Featured Wilderness: The Wasatch Mountains: More Than Just a Backdrop to Salt Lake City

Anyone who has landed or taken off at the Salt Lake City airport on a clear day has seen the dramatic mountain rampart at the eastern edge of the city, rising up sharply 7,000 feet from the valley floor to the highest peaks. In the Ute language, “Wasatch” means "mountain pass" or "low pass over high range.” Confirming that name, from the metropolitan area the high mountain range is cut by a series of canyons which afford road access to world-class ski areas and diverse year-round outdoor recreation.

Important as recreation is in these mountains, first and foremost among their resource values is the abundant clean water that is the vital lifeblood of the communities below. Protecting these mountain watersheds was a primary reason for establishment of the Wasatch National Forest (now consolidated in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest).

Congress has since used the strongest form of protection of natural areas on our federal lands—designation as wilderness areas—to assure protection of these priceless watersheds for the 2 million residents of the Wasatch Front communities. From the south, three wilderness areas protect much of the mountain range.

Congress established the 30,000-acre Lone Peak Wilderness in 1978. Rising above the communities of Sandy and Provo, the area features large cirque basins and high alpine meadows bounded by exposed rocky ridges. Lone Peak rises to 11,253 feet, slightly exceeded by the Little Matterhorn at 11,326 feet.

Next northward, just across Little Cottonwood Canyon, the 11,396-acre Twin Peaks Wilderness features narrow canyons and high peaks—Twin Peaks rises to 11,319 feet. Finally, the 15,300-acre Mount Olympus Wilderness lies just north of Twin Peaks across Big Cottonwood Canyon. The Twin Peaks and Mount Olympus Wilderness areas were established by Congress in 1984. In all of these areas, patches of fir and aspen are found on higher north-facing slopes, with dense mountain bush mixed with sagebrush and grass at lower elevations, all contributing to the vivid display of fall colors. The snow that falls here is considered among the best for not only downhill skiing, but also for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

As Carl Fisher, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Save Our Canyons, says “These are crown jewels of the Salt Lake region, peaks and canyons that draw millions for outdoor recreation, hiking the trails in the wilderness areas or skiing nearby slopes while glorying in the natural backdrop these special places provide. However, many thousands of acres of roadless land in the central Wasatch, where recreationists enjoy hiking and skiing, do not yet enjoy permanent protection.”

Save Our Canyons has been at the forefront of working with other stakeholders, including local public officials and ski area operators, seeking agreement on a comprehensive plan for protecting the still-vulnerable watersheds in the central Wasatch. The proposal includes designation of key additions to the Mount Olympus and Lone Peak wilderness areas and establishment of a new 7,700-acre area to be called the Wayne Owens Grandeur Peak Wilderness, honoring the late Rep. Wayne Owens, a champion of the original wilderness designations in the Wasatch Mountains.