City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 23, 2017

July 20th

Smuggler’s Gap

11:00 a.m. To escape the estival heat wave, today I decide to jog and hike up the switchback trail to Smuggler’s Gap on Little Black Mountain. At the end of paved canyon road and after a short three-quarter mile jog, the trail to Smuggler’s Gap begins to wind up a a fifty degree slope on the western side of the Salt Lake salient. This also marks the beginning of the ridgeline that divides the City’s Avenues neighborhood from the canyon. Because of its step angle and orientation to the Sun, this slope is in perpetual shade, and that makes for both the cool hikes on a hot days and a micro-climate that supports the giant Lodgepole pines on either side of the trail. The Smuggler’s Gap trailhead is partially washed away, and the hike begins with ill-footing and unplanned slips and slides before the Civilian Conservation Corps era resumes. The trail is firm and well-packed, despite being unmaintained for several decades. This is also the result of the climate and Lodgepoles whose chemical containing needles prevent other plants from sprouting. Hiking in the Wasatch Mountain Range always involves steep vertical gains, and the quick rises always provide a physical metaphors for rising spirits traveling to an emotional release from daily life. Here, going “higher” means more than simply walking uphill. This slope is also the domain of the canyon’s population of Stellar jays (Cyanocitta stelleri). Over the 1,000 foot elevation gain to the ridge, I count about 30 jays in various groups. All are loud, raucous, and characteristically complain about by my intrusion into their home. The clean air clears the mind.

One of the last switchbacks turns at a “U” shaped gully about 30 feet across that descends precipitously back to the end of the road. In late spring of 1985, this gully was still choked with a 100 year snowpack event, and as I then starred down its tube, approaching storm clouds obscured the view after the first one-hundred feet. Wearing late winter shell clothing, I pulled out my ice axe and jumped. About ten minutes later of high-speed sliding and ice-axe arrests, I arrived at the parking lot and a long walk out the canyon.

Today, there is no ice and snow, and after another 100 feet altitude, I reach the pass at Black Mountain. After a fifty foot rock scramble, I reach the 200 million year old limestone fin that defines the first one-half mile of the ridgeline of Little Black Mountain.

The Utah State Department of Health announced yesterday that a another invasive has reached Utah – the microorganism West Nite virus (Flavivirus family). Health department sampling has found five mosquitoes in Salt Lake valley. Although the department has not stated where the samples were located, tree holes in the canyon mark sites from which samples are collected (Nov. 7th). Like its predecessor, the dry, brown Cheat grass on the hills above the canyon and on the City’s northern foothills, this new invasive species has the potential to dramatically change the landscape, if it is not checked early.

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On July 20th, 2004, a female runner allegedly disappeared while jogging in City Creek Canyon (Deseret News). On July 20th, 2004, three-hundred volunteers search City Creek Canyon for a jogger, Lori Hacking, who was reported missing by her husband (Salt Lake Tribune, July 20, 21 and 24, 2004, Deseret News, 1,200 searched). Eventually, 4,000 people will participate in the search (Salt Lake Tribune, August 1, 2004). The husband later pled guilty to killing her and of disposing of her body elsewhere (Salt Lake Tribune, April 15, 2005).

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September 21, 2016

September 8th

The Mountain Who Lost It’s Backside

4 p.m. Today I decide to drive up to the end of the paved road and trail jog to the end of the canyon. The canyon will be closed to cars at the end of September, and I usually do one of these trail runs at this time. (A second is done in early June.) The paved road ends at mile 5.75 and the trail continues for another 4.25 miles before it descends into Wasatch County. But today I decided to only go to trail mile 3.5 where one can see that part of the backside of Grandview Peak is missing. It is the sheer vertical cliff about 200 feet high.

Through trail mile 1.0, the stream is wider and flat. The trail is about 100 feet off to one side and passes through box elder and maple groves. The trail, actually a dirt road that is fading away, crosses the stream at two iron bridges and passes the Smuggler’s Gap trailhead. Then the trail changes character. The trail becomes a disused single track that sits two or three feet to the north of the small fast-moving creek. The creek flows over a series of algae covered rock jumbles into small pools. Both the stream and the floor of the trail are broken Mississippian and Permian slate. At times the stream and trail wind through boughs of river beech trees. Here, a red Admiral butterfly floats between the stream, bushes and the shade of the trees.

Grandview Peak is to the left and the north, but its view is blocked by the steep v shape of the creek gorge and by stands of aspen. To the right and south is the ridge between City Creek and Red Butte canyons. On the city side the ridge is a near-vertical wall that sits in perpetual shadow. Thus, it is covered in the thick healthy stand of cold tolerant Douglas fir. In contrast, the Sun exposed Red Butte side is a thick drought tolerant Gambel oak forest.

I round a bend near trail mile 1.6 and startle a Cooper’s hawk that is napping in a tree grove. Attempts to fly away but is trapped in the tangle of branches that it is resting in. It waits anxiously for about 30 seconds. Seeing that I am no threat, it picks a route out of its lair, and then like an owl, expertly flies through the forest understory to freedom.

At trail mile 2.1 the canyon opens into the first of four hanging meadows. Each is divided by gradual inclines. This first meadow hosts a SNOTEL weather station, and in the second at trail mile 2.6, the bushes are flattened in a series of circles. Here a moose can usually be found, and today is no exception. As I am exiting the meadow, I hear something crashing through the brush, and turning around, a frightened female moose is careening into the safety of the forest. There is little sign of deer in this part of the canyon because there is little grass forage to support them. In each of these hanging meadows there are bushes of mountain blueberries that provide refreshing forage for me.

The character of these meadows has changed dramatically since I last ran through them in June. Then the brush was so profuse that it reached my neck and overhung and obscured the trail. Jogging was an act of faith and was more like swimming through a sea of green. You hoped that the trail was underfoot and sometimes it was not. Now the meadows are a sea of tan. The trail is plainly visible, but the trail floor is a pallet of dark browns and tans from dried and crushed brush punctuated by accents of fallen bright and muted red-orange aspen and maple leaves. I am jogging over an 18 inch by 300 foot canvas painted by the randomness of nature.

At trail mile 3.6, I am climbing past the last meadow and towards the ridgeline at the end of the canyon. My goal for the day is visible on the north side of canyon. Here a series of spur ridges come down from Grandview Peak and end in rounded noses, but one nose is cut off. It ends in a sheer vertical cliff about the size of two or three football fields. At its base is a 200 foot tall talus field. Here, some geologists believe an ancient earthquake may have shorn the mountainside away. One can see other examples along the Wasatch Front. The shear north face of Mount Olympus has a rubble pile at its base which is now the Mount Olympus subdivision. This reminds us that the West is earthquake country and there work 14 earthquakes in Utah of greater than magnitude 5 during the last century. In 2008, geologists Francis X. Ashland and Gregory N. McDonald investigated the Grandview Peak landslide in order to determine the most cost-effective method of dating the mountainside’s failure. They concluded that the remoteness of the site and the depth of the talus field made it impractical to retrieve rock samples from deep underneath the talus field in order to accurately date when the slide occurred.

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