Whipple Valley Trail and Pine Valley Recreation Area
The trails on the west side of the Pine Valley Mountains were something we’d meant to check our sooner but just hadn’t yet, despite our awesome hike last spring up the southeastern face of the range. I was reminded of the recreation area on the west side after breaking out the map in search of a new place we could explore with Abby and take a few short walks, and so off we went.
The recreation area and access to the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness is via the tiny settlement of Pine Valley which sits at the base of the semi-circular arc formed by the high range. The Pine Valley Mountain Range is actually a unique magma intrusion that solidified and been uplifted thousands of feet; properly termed as a laccolith, it is the largest one in the United Statesand rises up to an elevation of 10,365 feet at Signal Peak. Liberally covered in Englemann Spruce and fir, the mountains nonetheless have numerous sections of fantastic exposed rock – mostly the igneous rock monzonite – that add to the dramatic scenery. Beautiful? Yeah.
After we passed the houses interspersed with cow pasture and old sawmill which we would stop at on the way out, we continued across the border of the national forest and began searching for a place to stretch our legs. We discovered that access to some of the trailheads located in the campground were already blocked off for the season but we found a couple places to walk including among the the ponderosa pines equestrian camp before eventually ending up at the Whipple Valley Trailhead. Here I spotted yellow aspens and suggested we all walk up the trail for a half mile in search of more. As we rose on the Whipple Valley Trail tantalizing, 180-degree views of Pine Valley began to emerge and it was decided we needed to come back to hike the trail when we didn’t have the injured dog with us. We soon turned around since we thought Abby had walked enough and after returning to the car, made stops at the reservoir and by the old mill in town on our way home.
We returned to hike the Whipple Valley Trail the next day after having substituted our friend Terry for Abby. According to the description the hike is 12 miles roundtrip and 3,000 feet of elevation gain – though we hiked more than 6 miles before turning around and didn’t come upon the official end of the trail where it joins with the Summit Trail. Our legs told us that we definitely did more than 2,500 feet in elevation though so we must have been close; based on a trail description I don’t believe we overshot it since the junction is in a meadow. Anyway, the trail begins with a couple miles of switchbacking up until you are 1,300 feet above the trailhead. This section of the trail has spectacular views of Pine Valley nearly the entire way as you ascend through healthy Englemann Spruce, subapline fir, and some aspen. Once you reach peak you cross a rocky exposed section with manzanita and ponderosa pine before descending 200+ feet into Hop Valley, chock full of healthy aspen that are nourished by creeks and snowmelt. Then you begin the second long ascent, winding up and around a couple peaks that allow different views of the mountains and valleys below. It’s a spectacular trail, excellently graded and pretty moderate despite the elevation gain and the elevation itself (the trail starts at 7,000 feet). And the forest here is beautiful as are the views that are nearly constant.
As I said, we stopped before we reached any meadow, so our endpoint was the top of a ridge, which we left the trail to scramble up. From here we got 360-degree views of the wilderness – spruce- and fir-carpeted mountains, jagged peaks, exposed rock, and grassy valleys. It was impossible to capture in a photo. We stayed perched on the ridge for about 10 minutes before the cold started to stiffen our joints and then we retreated down the mountains.
As a final note, southern Utah has an abundance of days with bright, blue, cloudless skies, but this day had some really exceptionally beautiful weather which we all greatly appreciated. On our last couple miles of descent the whispy clouds were just mesmerizing, so much so that I had to remember to keep stopping before looking since my inclination was to constantly glance upwards – which would cause me to skid a bit on the loose rock. It was an absoltely perfect day to hike such an incredible trail.