Sunday, July 10, 2016

days fork

I felt like I had some pressure on me to pick a good hike after H's stellar selections last weekend.  With the help of the Trib's Hike of the Week listings, supplemented by Hiking in the Wasatch, I came up with Days Fork, located just over halfway up Big Cottonwood Canyon.  The trail head is located in the Spruces campground which has a parking lot; they charge $8 for parking (!), however, which explains why all the dayhikers park out along the canyon road.  We weren't about to pay $8 for parking so we parked out along the canyon road.

Looking up Days Fork towards the upper meadow

We were on the trail at 7:20 a.m. and despite the campground just starting to stir, were the only ones headed up Days Fork.  The trail is an old mining road and alternates between steep grinds and gentler inclines, passing through distinct ecosystems:  marshy fields, pine woods, lush meadows and high alpine meadows.  There weren't any switchbacks as we progressed right up the drainage, first on the east side and then crossing the creek to the west side.  The wildflowers were in full riot in the meadows - orange and fuschia paintbrush, lupine, bluebells, cow parsnip (taller than me), coneflowers, penstemon, Lewis' flax, sticky geranium, not-yet-blooming clover-headed mint, scarlet gilia, columbine, nettleleaf horsemint, buttercups, sunflowers; gentian, anemone and sulfur buckwheat once we got higher up - it was just beautiful.

It was so bright that the colors have washed
out a bit in the photos, unfortunately

The trail ends at the Eclipse mine, which must have been a decent-sized operation given the rusty machinery remnants left behind.  We picked our way up the basin past the mine, searching out a flat boulder on which to have our snacks.  There was just a little snow left in the basin and big robins were clustered around it, snapping up emerging insects.  We also saw a big mule deer doe, a couple of ground squirrels and a marmot.  As we sat there, looking around at the outstanding scenery, we wondered why there wasn't a trail up the basin to the ridge.  Then we decided that the basin didn't seem that steep and why couldn't we just scramble up it - it wasn't that much further to the top.  We strapped our hiking poles to our packs and headed up.  The sides of the basin soon got much steeper and we were on all-fours more often than not; it was doable but it was a lot more strenuous than most of our hikes, mentally as well as physically, since we were without a trail and had to choose our route.  The ground underfoot was soft, which makes me a little nervous, walking on loose stuff, so I decided to change my route up, veering to the right towards some rock outcrops that continued up to the ridge along a cliffside; H stuck with the original route, continuing up the soft, grassy stretch.  In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have gotten separated like that.  It was fine and we both reached the ridge, but it would have been smarter to stay together, in case something had happened.  Duly noted for next time.

Old mining equipment

The views from the ridge were phenomenal: we looked over into the other side, finding Alta far (far) below us, and Superior out along the ridge to the west.  (There is a faint trail heading towards Flagstaff and Superior along the ridge but man, getting to Superior looks sketchy.)  We talked for a moment about how to get back down, now that we were up there.  I was unsure about going down the way we'd come up, nervous about the extremely steep incline and the soft footing, so we considered our options.  The ridgeline trail was fairly clear to the east, towards Silver Fork, and we were more familiar with that area, having hiked it (and lost the trail on it, if I'm being honest) twice.  We decided to go along the ridge to Silver Fork and, if we couldn't find a trail back down into Days Fork, we could always descend through Silver Fork and walk back to the truck along the canyon road.

Halfway up to the ridge

The ridgeline trail seemed to peter out when we got to a knob above the lush Silver Fork basin, but we spotted three trail runners on a well-established trail a ways below us.  They appeared to have come from Silver Fork and were headed back down the drainage, plus they clearly weren't route-finding so we decided to follow them out.  We had to scramble down to that trail, picking our way down a steep bowl (but not as steep as what we'd clawed our way up), and I was a little nervous again what with the soft, loose footing.  We landed on the trail and headed north, down the drainage.  When the trail turned west, crossing the ridge and heading back into Days Fork, we shrugged and followed along, not really sure where we'd ended up but figuring we'd at least be in the right drainage.  The trail was steep but nice underfoot, mostly packed dirt and pine needles.

Peeking over the edge towards Days Fork

It dumped us out right on the main Days Fork trail, just a little ways below the Eclipse mine, and we headed down, happy that we wouldn't have to walk from Solitude to the truck on the canyon road.  The trail was actually rockier than I remembered from going up it, with lots of loose gravel that I tend to slip on.  Still, it was a beautiful day on a beautiful hike and we had had it almost entirely to ourselves.  We were pretty beat by the time we got back to the truck but we felt like we'd accomplished something and seen some stunning scenery while we were at it.

The ridge we walked along towards Silver Fork

Hike stats:  8.54 miles round-trip; 5.1 hours trip total, with 3:44 hiking time and the rest gazing around at the views; 2.3 m.p.h. average speed; 2,900 feet of elevation.  Special hike stat: our GPS data showed a maximum grade of 76% = really, really steep.

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