The heat of a typical Utah summer—topping out in July and August at 90 degrees in Park City and 100-plus in the valley—offers few choices for relief. You can hit the pool with the masses, barricade yourself inside with your air-conditioning cranked, or you can hightail it to the Uinta Mountains, an almost 900,000-acre high-altitude wilderness playground, for a day of hiking, mountain biking, camping, or—my personal favorite—rock climbing.
It was a little past 10 a.m. on an already sweltering day last July when we packed up the car and headed northeast from Park City through Kamas to the Uintas’ Ruth Lake. The Mirror Lake Highway had long since thawed, and we watched as the car’s thermometer ticked off the degrees in time with the reception bars on our cell phones. Relief was near—from both the heat and our electronic tethers. In just about an hour’s drive, we would be hiking easy approaches to some of the best climbing routes in northern Utah, and, thanks to almost zero cell reception, we wouldn’t be able to Tweet about it.
The secret of Uinta Mountains rock climbing was outed in the early 2000s, when some of the state’s top climbers erected routes and wrote maps for the quartzite and conglomerate walls found here. The popularity of these high mountain crags, however, has never quite eclipsed better-known routes in the Cottonwood, American Fork, and Maple Canyons. But that’s OK. It just means that on any given summer day you don’t have to worry about standing in line, waiting your turn to attempt a route.
Uinta Rock by Nathan Smith and Paul Tusting, published in 2004, remains the only Uinta Mountains–specific climbing guide available (though the number of established routes has doubled since its publication). Additional reliable information sources for this area include White Pine Touring (1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710, whitepinetouring.com) and Wasatch Adventure Guides (435.200.4885, wasatchadventureguides.com), both of which offer guided climbing trips and instruction as well as advice.
Around 20 developed climbing locations that both sport and traditional climbers linger over are peppered throughout the Uinta Range’s atypical east-west orientation. You could spend the entire summer exploring the dozens of sport routes here and still not put a dent in those rated from 5.6 to 5.12. (In sport climbing’s ranking system, 5 to 5.9 is beginner/intermediate, and 5.10 and above is advanced/expert.) Rock jocks looking for killer problems at 5.13 and above might be bored in the Uintas, but most climbers—including me—are plenty challenged by the 5.9 to 5.10 bolted routes common here. We chose Ruth Lake because it’s in the shade all day. On cooler days the south-facing Stone Garden is a better choice. Other fun beginner and intermediate routes include Fehr Lake, Notch Lake, and Moosehorn.
I’ve heard the climbing routes in the Uintas described as “spicy.” I guess you could say, then, that Ruth Lake has six separate walls of varying “heat.” And there’s no denying the breathtaking panoramas. From an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, you can see a vast expanse of pristine mountain lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks. Plus, unlike climbs in the Cottonwoods, the Uinta National Forest isn’t watershed, meaning your well-behaved pooch can come along for the dog days respite, too.
The only downside to rock climbing in the Uintas, especially in June, is the bugs. It’s a pleasant 20-minute hike to the crag from the pullout at Ruth Lake, but without bug spray it feels like running the gauntlet. It pays to wear long layers and closed-toe shoes from the car to the rock.
As we hiked the path to Ruth Lake from the parking lot that day, I couldn’t help but think how I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on earth. I was with friends, it was refreshingly temperate, and I was about to get the best upper body workout a girl could want. Oh yeah, and the post-climb award-winning berry shake waiting for me at Hi-Mountain (40 N Main St, Kamas, 435.783.4466) when it was all over was pretty cool to think about, too.