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    Tales of Trails: the la Sals’ middle peaks

    Mts. Mellenthin, Peale, Tuk are crown jewels of the forest

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    Sena Taylor Hauer
    Sena Taylor Hauer
    Times-Independent Columnist

    The crown jewels of the La Sal Mountains east of Moab are the triumvirate of Mt. Mellenthin, Mt. Tukuhnikivatz and Mt. Peale. These three major peaks are the center of a range of mountains characterized by a trio of peak groupings; nine of the peaks exceed 12,000 feet in elevation.

    During the heat of summer, the La Sals are a refreshing escape from the Moab Valley below. They contain aspen and pine forests, as well as alpine tundra and a few long-lasting snowfields.

    The La Sals are accessible by motor and machine most of the year, save for blizzards that can block the main accesses for a few days. From Moab the primary access is the Loop Road, which goes from south Spanish Valley over the western lap of the range, curving down to Castle Valley and Highway 128 on the Colorado River.

    Dark Canyon
    Dark Canyon basin as seen from an access road stemming from the eastern side of Geyser Pass. The basin is wrapped by the central range peaks and their connecting ridges. Photos by Zane Taylor

    Some winter mountain enthusiasts enjoy the fact that the La Sals contain the only 12,000-foot peaks in Utah that are practical for one-day skiing ascents.

    In geologic terms the mountains are laccoliths, formed by igneous intrusions whose forces lifted through pre-existing sedimentary rocks that are classics of the Colorado Plateau.

    Albert Peale is the namesake of Mt. Peale. He served on the Ferdinand Hayden Expeditions as a geologist and mineralogist. This team of surveyors comprised the first official white exploration and mapping of the La Sals. Mt. Peale was named in 1875 by chief topographer Henry Gannett on a survey of the same year. But Peale was also part of an earlier survey in 1871.

    The name is pronounced as if you were to “peel” a banana. It is the highest point in San Juan County and the second-highest peak in Utah.

    Mt. Tukuhnikivats shares a saddle with Mt. Peale. Many climbers will bag both peaks in one day. It stands at 12,482 feet and was named in 1875 on the same Hayden survey as was Mt. Peale. From some vantages, the peak looks taller than Peale, but it isn’t.

    Tukuhnikivatz is the Southern Paiute word for “place where the sun shines longest” and is said to honor some of the prominent members of the Southern Paiute tribe of Native Americans that lived there before white people arrived. The lesser-used name is also said to mean “Dirt Seer,” perhaps to acknowledge the mapping and geologic efforts that occurred on the range during the early surveys. The peak was also named by Gannett, the early mapper.

    The name is pronounced took-a-nick-a-vatz, and is often referenced in short as “Tuk,” with a long-O sound.

    Mt. Mellenthin, to the north of Mts. Peale and Tukuhnikivatz, is 12,645 feet in elevation. Prior to bearing the name of a forester killed on the mountain, it was sometimes called Middle La Sal Peak.

    The naming of Mellenthin is a sobering tale stemming from 1918 during WWI, when La Sal forest ranger Rudolph E. Mellenthin was looking for a draft dodger named Roman Archuletta who was holed up in the mountains. Mellenthin found Archuletta on a sheep farm near Pine Flats and tried to arrest him. When the dodger realized he was being caught, he and a partner began firing at Mellenthin, hitting him three times.
    Mellenthin injured Archuletta, but the ranger died there from his wounds. Archuletta and his accomplice fled the scene, but they were found and arrested a few hours later. The two were charged and found guilty of second-degree murder. Archuletta served six years behind bars and was granted parole.

    Mellenthin and his wife are buried in separate plots in the Grand Valley Cemetery in Moab. His headstone bears the seal of the U.S. Forest Service. His name is often pronounced “melon-teen.”

    Summiteers often enjoy what is known as the “Middle La Sal Traverse.” Basically, it goes from peak to peak in that central range. Also, in this neighborhood of peaks is Mt. Laurel, at an elevation of 12,271 feet.

    Mt. Peale and Mt. Mellenthin
    Mt. Peale and Mt. Mellenthin as viewed from state forest land near Two-mile Creek on the southeast flank of the La Sal Mountains. Ponderosa pine and quaking aspens grace these benchlands.

    The distance of the traverse is about eight miles, with an elevation gain of about 5,000 feet. One climber who commented on was said to do the hike in an amazing 10 hours.

    There are lots of variations on the theme in terms of bagging these peaks. During early summer, there can be patches of snow on the ridges, which can sometimes offer easier footing for hikers than the loose granite scree.

    One hiking route is called the Gold Basin Ridge Loop, where hikers end up where they started. It is accessed from the west side of Geyser Pass, and the path looks thus: “As the trail begins to enter some clearings and the surrounding peaks are visible, you’ll be able to see a prominent gouge in the hillside below Peak 12,048 [sometimes called Little Tuk] that goes all the way down to the boulder field. Scramble up this gouge to gain the steep meadow slopes above, and keep hiking slightly to the right until the ridge line is gained,” said the directions on

    Some climbers feel this route is more stable than others on the peaks’ granite shale.

    “From the ridge line, scramble up to the summit of Little Tuk and continue on the ridge line to the top of Mt Tukuhnikivatz. Follow the ridge line over to Mt. Peale. There is a short section called the Razor Fang that must be negotiated. If one climbs to the right, staying low, the loose scree below can be avoided while the scrambling never gets above low Class 3 level, (assuming one doesn’t wander too far to the drop off in the north side),” said the directions.

    As the junction of Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, Mt. Peale, and Mt. Mellenthin is gained, a slight trail will be visible leading towards Mt. Peale. From here Mt. Peale can easily be hiked. Make sure to return to the junction, and follow the northward spur towards Mt. Mellenthin. Hike over the two peaks on this ridge [one is Mt. Laurel, aka Peak 12,271, and the other has no label] and scramble up the prominent south ridge of Mt. Mellenthin. If one stays near the cliff on the ridge, the rock stays more solid. There are some faint trails that switchback up this scree slope, and the summit is easily gained.

    “Head back down the ridge towards Mt. Laurel. From the saddle between Mt. Laurel and Mt. Mellenthin, a faint trail can be seen traversing a little below the summit of Mt. Laurel. Follow this trail as it goes right and travels down a west-facing ridge line. From here, it is easy cross-country hiking to tree line, making sure to stay on the top of the ridge.

    “At the last mound on the ridge, make sure to take the branch heading right and go down the shallow gully that forms on this part of the ridge,” said the directions on “The hiking below tree line is easy, with little or no bush whacking. Eventually, if one stays close to the bottom of the gulley, a stream is reached, and then a clearing” that leads to the Gold Basin Road where the loop began.

    Peak hiking can be risky. Exposure to high elevations, thunderstorms and loose footing can put one’s life in danger. Mountaineers know to have the right gear: plenty of water, food, protective clothing and sturdy footwear. An ice axe and crampons can be helpful for walking on the snow during winter through early summer.

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