Sunday, July 1, 2012

Murdock Peak, High Uinta Mountains, Ashley NF, Utah

Distance: 3.6 miles roundtrip
Elevation: 10,700 - 11,250 feet
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time of Year: late-June to October

The High Uinta Mountains of Northeast Utah represent the largest and highest east-west trending mountain range in the Lower 48. These high ridges are not the most rugged of topography, but they do rise up to more than 13,000 feet at several places, including Utah's highest point, Kings Peak. This is a mountain range that is famous for summer thunderstorms, hundreds of glacially-carved alpine lakes, and swarms of mosquitoes.

Stop by Provo River Falls on the way up

While there are many long trails, including the 36-mile route to King's Peak, Murdock Peak is a short trek up to a high summit offering panoramic views across the landscape...and all without the pesky mosquitoes. Access to this mountain is very easy, since it is located right at the Bald Mountain Pass, which is the high point on the Mirror Lake Highway (UT-150) that leads from Kamas, UT north across the western side of the range to Evanston, WY.

The view from Bald Mountain Pass
If coming up from Heber City or Salt Lake City, after passing Provo River Falls, several lakes, and driving up some switchbacks, look for the sign for Bald Mountain Pass at 10,700 feet and park in the gravel parking area just past the sign on the right. From here, you can see the flat-topped Murdock Peak to the right (south) and the taller Bald Mountain to the left (north). Most people will hike up Bald Mountain on the established trail (about 2.3 miles up and over 1,200 vertical feet gain). But, if you want to avoid the crowds and be by yourself, while hiking up a shorter vertical, but more rugged terrain, then Murdock Peak is the one for you.

Anemones flowering in a wet meadow near the parking area

There is no trail to the top of Murdock Peak. But, the route is obvious. Just hike up through the trees and across some boggy meadows flowering with anemones and other water-loving wet meadow plants. After a few hundred feet you will reach the edge of the talus slope. The talus stones are quite large and in many places loose. So, be prepared with adequate footwear and hiking sticks could be useful so you do not slip into any cravasses between the rocks or twist your ankle.

Looking upslope toward the summit
Get an early start to the day to avoid the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms. You do not want to be a lightning rod on a treeless mountain standing over 11,000 feet above sea level.  Once you are above the trees, the view of the surrounding landscape grows more expansive as you head up. There is no particular route up, since the summit is obvious. But, there are places where the talus is less exposed and soil fills in the gaps that makes walking a bit easier.

The Wasatch Front can be seen as the snow-capped mountains in the distance
Because of the broad summit nature of the mountain, the top can be misleading. You think you are nearing the summit and then realize it continues up gradually for several hundred more meters. The higher you go, the more you can look out across the montane forest of Engelmann Spruce and subalpine fir. There is a great deal of dieback in the spruces due to explosion of bark beetles and spruce moths. The area looks like a catastrophic fire waiting to happen. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the subalpine firs seem to be fairing fine.

As you rise higher and higher, you can see many of the lakes that makes the High Uinta's famous, as well as, the snow-capped Wasatch Front near Salt Lake City in the distance beyond to the west. Once you get onto the summit's table top you can look north out into the desert flats of Wyoming and east along the backbone of the Uinta's summit crest, and south to the Fish Lake Mountains. When I was up here, it was mid-June, which is well before the summer monsoon season begins. Yet, already the clouds were darkening as the afternoon approached and passing showers could be seen on the nearby mountains. 

At the official summit, some 11,250 feet above sea level, stands a large pile of rocks about 4-feet tall with a tall tree branch sticking out of it. But, the view isn't necessarily the best from this spot since the summit is so flat. To get an even more impressive view, walk further east a couple hundred yards to the edge of the slope which drops rapidly into the valley in that direction. Near the edge of this steep slope, the views are even more impressive.

Looking east along the length of the range
(King's Peak is visible in the middle)

Once you have had a chance to appreciate the impressive views, you simply backtrack toward the highway below. Going down the talus slope is much more tricky than going up. This is especially true since the talus rocks are often loose and you can easily lose your balance and tumble down. So, go slowly and watch each step. It is very easy to not pay attention to your footing with such spectacular views ahead of you in the distance. I know I had trouble since I kept looking up and out across the landscape.

View of Bald Mountain (left) from Murdock Peak

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