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Hiking Utah’s Canyon of Gold

Cody Smith
November 12, 2012
Filed under Blog

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The feeling is unforgettable. Being miles from any signs of civilization with only the sound of birds and the ground crunching under your feet, hiking past huge frozen waterfalls and creeks, and having to find your way on a trail that’s so infrequently traveled on that it almost disappears in places.

Welcome to Bullion Canyon. Located in southern Utah approximately 30 miles from Richfield in the Fishlake National Forest, Bullion Canyon is known mainly for its history in gold. Starting in about 1865 the canyon became the headquarters for several large mining operations and Bullion City, containing a population of mostly miners numbering around 1,600. Although only a handful of remnants remain from this gold fever that swept Bullion Canyon, gold panning and dredging is still done on a smaller scale – and yes, they do still find gold. But Miner’s Park, built by the Forest Service, Paiute County, and the town of Marysvale, still draws in many people interested in the incredible mining history of the canyon. Miner’s Park is a great place to have a picnic and spend an afternoon checking out the historic markers, walking the short interpretive trail, and hiking to the 60 foot Bullion Falls.

Bullion Falls is where our adventure began. My sister, Hanna, and I rode the five miles from town to the trail that took us one mile from Bullion Canyon Road to the trailhead. From there it’s a short walk to the overlook for Bullion Falls. Ice was beginning to form on the rock face on either side of the falls, evidence of the winter weather that was starting to move in. Most people turn around here, but for those like us who do wish to continue on trail number 074 towards Bullion Pasture, it begins a strenuous climb up the mountain. The trailhead elevation starts at over 8,000 feet, so even though we’d been staying in 6,000 foot elevation for a couple months, it didn’t take long before we began to feel the thin air.

This area is so steep that rock slides, mud slides, and erosion seem to be common. Preventive measures have been put in by the Forest Service, such as water bars and retaining walls, but the forces of nature are so powerful that sometimes it doesn’t matter what people do to try and stop it. At one place we could see where a massive boulder had very recently broken off a cliff above us and barreled its way down the mountain, breaking off fairly large aspen trees and leaving a 10-15 foot path of destruction as far as we could see down the mountain toward Bullion Falls. At a dry creek bed crossing nearby, even though rebar and rocks had been put in place, it looked like a small mudslide came through, leaving bent rebar and a buried section of trail.

At last the trail rounded a bend and we reached the top of the cliffs and entered a quiet aspen forest. As we crossed a meadow, the trail began to descend down the right side of Bullion Canyon towards Pine Creek, which flows throughout the canyon. The trail remains on the right side (on the way up) of Pine Creek the entire way, which makes it fairly easy to find the trail again if you lose it. Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable sound of a waterfall echoing through the trees. After a short walk down the hill, we came to the nearly frozen waterfall. It was surrounded by strange formations of ice that the water seemed to have created and then shaped by its constant crashing and flowing down the creek.

The trail began to climb a little steeper again, and took us through more meadows and past huge boulders. We decided to stop for lunch in a huge meadow with great views looking back down the canyon behind us and up the mountains ahead of us. We were both getting pretty hungry by now, so the fresh baked rolls, can of pineapple chunks, bananas, and tuna that Hanna had packed disappeared in 10 or 15 minutes.

Time was running out, so we pushed on towards Bullion Pasture. Then, as we crossed another meadow, the trail just vanished. There was a post in the ground, but it appeared the sign had blown away or been torn down. We hiked around trying to find where the trail left the meadow, without success. We followed what looked like a trail into the woods, but as it began to wind through pine tree branches and became very hard to follow, we realized it must be a game trail. After backtracking to the meadow, we hiked the opposite direction on what looked like it could possibly be the trail, but as it began to branch off in every direction, we realized this must also be a game trail. I dug the map out of my backpack and found where I thought we might be. It looked like the trail made an almost 90 degree turn to the left around the ridge in front of us, so that’s where we headed. After cutting through the woods for a hundred yards or so, we finally ran into the trail! Now I wanted to see where I had lost the trail, so we turned around and headed back towards the meadow. Right before the meadow, the trail cuts between some trees, crosses a creek bed, climbs up the bank on the other side, and then enters the meadow at a 90 degree angle to where it enters from the other end. The trail is almost impossible to see from on top of the bank in the meadow, unless you already know where it’s at or the sign is there, I guess.

By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and we’d reached the halfway point time wise, so we turned around and started heading back. The trail seemed much easier now that all the uphill sections we’d climbed only hours before were now downhill. Since there was a little time to spare, we hiked down to a waterfall we had heard on the way up, but didn’t stop at. It was definitely worth the scrambling over fallen trees and slipping down into the creek bottom to get to. Without actually measuring it, a good guess would be that it was 20-25 feet high. What made it really incredible, though, is that most of it was frozen over, but water was still flowing under the ice. I know this can happen over the surface of a creek or river, but I never would’ve thought a waterfall could freeze over, and yet keep flowing underneath! It was definitely one of the coolest waterfalls I’ve ever seen, because of this.

As we continued back down the trail, a cool breeze started to blow, reminding us that we would not want to get stuck up there at night without the proper winter gear. The temperature changes fast up in the mountains – evidenced by the fact that I wore a t-shirt our entire hike, and yet there was snow on the ground and frozen waterfalls.

At last we arrived back where we’d begun earlier that day, at the Bullion Canyon trailhead, and headed out. It was a beautiful day, an incredible hike, and a lot of fun! Bullion Canyon is a great place to get lost for a day in the peace, quiet and solitude of southern Utah’s Tushar Mountains.

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