Cedar Mountain Dust Storm

Looking east toward the Stansbury Range

I went back to the Cedar Mountain Range in the West Desert this past weekend. For some reason I am drawn to this range because of its utter desolation. The only road through the range slices through the northern head of the range. This road is known as Hastings Cutoff and goes over the appropriately named Hastings Pass in the Cedar Mountain Range. The Cutoff was a shortcut on the California trail that moved came from Echo Canyon just over what is now the Utah-Wyoming border and cuts south of Great Salt Lake rather than taking the longer northern route. Interestingly, the transcontinental railroad originally took the northern route, perhaps because of the difficulty at the Cedar Mountain Range. The range is now a designated wilderness area for perhaps a related reason: its designation blocked the eventual development of a nuclear waste facility that would have utilized the railroad that now runs along the route of Hastings Cutoff*.

View of the Stansburys - Deseret Peak is the highest point

For my audience of one reader who lives outside of the Salt Lake Valley, this past Sunday was incredibly windy. So hiking the spine of the Range was a little challenging. It was not dangerous, but I did feel like I had done some heavy lifting or had been in a boxing match when I got back home. I started from the sign at Hastings past and moved south into the range. I hoped to see if I could find one or more of the herd of horses that inhabit the range, but I was a bit doubtful because of the high winds. I did not think that I would find any horses so high on the ridgelines thinking that they would rather be sheltering in the secluded juniper hollows and drainages that flow steeply off either side of the range. So I had rather low expectations of seeing any sort of mammalian life. The meadowlarks were out in spite of the wind and I always enjoy their song on open range in springtime. The paintbrush has also started to bloom, along with other various low and tight growing wind resistant plants. These little gems contrast nicely with the dominant drab green-grey of saltbush and sagebrush.

View of the Great Salt Lake - the Stansbury Range extends to the right and Antelope Island rises behind. Note the level of sediment left in the lakebed.

The upper reaches of the central part of the range are not terribly difficult to hike on. For some portions there is a bit of a track crossing the high divide. Once I had reached a high enough point I could easily pick out Mt. Tabbys Peak – the highpoint on the range. Recent and frequent forest fires have burned much of the juniper (mistakenly identified as cedar by early western settlers) population, leaving skeletal remains to be bleached by the sun and blown by the wind. On such a windy day they created a slightly eery spectacle on the high ridges. Once I climbed to the main ridge, I immediately noticed the dust blowing in massive clouds out of the Bonneville Salt Flats to the west and Skull Valley to the east. This was a serious cloud of dust that eventually consumed all of the blue sky and swallowed the view of the higher Stansbury Range across the valley to the east. It was a Joad-like view. It was surprising to see given all the rain we have had lately. Apparently there has been much less precipitation west of Salt Lake City in recent weeks. I picked my way across the ridges, enjoying the views while they lasted and vaguely making for Tabbys Peak. I did not think I would achieve the summit. It is quite distant from Hastings Pass.

General Land Survey benchmark

Several miles along, I came across an old General Land Office Survey benchmark which marked out township line S2 which I was able to locate on the USGS 1:100,000 map, but I am uncertain whether the benchmark is very accurate since it is not very secure. The benchmark itself is dated 1912. This is interesting since this region was not even thoroughly surveyed until just a century ago. I also wonder if this benchmark has much real utility these days. My guess is not really since no one much passes this way except for fools like me out for their Sunday dose of desolation. There are worse places to get a dose of desolation on a Sunday. Most of them have parking lots crammed full of the righteous SUVs of the greedy and selfish.

Wild horse

As I crossed to the top of one of the drainages I spooked an unseen black horse. I believe it was a mare. She was a beautiful black and she stood for several moments looking at me curiously from the top of the next ridge. She seemed a little skittish and I did not want to panic her in any way. I do not think these horses generally charge humans (unlike moose or bison,) but I did not want to cause her undue stress.

Strong winds

The hike back was uneventful. I took care to give the horse a wide berth as she was still grazing in the same spot I saw her on the way up. As I neared the end of the hike and the car came into view from the last ridge, I noticed that the BLM’s Hastings Pass sign which was directly behind the car was missing. I could not get a good view from about a mile or so, but as I got closer I realized that the sign had been blown over in the wind. This is a shame, since it looks to be a brand new sign, but it is evidence of just how strong the winds were on Sunday.

*OK, class, quick quiz…no googling or smart phones… who used this famous shortcut and ended up taking too long to cross the Great Basin only to arrive in the Sierra Nevadas after the onset of winter? And yes, your author is an unrepentant pedant.
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