Not Just Deserts
This is bound to make some of you laugh, but here at home in the East, every time I tell people I am heading out to Utah, someone has to ask me what’s worth doing out there besides hurrying through. An astonishing number of people who have no knowledge of what lies beyond their hometowns seem to think Utah is little more than a sun-baked wasteland. Trying to explain that it’s arguably the most spectacular state in this country can be difficult if I’m not armed with a photo album or a travel guide.
Then there are those who have been to the state’s national parks and therefore know that Utah is not flyover country but who have only seen that otherwordly canyon and redrock country and thus think that is all there is to the state.
Those of us who have explored Utah’s mountains know much better, and those of you who live close to them know even better than that. And since this is a mountaineering site, it’s the mountains I want to talk about.
Big understatement: Utah has some interesting mountains. What I mean is that, unlike its neighboring latitudinal twin Colorado, where most of the ranges are alpine ones (the NW corner of the state being an obvious exception), Utah has alpine ranges, desert ranges, and ranges that are some kind of mix between the two. And north-south or east-west geography doesn’t necessarily determine the character of any particular range.
The principal purpose of this page, then, is to give SP members who know little about Utah but who might be interested in exploring its mountains an overview of the ranges that are the most alpine in nature. You could say that doing an advanced search of Utah’s area/range pages could do this, too, but you’ll get ALL the mountain ranges if you do that, plus more than that.
For the purposes of this page, an alpine range is one that is high enough, respective to its latitude, for the peaks to hold snow all or most of the year (8 months, say). Montane vegetation dominates the slopes below treeline, and above treeline, there is talus or tundra, not scrub (as is the case with many desert mountains, though one could make a strong argument that the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas are an alpine range). That definition is certainly not a purely scientific one, but I hope it serves this page adequately. One exception here to the “alpine rules” is the House Range, something of a desert range striving to be an alpine one, but I have included those mountains as an alpine range because of the rare, high-elevation bristlecone pines that grow on them.
A note about “true timberline”--- to me, this is where climate prevents the growth of trees, not where trees stop growing just because the mountain itself is so steep and rocky (by that measure, some crags of the Southern Appalachians would crack timberline).
This focus on the alpine is why there are no links to intriguing mountains such as Crystal Peak in the Wah Wahs or the Silver Island Mountains out past the Bonneville Salt Flats, which are all more desert mountains than alpine ones (it would be great if someone made a page like this for the many desert ranges, but doing that is beyond my knowledge).
Since I do not claim to be an expert on any of the ranges covered and do not make pretenses that this page is akin to a thoroughly researched and developed guidebook, I will provide only short overviews designed to give a basic sense of the character and locations of the ranges. I hope the information here will spur some people’s interest and get them to visit the SP pages on these mountains. For that reason, this page has links to the ranges mentioned here and to mountains that lack range pages here on SP.
I am certainly open to constructive suggestions for improvements to the page. Also, if you think I’ve left out a range, please let me know.
Now come take a little tour of Utah’s alpine ranges, and then go enjoy this state’s big slice of Heaven.
Two World-Class Ranges
Utah has two signature ranges--- the Wasatch and the Uintas. I didn’t like seeing the Wasatch turned into a playground during the 2002 Olympics, but the fact alone that the Games took place there says something about the climate and ruggedness of those mountains--- anyone who thinks Utah is parched all over should check out the winter snowfall totals for this range. Located in the backyard of the Salt Lake City-Provo area and marching farther north and south of those cities, the Wasatch are among the steepest of America’s mountains and shine in their prominence, and they hold numerous excellent routes ranging from walk-ups to scrambles to technical climbs (some of the best-known technical routes may be those on Lone Peak, but there are several other technical climbs in the Wasatch). The highest summit, 11,928’ Mount Nebo, doesn’t seem too impressive when measured against the highpoints of many other Western ranges, but consider that its western side rises more than 8000' from the valley below it. Add in the fact that the Wasatch receive epic amounts of snow, and that steepness and ruggedness I mentioned make for one of the most visually impressive mountain ranges I have seen anywhere. Climb them, and you’ll probably think they’re high enough.
East of the southern Wasatch is the Wasatch Plateau, much of which is above 10,000'. Its highpoint is 11,285' South Tent Mountain, approachable by the scenic Skyline Drive (an unpaved route that sometimes requires 4wd and may not be completely passable until late summer).
The Uintas, Utah’s highest range and located in the north-central part of the state, are considered to be a part of the Rockies (different guidebooks say different things about whether the Wasatch are truly part of the Rockies or if they are the very eastern edge of the Great Basin). The Uintas do have plenty of technical and scrambling routes for those who know where to look or who have a sense of adventure, but they are often broad and gentle in their appearance, and thus they may seem meek--- a big mistake to make, as anyone who has dealt with the weather and broken rock of these mountains can confirm. The entire range is brimming with trout-filled (and highly scenic) lakes, and parts of the range are open high country with vast, rolling expanses of tundra. According to several sources, in fact, the Uintas have more tundra than any other range in the Lower 48 States does. Another interesting fact about the Uintas is that they are one of just a relative few mountain ranges in the United States running east-west (Oklahoma’s Ouachitas are another well-known example).
Alpine Islands in “Color Country”"Color Country" is one of the terms for the section of Utah contained generally, though not strictly, east of I-15 and south of I-70. Some of America's most beautiful and unique scenery is found here.
The Tushar Mountains are Utah’s third-highest range and occupy the northwestern corner of southern Utah’s “Color Country.” I have not been lucky enough to get up into the Tushars yet, but the coloration of these volcanic peaks (which I’ve vicariously experienced on SP pages) makes me think of a pocket-sized San Juan Mountains.
