The La Sal Mountains are a distant ridgeline east of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
By Lynn Arave IF the Uinta Mountains are the "roof" of Utah, then the La Sal Mountains, east of Moab, must be the "balcony" of the Beehive State.
Straddling Grand and San Juan counties near the Colorado border, this king-size mountain range is a snow-capped island for most of the year, offering a sharp contrast to nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
The La Sals boast Utah's eight tallest peaks outside the High Uintas and include 12 summits more than 12,000 feet above sea level. The high point of the La Sals is Mount Peale at 12,721 feet. Other than here and in the High Uintas, there are only two other places in Utah -- the Beaver/Piute County line and west Juab County -- where elevations top the 12,000-foot mark. Salt Lake County's tallest summit, American Fork Twin Peaks, is 11,489, or more than 1,200 feet shorter than the high point of the La Sals. Even Utah County's highest point, North Nebo at 11,928 feet above sea level, is more than 700 feet lower than Mount Peale. In addition, while the High Uintas are more like a high plateau, the La Sals are mammoth mountains towering over Moab below. The vertical elevation difference from Kings Peak to the valley below is just 2,728 feet, but for Mount Peale, the elevation drop to Moab is more than triple that at 8,721 feet -- making it Utah's tallest in that category. "They're an island in a sea of desert," Glenn Casamassa, Moab/Monticello District Forest ranger, said. "They're one of the most photographed mountain ranges in the world." He said the La Sals and their closest cousin, the Abajo Range (40 miles southwest), are unlike anything else in Utah and more like Colorado's San Juan Range. From the national parks below, Casamassa said, the La Sals -- a part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest -- offer an incredible backdrop -- a sharp contrast from redrock country. "They're unique and a different eco-system from redrock," he said. They even contain a few unique plants, such as the La Sal daisy -- found nowhere else in the world. Comments from visitors on the stunning vistas these mountains offer are common. However, despite their beauty and second-highest Beehive State mountain range status, he admits they're overlooked by many casual visitors as nothing more than a sidelight, since national parks in the area overshadow them. "People do look to the parks," he said. For the local residents though, the La Sals are a summer oasis to escape 100-plus degree heat. Temperatures there range in the 70s in summer. The mountains are also popular for hikers visiting Moab into the late fall, especially during years such as the current unseasonably warm season. One of the best sources for information on the La Sal Mountains is "La Sal Mountains Hiking and Nature Handbook," (Canyon Country Publications) by Jose Knighton. Knighton eloquently describes the La Sals as "a displaced hunk of the Rocky Mountains stranded amid the Colorado Plateau's high desert, a biological island." Casamassa said the La Sals are a critical watershed for the area and recharge underground water for Moab. "Their water is very valuable and it's high quality," he said. A much closer look at the mountains are afforded by the 65-mile La Sal Mountain Road. This almost totally paved road begins south of Moab and connects with Scenic Byway 128 on the north that goes by Fisher Towers and through Castle Valley. The road is closed in winter but open March through November in normal years. Casamassa said only a small portion of the road is unpaved, but that gravel segment is easily passible in cars. This loop road also accesses the many dirt roads and trails through the La Sal Mountains. Some of these mountain roads are not clear of snow until mid-July, though. Some gravel roads leading off the paved La Sal Loop connect with the 8,800-foot elevation Oowah Lake campground and the 9,400-foot Warner Campground and others. The general hiking season in the La Sals is Memorial Day to late October, but August and September are the best months for exploring the highest peaks. Knighton describes the La Sals as having a "maze of unmarked trailheads." Indeed, Casamassa said the La Sals are still an uncrowded place to escape civilization.There is no trail to the top of Mount Peale, and so hikers should consult a hiking guide for information, or the Forest Service. At best, the hike to Peale is a difficult, five-mile roundtrip hike that climbs more than 1,000 feet per mile. However, this hike begins at La Sal Pass north of Medicine Lakes where the elevation is already over 10,000 feet. Casamassa said there has been no flood yet of "peak baggers" who come only to climb the state's tallest summit outside the Uintas.
One would naturally assume that the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 offered the first non-native American look at the La Sal Mountains. While this famous group did pass by the La Sals (and even named them -- their title means "Salt Mountains"), Jose Knighton -- author of "La Sal Mountains Hiking and Nature Handbook" -- believes there's good evidence they were actually viewed 11 years earlier. In 1765, Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera passed by the La Sals and entered Castle Valley northeast of Moab. He was a Spanish explorer in search of gold and supposedly went through the area on the advice of an Indian guide.The name La Sal is usually attributed to Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante. He thought the white on top of the mountains in mid-summer was salt and not snow. After all, this was a desert area. The Indians had previously shown the explorers salt deposits at the base of these mountains. For the Ute Indians, the La Sals were likely a prime hunting area and also a place to retreat from the summer heat in this desert region. Mormon settlers entered the Moab area in 1855 at the foot of the La Sals. But less than a year later they were chased out by the Ute Indians. Two settlers of the 44 were killed by the Indians. These pioneers had called the mountains "Elk," oblivious to the Spanish La Sal name. John Wesley Powell saw the La Sal Mountains from a distance during his 1869-71 trip through the region. The mountains were renamed La Sal during the 1875 Hayden geographical survey. Many of the peaks were also named at this time. The government survey crew was attacked by the Indians. There was no loss of life, but some of their equipment had to be abandoned during the chase. Bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and wolves had been exterminated here by the early 1900s. There are also no moose. But there are black bears, bobcats, cougars, deer, foxes, raccoons and other small mammals. Mount Peale was named for Dr. Albert Peale, a mineralogist during the Hayden Survey. Although Peale is tallest, it is not the most dominant peak for onlookers. The summit is set back to the east far enough -- 1.5 miles behind Mount 12,482-foot-high Tukuhnikivatz (say "Tuk-a-nik-ivatz") -- that it hardly stands out. "Tuk," along with Mount Mellenthin (elevation 12,645), are the most striking La Sal Peaks. Ute Indians supposedly name Tukuhnikivatz for "a place where the sun sets last" or "where the sun lingers." Another legend states that the peak was named after a Ute medicine man and translates roughly to "dirt seer." "Tuk" is very noticeable because its southern flank has a long slope that drops down like a huge slide. Mellenthin (say "Melon-teen") was named for Rudolph E. Mellenthin, a U.S. forest ranger in the area, who was shot and killed while attempting to apprehend a World War I draft dodger on Aug. 23, 1918. Another lofty peak, Mount Waas (12,331), was named by the Hayden survey for a local Ute Indian chief. It was finally the cowboys and cattlemen who came to permanently settle at the base of the La Sals in 1877. There was a gold rush in the area during 1888 when the precious metal was found on the slopes of Mount Waas and Green. This led to a town in Miner's Basin at the 10,000-foot level, complete with a store, saloon and several restaurants. But this was a ghost town by the early 1900s when the gold gave out. It was a similar story for Gold Basin, another mining site, below and west of Mount Mellenthin. Some of today's roads through the La Sals probably had their beginnings in the Miners' days. A Civilian Conservation Corps workforce of some 200 men in 1933 improved many roads and trails through the area.
(Distilled from a Nov. 19, 1999 article in the Deseret News by Lynn Arave.)
--Photos by Liz Arave Hafen.
The La Sal Mountains rise almost 8,000 feet above the area around Moab and are even visible in most hazy conditions, such as this view from Canyonlands.
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: email@example.com