September 30, 2016. So long. So high.
15 miles long, roundtrip. The Timpanogos Trail to the summit of Mt. Timpanogos. 4,800′ higher than the trailhead at Aspen Grove. This is one serious day hike.
Five hours to the top. Four hours back down. Breathtaking views and heavy breathing. This is a thrilling hike if you’re in shape for it. If you’re not, get in shape before you try it. And be sure to wear very comfortable, stable shoes. For trail walking, boulder hopping and “chimney” climbing.
The trailhead for the impressive Mt. Timpanogos is just a few miles up the road from the Sundance ski resort. Less than an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Which you can see from the summit. Along with dozens of major peaks to the north, south and east. And the Great Basin to the west. That’s Nevada and California out there. Seriously.
If you like this kind of hike, you’ll love this one. If you don’t, I hope you’ll enjoy the vicarious adventure and its photos. Because this is the most adventurous hike I’ve done in years. I’ve had longer ones, like Yosemite’s Half Dome. And higher ones, like the Mt. Kilimanjaro. But for one day of sheer physical demand and some challenging “trail” conditions, Timpanogos is remarkable.
It’s also staggeringly beautiful. The view from the top is a spectacular landscape. It is, of course, awesome. But more than that, it’s humbling. One of those places that really lets you know you’re a very small hunk of fragile flesh making your Way through a vast, rugged wilderness.
The experience of a place like this is a persuasive reason to get in shape to get here. And a priceless reward for getting here. There’s just one Way. On foot. The summit’s too small for even the smallest helicopter. Here’s the Way.
The first mile’s deceptive. Begins with a paved path. A steady but not at all steep climb up from the Aspen Grove trailhead through stands of Aspen and Englemann spruce. To an unnamed waterfall. Don’t rush. Don’t try to make good time on the easy stuff. You’ll need the energy later. The first mile is your warm-up. Or your entire walk if that’s what you come for.
After the falls, things change. For the steeper. You gained 500′ in elevation during the first mile. You’ll pick up 800′ during the second mile, the start of nearly three miles of switchbacks along the sheer walls of Primrose Cirque.
Looks like an amphitheater of the gods. Created at a scale that’s, well, much bigger than human scale. Impressive to see. You take many tiny human steps to progress up and across this giant landscape. The very solid rock walls are so steep you can’t see over them to the summit of Timpanogos. In fact, you can’t see or imagine how you’re going to hike up, over or through Primrose Cirque, beyond Roberts Horn, to get a view of the summit. So you trust the trail, breathe deeply, sip water from your Camelback and let yourself be overwhelmed by the scale of this place.
Two hours, four miles and 2,500′ up into your hike you emerge onto an alpine meadow. The trail’s not flat for long. Now you’ve got one steep mile to Emerald Lake. And a clear view straight up 1,500′ to the summit. And absolutely no idea how your trail will get you there.
A few minutes later you’re not sure where your trail is. Because a huge rockfall completely covered it years ago. You look down at your trail map. You look back up and across the Sea of Stones, as the locals call it. One mile of boulder hopping with another few hundred feet of elevation gain. This is slow going. So go slowly and carefully. Five miles behind you and two more ahead of you. This is no place to turn an ankle.
Thirty minutes on the rocks takes you to the next surprise. The pleasant surprise that the trail picks up right where the rocks leave off. The less pleasant realization that this next section of trail goes straight up to the “saddle” of Timpanogos. Straight. No switchbacks. Breathe. Sip. Hike.
It’s not far. About the distance of three football fields. Jacked up to a really steep angle. But the views from the saddle are the hike’s first big, expansive ones. Awesome views. Not awesome like, your new hiking shorts are really awesome, dude. Awesome like real awe. Jaw-dropping awe at such big beauty. Awe that you can walk right into it.
You can see for at least tens of miles in every direction. Except south. Where all you can see is the last mile up the last thousand feet of elevation gain. To the summit. Your eyes follow the narrow trail up the sharp spine of the ridge. Until the trail disappears.
Then your feet follow the trail. You’re just a few hundred feet from the summit, but the trail’s gone. Again. An impossibly narrow ledge continues south. Doesn’t really look like the trail, but it looks like the only game in town. Don’t follow it. It’s a dead end.
Wait a minute. Look straight up “the chimney”. The super-steep, jagged rock formation that looks like it must the base of the summit. That looks like you need climbing equipment to scale it. Wait a minute. To get lucky. To let a couple of young, experienced, local hikers catch up to you and say, hey, follow us. It’s not nearly as tough as it looks.
And it’s not. It’s not exactly a trail, but clear pathways reveal themselves as you make your Way up. You have to use your hands in a few places, but you’re holding onto stone that feels very solid. Reassuring. Just like the Hatch brothers from Provo, Utah, USA. We follow them. Right to the top.
For the hiker’s high. The real exhilaration of being here. It’s not the sense of accomplishment or relief of getting here. It’s the profound amazement of being here. At a place you could never fully imagine. You’ve walked right into a whole new world.
You know you can’t stay long. Gravity may be on your side on the return trip, but it’s still 7.5 miles of trail and a descent of nearly a mile. Five hours to get here, four hours to get back down. So you make your summit minutes count. After five hours of looking up, you look out. And down. At views you’ll never forget.
If you’re heading back to Salt Lake City after your summit adventure, you probably want to know about the “Ate” part of The Walk That Ate Salt Lake. You’ve done enough walking. Enough to burn somewhere between 4,000 – 5,000 calories. Have a great dinner.
Click to see every step of the Way on the big 3D Google Map I made for you.
It costs you 8 to 12 hours, depending on your pace. Or it gives you 8 to 12 hours of total exhilaration, depending on your attitude in these matters. Your energy expenditure will be 4,000 – 5,000 calories. But you’ll probably think this is a benefit, too. It’s hard to think of a cost. OK, parking at the trail head is $6.
It’s amazing you can get to a place like this with nothing but a pair of hiking shoes. A place that completely clears your mind. Nothing from daily life enters your mind. I don’t know if it’s the physical exhaustion that clears it. Or the hugeness of the place and the smallness of us. The forever of the place and the just-visiting-the-planet-for-a-little-while of us. But it sure is refreshing.