La Sal Mountains Peak Bagging
Independence Day Weekend | Saturday – Monday, July 2-4, 2016
“All around the peaks of the Sierra La Sal lies the desert, a sea of burnt rock, arid tablelands, barren and desolate canyons. The canyon country is revealed from this magnificent height as on a map and I can image, if not read, the names on the land.” -Edward Abbey
This weekend Diane and I headed to the La Sal Mountains near Moab to spend the Fourth of July weekend hiking and camping. I had intended for this to be a peak-bagging trip, but unfortunately the stormy weather would only allow me to climb Mount Tukuhnikivatz this time. Even though I didn’t get to climb more mountains this trip, we did have a nice relaxing time at camp, did a little exploring in the Jeep and I was able to photograph some nice sunrises and sunsets, thanks to the weather.
We left home on Saturday morning and drove through Gateway and then John Brown Canyon on the Gateway-Castleton Road. We turned off on the Taylor Flat Road and followed the Paradox Trail towards the Buckeye Reservoir. Since it had rained quite a bit the day before, many parts of these roads were muddy and rutted, which slowed us down considerably once we crossed the state line into Utah. The roads got a little better as we neared the La Sal Pass Road, which we would take up to the pass between Mount Peale and South Mountain. We found a nice spot to spend the weekend at near Medicine Lake and setup camp. Then we spent the rest of the evening exploring the area around La Sal Pass.
Driving towards the La Sal Mountains on the Gateway – Castleton Road.
On our way to to La Sal Pass with Mount Peale and Mount Tukuhnikivatz in the clouds.
Our first view of Mount Peale from La Sal Pass.
Camp setup near Medicine Lake. We recently purchased the Kelty AirScreen Shelter and were trying it out for the first time on this trip. It worked pretty well at keeping the bugs out and was easy enough to setup and take down.
Exploring a nearby two-track below Mount Peale.
The low clouds were around for much of the evening.
Medicine Lake with South Mountain (11,817) shrouded in clouds.
Even though the low clouds were around for much of the evening, they did start to clear a little for a short time just before sunset. That’s also when it started to rain and hail and it would end up raining pretty heavily this evening. After we got in the tent to go to sleep a thunderstorm moved over us that produced a lot of close lightning and thunder.
I was originally thinking about hiking Mount Peale (12,721) on Sunday morning, but while we were out exploring the previous afternoon we noticed the gully that we needed to climb was still full of snow and it looked kind of steep. I had brought my ice axe and microspikes with, but Diane doesn’t have an axe, so we decided to play it safe and skip that hike this time. Instead we would start with Mount Tukuhnikivatz (12,482).
I had hoped to start hiking around 6am this morning and woke up around 5:30am, but I quickly noticed that there was probably going to be a nice sunrise, so I walked over to Medicine Lake with my camera and started taking photos. We didn’t end up starting the hike until 7am, but the delay was worth it!
Morning light strikes South Mountain with a little mist in the air and a nice reflection in Medicine Lake.
Nice spot-lighting as clouds moved through the sky.
There was some nice morning light on Mount Tukuhnikivatz, too.
One last reflection shot of South Mountain this morning.
After the early morning clouds cleared out of the sky it looked like it was going to be a nice clear day as we started climbing the newly constructed Tuk Trail (I’m not sure when this trail was constructed, but it’s definitely within the past couple of years and I haven’t been able to find any reference to it online.) to the ridge between Mount Peale and Mount Tukuhnikivatz. As we crested the ridge we finally got our first view of the northern La Sal Mountains and also a glimpse of the dark clouds building in that direction. At first, it looked like the clouds were moving east so we continued up the ridge towards the summit. We had to cross a short patch of snow, but the rest of the route was dry. Unfortunately, as we were climbing the final stretch and about 300 feet below the summit we noticed that the dark clouds were moving in right above us. It was a tough decision, but the clouds looked dark so we decided it was best to not take our chances and we turned around and headed back down.
Diane hikes ahead of me on the BurlFriends Trail near La Sal Pass.
Into the light she goes…
The beginning of the Tuk Trail through the trees.
Wildflowers and Mount Tukuhnikivatz from along the trail.
Dark clouds moving into the area over Mount Peale as we hiked back down the ridge.
After our failed summit attempt we still had plenty of daylight left, so we decided to continue down the La Sal Pass Road on the west side to Moab. It’s been about 9 years since I was last on this road and I didn’t really remember it all that well, but it sure seems like it might be rougher now? It was a slow drive back to town where we topped off the fuel tank in the Jeep and grabbed a bite to eat. Then we headed back to camp on the longer but less rough route through La Sal Junction and La Sal and the easier east side of La Sal Pass. We returned to camp and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening around the area. Before getting to bed I would photograph a spectacular sunset around Medicine Lake as it started to rain again. Thankfully, the rain wouldn’t last too long and stopped before we went to bed.
Driving down a talus shelf on the La Sal Pass Road.
Dark clouds over green terraces that were constructed on the flank of South Mountain. Does anyone out there know the purpose of these terraces? I did a little searching and found a reference to the CCC building terraces in the Abajo Mountains, but I haven’t been able to find a reason? Please let me know in the comments below if you know anything about them!
South Mountain and Medicine Lake at sunset.
Rain started to fall at sunset and the sky just exploded with color towards Mount Tukuhnikivatz.
The sky went from a golden yellow to a bright magenta.
There was even a rainbow over Medicine Lake for a little bit.
The colors were pretty intense. It was definitely one of the most colorful sunsets I’ve seen in a while.
On Independence Day I decided that I wanted to try Mount Tukuhnikivatz one more time since we were still camped nearby, instead of driving elsewhere to hike. Diane wasn’t feeling up for another attempt and decided to stay back at camp this morning. This time I started the hike at 6am and made it to the summit by 8:30am under a cloud-free sky. Unfortunately, there were still wildfires burning nearby, so the view from the top was obscured by a smoky haze. It was still a nice place to see the familiar surrounding desert from. I made it back down to camp in about an hour and a half and found that Diane had just about everything packed up and ready to go. We finished loading the Jeep and then headed home by going over Geyser Pass to the La Sal Mountains Loop Road into Castle Valley and then following the River Road back to the interstate. Things didn’t go as planned this weekend, but we still had a great time!
Morning light on South Mountain.
A smoky view into Colorado with Lone Cone and the San Juan Mountains visible on the horizon.
Hiking the ridge towards the summit.
Steep and rocky to the top, but not difficult.
If you look closely, you can see the Tuk Trail switchbacks on the green ridge below.
From the summit I could see Castle Valley to the Book Cliffs in the distance.
Here’s a view from the summit overlooking Moab to the San Rafael Reef. I’m sorry if the photo looks a little ‘off’ but I used the Dehaze feature in Photoshop to cut through the smoke in the air and help make the distant features a little more visible.
Looking over to Mount Mellenthin (12,645).
Since I wasn’t able to find any information online about the newer Tuk Trail that takes you to the top of the ridge to Mount Tukuhnikivatz, I am including my GPS track in the map below. It really is a well-built trail that wasn’t steep at all and made the hike a breeze.