Monday, February 16, 2009

Utah Places: Lake Fork

Lake Fork from Thistle Junction to Indianola is a hidden treasure. The area doesn't bear too much traffic -- just mostly from curious passer bys or those already in the know. But every once in a while, some less intrepid back roads explorer ends up coming across the old Thistle Junction and the Lake Fork that it hides, and they discover a new world of wonders.

At the bottom of the road is located the cause of a tremendous saga in Utah State history. The Thistle slide was a geological event on a global scale of unprecedented proportions. A largely forgotten event now, at the time, just the roadwork to relocate US89 above the flood was a heroic project, needed to restore interstate transport through the area that was interrupted for more that 18 months.

At Thistle Junction, there is a monument erected to commemorate the event that took place over 1981-1983. There are lots of good web resources, like this Wiki entry HERE.

At the west end of the old US89 remnant on the Thistle side, a Utah County Sheriffs facility has appropriated the slide to use for shooting practice. It is all fenced off with tall fences and barb wire. Don't try to go in there.

The ruins of the old Thistle school/common building is private property now, so please just look and admire. It is still a great photo op. Don't look for souvenirs or anything touristy like that, please. Definitely bad form. Photos only.

Across the highway and over the big culvert, the Lake Fork Road starts in earnest. Lots of off-road ATV and motocross enthusiasts never make it past this point at all. In fact, there is a sort of shirt-tail RV-park on private land just at the foothill of the mountain here, that offers access to the Forest Service property beneath the high-tension power lines that run across here and beyond. The foothills scrub and oakbrush area are criss-crossed with trails that lead everywhere and nowhere -- an off-road vehicles wet dream. I personally think they are ugly scars on the land, but if you like that sort of thing, this is the place to come. And ENJOY! That is the nice thing about this land, there is room enough for everyone to spread out without crowding, and do their own thing.

Further along the road, there are several places that are private lands along both sides of the road. Please respect ranchers signs and fences and do not disturb historic artifacts or grazing livestock. None of these things are there for your amusement or entertainment. Someone else went to the expense and the bother to fence their land and raised the stock and built the buildings. Leave them as you find them. If gates are locked, assume that someone intended them that way for a purpose, and either take the time to inquire, or leave them alone.

You may not find any signs quite like this one, but if you do find plain old "no trespassing" notices, please respect them. They're serious, and so am I.

Further along, you will finally come to some nicer signs informing you that you are welcomed to Forest Service boundaries, in the Manti La-Sal Division. This is good news, that you have made it this far. You might have encountered a few minor obstacles along the way -- downed logs across, flooded, boggy areas, mud holes, rocks, etc. All just part of the fun. Don't worry, it will get worse. If that worries you a lot, better turn around now. If you think we're just getting warmed up, drive on.

The road follows Lake Fork and continues to climb alongside it's course. This is the most remarkable thing to note about this drive. It starts in sagebrush scrub, progresses higher to pinion/juniper, through Doug fir and on up to White fir and Engleman spruce and limber pines, at the very peaks. The progression of ecosystems is very orderly according to exposure and elevation. Remarkable and very instructive to see.

Just past the first signs, there are organized camp sites here and there along the creek. I have never taken much note or interest in any of them. If you are particularly in need of such a facility, please consult the Forest Service for more info. Or follow this link.

I have seen many groups, some appear to be camping, fishing, or ATV riding, or family gatherings, or what have you, camped in more informal areas under the trees along the creek. I assume this is absolutely okay too -- I have never seen rangers rousting anyone minding their own business. So if you have a mind, feel free to set up a camp where ever strikes your fancy. Keep in mind that space is more at a premium generally, as you progress to higher elevations. So as a rule of thumb, big flat shady spots are best found nearer the Thistle end of the road. Not too low down -- get far enough up the creek to beat the heat -- but not so far up the mountain that there's no flat level spots left to park your rigs.

That said, I have to say, one of my favorite picnic spots is pretty high up the canyon, beneath a stand of very old tall Doug firs with thier feet speed out broad. There's enough space underneath to spread out a few picnic lunches on blankets on the ground, and the creek meanders by to the east for the children to paddle and play in. A side-canyon adjoins and beckons the boot-leather anxious adventurer, and I have hiked it for many miles, but I will not spoil the suspense, for any who wish to try it themselves. Look for some interesting fossil specimens, if you're into that sort of thing. I found some in a ridge on the north shoulder, in rocky outcropping.

For that matter, if you don't want to walk so far, just look carefully in the creek.

Higher up, there is a big switchback. and very steep bit of climbing as the creek tops out. Note that along the way a couple of miles back, you passed by the fork to the west leading to Smith's Reservoir. It qualifies as more of a big pond, in my book. Some people swear the fishing is phenomenal -- I have never tried. It is a nice short strenuous hike, or a very hairy 4wd trail, or an easy short ATV adventure -- take your pick. I have only hiked, cross-country from the southern approach. It makes an interesting trek from the Buggy Wheel Springs area.

Also, west of the road and south of the little reservoir is the summit area of the Lake Fork. It consists of a series of rock pinnacles and rocky ledges, with White fir and Limber pines all around the shoulders. These rocks host some fun scramblin on bouldering and mixed talus and steep gravel slopes. It is a big reward to top out on one of those little peaks, and just look around. I once carried a directional 2 meter radio rig with me, but was unable to make a contact. Sanpete County is pretty dead in the middle of the day.

Another fascinating feature of the middle elevations in this particular area is that it hosts a lot of the species Cercocarpus ledifolius. For those of you in Rio Linda, this is the Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany, and the reason it is very interesting to people who love the mountains, big-game hunters in particular, is because Curl-leaf is one of the primary winter forages of the species Cervis canadensis, the Rocky Mountain Elk. One of the most prized of big-game animals in this area. Very few hunters come seeking this animal here, and they seek these rocky pinnacles, perhaps as a refuge.