The mountains in what SP member Eleutheros calls the Fishlake Wilderness (not an official title, but as good as any other) stand north-northwest of Capitol Reef National Park. They top 11,000’ but are gentle giants; the mountains have broad summits and ridges of easy to moderate grades, and they make nice walk-ups in some pretty, quiet country full of aspens, trout streams, and wildlife.
The La Sals, second-highest in Utah, are those mountains so many people photograph through the window of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Many hikers and climbers in Canyonlands National Park enjoy quieter views of these mountains, which remain snowcapped almost all year. These peaks are close to the Colorado border and serve up far-ranging views into Colorado’s San Juan country and over the slickrock wonderland of the Moab area, but they are also a scenic if small mountain wilderness unto themselves.
Visible from and near Monticello, south of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, are the Abajo Mountains. They are not as visually dramatic or as rugged as the nearby La Sals, but they are scenic and quiet, mostly known and visited by locals. Abajo Peak, rising above 11,000', is the highpoint, and there is, conveniently or sadly (depending upon your point of view) a road that goes to the top, which is "graced" with radio towers. That road is passable to a stock SUV and to many carefully driven passenger cars.
A Slice of the Northern Rockies just Minutes from the DesertThe Bear River Range, northeast of Logan, has alpine characteristics as well. The first time I went into the Bear River Range, I expected a hot, desert-like range and found myself thinking I was somewhere in the Northern Rockies instead. It is a graceful range filled with cliffs, lakes, and wildflower-spattered meadows. The Bear River Range, like the Wasatch, is arguably a part of the Rockies, and some maps even include it with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Near this range, between it and the Wasatch proper, are the Wellsville Mountains, a subrange of the Wasatch. This range is easily viewed as one drives along U.S. 89 between Logan and I-15. The Wellsville Mountains, the highpoint of which is Box Elder Peak, are not that high-- like the Bear River Range, they do not top 10,000'-- but their northern location makes them far more alpine in nature than they would be in the southern parts of the state. This range is lightly visited relative to its neighbors and will reward those in search of scenic solitude.
High Desert Peaks or Alpine Islands?
Don’t overlook peaks like Ibapah and Deseret, both of which are high enough to generate truly capricious mountain weather and which make for relatively cool islands in the hot Great Basin summers. Deseret rises over the Great Salt Lake Desert about 70 miles west-southwest of Salt Lake City. Ibapah is in a remote area near the Nevada border about halfway between Interstate 80 and U.S. 6/50. These mountains are arguably not true alpine ones, but they are also rather hard to classify simply as high desert mountains.
Across the Great Salt Lake area from the world-class Wasatch is the Oquirrh Range. From the SP page: "The Oquirrh (Oak-er) Mountain Range is located in between the Salt Lake City and Tootle valleys and it is better known for its rich mining history rather than its mountaineering. The name Oquirrh is actually a Goshute Indian word that means "Wooded Mountian." Running north to south for nearly 30 or so miles, this mountain range is riddled with private property, big peaks and expansive forests of trees/bushes. The access can be difficult and the routes can sometimes get confusing. However, the views of the Central and Southern Wasatch are so unique and beautiful that you will be glad you made the effort."
Maybe the Greatest “Unknown” Range in America
The House Range, which only a seeming handful outside Utah and adjacent states have heard of, lies in western Utah out past Delta and close to the Nevada border. These mountains do not crack true timberline, but their sheer walls are among the most amazing sights in the United States, and their heights are among the few places one can find bristlecone pines, the world’s longest-living trees. Notch Peak, with its unforgettable and daunting north and west faces, is the most dramatic mountain in the range and one of the most spectacular mountains in the country even though it does not crack 10,000’. Because of its western face, which rises more than 5000’ above the surrounding desert, it is sometimes called the El Capitan of Utah. Swasey Peak, almost as awesome as Notch, is the range’s highest.
IndexHere is a listing of the ranges discussed in order of height (determined by range highpoints, not by average elevation-- highpoints also indicated). Items in bold are listed as children to this page. The other mountains are just two clicks away-- one on the range listed on this page, and then one on that range’s page (the mountain should be the first of the range page’s “mountain children”).
• Uinta Mountains (Kings Peak- 13,528)
• La Sal Mountains (Mount Peale— 12,721’)
• Tushar Mountains (Delano Peak— 12,173’)
• Deep Creek Range (Ibapah Peak— 12,087’)
• Wasatch Mountains (Mount Nebo— 11,928’-- click on Wasatch South)
• Fishlake Wilderness (Fishlake Hightop— 11,633’)
• Henry Mountains (Mount Ellen— 11,522’)
• Abajo Mountains (Abajo Peak— 11,360’)
• Markagunt Plateau (Brian Head Peak— 11,307’)
• Wasatch Plateau (South Tent Mountain— 11,285’)
• Stansbury Mountains (Deseret Peak— 11,031’)
• Oquirrh Range (Flat Top Mountain-- 10,620')
• Bear River Range (Naomi Peak— 9979’)
• House Range (Swasey Peak— 9678’)
• Wellsville Mountains (Box Elder Peak— 9372’)
Want More?Dean writes--
"Two words...County highpointing. To chase the county highpoints of Utah will get you into almost every mountain area there is. Thanks to this pursuit, I have been into every mountain range in the state except for the House range (which I hope to rectify soon)."
Sounds like great advice for mountain lovers who want to see all of Utah's great and diverse mountains. Here is a link to Utah's county highpoints.