The southern end of The La Sal Mountains east of Moab is graced by just one major peak, as opposed to the northern and middle sections that have more and taller peaks. Its name is unremarkable but accurate: South Mountain.
It stands at 11,817 feet in elevation, and has several “sub-peaks on its flanks, whose prominence have not been important enough for official names.
The La Sal Mountain range is the second highest in Utah, following the Uinta Mountains whose east-west configuration spreads from northern Utah into Wyoming.
Although South Mountain isn’t as high as its counterparts, its views match other areas of the range, especially if one hikes or rides the South Mountain Trail, encircling a complete 360 degrees of the peak with views of the Colorado Plateau from the Uncompahgre into the districts of Canyonlands National Park and the Moab Valley.
From its cool and lush slopes, one looks out onto the red rock desert, with faraway views of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the Blue (also called Abajo) range near Monticello and Blanding, and the Henry Mountains to the west.
The apron-like sides of South Mountain descend into various canyons caused by eons of drainage: Pole and Doe canyons on the southern flank, then around clockwise through the upper reaches of Lackey Basin and Carpenter Basin to the west, and the upper start of Pack Creek and Hell Canyon on the northwestern flank.
For mountaineers wanting to summit South Mountain, there is no maintained trail to the top. Climbers generally start in the La Sal Pass area not far from Medicine Lake. “Although it is not a long hike, a compass and map are recommended since one will be starting in mostly dense woods with rolling terrain, talus and deadfall,” said a post on the website, summitpost.org.
If one chooses to scramble to the top of South Mountain, they will find granite shale that can be dangerously loose and prone to sliding, as are the other laccolithic peaks of the range that rise above the tree line.
There are two ways to drive to La Sal Pass. The roughest and least recommended route starts beyond or east of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pack Creek Campground, the road to which is an offshoot of the Loop Road south of Ken’s Lake in Spanish Valley. It is Forest Route 73 from the western side of La Sal Pass clear to the eastern side near Old La Sal.
The most recommended route is to drive south on Highway 191 a little more than 20 miles to La Sal Junction, hanging a left and continuing on Highway 46 through the town of La Sal and toward the area of Old La Sal. County Road 154 is almost 13 miles past the town of La Sal. Travelers then leave the pavement and drive onto a gravel road for another two miles, reaching Forest Road 73 (the La Sal Pass Road) to the left or west.
About seven-and-a-half miles later, one ends up at La Sal Pass, near Medicine Lake. But there are other trails and areas to explore on the way up, including La Sal Creek which flows from Medicine Lake downward and easterly.
Travelers will find that the road becomes less graveled and more just plain dirt as they gain elevation. The road fords La Sal Creek a couple of miles after embarking on the La Sal Pass Road. The creek is generally easy to cross during the low flows of mid-summer. It is broad and its bottom is river rock. However, there is only a pedestrian bridge.
The South Mountain Trail, lovely for a long hike without the terribly steep climb of bagging the summit, is about nine miles long and begins on the La Sal Pass road just shy of Beaver Lake if one is traveling from the town of La Sal. It is a nonmotorized trail.