This was supposed to be my big fall-colors adventure. I had a great time, but it turns out I was a good week or two too early for peak fall colors in the Wasatch. I was greatly impressed with Mount Timpanogos that I had hiked last year, so I was looking forward to climbing another central Wasatch Peak.
But with my calf still a bit sore from running Cedar's Half Marathon the previous week, I wanted to gain most of the vertical on the approach by mountain bike. After studying area maps, I decided to climb Twin Peaks (11,489 ft), the highpoint of Salt Lake County. There are a few different ways to approach this peak by bike. The most straightforward way is to bike up the Tram road from Snowbird Ski Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. From the top of the Tram, it's an easy stroll out onto the summit ridge to Twin Peaks. But, I've already biked up that road several times over the years during bike races so I wanted to try something different.
Maps showed another possibility was to approach from the American Fork side of the ridge. A dirt road leaves upper American Fork Canyon and snakes its way up Mary Ellen Gulch--home to once-bustling mining activity--to within one mile of Twin Peaks. On paper, this looked looked like an intriguing route that had everything I was looking for. I checked my mountain biking guidebooks for a description of the route up Mary Ellen. Nothing. Hmmm, did that mean that Mary Ellen is not bikeable?
Undeterred, I set out for American Fork Canyon. Since I had already ultra-climbed Timp from the mouth of the canyon, I figured I could cheat a bit and drive up to Tibble Fork Reservoir (elev. 6360 ft). As I unloaded my bike and looked around, it was obvious that the fall colors were just starting to turn with just an isolated splash of orange here and there. It was also obvious that I'd have lots of motorized company as well as I watched dozens of people unloading ATVs.
Above: Tibble Fork Reservoir reflects part of Timpanogos Mountain on its placid waters.
The road up American fork canyon is moderately steep and loose and very dusty due to all of the traffic. People were camped anywhere there was even a tiny clearing along the road. Some people camped practically right in the road. This place is very popular.
The instant I turned off of the main road and into Mary Ellen Gulch, things got a lot quieter. The first mile of the canyon is a nice ride. After that, it became clear why this canyon is not overcrowded with bikers or you average ATVer or Jeeper.
The road up Mary Ellen steepens, gets looser, and becomes covered with sharp baby-head rocks. Eventually the road traverses scree fields which were a fun challenge at first, but became a harrowing momentum-killer over time.
I finally threw in the towel, stashed my bike, changed shoes, and continued on foot. A few tricked-out jeeps passed by, then a couple of four-wheelers.
Above: Silver ore was first discovered in Mary Ellen Gulch and nearby Miller Hill in the 1860s. The Yankee and Globe mines seen here were among the top producers in the district.
Near the top of the canyon, where the road gets particularly nasty, I came across a four-wheeler high-centered on bedrock. There were three guys working on trying to get it off the high fin of rock--one guy was on the machine working the throttle, the other two were on the uphill and downhill side trying to pull the wheels down to make contact with the ground. The oldest guy on the uphill side was barking out orders. The driver gave it some throttle in reverse and the machine started to go up onto its side two wheels. The old guy on the uphill side tried in vain to hold the floating side of the machine down, but it was just too much mass in motion. The downhill-side guy wisely bolted out of the way as the driver balanced briefly on two wheels, but then thrust himself away the best he could from the overturning machine. The landing on uneven quartzite ridges looked very painful, but luckily he was able to avoid getting crushed. Other than some cuts and bruises, the driver seemed OK. The other two were able to flip the machine back over, and they were on their way again.
Above: the upper bowl in Mary Ellen Gulch.
The road ends at the highest mine. From there, I crossed a snow field, and then began picking my way up a blocky talus cone toward the summit ridge. Once on the summit ridge, it was an easy stroll through colorful grasses to the summit. I met a couple of other hikers that had come up from Snowbird and were just heading back down.
The views from the top were, of course, fantastic in all directions. I was amazed at how much snow had persisted throughout the summer.
Above: Mount Timp rises above lower American Fork Canyon and Silver Lake.
Above: view of Lone Peak to the west. I swear I was looking UP at Lone Peak, but according to topo maps, it's almost 200 feet lower than the American Fork Twins. Lone Peak is at the top of my Wasatch list of must-dos.
After a snack and snapping many photos, I stretched out my calf, which felt a little sore, but nothing too bad. After carefully picking my way down the steep talus field, I pushed my calf a bit and ran most of the road back to my bike. From there is was a fast and very dusty coast back to my car at Tibble Fork.
Total elevation gain was about 5200 feet. Total ride/hike time was about 6.5 hours.
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