VISITING THE UNPROTECTED ASHLEY
By David Jorgensen, HUPC Board Member
Just east of the High Uintas Wilderness, two dirt roads easily used by passenger vehicles cut deeply into a huge roadless area. On the North Slope, a 20 mile road takes you to Spirit Lake. From the south, a longer road takes you to Chepeta Lake.
As the clouds float, Chepeta Lake and Spirit Lake are only about four miles apart. But fortunately, there is virtually no chance the roads leading to them will ever be joined. They are separated by a massive berm which quickly rises about 1,000 feet over Chepeta and Spirit Lakes ,forming part of the backbone of the High Uintas. The Ashley National Forest has used this unroaded ridge to artificially separate the 40,600 acre North Slope High Country Roadless Area from the contiguous 85,000 acre South Slope High Country Roadless Area.
Doubtlessly the Chepeta Lake and Spirit Lake roads have significant adverse ecological consequences. I wish they didn’t exist. But because I have to spend my nights tethered to a breathing machine, my backpacking and camping days are over. I have to commute to hike. Last year my wife and I used one of these roads to explore part of the Ashley.
On our first full day, we drove from Vernal to Chepeta Lake. Looking in vain for the trail to Whiterocks Lake, we ended up trying to go to Walk-up Lake located in a hidden cirque above Chepeta Lake. No established trail to the lake exists so we choose to take a largely reclaimed jeep road to Wigwam Lake and to go cross-country from there. That route provided a number of picturesque views, but it got too difficult for me. I have since learned that the unbeaten path more traveled by starts from nearby Papoose Lake instead.
Having had some time to think about where the trail to Whiterocks Lake must start, we found it the next day just below the Chepeta Lake dam on the eastern side of Whiterocks River right where the dirt road crosses the river. It didn’t look like a trailhead. Parking places were some distance away in either direction. A sign of sorts had fallen into a gully. The path was not worn.
In the distance we could see some metal posts sticking out of the ground. It was not until we got close enough to one of those posts to make out the number “25” – the designation for the High Line Trail - that I could say with conviction that we were not going to try and go cross-country once again. Once located, the trail was not difficult to follow. A combination of posts and cairns made it easy to find the way where thick grass covers the ground.
The area around Chepeta Lake is characterized by numerous massive meadows which reminded me of Yosemite’s wetter Tuolumne Meadows. On the essentially flat 3.5 mile trail to Whiterocks Lake, we counted something like nine large meadows. My understanding is that it is a similar hike in the opposite direction to Reader Lake. It starts just below the Chepeta Lake dam.
One drainage east of Chepeta Lake is the ironically named Paradise Park Reservoir. Right at the entrance to the RV-filled “campground” is a little-used trailhead from which several lakes, including Deadman Lake and Red Belly Lake, can be reached.
A coworker who once lived in Vernal caught me wanderlusting over my High Uintas Wilderness map before our trip. When he learned where I was planning to go, he proceeded to rave about what I subsequently deduced was a five-mile hike to Deadman Lake. Although I didn’t know it for sure at the time, my coworker actually began his trek four miles north of Paradise Park at a place called Blanchett Park, a rejected dam site that is accessed by a jeep trail.
Even though I was uncertain where he had started, I was so captivated by my coworker’s description that I wanted to try to get some kind of a taste of what the area was like. We agreed on an hour’s worth of hiking time. But that was enough. With time expiring, we came to a ridge which gave us a glimpse of the Uintas running still further to the East. I was thrilled to see part of that expanse. Just knowing there was still more out there enriched my day.
This year, I am going to try to spend time on the north side of the mountain where Spirit Lake hosts a similar web of trails. If we go, I will be more prepared. I recently purchased a book by Jeffrey and Brad Probst entitled Hiking Utah’s High Uintas. It is subtitled “99 Day and Overnight Hikes.” Like the hikes I have mentioned, many of these are in the Ashley National Forest and are entirely outside the designated Wilderness.