July 19, 2013

Utah Visit, July 2013, #4: White Pine Lake

Early on in the hike up to White Pine Lake, a hazy Salt Lake Valley, rimmed on its western edge by the Oquirrh Mountains, becomes visible above Little Cottonwood's gaping granite mouth. It's a great place to stop for a breath of clean, pine-spiced, mountain air.

My had dad picked me up earlier that morning in order to get a good shady start up the trail before the sun crested the upper ridges. We took things slow. I'd been exercising regularly in preparation, but knew the altitude (about 10,000 feet at the lake) would likely cramp whatever small advantage I may have gained, and anyway, we were not hiking for speed, but for the enjoyment of being outside together in such a glorious environment. In the first few hundred feet we'd passed through a stand of young aspens: regrowth after an avalanche tore down the slopes years before, leaving behind a silent river of fallen trees and intimidating boulders. Little ground squirrels fearlessly darted across our path, while deer and moose who'd passed by earlier left tell-tale prints for us to admire in the wet black earth.

Technically, White Pine, one of three alpine-lake ascents that branch out from a single trailhead, poses only minor difficulty (at least for those with some level of fitness), but it meanders through an exquisite variety of mountain environments...from dark stands of pine...

...to rolling flowered meadows...

...to stark slopes of sheer rock and fallen boulders that remain frosted with patches of snow well into the summer.

 It is well worth the trip for seasoned mountaineers and weekend trekkers alike. If at all possible, I recommend going early on a Monday morning, as we did. The trailhead parking lot--filled to overflowing on most weekends and weekday afternoons--was virtually empty when we arrived, and until the last few minutes of our descent we saw only 4 other hikers. Blissful...and uncommon...solitude!

The last mile or so of the trail--though it also happens to be the steepest and the most exposed to the punishing UV of high-altitude sunlight--is definitely my favorite. It criss-crosses a vast talus slope and offers ever-broadening views of the peaks that surround the lake, as well as the colorfully-layered slopes of Little Cottonwood's northern rim.

For a sense of scale, see if you can spot the two hikers in the photo below...they're walking on ahead of us just right of center.

Vegetation in the area is sparse, but if you keep your eyes peeled, colorful surprises are waiting to be found...hidden gardens thriving in the shade of massive granite boulders.

We were both huffing and puffing over that last bit of trail. My muscles felt fine, but my lungs were working in overdrive. It's shocking how much more exertion is required approaching 10,000 feet...at least for one not acclimated to thin air. We stopped every 50 feet or so to catch a breath and look back over the stunning vista...one advantage to a somewhat limited fitness level, I suppose.

The trail reaches a high point on the slope, and then finally leads back down to the lake. That first glimpse of sapphire and green against a distant wall of jagged red peaks really takes your breath away...if you have any left by that point that is!

The view opposite the lake along the trail's final descent

We unpacked some trail mix and settled in atop perfect granite "picnic tables" for a light lunch by the lakeshore. White Pine, which is dammed on its northern edge as part of the valley's watershed, was as full as I've ever seen it. 

It is fed by at least one little mountain stream that babbles down from the slopes above...likely picking up a  bit of volume from hidden springs here and there along the way.

I was surprised by just how green everything was...I remembered the cloudburst I'd encountered the previous afternoon...looks like it's been a good wet year so far.

Earlier that morning I'd decided to leave my sketchbook behind, thinking we probably wouldn't stay long enough for me to put it to good use, but as I scanned the almost faerie-land-ish ambiance of the country around me, I regretted that decision.

It turns out we had plenty of time to linger. Dad wandered a bit, and then laid down for a brief nap. I found a perch above the shallow stream and watched patterns of light bubble and dance in the crystal water.

I remembered all the times I'd come up here to escape the stress and sometimes loneliness of day-to-day hustle and bustle. Somehow, those pressures and desires could never quite follow me up into these quiet mountain havens. Thus unencumbered, I was left to sense purely, and to dream wildly. It's naive to assume that dangers don't exist up here...that everything's just simple and carefree...or that the worry and emptiness won't catch up again as you head back into "the real world." But I treasure these brief retreats of spirit and imagination all the same...and opportunities to find them are plentiful in Utah.

"Utah is the state by which I came into the West: the place that as an artist was best for me...I wanted to find a land, a place, large enough to hold the feelings I held about the world, about this life we've been given. I wanted to explore what was possible, not just probable. I wanted more space in both the imagination and beneath my feet. And Utah's red wilderness and its forests had, and still have for me, the beautiful density of reality I was seeking: a density and grounding that in turn allowed my imagination to wander."  

   --Rick Bass, excerpted from his essay in Testimony (see recommended books at right)

White Rocky-Mountain Columbine

Eventually it was time to head home. We wandered down the mountain, speaking minimally, stopping only occasionally to admire a chance miracle of color...

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