Up to Emerald Lake
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I am not native to Utah, but have always enjoyed hiking, backpacking, climbing and camping wherever I have lived. In the last month or so I caught a serious case of peak-bagging fever and have been trying to get up into the Wasatch Mountains whenever possible to explore this beautiful part of the country. That being the case, Mt Timpanogos was near the top of my list of mountains that I needed to have under my belt, and fast.
I talked my father-in-law into doing the hike with me despite the fact that he had just climbed Timpanogos on the 4th of July (On the 4th I was climbing the Pfeifferhorn). We set out at 3AM in the morning for the Aspen Grove trailhead located above the Sundance Resort. We got to the parking lot around 4AM and were surprised to find it about ¾ full. This was a definite sign of how popular climbing Mt. Timpanogos is, especially on weekends and holidays. After getting out of the car we looked up and took in the majesty of a perfectly clear sky.
The lack of light pollution up around the Sundance Resort allowed us to clearly see the Milky Way and a large portion of stars that are not visible from the valley. As we looked up towards the ridge we were about to climb, we could see numerous flickering lights of hikers that had hit the trail hours before us. We tried to get ourselves fired up about the prospect of catching up to those that had enough discipline to wake up earlier then we did.
There is a water nozzle on the right-hand side of the trail near the ranger hut, and shortly afterwards the trail turns into pavement for about a mile. The first landmark that you will come across is a waterfall, the first of many that you will encounter on your journey up to the Emerald Lake meadows.
The trail generally heads West, but as you gain some elevation you will start encountering the infamous switchbacks that the Aspen Grove trail is known for. In the first few miles of trail, there are numerous overgrown sections where it feels more like walking through an animal path than a trail. For this reason I recommend wearing pants, as we encountered numerous stinging nettle plants along the way. The switchbacks are long, and keep working their way towards the waterfall and then away from it. We had a prime view of the sunrise as we worked our way up the ridge.
We took a break at the final switchback before heading up to the meadow. There is a rock shelf right in the crux of the turn that we sat on and pounded some water, cliff bars, and enjoyed the alpenglow lighting up the ridge to our North.
Emerald Lake to the Top
We then geared back up and made our final push to the top. We finally reached the meadows surrounding Emerald Lake and noticed some tents set up around the neighboring kettle ponds.
The terrain is literally blanketed with Bluebells, Indian Paintbrush and Lupin wildflowers.
The trail starts working its way North and you will soon have your first view of summit.
Off to the right there was a ridge with about 12 mountain goats lazily grazing there way into some pine trees. It was a little intimidating to see how much further there was to go, and how much elevation there was to gain, but at the same time I was glad at the prospect of the adventure.
In the interest of time we did not stop at the lake, but kept following the trail towards the snow and boulder traverse. I recommend sticking to the path in the snow that others have left before you, as it will be a lot easier then trying to negotiate the boulder field. While we were up there we saw a couple picking there way along the rocks and were baffled at the prospect of making the traverse in such a manner. As you work your way across the snow field, off to the right there is a tremendous view of bluebell laden meadows and the peaks accessible from the Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
We worked our way across and started up towards the saddle where the Aspen Grove and Timpanooke trails converge.
The view down into Utah County was spectacular. It was amazing to see how much elevation we had gained, but the view up the ridge to the top seemed a little daunting.
The first quarter of the trail is a lot of high-stepping onto ledges and rocks. It is not technical, but demands concentration in order to prevent slipping or twisting an ankle. The remainder of the trail was mainly small switchbacks, and we were on the top in a minimal amount of time.
To the Bottom
We took some time to drink in the view, and took pictures of each other in a celebratory pose. To the east is a panoramic view of Utah County and Utah Lake, and to the West you can look straight down over the edge and see Emerald Lake, the stone shack, and the surrounding meadows.
We had something to eat and got hydrated, then continued South along the ridge to work our way towards the glacier. The trail South looks a little precarious from the triangulation station, but it is very similar to the trail taken up to the top from the saddle. We worked our way around in no time and found ourselves at the top of the glacier.
I unhitched the ice axe that I brought just to get some more glissading/self-arresting experience, and I stashed my trekking poles on the back of my pack. By no means is an ice axe necessary, but something of that nature is helpful when trying to brake or steer. My father-in-law noted that the snow has been melting rapidly, and that there was a noticeable difference in the amount of snow between now and only 10 days before.
Just before we were about to go, we heard a small rockslide on the ridge to our right. We looked up to see 5 mountain goats (4 adults, 1 juvenile) negotiating an extremely steep section of the rock wall. One of them stepped on some loose gravel and was literally running in place as the rocks eroded from underneath him and careened down the side of the mountain. He was able to regain his footing, and composure, and the group eventually continued on their way. We marveled at their uncanny ability to balance and pick along sheer cliffs, especially after experiencing dicey situations like the one that we had just witnessed. They must have nerves of steel.
We had to avoid some ice at the top of the glacier as not to prematurely begin our glissade, and upon reaching the snow section we jumped into a small chute, and slid about a quarter of the way down.
There was a circular patch of fern-ice right in our path, which we wanted to avoid, so we stopped sliding and started plunge-stepping at a 45-degree angle heading North all the way down to the Lake.
We literally drained all the altitude it took about 2 hours to gain, in 15 minutes. There are rocks embedded everywhere in the snowfield, and as the sun heats them the snow melts in circles around them creating shallow pits. Be careful running/sliding as stepping or sliding into one of these shallow holes could severely damage an ankle, knee, or worse.
As we got down to Emerald Lake we encountered several large groups of hikers resting. Despite all of the cars in the parking lot at the beginning, it was still hard to believe how many people were climbing this one mountain. We stopped for a minute to talk to some people about sliding down the glacier, and then continued on our way towards the edge to begin the switchbacks down. The entire way down we were looking forward to a predetermined waterfall where we would rest, fill up our water, and eat. It took a lot longer to get there then we thought, and the sun was baking down on us as we were losing elevation.
When we arrived there were about 10-15 fellow hikers resting and taking pictures at the waterfall. There were groups arriving behind us and groups coming up the trail from the bottom looking forward to a good excuse to stop. We only filled up one tall nalgene bottle figuring it would be enough, and headed down on our final leg of the trip. What a mistake we made. As we were losing elevation, the sun was getting hotter and the switchbacks seemed longer.
The parking lot was still out of our view – we had quite a ways to go. There were times when you could literally feel the air getting about 5 degrees hotter, and as we took sips of water to cool off and hydrate, we noticed our water consumption was going a lot faster then our progress. For those that are going to climb up in the early morning and down in the afternoon, pump plenty of water and realize that the last few miles are going to seem a lot longer and be a lot hotter then they were coming up. We were amazed at the people we passed that were just starting up during the afternoon.
We finally reached the hut and the water. We both took long drinks and filled our bottles for the ride home. In total, it took us 4 hours from the parking lot to the top, and about 3 and a half on the way down, a total of 7 ½ hours for a 16 mile trip. It was one of the best climbs I have ever been on. It has something for everyone – constantly changing terrain, beautiful views, and close to 5000 vertical feet gained and lost over a 16-mile trip. Mt. Timpanogos is a must have on the resume for any hiker/peak-bagger in or around Utah.