Cooler Climbs 

Hot summer days call for mountain escapes

Amethyst Lake in the Uintas
  • Amethyst Lake in the Uintas

Recently, as I lay on my side with a green stretchy band around my feet, kicking my legs apart against the resistance until I felt the burn in my glutes (it’s great cross-training for things like hiking Mount Olympus) the class instructor turned to us and asked, smiling, “Are you all looking forward to the hot weather?” Then, I swear, she looked right at me. “I love the heat,” she said. “It’s good to sweat.”

Indeed, temperatures in Salt Lake City are starting to reach their summertime highs. And if you’re the kind of crazy person who likes feeling your insides boil, that’s great. But, while I have no qualms with sweating, I prefer to spend the greater part of the summer either meditating to thoughts of ice baths, polar-bear plunges, winter sweaters and snow, or actually beating the heat by hiking up into the high elevations. When I was in my 20s, I could find some joy in the midday heat, knowing that nighttime would bring beautiful nights when biking around town in a T-shirt and shorts feels comfortable even at 3 a.m. But now that I’m older, I fall asleep on the couch by 10 on a Saturday night. The warm nights no longer seem like a good trade-off for the hot days.

That’s why, on the last weekend in June, I hightailed it to the Unitas. As soon as I hit the start of the Mirror Lake Highway outside Kamas, I could sense the thermometer beginning to drop. The road climbed quickly from dry hills of red grass spotted with scrub oak into pines and aspen. The cool, damp air rushing in my open window prickled my skin into goose bumps. I rolled my window down farther and took a deep breath.

There are nearly too many stops along the scenic highway to count or to name. From Kamas to Evanston, the highway runs nearly 80 miles. At its middle, the road climbs up Bald Mountain pass, 10,700 feet above sea level, just over the tree line.

North of the pass, I pulled in at Christmas Meadows. Tents and RVs filled the campground, but only a handful of cars were in the overnight parking at the trailhead. Before letting the dogs out or reaching for my backpack, I put on a pair of pants and a fleece.

Amethyst Lake was our destination that night. At just about six miles, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the trail is short enough for a day hike, yet long enough to ensure a quiet and uncrowded overnight stay.

Storm clouds made the evening seem later than it was as I settled into the trail. To my right, green grass and stunted willows lined the Stillwater Fork of the Bear River. To my left, aspen and lodgepole pine lifted away with the lower slopes of the mountains. My feet stumbled alternately between the maze of granite stones sprouting from the path and the trenches of mud churned into sucking quicksand by boots and horse hooves. But I didn’t mind the tricky footing, just so long as the Unitas’ notoriously predatory and numerous mosquitoes never materialized (and they didn’t).

The Amethyst trail dead-ends into a cirque of impassable mountains—bald, gray shale domes that hold massive sheets of snow even through the hottest months. The lakes and streams in the basin are made of liquid snow. That weekend, a toe dip into the frigid waters was all I could handle, but it was cold I had sought, and cold I’d, gratefully, found.

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