Riding the Mirror Lake Highway in Utah's Uinta Mountains
One of my favorite places to ride is the Mirror Lake Highway which runs through the High Unitas in northeastern Utah. During the summer, the highway gives campers, hikers, and sightseers access to the beauty of the high alpine mountains and lakes, but in the winter it provides a prime route to some of the best and deepest powder around. The highway is accessed through Kamas, UT on the west or Evanston, WY on the east (see the map). We usually go the Kamas route, and the Forest Service has developed a nice parking lot and trailhead at Soapstone Campground up the canyon from Kamas. The highway is a use fee area which means you have to pay to even drive through (one fee per tow vehicle in winter; summer is one fee per vehicle, bike etc.), however the funds are all used in the area. Hence, the nice facilities are being built by the users. The groomer is kept here as well, and it makes the run over to Bear River Service and back at least a couple of times each week. Bear River Service is just outside the Unitah National Forest, and the road from Evanston to there is kept open year round. We often ride over there for lunch and fuel, and many people come in from Evanston to rent sleds and/or a cabin. The map shows the highway in green highlight.
Off-loading at the Soapstone parking lot puts you at about 6000 feet above sea level, and the trail has several long runs which let you wake up your sled and your riding mindset. If you are lucky, you might have a foot or so of fresh powder on the trail which makes for fast runs and a smother ride. That was the case on this day; here Dee, Dan, Scott and Craig stop for a little sightseeing. The Unitahs get moisture year round, and often have several feet of snow monthly. During February of 1998, they received over 20 feet alone. During the first few rides of the year bottomless powder is easily found. A couple of years ago when we had some friends from the Midwest and Canada out, we broke trail all the way across to Bear River Service. That day we had 5 feet of fresh powder, and stopping on the road meant you were stuck. Stepping off your sled was also a mistake. We passed the groomer on the way back, and we had a fun but exhausting ride.
Quickly, the trail starts gaining altitude as you climb the foothills of the Unitas. In no time at all, you are nearing 10,000 feet and Bald Mountain Pass (see the map above). On this day, Scott got off the road, and then he dug a nice trench for a few feet. We have found that a couple of guys pulling on either ski makes getting out easier, although at 10,000 feet we would all rather not pull on anything. The group in the background had 3 or 4 sleds stuck, and so we gave them some help as well. Actually, Bald Mountain Pass is about 14 or 15 miles from the Soapstone lot. Along the way, we play in the open areas where campgrounds and lakes are during the summer. Hiking trails around various peaks also provide great riding, and of course perfect slopes for high marking. These slopes are also perfect for avalanches, so be smart when you are up there (Utah Avalanche Information). The Forest Service has extensive maps for this area, so be sure to get one. All of the area borders on Wilderness, so please watch where you ride.
View on a clearer day from Bald Mountain Pass towards Hayden Peak which is on the left.
The view from Bald Mountain Pass on a clear day is wonderful and worth the trip alone. As you descend towards Wyoming, the openings on both sides of the trail grow larger. Meadows for play are everywhere and covered with deep blankets of powder. Early season rides go by the rule "play on the side above the road" since no base and playing below the road most often leads to being stuck and lots of lifting and pulling. Once the base is established, play in the meadows and amongst the trees is the rule for both sides of the road. As the trail moves into the foothills on the eastern side, several roads lead off to other riding areas. Here we are stopped near where road 032 leads up to Whitney Basin; the photo shows the view back toward Hayden Pass. This basin is another good place to ride, and it has enormous bowls with long steep climbs to challenge all riders. Along the trail, this turnoff is about 30 miles or so from Soapstone (no playing miles included), so gas is a consideration for this side trip. Bear River Service is another 5 to 7 miles down the road. At the top of Whitney Basin, you can look into the back of the Smith and Morehouse region, and, if you are so inclined, pick your way down to the Smith and Morehouse trailhead (of course you would then have to be picked up by a friend to get home).
The ride back to Soapstone is usually fast and bordering on dusk. A full day on the Mirror Lake Highway and along some side trails will tire you out completely and likely empty your gas tank. However, you will be rewarded with deep powder, beautiful vistas and rarefied air. Hope to see you out there some weekend soon.
Scott had a good excuse this time -- he was trying to get around another stuck sled. Same place, same day going the other way.