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Climbing Laurel Peak
by Marcy Hafner

Too early in the morning the clanging of the alarm jars us out of bed. After a quick breakfast, we’re out the door and on the road. Already the sun is peeking over the horizon, and the race is on to beat the heat as we instinctively migrate to the cool alpine air in the high country. We are lucky to have the La Sal Mountains, the second highest range in Utah after the Uintas, only a short drive from Moab.

For thousands of years Native Americans made this seasonal upward migration. That influence is reflected in the naming of two peaks – Tomasaki, a native guide and Waas, a Ute chief - a designation made by members of the Hayden survey crew in 1875. Tradition suggests that the translation of “Tukunikivatz” means place where the sun lingers longest – an appropriate term for one of the more prominent peaks in the La Sals.

From town, it’s an eight mile drive south on Highway 191 before taking a left turn for Ken’s Lake. At the stop sign we go right on Spanish Valley Drive, which turns into the La Sal Loop Road. Approximately 20 miles from town, we turn right on to the graveled Geyser Pass Road, which is suitable for any vehicle. Then we travel 5.5 more miles for the Gold Basin turnoff.

Once on the Gold Basin Road we drive approximately one mile and park near a campsite with a picnic table. Then I walk a short distance back on the road to locate a marked post at the beginning of the trail. At 10,090 feet I now commence my journey to a sub-summit on Laurel Ridge referred to as “Pre-Laurel”, where a weather station provides an on-line alpine weather report. This is the most common route to the top of Laurel Peak and if all goes well, maybe I’ll bag a peak today!

Not far up the trail I surprise a doe with her spotted, wobbly-legged fawn. Mom does not appreciate my intrusion, but Junior curiously trots to within 20 feet of me. Meanwhile Mama is frantically snorting and stamping as she communicates to her child, “Get over here now!” It’s a while before Junior, no bigger than a medium-sized dog, gets the message, and when it finally sinks in, he and his mother abruptly dash off into the wilderness.

After that little drama, I resume my uphill walk through an abundance of wooded meadows filled with a brilliant bouquet of wildflowers. The flashy yellowish-orange sneezeweed, which resembles a sombrero decorated with floppy petals, catches my eye. This intriguing plant received its odd name because Native Americans dried its flowers to induce sneezing to clear out stuffy sinuses.

Eventually the impressive profiles of Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, Tuk No and a faint image of the weather station come into view. Then passing through an opening – firs on one side, aspens on the other - I arrive at the big meadow and start an upward walk on its slanted slope. Almost to the edge of the trees, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for where this faint trail veers abruptly to the right and continues along the upper edge of the meadow.

At a spot bordered by aspens - a favorite spot of mine - I can’t resist settling down for a pleasurable break in this extensive meadow. Lazily I watch heart-shaped leaves stirring with the slightest caress of a breeze as I tune in to the orchestration of birds - a haunting flute song of the hermit thrush - a chickadee’s enchanting “dee-dee-dee” - a raucous buzz of pine siskins - and an endless performance of warbling vireos.

Too soon this refreshing pause must end, and I’m poking around to find the continuation of the trail as it enters the shaded, pine-scented firs and spruce. Before long I’m wandering in and out of small meadows, and as footpaths appear and disappear, it is up to me to stay on course and not get lost! I have discovered going down is trickier, but if I stray off the beaten path I can always follow the ridge down to the road.

In the first meadow I strike out for higher ground on an upper trail, the most direct route to Laurel. Further along I’m passing by another meadow filled with the radiant brilliance of golden banner flowers. After that the departure from the big trees is abrupt; suddenly I’m in the tundra.

Once on the wind-swept ridge that travels to the base of Laurel Peak, I can clearly see the long distance still to go! Passing the last clump of stunted trees, I struggle on to the weather station. At 11,700 feet, it is a treat to observe white butterflies and swallowtails. Another treat to behold in this extreme environment is the exquisite beauty of an isolated patch of blue columbines.

In a saddle I still have 600 more feet to climb and gratefully accept the respite of level ground before starting the grind up again! At this point the peak looks tantalizingly close and yet still feels a million miles away! Trudging up a series of trails through the talus I pass by small pockets of sky pilot flowers, which have managed to eke out a living in this land of rocks.

All right! I’ve finally obtained my goal. It was a grunt – 2,180 feet in three miles - but at an elevation of 12,271 feet, I am finally standing on the summit of Laurel Peak - the sixth highest in the La Sals! Amazingly flies, butterflies and spiders are here, too!

Breathing hard I plop down on a slanted rock to savor this Top-Of-The-World view of the surrounding peaks - Tuk No, Tukuhnikivatz, South Mountain, Mt. Peale, Mt. Mellenthin and Haystack Mountain. Looking east, I savor a long distance shot of southwestern Colorado. Eying the western vista, I am rewarded with the presentation of Mill Creek Canyon, Bald Mesa, Boren Mesa, Wilson Mesa, Moab, Ken’s Lake, the jagged ridge of Behind The Rocks and the Henry Mountains. The Abajos make their mark on the southwestern horizon, and then turning my attention in a northerly direction, I am gazing over at the Bookcliffs.

I was hoping to linger longer to absorb this sensational scenery, but too soon friendly clouds don’t look so friendly anymore. Billowing thunderheads suddenly look downright angry, a clear indication it is time to start heading down - and I waste no time in doing so!

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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