My neighbor bags his regularly in a small valley just to the south on the Indianola side. But perhaps I am giving away too many secrets.

A few years ago, when I was more able, I was hiking cross-country from the US89 side out across the pinnacles area, through the Buggy Wheel Springs access. See the Birdseye comment for more detail about that area. Anyway, as I approached the pinnacles from the west, I was watching the elk. I stayed far enough away that I did not think I would spook the herd, but they obviously spotted me moving in  the scrub, and started browsing away. Suddenly I noticed a WHITE animal, far on the outskirts of the herd. It was a very large herd at the time, several hundred animals, more than I could reliably count heads with my field glasses, because they were moving. But the one animal was so obviously WHITE from top to bottom that he stood out starkly in contrast to the others.

Apparently, he was albino. I watched until they browsed across the ridge and I could no longer see them.

One of the most remarkable things I noted while watching the herd was that they seemed to shun the albino member. He stayed on the outskirts of the grazing area, and the other animals shoved him or shouldered him away when he attempted to graze into the area where they were browsing. I didn't watch long enough to make any real conclusions or studies other than casual observation, but if I was making a guess, I would say that the other animals of the herd discriminated against this white colored animal because he was superficially different from them.

Draw your own conclusions.

One of the chief among reasons I go back to the Lake Fork again and again is for spring wildflowers. Let me show some specifics, just to tantalize the few sceptics.

One of my big favorites is the Aquilegia canadensis, the wild columbine flower. Colorado thinks it is their state flower, so we will just keep the Utah specimens our little secret -- lots of them grow here, too.

In the higher, wetter areas of Lake Fork, look for them blooming in late spring on stream banks in the shade. They are the crowning beauties of the forest.

You will also find, in almost opposite circumstances, two species that I also love to find that represent the freedom of the hills.

The Gilia aggregata is an example of a wildflower nature has adapted for the worst conditions. Scarlet gilia thrives in rocky dry waste places where little else can grow.

It often flowers on rocky steep hillsides and roadcuts. Watch for sprigs of bright scarlet colors where they almost cannot be, it will probably be scarlet gilia.

In a properly shared ecosystem, the hot dry sandy west-facing hillsides heat up too fast for almost everything except that intrepid species Oenothera ceaspitosa, the evening blooming desert pale primrose.

It roots deep in sandy hillsides and displays its showy blooms against the dull backdrop canvas of plain hot sands. It is a good showing, and a fragrant one.

There are many other wildflowers to be found and marvelled in, in the Lake Fork area and throughout the Wasatch. Look for them. Stop and smell the flowers. It will bring everlasting joy to a dreary world, and enliven your heart, as it has mine, I promise you.

One last species, to make good on this special promise, that holds a special place for every true Utahn. Calochortus nuttalii, the Sego Lily, is the Utah State flower, and for good reason. This stalwart gem is a practical and beautiful little blossom that blooms on highlands and high desert lands throughout the west.

It is truly a shining picture of practical persistence and splendor amid harsh conditions everywhere -- a good example and uplifting inspiration to us all.


Anonymous said...

Cindy again...

The Wiki entry links to a site that shows all that's left to be seen of the town, tops of a couple of homes that flooded out and the schoolhouse(?). I don't remember the town from before the slide, but it never was very big I'd guess. Have you hiked around there? Is there more to see? Was most of the town under the slide? Or was it more like it is now, not much there to begin with?

Just wondering...

Jim Cobabe said...


The red brick building is the old school. Many older residents of the area recall when it was in active operation. The town itself was not buried in the actual slide, but was flooded by the waters of the lake it created. There is an old grey bulding in standing water across the road from the ruined scoolhouse that used to be the Thistle general store/gas station. That is all I remember about the area, really. The old U89 came up Spanish Fork right alongside the river and made a turn at the corner where the school and general store were. Thisle Lake temporarily buried that road under hundreds of feet of water. You can still spot the wreckage of several of the homes and outbuldings that did not survive the flooding. They are scattered around where the shoreline of the lake existed at the highest level.

At the time, traffic into Salt Lake City from the east had to route across I70 to I15 instead of using the cutoff through Price. It was a lot of extra miles to travel. Restoration of U89/6 cost an estimated 200 million, the most expensive project of its kind in history.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I loved the additional info!

Actually I'm loving each of these entries. Some I may go to, but most I will probably just enjoy through you, since I am not so adventurous. So anyway, thank you very much!

Love you,

Jim Cobabe said...


As I told Patricia, and intimated to others, sadly, I will probably never visit any of these places again either. Many of these fond memories I am seeing through a veil of tears, and I am bidding goodbyes, as well.

It is not with complete sadness -- many great memories, many great places. I am so glad I could go the places, and that I have the good memories to share with you and others now.

Anonymous said...

I remember that a friend in Jr. High had a cap that said "Thistle Yacht Club". We thought that was hilarious at the time. Now, understanding all the implications, it isn't quite so funny.

Ahhh, rednecks. It is amazing what they'll put on a baseball cap.

Jim Cobabe said...


It's probably okay, I'm thinking most of the Thistle survivors would get a laugh too, they are that kind of people. They mostly moved on with their lives. It was the truckers and the train freight that were inconvenienced and needed a long term fix that cost big bucks.

Norma Bigler is one who grew up in this area. Mom says she remembers dancing in the old school house. But buildings are just buildings. And places are just places. When the water gradually encroached, they moved out, and got on with life elsewhere.