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Monday, November 17, 2008

Hiking Notch Peak

Notch Peak rises some 4,000 feet above the surrounding desert, an almost sheer cliff of major magnitude.

El Capitan, the famous rock mass in Yosemite National Park, has a vertical rise of about 3,000 feet. As precipices go, Notch Peak is almost as impressive, but Notch is virtually unknown because it is located in Utah's remote, desolate west desert.

From the top of Notch, looking straight down for almost a mile, the feeling is almost overwhelming. Vertigo is common as you move toward the edge. It sometimes feels like a mysterious force is sucking you toward the cliff. Hikers innately respect the mountain; most lie on their bellies as they try to peer over the edge.

Most of the towering cliffs in Zion Park drop a meager 1,500 to 2,000 feet straight down. Aside from Notch and the Yosemite peaks, I don't know of another precipice in the US that boasts such an impressive sheer face.

I've wanted to hike Notch for some time, and finally made the trip last weekend. It was a very enjoyable experience well worth the effort.

Notch Peak is located west of Delta, about 3.5 hours from Salt Lake City. The hike is moderately strenuous, about 8 miles round trip. We made it up and down in about 5 hours, and that allowed time to play around on top.

There is no formally designated trail and you need route-finding skills to make this hike. A topo map is essential and a GPS comes in handy.

We approached from the east and followed a winding canyon up to a saddle just below the summit. Hiking in the canyon is relatively easy but you do have to bust through brush and climb around one dryfall. You also ascend a series of ledges, almost stone steps. Hiking through the canyon is fun and a little adventurous. We had a couple kids with us, ages 12 and 13, and they made it with no problem.

As you come out of the canyon onto the open ridge, you gain a panoramic view of the surrounding desert. You feel like you've been transported to some distant planet, with stark, alien landscape falling away in front of you. The desert is mostly flat and devoid of life. The glassy waters of Sevier Dry Lake reflect distant brown mountains, with snowcapped peaks visible in the far distance.

You look out over hundreds of miles of desolate country, no cities or towns in sight; a few roads are the only signs that humans have impacted this vast land.

Views from half-way up the mountain are impressive and the wonderment grows with each step as you approach the summit.

When you reach the saddle, the summit rises a couple hundred feet above you to the left. To the right, we followed the ridgeline to another saddle, a little lower, where we could take photos that captured most of the peak's dramatic rise.

Bristlecone pine trees grow in a grove adjacent to this second vantage point. They are amazing trees; some are thousands of years old. Gnarled and scared, bristlecones are the oldest living things on earth. Some, on nearby Wheeler Peak, are thought to be more than 4,000 years old.

For something to live for thousands of years, you would think it must grow in the best soil, in a spot where temperatures and other conditions are favorable. Not so. These trees push their roots down into cracks in the rock, where there is little soil available and the soil that is there is poor. They grow at high altitudes, here about 9,200 feet, on windswept slopes where summer days are very hot and winter nights are bitter cold.

The bristlecone grove on Notch is impressive, as is the entire experience.

Yes, I think Notch Peak makes a great hike.

(View more of my photos from this hike. We also have video showing the adventure.)

- Dave Webb


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