- Katherine Pioli
- Visiting a Uintas yurt
Deep in the winter, in February, I took a trip to the mountains. It was time to make an exit from the city. When I walk outside in the mornings and no longer take notice of the ever-present noise, the rumble of movement, machinery and people, I know it’s time to go. I needed some grounding and to hear only bird song with the morning light.
We made our getaway early, the sky still dark. The highway out of town was deserted on a Saturday as the city people slept. We drove toward the sun, past Park City and into Wyoming, turning south at Evanston. We followed yellow lines down a country road edged with dormant alfalfa fields, some containing cattle. Ahead, our destination rose to meet us, the Ashley National Forest and the Uinta Mountains.
The Uintas are a geological anomaly among the ranges of the Rocky Mountains. From the farthest reaches north and south along the ancient chain, our Uintas are the only mountains running east to west. At their center, in the high Uinta wilderness, Kings Peak—Utah’s tallest mountain—rises to 13,528 feet. Here, the peaks are made of shale, home to pikas and lightning strikes and avalanches. Some call this goat country.
Our final destination was much less ambitious than the mountains’ highest peaks. Pulling into the Lily Lake parking lot, 30 miles south of Evanston and the end of the plowed road during winter, our goal lay merely four miles and 1,000 vertical feet from the trailhead: the ridge yurt, at 9,350 feet.
Ours was the second-most remote hut in the Lily Lake system. An extensive network of ski and snowmobile trails, the system also has five much-in-demand yurts. Renting them is a competitive sport. On a given day in November, expectant outdoor enthusiasts can call the Bear River Outdoor Recreational Alliance (BRORA) to place a reservation. Within an hour, most weekend reservations are filled for the coming year.
BRORA, thorough in its instructions to renters, issues extensive warnings, advising overnighters to pack GPS, avalanche beacons and extra clothes for overnight snow camping should a group fail to find their hut. Fearing death, I nearly canceled the trip and, upon arrival at the trailhead, was relieved to find beautiful, deep, well-groomed snow and obsessively mapped trails.
Skiing into the ridge yurt in February was a complete joy. Even now, at an elevation twice that of the Salt Lake Valley, the hills and trails around the Lily Lake system remain covered with snow. In good years in the Uintas, skiing can last as late as April. Snowshoeing on the higher slopes can last till May. By June, the road reopens, and the yurts are accessible by car.
On a bluebird day, our small group wound through evergreen forest, gradually ascending the foothills. Even with our backs loaded with food, booze and water, we reached the yurt in plenty of time to split wood for the stove, and with the last rays of light, sat back for a well-earned drink. The city felt light-years away.
That night, we melted snow to get water for our pasta. The wood-burning stove kept the room hot; kerosene lanterns lit our card game. Some time around 10 p.m., we stepped out into the darkness to look at the stars. Outside the yurt, the world lay silent. Smoke from the stove scented the air.
We hiked to the ridge for a better view and, reaching the top, looked west. On the horizon, a bright white bubble outlined the hills. Could it really be? we asked each other, but there was no other explanation: Nearly 100 miles away, eerily, the city still touched us with its light.
BEAR RIVER OUTDOOR RECREATIONAL ALLIANCE
Evanston Recreation Center
275 Saddle Ridge Road, Evanston, Wyo.