A beginner's guide to winter recreation on the north slope of the Uintas

A beginner's guide to winter recreation on the north slope of the Uintas

(Dave Cawley)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some people see winter as a miserable time to hide indoors, but doing so means missing out on what makes Utah such a unique place to play.

State Route 150, also known as the Mirror Lake Highway, carries thousands of people up over Bald Mountain Pass each summer, through aspen and pine forests dotted with shimmering lakes. During winter, gates close across the Mirror Lake Highway and it instead becomes a thoroughfare for snow machines.

Many people who play in the western Uintas during the winter do so from the Soapstone closure gate on the south slope. But Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Evanston-Mountain View District Ranger Rick Schuler said that those willing to drive a bit farther can find a whole different experience by heading up through Evanston, Wyoming.

"You know it really is a great topography for folks that are just starting out," Schuler said. "Bear River Lodge is up on the north slope gate there on the Mirror Lake Highway and that's about it for development. The rest is kind of that rural atmosphere."

In the summer, the western Uintas see heavy use from ATV riders, hikers, horse packers and hunters. During the winter the area is used primarily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. And that can cause some friction between the two groups.

"Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are pretty much separated, but you get some snowmobiles skiing on the roads, skate-skiing," Schuler said. "You've got sled dog racers that are up there training their dogs, snowshoers. And people can ride their ATVs still on some of the trails."

Bear River Lodge is a familiar sight to any parent who has had to drop off or pick up a child from the nearby East Fork of the Bear scout reservation (recently renamed the Bryant S. Hinckley Scout Ranch). It started out more humbly as Bear River Service.

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"The old Bear River Service was an old quonset hut that was put up in, I think right around World War Two so it was here for quite awhile," said Bear River Lodge owner Roger Eggett. "We tore that down in 2008 and then we started building cabins."

The cabins are available for rent year-round. Eggett also rents ATVs in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Eggett's property also sits near the groomed Lily Lake trail system.

"About 400 yards away you start on a trail system that will take you up to Lilly Lake. It'll take you up into the wilderness area, the Boundary Creek Yurt which is up on the wilderness boundary. Just beautiful."

That yurt and others are maintained cooperatively by the Forest Service and Bear River Outdoor Recreational Alliance. They're available to rent for a modest fee, and are open to anyone who joins the recreational alliance and pitches in to maintain them.

"We do the grooming, they maintain the five yurts that we have in the system," Schuler said. "They check in on them every week, make sure everything's there. If there's a problem or if maintenance needs to be done they'll take care of that while we really focus on trying to make sure that 16 kilometers of ski trail system is up to par."

To test out the quality of their work, Alicia Cawley and Nikki Christensen hit the trails on a sunny Saturday morning.

"Beautiful, clear blue sky. The sun is behind us, shining out over all the trees," Nikki said. "It's nice to get out of the inversion and breath clean air and it's a lot warmer than I anticipated. I could have left a lot of layers back at the cabin."

The Lilly Lake trail system is very well-defined, with signs and maps marking each intersection. Users can easily create their own loop trips to fit their degree of fitness or ability level.

For novice snowmobilers, the Mirror Lake Highway provides an easy starting point. The highway itself is groomed by the Forest Service throughout the winter, providing smooth cruising. Lakes that provide picturesque camping spots right off the highway during the warmer months turn into large playpens for sleds once the water freezes.

More advanced riders can venture off the highway on the North Slope Road (forest road 58), into Christmas Meadows (forest road 57) or out to Whitney Reservoir (forest road 32). However, off-highway and backcountry travel comes with a heightened responsibility for self-sufficiency. It also requires an understanding of avalanche conditions and the wisdom to avoid terrain beyond one's ability level.

Growth on private lands bordering the National Forest does cause some concern for land managers tasked with limiting damage to the resources. It also threatens to put increased strain on the nearby High Uintas Wilderness Area, an area off-limits to motorized recreation.

Schuler said that he thinks so far, they're striking a balance.

"I think we're always asked ‘Are we going to develop more trails and put in more yurts,' " Shuler said. "You know right now, we seem to be filling that niche."


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