Check Out the Mountain Goats
This past weekend I went with my son’s Boy Scout troop to Willard Peak and Ben Lomond Peak. The first order of business was to drive to Willard Basin (GPS lat. 41.38778, long. –11197806, alt. 8360). The small and rustic campground is about six miles from my house, as the crow flies, but two hours as the Jeep drives. Each of the four campsites consist of a fire pit, an ancient picnic table in desperate need of rehabilitation, a tiny bit of bare ground, and not much level area for tents. The public outhouse that was once up there has been demolished and capped.
Willard Basin is accessed via the town of Mantua, which is a short drive up Box Elder Canyon. Mantua is easily accessed from I-15 exit 364, and then driving east for about 6½ miles to US-89’s exit to Mantua. The pavement ends not far from the edge of town, where the Willard Peak Scenic Backway begins.
This southbound 11-mile winding stretch rises more than four thousand feet. It could be considered an improved dirt road, but it is best suited to true off-road vehicles. It is extremely rugged and is definitely not for the faint of heart. While acquaintances of mine reported seeing a Ford Fiesta parked at the campground (the road can be managed in a 2WD vehicle in dry conditions), the road calls for a vehicle with a fair amount of ground clearance. It is common to see motorcycles and four-wheel ORVs traveling on it. Many stretches of the road have large rocks exposed, requiring careful navigation even in Jeeps and 4WD trucks. It is a very bumpy, grueling trip where maximum speeds range from 5-15 mph.
After nine miles of tedious, bone-jarring travel, the road eventually tops out at a scenic overlook that peers down into Willard Basin. A large sign there explains that the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed over 700 miles of terraces and did other work up there during the late 1920s and early 1930s to curb flooding problems in Willard and Perry below. The terrace work is quite visible. Another two miles on the road gets you to what many still call the CCC Campground.
We spent a pleasant Friday night in our tents, but it was a good 20° cooler than it was at my house that night. Willard Peak overlooks and is south of the campground. We saw deer fairly close by and saw a couple of mountain goats in the distance. We were keeping our eyes open for mountain goats because we heard that there had been more sightings this year than any year on record.
There is a trailhead near the campground, but looking at our map, we figured that we could save 500 feet of vertical climb by driving two more miles to Inspiration Point, which is at the top of Willard Mountain (not Willard Peak). That two-mile trip took much longer than the relatively short, but steep hike would have taken. Next time I do the trip, I will start from the Willard Basin trailhead.
There is precious little parking at Inspiration Point, but five or six full-size vehicles could squeeze into the available space. The trail that leads from there, around the south side of Willard Peak, and toward Ben Lomond Peak is good trail that is not terribly difficult to traverse. We were passed by mountain bikers and a few dirt motorcycles. About a mile from Inspiration Point, we looked for a way to access Willard Peak, but didn’t see any noticeable trail, so we bushwhacked our way to the top. This short stretch was extremely strenuous and caused one of our party to stay behind due to acrophobia.
We were rewarded with a spectacular view of Box Elder, Weber, and Cache counties from our 9764-foot vantage point on the rocky top of Willard Peak (lat. 41.38276, long. –111.97453). The peak straddles Weber and Box Elder counties, and is the highest peak in Weber County. We saw an adult mountain goat with two juveniles sauntering through the trees a couple of hundred feet below us on the north side of the peak.
As we searched for a geo cache on the south side of the peak, we suddenly noticed a few mountain goats about a quarter mile away on the slopes below. The sun was just reaching those slopes over the tops of the mountains, and the goats seemed inclined to stand in the shadows, making it difficult to see them. However, the goats became more easily noticeable each time they moved. We soon counted seven goats, and then three more, and then three more.
My son then said, “There’s one right in front of you, Dad.” I looked, but didn’t notice anything. I queried, “Where?” as I looked into the distance. He replied, “On that ledge right over there,” pointing to a spot less than 100 feet away. Sure enough, a large goat was lying on a rocky ledge nearby staring intently at our group. We soon discerned that there was another goat behind that one on the same ledge. After watching them for a while I realized that there were two goats behind that, and then we noticed another one on the ledge below. All were resting, but were aware of our presence. In the meantime, two of the other adults in our group continued spotting animals on the slopes below and to the south. Eventually, we counted about 30 mountain goats.
After a while we scrambled down from the peak to the trail below. We had to go right near the ledges where the nearby goats had been resting. They got up and easily ambled down the steep incline as we approached, and we counted eight of them, so some had been hidden from our view. It wasn’t so easy for us to navigate the rocky slope. The animals we scared up soon joined their companions. As we reached the trail and began hiking toward Ben Lomond Peak many of the goats scampered down the slope, crossed our trail, and headed down the rocky ledges below. However, we then noticed even more mountain goats on the slopes and ledges above us. Due to movement of individual animals, we lost count of how many goats we saw, but we figure we saw between 40 and 50.
The trek to Ben Lomond Peak from there is about two miles. Most of that is fairly easy trail. It gets a bit strenuous in the final quarter mile ascent to Ben Lomond Peak (lat. 41.36321, long. –111.9607, alt. 9712), but the trail quality is very good.
Another Scout troop was getting ready to leave the peak as we climbed to the summit. That morning, they had made the 9½-mile trek from the trailhead at the top of North Ogden Divide, a route I have taken in the past. That route has the advantage of the trailhead being easily accessibly by automobile and having plenty of paved parking. Of course, it’s three times the distance from that trailhead than from the Willard side, and there is a significant rise in the first mile and a half of the hike, and another major climb to ascend Ben Lomond Peak.
There is less standing room on Ben Lomond Peak than on Willard Peak, but the view in all directions is spectacular. Scanning south and slightly east from Ben Lomond Peak, a whole line of peaks if visible: Chilly Peak (8459 ft.), Lewis Peak (8031 ft.), Allen Peak (9465 Ft.) next to Mt. Ogden Peak (9572 ft.) and with Malan’s Peak (really just a prominence) to the west, DeMoisy Peak (9369 ft.), and Strawberry Peak (9275 ft.).
The three-mile hike back to Inspiration Point was relatively easy trail hiking. On the trip toward Ben Lomond Peak, we saw no mountain goats after we rounded the first major bend to the southeast after passing Willard Peak. Upon rounding that same bend on the way back we saw three or four goats in the ledges above. A gaggle of hikers were ogling them. We just smiled smugly to ourselves, knowing that 90% of the herd had moved out of sight to the steep slopes far below the trail. The final ascent to Inspiration Point was strenuous after having already hiked some distance.
Then we had 13+ miles of really nasty “scenic backway” to navigate. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, that means pulling off to the side frequently to allow ORVs to pass. Unfortunately for us, it also meant a trip to the auto mechanic, since we managed to bash in our transmission oil pan while navigating one particularly horrendous rock field that is part of the road, causing the transmission to fail. Gratefully, due to the relative slope of the road, we were able to coast more than five miles to Mantua with one little push over a small hump in the road and one 100-yard push up a nearly level stretch.
All in all, our trip provided the boys in the troop with a lot of adventure with only about seven miles of hiking. For me, sighting the mountain goat herd was one of the highlights of the trip. In all of the years that I have hiked around the mountains to the north and east of my home, I have never before seen even one mountain goat. My only regrets are my failure to pack my camera and the need for auto repair.
I’d do it again next weekend if I could.