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Climbing Manns Peak – Hold On To Your Hat
by Marcia Hafner

The moment I step out of the jeep at the trailhead to Burro Pass, I step back in again for a quick change of clothes - off come my shorts, on go my hiking pants. At a high elevation even in the summer, it is hard to guess what the weather will be and I always come prepared with a fleece top, long pants, and a windproof raincoat.

Twenty-five to thirty million years ago, the intrusive molten magma cooled into igneous rock and overlying, less-resistant sandstone eroded away resulting in the formation of the La Sal Mountains. This mountain range covers an area 25 miles long (north-south) by 15 miles wide (east-west) and is the second highest range in Utah after the Uintas. Collecting moisture from westerly air currents, they recharge the aquifers and water table for Moab and other nearby communities.

A prominent landmark on the Old Spanish Trail, the name “La Sal” was originally recorded in the 1776 journals of Dominquez and Escalante, two Franciscan friars on an expedition to find a route between the Catholic missions in California and New Mexico. They were also interested in claiming more land for Spain and Mexico. Their Ute guides had referred to this mountain range as “Sierra de la Sal” (“The Salt Mountains”) for the salt deposits at the base of the range. With twelve peaks over 12,000 feet, they are divided into three distinct groups; north, middle and south. There are two passes: La Sal Pass (10,125ft.) and Geyser Pass (10,500 ft.) Geyser Pass, however, has nothing to do with a geyser. Instead it is named after Al Geyser, an early cattleman. Tomasaki Peak, Mount Waas and Mount Tukuhnikivatz were named after Ute leaders by members of the Hayden Survey in 1875. Tradition suggests that the translation of Tukunikivatz from the Ute language is “place where the sun sets last.” The highest peak, Mount Peale (12,721 feet) was named after Albert Charles Peale, a geologist on the Hayden Survey team.

Our goal for the day, Manns Peak (12,272 feet), is the fifth highest peak. It is my favorite peak to climb because the route up the south ridge is easy to follow and the distance from the trailhead to the summit is much shorter than other peaks above 12,000 feet. That eliminates both the fear of getting lost and the long grunt to the top. The added bonus is there is a minimum of talus (piles of loose unstable rock) so the footing is more secure.

At the beginning of the trail there is a turnstile next to the cattleguard. A short walk through aspens, firs, and spruce with one easy stream crossing brings us to a lush meadow. In mid-June aside from dandelions and wild parsley, it’s too early for the big production of wildflowers. To our right we can now see Manns Peak and a little further south Tomasaki Peak with the ridge that connects the two of them. On the talus slopes we hear the shrill, piercing calls of marmots and pikas. The marmot, a high elevation relative of the groundhog, goes into hibernation for the winter. Pikas are related to rabbits and with their small rounded ears and no visible tail, look like brown guinea pigs. Active in their dens throughout the winter, in late summer they gather green plants for their cold weather food supply.

It is not unusual to see golden eagles and today an immature with classic white markings circles overhead. Two curious mule deer take a long look at us before ambling off. Secretive elk thrive in the backcountry and are seldom seen.

On the switchbacks up the slope to Burro Pass, we walk cautiously across a lingering snowfield. We have now gained approximately1,000 feet and are at an elevation of 11,180 feet. It is time to take a break!

Now more refreshed we leave the main trail which continues north down the other side of the pass to either Warner Lake or Oowah Lake. Instead we go up the northeast ridge following a primitive trail until Manns Peak comes into sight again. Tempting as it is to stay on this easy-walking trail, that’s my signal to veer off it before it starts going down away from Manns Peak to Deep Creek. I swing left to avoid the talus slope directly ahead of us.

In the tundra the wind is fierce and we’re putting on an extra layer of clothes. The higher we march, the more fierce and bitter the wind becomes. Almost knocking us off our feet, my hiking partner is wondering when I’ll suggest we turn back. I keep hoping that she’ll make the suggestion! But the close-looking summit that still feels so far away keeps teasing us on. Trudging along, bucking a now raging wind, we finally take refuge in the rock shelter on top where there’s a dynamite view of nine of the twelve peaks over 12,000 feet. East into Colorado, we are looking at the snow-capped San Juan Mountains, the Uncompahgre Plateau, Paradox Valley and the canyons of the Dolores River. On the northeastern slope directly below us is Beaver Basin and beyond that is Castle Valley. We shift our position for a westerly, windblown look at down-sized Moab Valley and Spanish Valley. Further out we have a vision of the Henry Mountains with the rugged floorboard of the canyonland country in between. Being knocked around on the way up was a small price we had to pay for the dramatic scene we’ve just witnessed.

To get to the Burro Pass Trailhead, drive south eight miles on highway191 out of Moab. Then take the left hand turn to Ken’s Lake. Go half a mile to the stop sign and take a right on to Spanish Valley Drive which turns into the La Sal Loop Road. Twenty miles after leaving Moab there will be a sign for a right hand turn on to the Geyser Pass Road. Another eight miles gets you to the pass. It is a dirt-washboard road and the last few miles, which are impassable in the winter, is narrow so be prepared to pull over or back up for oncoming vehicles. Not far past Geyser Pass take a left fork and continue approximately another mile. Then turn left at the sign for Burro Pass. For the last half mile to the trailhead, four-wheel drive is highly recommended.

A word of caution: Mountains create their own weather. When the clouds start to build, keep in mind conditions can change in a hurry. If you’re on an open, exposed area and there’s lightning close by, get down to more sheltered areas as fast as you can.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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