Hiking Utah's Deep Creek Mountains

People who live in cities often describe southern Utah as "another world." Indeed, our red rock canyons are unique, very different from the mountain valleys of northern Utah or the lights and bustle of Las Vegas or Los Angeles.

But Utah offers yet another unique "world," completely different from any other place on earth. Our western desert could be called Utah's third world — a vast, remote, undeveloped, misunderstood, unappreciated region with tremendous resources which are just being discovered.

The western desert accounts for about one-third of Utah's land area, yet the entire region (not counting the St. George/Cedar area) is basically inhabited by only a few dozen ranchers, miners, rugged individualists and refugees from civilization.

The western desert offers plenty of opportunity for wonderful outdoor adventures — rockhounding, hiking, four-wheeling, biking, camping, backpacking — including a seemingly endless array of dirt roads, rugged mountains and proposed wilderness areas which don't even have trails.

The Deep Creek Mountains provide an excellent example. Located between Callao and Ibapah, in Tooele and Juab counties, near the Nevada border, the mountains are spectacular. The highest peak in the range, Ibapah, soars to 12,101 feet, one of the higher mountains in Utah, considerably higher than anything along the Wasatch Front. The desert at the foot of the mountain is at an elevation of about 4,800 feet, giving the mountain an enormous vertical rise of some 7,300 feet — greater than that of the famous Teton Range near Jackson Hole.

The mountains are an oasis for a wide variety of animal and plant life. Antelope are commonly seen along the foothills, and elk roam the steep side canyons. Big horn sheep live on the rocky ridges and eagles soar above. The peaks are capped by ancient bristlecone pines, with lush alpine meadows nestled in between. Pine nut producing pinions cover the lower slopes, mixed with junipers on the foothills.

The mountains run north-south for about 30 miles, encompassing a wide variety of unique geological features. Limestone is predominant on the north and south ends of the range, but the center was formed by a massive intrusion of white granite. Rocky fins and spines are common.

Rough dirt roads approach the mountains in several areas, and a few probe a short distance into the steep, narrow canyons. Beyond the roads there are virtually no trails, except those made by game. You can literally hike for days without any seeing any mark left by humankind.

Several perennial streams flow from these mountains. The streams are small and fragile. Some support small populations of trout (including the pure-strain Bonneville cutthroat, which was once thought to be extinct but is now a key player in Utah's fisheries program). We don't encourage fishing here because much pressure could overwhelm these small streams and destroy their natural populations. Trout Creek is closed to fishing. Anglers fishing other streams should use artificials and practice catch and release.

There are excellent primitive camping sites along streams near the canyon mouths, as well as one dilapidated BLM campground with pit toilets along the main road a few miles south of Callao.

Few people hike these mountains, mostly because they are so isolated. Ibapah is some 64 miles south of Wendover, along a paved road. It's located along the old Pony Express route and you can reach it by driving the road which follows the route west from old Camp Floyd, but that takes you over 130 miles of dirt road. (It's actually a fun, historic drive, with many scenic spots to explore — well worth doing.) The best way to get into the area is to come south from Wendover. You can also reach it out of Delta, through Trout Creek, but that's a long, rough drive. From the Las Vegas side, you can come up Highway 93 to Ely, then cut over to Ibapah.

From any direction it's a long drive into a very remote area. Traveling here you're on your own — you may never see another party. Be sure you have plenty of gasoline and water. It's always best to travel in a group, with more than one vehicle, in case one breaks down. Be sure to tell someone where you are going — the specific canyon or peak you intend to hike (it's a big area) — and when you intend to be back.

It will be well into June before most of the snow melts on Ibapah Peak. If you want to hike the peaks, summer's the time. You can hike the mountains in September, or even October some years, and you can hike the foothills year-round.

Ibapah Peak attracts most of the hikers in the area, because of its height. The best route is to drive as far as you can into Granite Canyon, on the east side of the mountains, then hike up-canyon to the top of the ridge, then along the ridge to the summit. A fading trail appears and disappears along the hike. You can go up and back in a long day, or take several and go from peak to peak. There is a sign along the main road identifying the Granite Canyon turnoff.

One attraction on Ibapah is the ruins of an old heliograph station. Such stations were erected on prominent peaks during the late 1800s. A heliograph incorporated a mirror which was used to send signals from peak to peak by reflecting sunlight, providing data which was used in geodetic surveys. Parts of stone walls can be found on some peaks. The Ibapah station is one of the better preserved sites in the Great Basin.

From the tops of the Deep Creek peaks you can see almost forever. The views are remarkable.

When I visited the area I rounded a hill and started down into the Ibapah valley just as storm clouds closed in around the peaks. Fading into the mist, the peaks took on a mysterious quality, beckoning me up to their ageless slopes. Impervious to time, the hard granite refuses to weather. The rock holds firm the roots of the ancient bristlecones, which look much as they would have looked the day Columbus discovered the new world. (Some bristlecone pines in the Great Basin are more than 2,000 years old.)

The Ibapah Valley cradles a few ranches and a trading post — the only place in the region where you can buy gasoline or food. It's an enchanting little valley, with green meadows at the foot of snow capped mountains. It would be a good place to live, to hide from modern life — or to discover life, free from the pressures of time and change. Brigadoon, in the middle of the desert.

The everlasting hills. Little changed by centuries, now ours to enjoy — and protect.