Utah's Francis Peak
One of our family's passions is four-wheeling out and about Utah. Not the Moab or Rubicon style of my-vehicle-has-more-dents-than-yours, although I admit that's a lot of fun. I have the gouges on our Toyota Land Cruiser to prove it. Our family includes my wife Stephanie and our four children, Miara, 13, Aarim, 11, Amiria, 6, and Ramiar, 4. Rather, what we like is driving to an out-of-the-way place, where there are few people, actually where there's usually no people, and just hanging out.
Sitting on rocks. Throwing rocks in the water, or off a ledge, sometimes at each other. Floating whatever we can find down the river. Or falling in the river. Or driving across the river. Keep in mind that rivers in Utah, with a few exceptions, are like creeks elsewhere. This is a high desert with a lot of snow at times, and some tall mountains too.
A nearby haunt of ours, frequently visited by us due to its proximity and myriad unexplored trails, is the Skyline Drive–Bountiful Peaks–Francis Peak trail that run high above Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City, Utah. I say unexplored not because we're the first humans to ever travel there; there is evidence that others have arrived before us–namely a primitive but graded dirt road peppered with beer cans. But rather un-explored previously by our family.
This particular trail in Davis county is anything but empty. Hikers, bikers, ATVers, minivaners, jeepers and the rest can make for a crowded mountain. But if you take the right route on the right day of the right season (avoid the smaller trails during the bow hunt season) then you can find it downright empty and pleasant.
One of the worst traffic jams we experienced was on Skyline Drive, a primitive road and the front part of the more rugged trail between the Bountiful High School "B" and Bountiful Peaks, south of Farmington Canyon. The large “B” is of weathered concrete high on the mountain and visible from most places in the valley. We once came upon a pile of bleating sheep that turned tail and ran into an F-150 coming the opposite direction. Pinned between the Ford and our Land Cruiser, scrub oak, and a steep incline the herd finally mimicked their cousin goats and opted for the steep climb.
We've also traveled a different section of the road, going up Farmington Canyon to Francis Peak in our Saturn and in our '86 Country Squire. This part is not a four-wheeling trail and any vehicle can make it. Francis Peak is about 9,500 feet elevation, which is over a mile above Alpine Lake on an average water year. On the lake you’ll see several giant radar balls.
From Francis Peak you can see, in clockwise order, Davis, Weber, Morgan, Summit, Salt Lake, and Tooele counties, depending on the pollution level. Utah and Cache counties might be glimpsed if the wind's just right. Viewing up to eight counties from one peak may not seem like much, till you realize that one county out West is usually larger than a whole state back East. Here’s an idea, get your new digital camera out and switch it to the panorama mode. Then walk around the peak taking a picture every few feet. When you get home, stitch the photos together and make your own Quicktime VR movie. You've never tried that feature before, so you might as well see if it works, right?
Just behind Francis Peak is a steep trail where you’ll definitely need a 4-wheel drive with some good clearance and a differential locker or two, or at least some sort of auto traction control. We’re talking really steep here. Street tires aren't a good choice either, as you'll shred them before you're done. I'm speaking from experience here. It's a lot of fun going up a hill where all you can see is sky and leaking window washer fluid, then coming back down with the seat belts cutting off your arm at the shoulder and the only clear view is the dirt in front of you.
To the east of Francis Peak is a short winding trail with a picturesque dead tree at the top. We must have filled half a CF card at various times taking pictures of the four kids posing at different heights in this tree.
The best part of this whole trip is to follow the rough trail north of Alpine Lake and its radar balls until it drops down to a series of three lakes. Again, this is Utah, so the lakes are actually ponds, but the water still splashes and the rocks still skip. A couple of these lakes might actually be dry later in the year, but one at least is quite deep and sheltered against a steep rock face. If you follow this trail all the way to the end, at the bottom of the switchback cliff, you'll see the old truck carcasses that rolled off and died, as well as some beer cans. Mostly, only ATVs and built-up wheelers will make it to this point, but it's really not that bad if you're prepared and careful. Our stock Toyota Land Cruiser didn't sweat it. I had hoped to find a trail down into Morgan County here, but no such luck as the trail ends in a steep drop off, so be careful here!
Another fun trip is going back up Farmington Canyon, then when the road makes a sharp fork, follow the trail to the southwest. This is the same trail that will take you back to the concrete "B" on the mountain. Part way up you'll come to another small lake in the elbow of a mountain. You can park right next to it and wander up to a series of three or four ponds that all drain into one another. The top one is spring fed and be sure to note that the whole walking trail is quite muddy and slippery, which can add some humor to the trek.
Finally, also on the way to the concrete "B" is one of the most beautiful views you'll ever see, if you time it right. I suppose this is the actual Bountiful Peaks, but my 1953 topo map isn’t too clear. It's a rougher trail that runs along the west face of the mountain, but easily accessible with a light duty SUV. We did this trail in the Country Squire once, but I would not recommend it. If you didn't stop at the ponds to throw too many rocks, and if the weather cooperates, you can catch the sun setting behind Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. This is an awesome scene, and when caught with a camera, helped my son to win the school Reflections contest for photography.
All said, this whole area is fun whether you're taking the Rav4 on its first dirt trail or you've got an experienced battle-scarred Jeep. It's also well-frequented by the ATV crowd. And since you're in or on the vehicle for most of the trip, it's also accessible to disabled patrons. The lower parts are open by late April, the upper parts not until Memorial Day at the earliest. We were up near Bountiful Peaks this past July and our friends from overseas were amazed at their first view of snow. It was crusty, icy, and dirty but they managed to make small snowmen out of it. The whole trail is usually open until Halloween or even later in a dry year. There are no facilities along the trail, but at the farthest, you're only about an hour away from civilization and there's a cell tower next to Alpine Lake and the radar balls, so it's a safe trip. There is private property and National Forest land that is off limits to vehicle travel, so be sure to pay attention to the signs and barricades. And be sure also to pack out your own beverage cans and trash.
--Randy Farnsworth, an avid family traveler plus author of "A Stand Yet Taken." http://randyfarnsworth.com.
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