By: Bob Michael
EXPLORING UTAH'S TUSHAR MOUNTAINS
The Tushar Mountains are a compact cluster of glacially-carved peaks on the western edge of the High Plateaus of central Utah. They are part of the geologically fascinating Plateau-Basin and Range Transition Zone. With three peaks rising veil above timberline to over 12,000', these mountains, with their rugged, pointed profiles, contrast greatly with the flattish outlines of the High Plateaus, and look like nothing so much as a far-detached outlier of the Colorado Rockies. This resemblance holds up and even intensifies on a closer look; scenically, geologically, and botanically, the Tushars are a scaled-down version of the San Juan Mountains.
Eager to explore a totally new mountain range, my Las Vegas friend Bill Quinn and I spent a couple days in the Tushars in late August. From Vegas we zipped up I-15 past Zion to the little Mormon town of Beaver. The next day we headed east on Utah highway 153, a spectacular drive which crosses the range at an over-10,000' pass to the south of the high peaks.
We turned off the highway onto an excellent dirt road which heads north through magnificent spruce and aspen forests to Big John Flat, a camping area at 10,000'. The road continues north from the Flat, steepening and narrowing somewhat, but still quite derivable as it rises above timberline and over a spectacular 11,000'+ pass to drop down on the northeastern side of the range. From the pass, there are good views of the steep, glacially-hewn pyramids of Baldy Peak (12,062') and Mt. Belknap (12,139'). We headed towards Belknap, branching off the main dirt road on a jeep track which went up into the cirque on the east side of the peak. We parked the 4wd where the road deteriorated, just above timberline. (These are mineralized mountains, and mining activity has left many roads in the high country.)
According to the 1932 Delano Peak 15' topo, and from visual scouting, the north ridge of Belknap looked best. Since then I've read that there is a trail of sorts up the south ridge, and I wouldn't recommend our route; it was very steep and loose, even dangerous in spots, in sliding brittle platy volcanic chiprock of a type that is all too common in western Colorado. The spacious summit had extensive ruins of an old heliograph station (there's one atop Wheeler, also). The view was wonderful, west over the Basin and Range to Wheeler Peak, and east over the High Plateaus past Boulder Mountain and Capitol Reef to the Henry Mountains. I think Everett Ruess and Ed Abbey would have liked it up there.
That night we camped in an Englemann spruce grove at 10,400' near the road head for 12,169' Delano Peak, highest but not the most impressive peak in the range. Delano is very different from the sharp crumbling horn of Belknap; the route from the west goes up a huge, gently rising tundra slope all the way to the summit. This is by far the biggest and lushest expanse of Arctic-Alpine tundra I've ever seen outside the Rockies. Although we were too late for the wildflowers that must be fantastic up there earlier in the summer, several register entries praised the display. (We also noted that some four-legged equine mountaineers had even made it to the top up the gentle west side.)
That same day, we reluctantly headed back to Vegas via Cedar Breaks and Brian Head. (The latter is an 11,300' drive-up peak that shouldn't be missed. The view from the top is almost better than from the peaks in the Tushurs!) It's great to live in the West... and appreciate it!
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