After getting Tribble’s window replaced in Denver, I head north on I25… right out of the state. It’s time to visit a new-to-me boondocking area.
September 18, Wednesday
Hellooo Turtle Rock!
I’ve driven through this chunk of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest along I80 in southern Wyoming a few times now. And every time I do, I wish I could camp here.
Turtle Rock is an impressive boulder mass rising above the surrounding grassland, dotted with pine and aspen trees. It’s visible from quite a distance away, the most obvious landmark in the area. It’s high elevation and remotely located, Laramie is about 25 minutes away to the West.
It’s already getting cold up here, I’m at the tail end of the season.
And that moody fall weather I mentioned last post? It’s here in abundance. The wind was pretty brutal when I pulled in yesterday evening, so I wasted little time picking a spot and setting up camp.
This morning, fluffy clouds break up the endless blue of the sky, the boulder hills to the north blending into the treeline when the shadows fall over them. Turtle Rock varies from the typical boondocking situation. There are designated sites here with numbers, I’m in site 5. Not the most scenic, but it had the best cell signal of the available spots. It does have a pretty awesome tree.
And from this spot, a trail leads towards the boulder field.
In the afternoon I give into curiosity and go exploring. It falls from the site to a low area where a tiny creek meanders through fields of grass and groves of trees. Due to the elevation, topography, or perhaps some other reason, this area is wetter than the surrounding grassland, the grass is still green in many places. The aspens are just starting to turn.
Up the hill on the other side, I spot my first cactus of the season, a tiny thing with long barbs that end in a deep reddish brown hue, it blends in well with the red granite pebbles.
I quickly discover that there’s a whole network of trails back here.
I am careful to make a mental note of the forks in the trail, the occasional flash of lightning is visible in the dark clouds to the north, and I don’t want to get caught out here in bad weather.
Most of the aspen in the area are still green, showing just a hint of the yellows to come. They clump together in the dips and folds of the rugged landscape, where the wind isn’t as strong and where the rainfall pools.
It’s really neat back here, but the weather forces me to turn around before too much longer. Still, a very nice afternoon walk.
Today I walk down to check out some of the other sites along Vedauwoo Glen Road. A side spur labeled as ‘700H’ on maps leads to a neat pile of boulders, with several sites right up against the rocks. The road is a bit sketchy in places, with a couple narrow spots and tight curves – this isn’t a place for big rigs.
The boulders have been carved by the elements into interesting shapes. It actually reminds me a lot of the boulder piles in Joshua Tree National Park. But instead of joshua trees here, it’s pine and aspen.
In the evening, isolated storms roll through once again. First I get a rainbow…
And then the storm cell passes, and last light sets the trees near camp on fire. This is probably one of the best pictures I’ve gotten of Tribble to date.
September 24, Tuesday
Two days ago, I left Turtle Rock and crossed Togwotee pass on Hwy 287 for the third time this year for one more shot at Grand Tetons National Park. There was already some fresh snow up in the pass, which at first had me thinking that August might be the only month I get this year completely snow free (there was snow in July up this way). But then I remembered I spent all of March and April in Costa Rica, and there certainly wasn’t any snow down there!
As a reminder, Julie and I stayed for a couple days in the Tetons at the tail end of our great Yellowstone backpacking adventure, but my foot was hurting too much from a blister to get out and see much. I’m here to rectify that.
The window of opportunity is pretty narrow.
A big winter storm is moving in soon, but right now the crowds are gone, and the fall color is as good as it’s going to get. Peak color is actually running a couple weeks late in much of the Rockies, due to warm temps earlier this month.
So today I take a break from work in the afternoon to go on a hike with Kelly and Marshall (whom I met up with here), starting near String Lake and going up to Leigh Lake. It’s both a happy and a sad occasion. Happy, because I’m back and seeing the Tetons dressed in autumn colors. Sad, because I know I’ll only be here a short time before snow forces me out.
It’s all too easy to view this amazing scene from a perspective of imminent loss.
I have this beauty, but only for a moment. Which is silly, because we only ever have the present moment. I remind myself that I am here, right now. And this is good. This is good.
* * *
The day before the snow arrives in the Tetons, Kelly, Marshall, and I drop south from Jackson, WY. At Hoback Junction I have two choices: east or west. West gets me to our next destination, Utah Lake, quicker, but reportedly isn’t as pretty. East is a less traveled, meandering route that stays in the mountains longer.
Naturally, I choose the longer, more scenic route.
We leave separately and drive separately, agreeing to meet up at a BLM area on the west shore of the lake (south of Saratoga Springs). It takes me two days, but I eventually get there.
