Best Foot Forward: Spring Hikes

Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Rock climbing and mountain biking can wait. When the first warm sun of the year washes down the mountainside, most +outdoor+ nuts just want to take a long walk.

Hiking feels better than about anything else you can do in the mountains in early spring, and from a proximity standpoint, Utah residents are about the luckiest folks on earth when winter ends and it's time to answer to the anxious stirring in forgotten calf muscles.

Hiking is the most basic of excursions, requires little planning, and answers the simple cravings for the smell of rain-fresh dirt on the trail. It's an awesome thing to see the mountains stretch, yawn, and wake up in the spring like a sleepy old dog, with wildflowers popping out and swollen streams testing their banks. Slippery trails and playing chicken with storms make spring hiking tricky, but the rewards are great, too, as insects, snakes, heat and dust are less likely than rainbows and stunner views of receding snowfields.

It can be unforgettable. And if you're real lucky, the clouds might part for you, like they did for Don Seeley on a recent hike in the Stansbury Mountains. Seeley hoofed it to a mountaintop only to find weather that made him want to turn and run, as is so often the case in early spring, when storms pounce.

''We worked so hard to get up to that ridge and looked out over the lake and saw the reflections of the clouds on the water, and knew a storm was coming,'' he said.

The squall charged right at them on the mountaintop. As they got ready to leave, the storm split in two and missed them completely. ''It was snowing to the north and south, but the sun fell on us and it was wonderful,'' he said.

Seeley makes up the hike agenda for the 1,000-member Wasatch Mountain Club. Besides playing dodge ball with storms, he loves hunting fossils, new trails and seeing the first wildflowers of the year in early spring.

The following is his list of top early hikes taken straight from his group-hike schedule. Personally, Seeley sees the West Desert as the best place to make tracks in early spring. Like most of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, it is snow-free early and becomes a miserable oven quickly by late May. For the same reasons, arguably the best places to hike early on are Zion National Park and Moab and the other southern Utah hot spots.

Backcountry junkie Jerry Richardson at Kirkham's +outdoor+ store heads south as much as possible, and prefers Capitol Reef this time of year. Richardson also knows how freaky mountain weather can be and encourages hiking with poles. He has no choice now, after a slow-moving (40 mph) avalanche caught him in Greeley Bowl and tore his knee apart in 1994. The slide took him 600 feet and he was buried up to his chest. ''I shouldn't have been there, I was naive,'' he said. That same day a man died across the ridge near Snowbird, during pre-ski season backcountry excursions.

In the spring, seemingly rock-solid snow compresses, saturates and releases when gravity becomes too much. Wet slab avalanches are the result, and as forceful as they come. Avoid the steeps, and bring crampons to hike snowfields, Richardson advised, but be prepared turn around in late afternoon when the snow is least stable. Spring hikes mean wetter conditions than any other time of year, so wear wicking socks and waterproof boots. It's the time for aggressive boots and caution, not running shoes. ''It's wetter, muddier, slipping is a bigger hazard, and trails are in rough shape because of winter,'' Richardson said.

His favorite Wasatch early hike is Mount Olympus. After a warm spell, you can go almost all the way up by mid-spring, he said.

Granger Peak, up Mill Creek, is another good one. The Salt Lake Overlook up Mill Creek offers a great valley view off a point and is a good short early hike. It's accessible past Mill Creek in Porter Fork.

For those with time and a more adventurous spirit, now is the time to hoof the Cedar Mountains, Grassy Mountains and Lakeside Mountains. Early season off-trail hikers can go south in the Cedars along the ridgeline from Hastings Pass (named after the man responsible for sending the Donner Party on their awful routes across the Salt Flats.) ''You'll find a great green grassy hike with wild horses on the ridge of the Cedars,'' Seeley said.

Besides mud and unstable snow, early season offers death-by-exposure. Bring warm clothing, waterproof outer layers, a flashlight, and the 10 essentials. Check the list at Wasatch Mountain Club's Web site. Better yet, join and go on the group hikes. You do not have to be a member to go on group hikes.

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