The United States is home to several mountains that seem to appear in innumerable calendars and commercials. Some examples: McKinley, Rainier, Shuksan, Hood, Shasta, Katahdin, the peaks around Logan Pass and St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, the Grand Teton, the Maroon Bells, Wilson Peak. Sometimes it may get tiresome seeing these mountains all over the place, but there certainly are good reasons why they are so famous.
What makes a great mountain? Some would take an expansive view and say that ANY mountain is a great mountain, and while they have a noble point, there are certain mountains that, triteness not intended, soar above others. The well-known mountains that continually inspire photographers, hikers, climbers, and even windshield tourists seem to have a few things in common: significant prominence; rugged form; spectacular settings; a history of adventure, mystery, and danger; and some intangible quality setting them apart from other mountains, even their close and often equally dramatic neighbors. And, to be honest, most of these mountains are easily viewed from roads.
11,750' Mount Timpanogos in Utah’s Wasatch Range is one such great mountain. No, it is more than a mountain, a hike, or a climb; it is a concept, and almost a small range unto itself. This page is my humble salute to one of America’s greatest mountains. Think of it as a destination article in a newspaper’s Travel section. Through a combination of narration, exposition, and persuasion, I hope to convey my feelings about this incredible mountain and maybe convince a few people who don’t know it already to give it a try. If, by reading this, just one person gets interested in this mountain or others in Utah, a state whose mountains are, in my opinion, greatly underappreciated, this article will have been a success to me.
For the essentials about “Timp,” visit Dean’s Mt. Timpanogos page; it is a great page, and I don’t want to sound redundant by telling you here what you can learn there.
In my mind at least, Timpanogos stands out from all the rest in Utah and deserves a place among America’s greatest mountains, period. That may seem like an easy, unimaginative choice, but please read on and give me a chance to explain. Although I don’t live in Utah and won’t claim I know its mountains as well as do, say, some of the people on SP who maintain pages for the state’s ranges, I’ve spent a lot of time in Utah over the past ten years and have been in and on many of its mountains, and I daresay I know the state better than most non-Utahans and even many Utahans do. So let me make my case for my choice. Hopefully, I will clearly make the case for my feelings about this great peak, even if some, most, or even all readers disagree about my particular choice.
Timpanogos—Sunday, July 7, 2002
Making Up My Mind
Although I live in Virginia, I have had the good fortune to experience Timpanogos on a few occasions, one of them being a perfect overnighter that I will only forget when my memory itself fails me.
But I almost never went at all.
Utahan and author David Day wrote a great book called Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails, which details hikes of various lengths and difficulty levels from all over the state. Sometimes his tangents about conservation issues, though I agree with his points, detract from the purpose of the book, but it is still an excellent work. In the book, he lists several trails that are his favorites and which he thinks represent the best of what Utah has to offer (a hard list for anyone to make, considering all that Utah does have). One of those trails is the hike to the summit of Mount Timpanogos.
Practically obsessed with the West’s mountains as I am but stuck here in the East most of the year, I begin planning summer trips as far in advance as 13-14 months, and I think about those trips constantly up until the day I leave for them, researching routes and topography, tinkering with plans, changing schedules, etc. Mount Timpanogos appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared in my plans many times.
Why? The principal reason was the relationship between difficulty and enjoyment. The trail from Aspen Grove to the summit of Timpanogos is a steep and strenuous one, but it is also a very popular one, as Day warns. It wasn’t the steepness I minded so much--- I far prefer steep approaches that get straight to business over long, roundabout ones--- but rather whether the effort I would have to exert to haul a backpack up to Emerald Lake (I had planned to spend the night there and hike to the summit the next morning) was going to be worth it in consideration of the crowds I expected to find along the trail and up on the mountain. If I was going to drag all that extra weight along just to find myself amid noise and congested trail conditions, I didn’t want to go at all, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
Mind Made Up
In the end, I decided Timpanogos just sounded too great to miss, so I gambled and went up on a perfect Sunday afternoon shortly after lunch. I did encounter several people heading down as I headed up, but there were far fewer than I expected to find.
