Utah’s high country welcomes early visitors
Outdoors • Unlike a wet 2011, dry hot spots beckon early visitors.
Published: June 1, 2012 10:25AM
Updated: May 31, 2012 05:49PM
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This photo was taken in late May 2011 at the Silver Lake Visitors Center at Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Forest Service photo

Perhaps nature is making up for lost time.

Last year, heavy snowpack delayed plans for high-country adventures across Utah, thanks to the soggy spring of 2011. Traditional summer haunts — such as Mirror Lake — didn’t open until late July.

This year, the Uinta hot spot could open this month.

“We didn’t get Spruces Campground in Big Cottonwood [Canyon] open until June 24 last year. There was 6 feet of snow there at the end of May,” said Wasatch-Cache-Uinta National Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Jo Pollock. “In some areas, we had snow up to the roof at the bathrooms.”

Now, Spruces is on course for a Memorial Day weekend opening.

Ted Hallows, who lives in Summit County’s Samak and manages the state-run Kamas Fish Hatchery, has already been camping this year in the Uintas along the Mirror Lake Highway. That road (Highway 150) opened May 9 to travel from Kamas to Evanston, Wyo.

“I’ve been here 26 years and I can never remember it opening any earlier,” Hallows said. “I’ve also never had to mow my lawn in April, but I did this year.”

Hallows oversees trout stocking in numerous Uinta Mountain lakes, sometimes from airplanes for waters not easily reached via the highway. In 2011, deep snow and frozen lakes pushed back his stocking schedule.

“Last year, we did the aerial stocking two weeks later than we have ever been able to do it,” Hallows said. “This year, it looks like we will be able to do it two weeks earlier than we have ever been able to do it. Last year, we didn’t finish up until the last week of July. We flew over Crater Lake, and it still had ice over half the surface. We saw that and I thought to myself, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ ”

Hallows predicts good fishing in high-country lakes and stream across Utah this year. Many remote spots likely never saw visitors in 2011, and plenty of fish probably made it through the mild winter.

Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort ran its lifts through July Fourth last year but has already closed the mountain to skiing.

High-elevation highways, such as Mirror Lake, are traditionally targeted for Memorial Day weekend openings. Many of them are already up and running, including Wolf Creek Pass State Road 35, Monte Cristo State Road 39, East Canyon State Road 65, Cedar Breaks State Road 148, Guardsman Pass State Road 224 and State Road 190.

As of this writing, officials were aiming for a May 26 opening of State Road 92, the American Fork Canyon/Alpine Loop road. The Mount Holly Junction/State Road 153 road east of Beaver is scheduled to open May 30.

Timpanogos Cave and Cedar Breaks national monuments opened late in 2011, but the cave in American Fork Canyon is already open, and the stunning scenery of the Breaks was set to go on display to visitors May 25.

But not all the high-country news from the gentle winter is good. Land-management agencies across Utah are keeping a wary eye on wildfire conditions.

“The lower elevations are drying out rather quickly. We could have an early and long fire season,” Pollock warned. “If the upper elevations don’t get moisture after the snow is gone, we may have some issues in the high country.”

A dry year is often associated with fewer mosquitoes, and that may well be the case, but Hallows said the Scouts he camped with earlier this spring in the Uintas returned with plenty of red, itchy welts from the pesky insects.

brettp@sltrib.com