Wow! This is an awesome hike! A little of everything--beautiful fall colors; multiple waterfalls; challenging AEG; alpine lakes; glacier; some pucker factor along a snowy traverse; knife-ridge; and, of course, a summit with expansive views (albeit, on this day, limited by low cloud cover).
After scouting out the first 1.5 miles of the trail following the conclusion of my conference at Aspen Grove the prior afternoon, I was ready for a pre-dawn ascent up the trail.
I had booked an extra night at Aspen Grove for this purpose, and after all of the conference goers left, I literally had the place to myself (not even any staff around--a phone number was posted on the door of the lodge to call if I needed assistance). Not gonna lie, it was a little eerie. I was wondering when Jack Nicholson would be rounding the corner with axe in hand.
Thankfully, no boogie men appeared, and I awoke at 5 am, got a little nutrition in, packed up my room and headed out into the darkness.
The lodge is about 0.25 mi. from the trailhead, so I just walked up the road and off onto the trail.
The first couple of miles were in the dark. About a mile in, I approached the first waterfall. Couldn't see much, but certainly heard it. Another half mile, another waterfall.
By that point, I had gained a good 800 feet and could look down the valley and see some lights from Aspen Grove and the surrounding area. Up above, I could make out some headlamps of folks who camped overnight and were getting ready for a summit attempt.
Another mile or so on the trail and the horizon began to lighten a bit. The forecast was for overcast skies and possible rain, so I didn't have high expectations for a spectacular sunrise. It was brief indeed, but provided a couple of minutes of decent color before the sun was enveloped in the cloud cover.
The cloud ceiling was still above 12K at that point, providing some good visibility of Deer Creek Reservoir and the town of Heber off to the Northeast.
About 3 miles or so in, I hit my first snow on the trail around 9,800 feet. I pulled out my Yax Trax and was happy to have the extra traction, as the sun the day before had resulted in some melt/freeze conditions. Up to that point, I had been hiking in shorts and a shirt, trying to keep cool. At this point, I layered up a bit and zipped on the pant legs.
Just shy of 5 miles, I rounded the corner on the Hidden Lakes area, covered in a layer of snow. Caught a blurry photo of a grouse(?) and briefly chatted with a guy who had overnighted in the area and was planning a summit attempt.
From Hidden Lakes, the trail curves to the NE, between an outcropping on the SE and Robert's Horn to the NE. With the snowy conditions, I lost track of the actual trail for a bit and was bushwhacking it through the snow up a a short incline, until I noticed the actual trail reappear and I cut over to rejoin it.
After going up a short rise, the Emerald Lake Shelter Hut came into view. Emerald Lake is directly south of the structure and was divided into a thawed section and a frozen section, which sits at the bottom of the glacier. I'm not sure it still qualifies as a "glacier," as I've seen several photos where the ice/snow is pretty sparse. On this day, though, there was a good amount of snow for end of September. In the past, it apparently has been popular to glissade down the glacier back to the Lake after summitting. It's not recommended now, as the chances of crashing into rocks is apparently pretty high.
From the shelter, you can also see make out the summit hut, less than a 1/2 mile as the crow flies, and about 1,400 feet up, surrounded by sheer cliffs. The trail takes nearly another two miles to get there.
Just beyond Emerald Lake was the sketchiest part of the trail, requiring a 3/4 mile traverse across a knee deep snow field, which in a few sections involve some fairly steep angles where a slip and fall would not turn out well ...
Thankfully for me, there had been a few hikers through the area already, leaving some postholes for me to strategically place my footing. I'm not sure how much of this section I was on the actual "trail," as it was a little difficult to discern, though the ultimate destination on the far side of the field was clear.
As the far end of the snow field, the trail climbed a steep ramp to where it intersected with the Timpooneke trail (an alternative approach to the summit) just below a "saddle" providing the first glimpses to the south and west into the the Provo Valley and Utah Lake from 11,000 feet up. Beautiful views! Thankfully, although the cloud level continued to lower, I was still able to see the city, lake, and a lot of the fall foliage on the lower reaches of the mountain.
The other thing that immediately grabbed my attention upon crossing the ridgeline was the WIND! It was pretty fierce. At this point I put on the windbreaker and gloves and buckled in for 3/4 mi.final climb.
The trail in this section is cool, skirting just along the edge of the knife-like ridgeline. As I ascended, the cloud level continued to lower, and soon the summit was shrouded in clouds. I was a little bummed about that, as I'm sure the views on both sides of the ridgeline are spectacular on a clear day. Oh well, a good reason to go back again.
About 1/2 mile from the summit, the trail climbs steeply up a break in the rock, along several tight switchbacks, before resuming its ascent just below the ridgeline.
At this point, I was hiking in the clouds with very limited visibility and didn't see the summit hut until it was 10-15 yards in front of me.
I was happy to reach the summit, but again slightly bummed about not being able to enjoy the views. Still, the summit adrenaline rush kicked in, and I was also glad to hunker in the hut and get a little reprieve from the wind.
After a few calories, and entry into the summit log and putting on my final layer (a thermal shirt) for the descent, I headed back into the clouds for the return trip.
The wind blew mercilessly over he summit ridgeline, creating a cool visual effect with the clouds "shooting" over the lip of the mountain.
When I finally crossed back over and below the ridgeline, the wind immediately ceased and the snow-covered trail was amazingly tranquil. A light snow began to fall as I traversed back across the snow field.
Once below 9,800 feet, and leaving the snow behind, I was in awe of the beautiful fall colors. Couldn't stop taking pictures.
By the time I returned to my starting point, I looked up and could see that the summit clouds had lifted and it was now clear on top. Oh well ....
Bottom line: This was easily a top 10 hike in my book. Highly recommend it to anyone in the area.
I'll be back on another--clear--day to enjoy the mountain again with full views!