Step-for-step, the trail from Aspen Grove to Emerald Lake might be the prettiest one I have ever hiked. The mountains close by and high above are always in view, and numerous waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides glisten and beckon in the strong Utah sunlight. The trail is almost unrelentingly steep, gaining around 1000 feet per mile for about three of the 3.7 miles to Emerald Lake (nothing extreme for mountaineering, but pretty extreme for a maintained trail), but the scenery is so gorgeous that you are likely to stop and admire it so often that you may not feel the strain the way you probably would if you were hiking the same trail through dense forest. I also paced myself--- ten minutes of strong hiking, five minutes of rest--- so I ended up feeling the exertion hardly at all.
Just as all the waterfalls, wildflowers, aspen stands, and mountain views are convincing you that there might be no prettier place on Earth, you emerge onto gentler terrain near Primrose Cirque, where the scenery explodes with more mountains and cascades and has a big-sky feel like something out of Montana or Wyoming. Finally, the trail crests a rise that affords an overlook of small but lovely Emerald Lake, a rockbound tarn in a perfect mountain setting. Although the altitude here, about 10,400’, does not truly crack treeline by Wasatch standards, something about the climate or the soil creates an alpine plateau all around Emerald Lake, and the vegetation is reminiscent of the tundra fields one finds high in the Uintas and in the Rockies proper. In fact, there is very little tree cover along the entire trail from start to finish (warning—that is great for enjoying the scenery, but it also makes this a hot and thirsty hike in summer).
Unless bad weather threatens or your goal is to set a hiking record, you should stop at Emerald Lake for a snack and a short rest. If you’re backpacking in, the area around the lake is an excellent place to spend the night. There is even a stone hut there, but it is a bit dingy, and you could have to share it with strangers.
The Summit and Back
I spent a couple of hours lazing in the warm sunshine, dozing, and reading a book. But as late afternoon settled in, I began to get antsy, and I had too much energy and sunshine left to call it a day. I considered scrambling to one of the lesser-known summits in the vicinity and saving Timpanogos for the morning, but the weather was still perfect, and I believe that if time, weather, and energy permit, one should go after his goal instead of waiting for the originally planned time. Every one of us has probably had at least one experience with waiting for morning only to find rain or other conditions impeding or preventing his or her enjoyment of a climb or even the ability to attempt it.
From Emerald Lake, a steep, scree-covered trail winds along the base of Timpanogos’s western summit cliffs and then climbs to the summit ridge. It is a little less than two miles from the lake to the summit. Sloping snowbanks covered some portions of the trail when I was there, making for occasionally tricky footing, but in general the going was easy and the way obvious. Going up in the late afternoon as I did, I had no company other than several mountain goats, whose skills on rock I once again had to admire and envy. God--- if for just one summer I could have a mountain goat’s body but keep my human mind (and somehow still be able to operate a camera), I would probably never need to climb again!
For the descent, instead of returning to Emerald Lake via the trail, I chose to hike east from the summit and down to the head of the Timpanogos “Glacier.” The glacier defies easy description. Some call it just a permanent snowfield, but it melted out in 2003. Others call it a rock glacier. Now it seems there is ice underneath the rocks, making it a glacier covered by rocks and a semi-permanent snowfield. To learn more, see Scott Patterson’s article "100 Years on the Timpanogos Glacier". Whatever it is, it is large enough and steep enough to make yet another dramatic feature on such a dramatic mountain. The way to the glacier yielded certain superb views and perspectives that the summit itself did not, and it was a great trip in its own respect.
Many people ski--- with real skis or just their feet--- or use an ice axe to make a glissade down the glacier. I had my feet and trekking poles, so it was foot-skiing for me. This is a fast, fun, and mostly easy way to go, but do take care--- the length and steepness can get the inexperienced going too fast to stop safely, and there is always the risk of a hole or rocks. People have broken legs here, and, on rare occasions, they have even tumbled into Emerald Lake, a spill that could be fatal.
