Driving Utah's Mirror Lake Highway a summer tradition
Kamas • As someone who grew up in Kamas, Louis Taylor, of West Valley Cit,y remembers when Mirror Lake Highway, which connected his hometown with Evanston, Wyo., was dirt and not paved.
So, as he prepared to fish Mirror Lake recently with his grandson, he was in a mood to remember one of Utah's classic outdoor destinations.
"It's changed a lot," he said. "There used to be a dirt road all the way up. I like the scenery and I like to catch a fish or two. And I like the good air."
According to the booklet "A Guide to the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway," what is now Highway 150 first became passable by automobile in 1942 but it wasn't paved until 1960.
In an average year, the 25 campgrounds as well as picnic areas, recreational sites and dispersed camping along the road draw over two million visitors. That's an amazing figure, given that the high mountain road, which reaches a height of 10,620 feet at Bald Mountain Pass, often doesn't open until Memorial Day and all but a few of the campgrounds are closed after Labor Day.
"On our busy weekends, we fill up," said Brenda Bushell, who works at the U.S. Forest Service office in Kamas. "During the week, you can find spots. People who say they have been coming up here for 50 years say the forest has changed. Our fee program has done a lot of good things. It's helping keeping the forest clean."
Those who use the facilities along Highway 150 need to pick up a pass, the least expensive of which is a three-day pass for $6.
Despite improvements, part of the charm of the road and its alpine scenery is that it retains a kind of primitive feel. Many of the campgrounds and picnic areas still use pit toilets. Spaces tend to be quite far apart. Backpackers going into the adjacent High Uintas Wilderness and dispersed campers still can find undeveloped places to enjoy.
In the summer, night-time temperatures can dip into the 30s and the daytime mercury seldom hits 80, making the highway a great place to escape the city, enjoy colorful wildlife, marvel at snow-capped peaks and perhaps do a little fishing. That said, evening thunderstorms are common in late July and August.
"We come up at least once a year," said Anna Bosley, of Salt Lake City. "We like the scenery. We usually just come for the day. They keep it so clean and it's so close to the city."
Jane McFarland, who proudly says she is 86, sat to enjoy the scenery with her daughter, Jane Bennett, at Upper Provo River Falls along the highway. She probably best described the outdoor experience along the highway.
"It's beautiful," said the Layton resident. "It's nature. It's refreshing."
One of the joys of visiting this area is that managers have provided for many different and often competing types of outdoor recreational experiences.
For example, trail heads lead to the High Uintas, Utah's largest wilderness area and a place where no motorized vehicles are allowed. But there are three ATV and mountain biking trail systems in campgrounds just off the highway. Four-wheel drive roads are available. So are facilities to unload a horse. One ATV complex doubles as a cross-country skiing trail system in the winter.
The Bear River Ranger Station near Evanston, Wyo., or the Kamas Forest Service office are great places to get up-to-the-date information on available campground space or whether the mosquitoes are out (they are). Some literature is free, but frequent visitors might want to purchase the "Guide to the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway," which offers all sorts of detailed recreational information as well as a great overview of the area's natural and human history.
Since the demise of the Mirror Lake Lodge due to a fire in 1976, commercial stores are not available along much of the highway (though there is a small store near the Bear River for those turning the drive into a loop by going all the way to Evanston.
The U.S. Forest Service portion of the road is 42 miles long and is filled with side roads, trail heads, campgrounds and interpretive sites.
Driving the entire route is enjoyable, especially if you take time to look back at the snowcapped peaks once you drop down into the Wyoming side near Evanston.
For many Wasatch Front residents, summer isn't complete without taking a drive along Mirror Lake Highway. With its fabulous views, high alpine lakes, glacier-cut landscape and high, often treeless peaks, the area ranks as one of the best forest experiences in Utah.
Mirror Lake fees and how they are used
Three-day pass • $6
Seven-day pass • $12
Annual pass • $45
• America the Beautiful Passports, Golden Senior and Access Passports will be honored for full value of the Mirror Lake Passes.
• Passes purchased at American Fork Canyon will be honored for the full price of the Mirror Lake Passes.
• Individual campground sites range from $16 to $21. All camping spots except for Yellow Pine, Shingle Creek, Shady Dell, Cobblerest, Lilly Lake and Butterfly Lake can be reserved in advance at http://www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Those sites are first come, first served.
• The Forest Service said 95 percent of fees go directly back into the maintenance and improvement of the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. They help maintain picnic areas, trail heads, fishing areas, comfort stations, and groomed snowmobile and cross-country winter areas. Comments are being taken on proposed changes to the program at http://www.fs.usda.gov/uwcnf or by calling the Kamas office at 435-783-4338.
• Recent improvements coming from fees include conversion to bear-proof garbage dumpsters in campgrounds and picnic areas, funding the Mirror Lake Amphitheater Program, grooming cross-country ski and snowmobile trails, maintenance 30 restrooms, trail maintenance, and removal of hazard trees. Funny questions heard at U.S. Forest Service office in Kamas
• "At what elevation do deer turn into elk?"
• "When did Bald Mountain come out of Mirror Lake?"
• "We're getting married in August at Mirror Lake. What will the number of mosquitoes per square foot be?"
• "How come there were no beaver at Beaver Creek?"
• "We're coming up in a month. What kind of weather can we expect?"
• "Where do you hide the animals?" (Usually heard during hunting season)
Things to do along Mirror Lake Highway
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the area includes 25 developed campgrounds, eight picnic areas, three interpretive trails, 20 trail heads, six angler parking areas, 37 non-motorized trails, two RV dumping stations, three ATV trail systems, 16 National Forest-access roads, three winter parking areas, two cross-country ski trail systems and over 20 interpretive sites.