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Close enough to touch Utah's sky

The Uinta Mountains in the northeast part of the state are dotted with lakes. To get there, just use your feet.

September 10, 2006|Dan Blackburn | Special to The Times

High Uintas Wilderness Area, Utah — PURSUIT of unspoiled mountain ranges has been my avocation for much of my adult life. But the Uintas were nothing but a crossword stumper to me until my son-in-law urged me to tote my tent to the northeast corner of Utah.

The Uinta Mountains, named after the Uintats, a branch of the Ute Indians, who first lived here, are east of Salt Lake City, south of the Wyoming border. The range runs east to west and, as a result, gets frequent rain. The rip-roaring thunderstorms produce dramatic lightning displays but also mean June and early July tend to be too wet and mosquito-infested to camp.

Things dry out in August and September, but after that pack your cross-country skis: The elevation (13,528 at the top of Kings Peak) can bring early snow.

My longtime companion, Gloria Cortes, and I reserved a site at the popular Mirror Lake Campground and drove from Los Angeles in mid-August. Out of Kamas, we followed Utah 150, the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, along the western end of the range, climbing over passes that reach nearly 12,000 feet in elevation and dipping down alongside meadows where we spied grazing moose, elk and deer.

Scenic lakes stocked with hungry trout also line the roadside, luring anglers by the score. Bark beetles have killed off some of the lodgepole pines, but the road is enveloped by deciduous trees and other pines and firs. The result is the type of greenery one expects of Vermont, and the region boasts a similar display of color in autumn.

Whenever Gloria and I first camp in an area, we make a point of checking with the U.S. Forest Service rangers to get up-to-date information about hiking trail conditions and weather forecasts, and recommendations for good day hikes or backpacking routes.

That's how we met Earl O'Driscoll, who has spent 40 years working for the Forest Service in the Uintas and doesn't want to be anywhere else. As he puts it: "The diversity we have here of trees and wildlife is just remarkable. I'm a big moose fan, and we have more of them than anyplace else in Utah."

The 12-hour drive from Los Angeles was too much, so we stayed overnight in Provo. Up early the next morning, we shopped for eggs, steaks, vegetables and salad (all of which might have suffered during the trek across the Nevada desert) and headed up U.S. 189 toward Kamas.

The short drive up Provo Canyon is a curving visual delight with rock formations, the two-tiered, tumbling Bridalveil Falls and the Deer Creek Reservoir -- a sprawling lake that covers almost 3,000 acres as part of a larger state park. Carved by the Provo River, the narrow canyon's steep limestone walls are lined by aspens and other trees, and mountain goats occasionally wander down from the edge of the high cliffs.

A short, winding road led us down from the highway to the Mirror Lake Campground, and a reservation sign confirmed our spot. Campsites don't get Mobil stars, but ours was top-of-the-line for the great outdoors, roomy with a well-maintained tent pad, a large fire ring, restrooms and water spigots nearby and that ultimate amenity, a level picnic table.

Dispersed campsites, which offer no facilities and more closely resemble backpacking camps, also are available on a first-come basis. For the most part, you can pick a spot, park, pitch a tent and hang your hat. (Non-campers can easily stay at the Bear River Lodge on the forest's edge or other nearby lodging in bustling Evanston, Wyo., or outside of Kamas. )

The campground host had firewood for sale at $6 a bundle, which seemed pricey in the afternoon and more reasonable when the evening chill set in. Nighttime temperatures, even in summer, may drop to the 30s. The dry wood crackled as it burned that night, creating a cocoon of light and warmth. Just a few steps away from the fire, we tilted our heads up toward a nighttime sky that was a reminder that our planet is just part of the Milky Way with its 200 billion stars.

If Minnesota weren't already called the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Uintas might adopt a variation on the nickname. More than 1,000 lakes, large and small, wait at the end of short trails or as reward for a long backpack trek. The day after our arrival, we set off for Shepherd Lake -- a mostly downhill jaunt over pine-needle-carpeting, grassy meadows and some rocky terrain. As we swung around Fehr Lake, we paused to gaze across the still blue water toward the exposed sand-colored summit of Bald Mountain.

We continued down to Shepherd Lake, which is bordered on one side by a rugged rock wall below the looming Murdock Mountain. Along the way we passed poisonous skunk cabbage, whose yellow-white blossoms rise above long, green leaves. Adding a grace note were patches of red- and orange-topped Indian paintbrush, which so often decorates the mountains of the west. The lakes sat like gems in a necklace resting on the rich green velvet of a jewel case.

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10,000 feet and climbing

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