Big Cottonwood Canyon). A couple of miles up the canyon you will be forced to take a sharp left, essentially doing a U-turn and the turnoff into the parking lot will be halfway through the turn. Once you have parked, grab your gear and follow the signs and paved road until you see a wooden sign for Lake Blanche that is at the foot of a dirt trail. From there just head up until you get to the lake. The trail is pretty well maintained and I don’t think you could get lost if you tried. To be safe print out a map or screenshot some images from google maps on your phone.