October 5, Saturday
This is my first time camping near Salt Lake City. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but am pleasantly surprised by this spot near Utah Lake. It’s close enough to Saratoga Springs for access to all the amenities of a city. And yet, is far enough away that I’m surrounded by nature. The view is great, the temperatures are warmer being out of the mountains, and it isn’t quite the desert yet. The surrounding hills are covered in yellow grass.
And the mountains.
From a distance, they look pretty dry. It’s hard to tell what secrets they hold. But Kelly and Marshall have camped here before, and they know what’s up. Today, it’s my turn to unravel the mystery.
From Lehi we get on State Route 92 and pass Timpanogos Cave National Monument. I love caves and would likely enjoy exploring this one, but that’ll have to be a future outing. Shortly after that we turn north off 92 onto N American Fork Canyon Road. There are a lot of people out today, it’s possibly the last nice weekend of the year up here. Along the road runs American Fork River, and all along the river are pullouts with picnic tables and fire rings for day use.
A rally of some sort is happening up the road at Tibble Fork Reservoir, and we see two separate wedding parties out taking photos. We head up towards Granite Flat Campground, but turn off onto FR 008, a very winding thing that climbs ever higher up into the mountains. The road ends at Silver Lake Flat Reservoir, in a dense woods of mature aspen trees.
It’s time to start hiking!
Silver Lake Trail is a 4.7 mile out and back trail with 1,433 feet of elevation gain that ends at, you guessed it, a lake. Immediately I’m struck by how lush the foliage is. From camp down in the valley, the mountains look brown and barren. Once you get up in them though, it’s a whole different story. There’s pine and aspen and brush and grasses. And there’s autumn color. I could be in the mountains in Colorado, and I wasn’t expecting to see that here.
When the three of us started, we didn’t commit to doing the full 4.7 miles. Well, Kelly in particular wasn’t committed. But I knew I wanted to make it to the lake. It’s not that the prospect of all that uphill excited me, I was actually dreading it a bit. It’s more that I knew I’d be happier afterwards if I did the whole thing.
I saw a hiking video on YouTube recently that said, when you’re going up a mountain, it’s easier when you can’t see the top before you get there. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But when you’re going down a mountain, it’s better to see your destination. And for me at least, that advice rings true. Seeing how far up you still have to go can be demoralizing. Since our destination is an alpine lake instead of a peak, we certainly can’t see it from below.
Some of the mountaintops around here still have snow leftover from last winter, which sparks a discussion about glaciers.
What’s the minimum size for a glacier? And what do you call a smaller patch of snow that survives the summer without melting? I don’t know the answers at the time, but I get online later and research it. It’s time for the science portion of today’s blog post!
It turns out, there’s more to a glacier than simply size. Another criteria is that it moves. Years of perennial accumulation compacts the bottom layers of snow into ice. And when the ice mass gets big enough, gravity and the pressure of its own weight cause it to slide downhill. If it’s not moving, it’s not a glacier. Generally, this requires that a glacier be at least 100 ft thick and 0.1 square kilometers (about 25 acres), large.
Fun fact: Mt. Rainier in Washington State has the most glaciers of any mountain in the lower 48 states, numbering approximately 26. It’s hard to tell from a distance if any of the snow patches in the mountains here are big enough to be glaciers. If the snow survives one summer without melting, it forms a denser, compressed layer of snow called firn – this is an intermediate phase between snow and ice.
The trail gets steeper as we ascend.
It’s rated as moderately difficult, which seems a fair rating to me. It’s heavily used and thus easy to follow. There’s one area of loose gravel farther up that I find a bit tricky with my iffy footwear, and a couple spots where larger rocks make for bigger steps, but overall footing isn’t bad. It’s just, so up. As we climb the larger trees fall away in favor of lower brush.
And then quite suddenly, we arrive.
Silver Lake is not clear like some alpine lakes. It looks pretty clear at the edges, but quickly drops off into a murky brown/gray. Judging by the topography, I’d estimate that it gets quite deep in the middle, but don’t know for sure. It is apparently inhabited by fish, as I see a few people with fishing poles along the shore.
I find it hard to get a good angle. If I get far enough away from the lake to capture the mountains behind and still get some sky, I’m back in the trees and can’t see the water well. Turning my camera vertically helps.
The foliage is just as pretty as the water. Down at camp all the vegetation is dried up, no color remains. Up here, color runs riot.
On the way back down, Marshall realizes he forgot his glasses up at the lake.
I offer to go with him back up, thereby climbing the steepest part of the trail twice. It feels faster the second time, knowing what’s coming. And later, back at the truck, I DO feel good for having done the whole thing (plus some). I definitely earned the pizza we have for dinner.
It won’t be long before winter forces me south into the desert, but autumn isn’t over yet, and I’m enjoying every minute of it!
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