Hiking Notch Peak in Utah's West Desert

Notch Peak Utah

The word cliff is one that has suffered a certain devaluation. Writers about scenery, myself included, use it a little freely to label any very steep, wall-like drop in the land. But here, under Notch Peak, are cliffs in truth, cliffs that are perfect, cliffs without qualification.
— John Hart, "Hiking the Great Basin"

On the summit of Notch Peak the air is bracing, the atmosphere pellucid and crystalline. Feeling totally invigorated, I stretch out on a bed of limestone and lay in the sun for a while, letting the kinks in my back and legs melt down into the mountain rock. Then I creep over to the ultimate brink and enjoy God's own view of the world.

The panorama takes my breath away.

Off to the southeast, Sevier Lake is a sapphire-blue gem shimmering under the desert sun, its ephemeral waters lapping at cocaine-white alkaline shores. Southward are the giant ridges of the Confusion Range, a jumble of canyons, cliffs, raggedy slopes and serrated ridgelines that thrust upward toward the clear, silent sky. Beyond the drop, 3,000 feet below me, Tule Valley laps at the stony feet of the citadel, then rolls away to the west to breach on the corrugated iron slopes of Conger Mountain. Beyond Conger rise a series of majestic blue pyramids — Wheeler, Moriah, the Deep Creeks — lush alpine worlds crowned with roiling storm clouds.

Three hours of easy hiking has earned me this view, one of the strangest and most expansive in all of Utah.

It would be interesting to hike Notch Peak with Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. I wonder if he would find any beauty in the place. Ancient Greeks' appreciation of nature was more mathematical than aesthetic; the shapes of flowers, the spiral of the nautilus shell, the orbit of planetary bodies - all adhered to certain geometric patterns inherent in triangles, rectangles and spheres, a cold uniformity they called the Golden Mean. Too bad they never sat their laurels down in Utah's West Desert. Formed as if by some god in the throes of a bad peyote trip, the only uniformity to this maze of block-fault mountains and salt grabens is the inherent uniformity of its chaos.

From the top of Notch Peak one's gaze is met with vast constellations of grays and browns, blinding whites, angles and planes and extremes — the cosmetics of a land drowned and crushed by marauding oceans and glaciers, disemboweled by seismic uplifting, and flayed by wind, ice, rain, erosion. A much-abused, much-maligned, pitiable landscape, defiantly alive, enchantingly beautiful, infused with a savage dignity that weighs heavily on the human observer. A netherworld through which a vagrant imagination might freely roam, a place Dante, Dali and Nietzsche perhaps visited in their dreams. It's this otherworldly quality that I find particularly attractive.

But that's not the only attractive thing about Notch. On a shoulder of the mountain, flanking a sheer cliff, grows a stand of 4,000-year-old bristlecone pine. The scene is incredible. Spread out along a slope, just one side of the drop, a few hundred ancient trees twist out of the mountainside toward the desert sun. In the background the north face of Notch Peak juts upward like a fang. Far below, shimmering in the heat, the snow-white salt playas and corrugated, iron-colored hills of the West Desert stretch away to the rounding horizon. Surely this is one of the most spectacularly situated groves of trees in the world.

In spite of its many wonders, Notch Peak is a lonely mountain. It is prototypical of the west desert in that it is spectacularly beautiful but no one seems to care. Like the Deep Creeks' Sierra-Nevada-like majesty, the Wah-Wahs' towering bristlecones, the Confusion's hulking, perfectly round volcanic boulders, and Cougar Canyon's hidden trout streams, Notch's 3,000-foot northwest face and flanking citadels of stone, spectacular enough to beggar the imagination, remain virtually unknown east of Delta.

Notch Peak is a great introduction to the wonders of the west desert, but it's more than a hike; it's a cosmic experience. Go ahead and lay down on that friable limestone rim, poke your head over the brink, and see what the terrifying view does to your sense of personal significance. Experience the vertigo sucking the breath out of you and the seductive gravity pulling you toward the ultimate 10-second free-fall-with-a-view. As you're doing this try not to feel self-conscious. No one'll be watching. You'll have the mountain, with its bristlecones, cliffs, stone citadels, and cosmic views, all to yourself.

How To Get There:

Notch Peak is the highest point of a mountain massif generally known as Sawtooth Mountain, in the southern House Range. To get there drive west out of Delta on Hwy. 50/6. Near milepost 46, turn north on a graded dirt road. After about six miles turn left (west) onto another graded road with signage marking "Miller Canyon." At the base of a mountain wall a lesser-used, rough-looking dirt track comes in on the left and snakes off to the southwest. This track takes you past the Behunin Cabin and into lower Sawtooth Canyon. The last kilometer or so of this road follows a dry streambed and may not be suitable for low-clearance and even some high-clearance vehicles.

The trail to Notch Peak, which starts in lower Sawtooth Canyon, follows the drainage as it changes from cool and shaded canyon to deep gully to mere crease in the mountainside. From the car park amongst a grove of junipers, walk west up Sawtooth and turn left at the first major junction. Throughout the hike a number of smaller canyons and gullies come in on the right or left; always stick to the main drainage (a hiker-made trail and occasional cairns mark the way). The last fourth of the hike consists of climbing a series of rock staircases and scrambling up a steep mountainside. The drainage ends at a saddle between ridges. The ridge to the west is Notch. The ridge to the right conceals a grove of bristlecone pines. Directly below your feet is one of the greatest mountain walls in the world. Contour to the right to check out the bristlecones and the best, most photogenic view of the wall. To summit Notch follow a trail to the south that switchbacks up to the peak.

From the summit you might be tempted, as I was, to find an alternate route back to your car. A loop can be made back along the ridges directly east of Notch Peak, but it's long, dry and exposed to the sun. Stay high. If you drop down too soon you'll find yourself either stuck on an exposed cliff above Sawtooth or in a canyon that drains the west side of the range and spits you out in Tule Valley.

Plan on an all-day hike. Bring plenty of water, as there are no water sources along the trail. Because of the lack of water and the exposure, Notch is best hiked in the spring and fall. Midway through Sawtooth a couple of dry waterfalls make things interesting; in early spring these obstacles may be buried in snow or encased in ice.

The rock along the rim of the massif cliffs is extremely friable and unstable. In looking over the edge make sure of a good foundation, one that won't crumble under your feet or zoom you off into space.

Guidebooks:
"Hiking the Great Basin: The High Desert Country of California, Nevada, Oregon and Utah," by John Hart. 
"Utah Mountaineering Guide (3rd Edition)," by Michael Kelsey.

Maps:
USGS Tule Valley (1:100,000); Notch Peak (1:62,500); Notch Peak or Miller Cove (1:24,000).

Web sites:
www.dave.crockett.net (Has descriptions of various mountain ranges in the Great Basin, including Notch Peak).
www.suwa.org