No one else was camped anywhere near me that night. I did see a hiker go by close to sunset, but he seemed to move on, for I saw or heard nothing of him both that night and the next morning. Dawn broke in perfect mountain fashion--- clear, calm, and cool, with all the world red and quickly warming under the Utah summer sun. I reveled in and photographed the scenery around me, ate breakfast, broke camp, and enjoyed a beautiful and peaceful hike out, still seeing very few people. Those crowds I feared never materialized, and Mount Timpanogos will consequently forever remain for me as a paragon of mountain splendor and pocket wilderness.
The only downside of the trip was the view west from the heights of the mountain. After spending most of the day in the mountain wilderness shielded by the walls of the Timpanogos massif, the smog and the sprawl of the Provo area made a jarring sight. That is the only real downside to all of the Wasatch, in fact--- it is a steep, rugged, and beautiful range, but it is also a narrow one, and I know of no major Wasatch summit whose view doesn’t encompass a broad swath of urbanized development. That doesn’t bother some people--- some, in fact, like the perspective of looking down on the smaller human world and all its cares--- but it does deflate my spirits a bit.
However, that downside is also what makes a place like Timpanogos (and all the Wasatch) so special--- it is an alpine island, an escape and a refuge, in the midst of our mechanized lives. I might not like that I have to see a city from a Wasatch summit, but I think the people in those cities are infinitely fortunate for having such beautiful mountains practically in their backyards. Maybe that explains why Salt Lake City’s people are among the nation’s healthiest urban dwellers and why I always meet so many happy, friendly people there, which is frequently not the case in large cities.
So Mount Timpanogos is, in my opinion, Utah’s best mountain. The Timpanogos massif is almost a small range by itself, with several different summits, many of which are more challenging to climb than the highest one is. There is no other mountain quite like Timpanogos in the Wasatch or, really, in all of Utah itself. Despite being part of the Wasatch, it stands alone, separated from other parts of the range by deep and narrow (by mountain standards) canyons, which results in its having more than 5000’ of prominence, a measure increasingly used to determine “big” mountains. From the city of Provo at its western base, Timpanogos rises more than 7000’, making one of the most incredible urban backdrops anywhere in the country.
Thus, to repeat myself, I think Timpanogos is Utah’s best mountain and one of the best in this country. It is not the most remote, the most pristine, the highest, or the most challenging in either Utah or the whole United States. At times in its history, it has been overloved and its special qualities nearly ruined. But this alpine hulk is a true gem soaring above civilization, and it has everything great mountains should have, here packed all into one relatively small area--- impressive height and form, a “glacier,” an alpine lake, waterfalls and wildflowers, colorful stands of aspens, and wildlife both large and diverse. Hikers and climbers alike will find numerous trails and routes, and the mountain is accessible all year, even in winter, when approaches are easy or at least very reasonable.
Because I live in the East and have to make the most of my time in the West, there are few Western mountains I will ever climb more than once unless I end up living near them. Instead, I focus on new mountains each time I go, even when I visit the same parks and wilderness areas I have visited before. Timpanogos, though, is an exception. I would happily climb or hike it again and again and again. Many very popular mountains are overrated, but Timpanogos is not one of them. For something comparable to it, one needs to head hundreds of miles north, east, or west.
Get out and climb Timpanogos either by the walk-up routes or by a longer, more challenging way (Everest Ridge, for example). Even highly experienced climbers who long ago abandoned walk-up mountains should find this one to be both beautiful and enjoyable. It is a mountain that attracts hikers and climbers of all skill levels, and anyone who has been on it can understand why.
Paradoxically, Timpanogos will at once elevate and ground you.
Then get out and start seeing, and enjoying, the rest of Utah, which easily belongs in any discussion about what this country's most spectacular state is.