Mount Mellenthin, seen from the
eastern slope of Mount Tukuhnikivatz
Distance: 4.8 miles (round trip)
Walking time: 4 1/2 hours
Elevations: 2,362 ft. gain/loss
• La Sal Pass (start): 10,120 ft.
• Mount Tukuhnikivatz: 12,482 ft.
Trail: There is a vague hiker-made trail most of the way to the top of Tukuhnikivatz, but don’t worry if you never see it. It is fairly easy to trace the route up the mountain. The terrain is fairly open with few obstacles to impede your progress, but the climb is very steep.
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The road to La Sal Pass is usually closed from mid-November until the end of June. For current conditions call the Moab Ranger District, Manti-La Sal National Forest, at (801) 259-7155.
Vicinity: Near Moab
Anyone who has visited Canyonlands or Arches National Parks in the early summer has probably gazed admiringly at the snow capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains. The sight of snow seems oddly out of place in the midst of the desert heat, but snow is usually visible on the higher summits of the La Sals well into July. Tradition has it that the mountains were named by Silvestre Valez de Escalante, the Spanish missionary and explorer, who saw them during his expedition through Utah in 1776. He called them the Sierra La Sal, or “Salt Mountains” because he deemed it so unlikely that they could be covered with snow so late in the summer.
As small and isolated as the La Sal Range is, it is actually the second highest mountain range in Utah. Only northern Utah’s Uinta Mountains are higher. The highest point in the La Sals is Mount Peale (12,721 feet), but the most celebrated peak is the one with the most unpronounceable name: Mount Tukuhnikivatz. Tukuhnikivatz is prominently situated on the western side of the La Sals and can be easily seen from the desert canyon country around Moab (see photograph, page 209). The exquisite red rock wilderness of Canyonlands and Arches is laid out in a vast panorama below the peak, and the resulting view from the top of Mount Tukuhnikivatz on a clear sunny day is extraordinary. The mountain’s tantalizing name is supposed to mean “The Place where the Sun Sets Last” in the language of the Ute Indians.
Before you begin the hike, pause to look northward from the parking area at the top of La Sal Pass. Mount Peale is the broad peak on your right, and Mount Tukuhnikivatz is the slightly lower but more pointed peak on the left. The two peaks are connected by a long summit ridge that runs in an east-west direction for about two miles. From the top of Mount Tukuhnikivatz the ridge drops down at a 30 degree angle into a small saddle about 500 feet below the summit of the mountain, and it is from that saddle that your final assent will be made. The best way to reach the summit ridge is to climb upward along the broad crest of the secondary north-south ridge that begins about a half mile from the trailhead and ends at the saddle near the peak.
You will start by walking northward through the open meadow in front of the parking area along an old jeep road. After a few hundred yards the jeep road bends to the left and then heads north again through a grove of spruce trees. The road stays in the trees for 0.2 mile and then emerges once more into another meadow. At this point you are at the foot of the secondary ridge which you must climb in order to reach the summit ridge. There is a vague trail leaving the jeep road and heading into the trees at the foot of the ridge, but the trail is difficult to find. Instead of wasting time looking for it just continue walking northward along the jeep road. The road follows the eastern side of the ridge for another 0.4 mile before it ends. When the road ends simply turn west and start climbing until you reach the crest of the ridge. The crest of the ridge is about 500 feet above the road at this point. It is a tiring climb, but at least there are no trees to hinder your progress.
When you reach the top of the secondary ridge you will find a trail that climbs along its crest to the summit ridge above. The route is very steep, but there are few obstacles. The trail finally reaches the Peale-Tukuhnikivatz summit ridge about 0.5 mile east of Mount Tukuhnikivatz, where once again you will be on relatively level ground. What a relief! The elevation is just over 12,000 feet, and the ground is covered with the grasses, mosses, and wild flowers of the Arctic-Alpine Tundra life zone. This area is part of the Mount Peale Research Natural Area, an area that was established in the 1980s to protect several species of endangered plants that occupy the above-treeline slopes of the La Sals. Try to tread gently across the tundra-especially if you are in a large group.
The route to the top of Mount Tukuhnikivatz from the summit ridge is quite obvious. Walking westward the grade soon increases, and the pleasant carpet of plant life is replaced by a tortuous field of broken stones. There is no trail-just a lung busting climb up the last few hundred feet to the top of the talus covered peak.
From the top a large swath of some of the most interesting terrain in Utah is clearly visible. To the north, in Arches National Park, the Courthouse Towers rise dramatically from the desert floor like tombstones in a cemetery for giants. The Behind the Rocks area west of Moab is also clearly discernible, and the Colorado River Gorge that separates the Needles District from the rest of Canyonlands National Park meanders darkly through the maze of canyons, buttes, and mesas, patiently looking for Lake Powell. In the words of Edward Abbey:
“All around the peaks of the Sierra La Sal lies the desert, a sea of burnt rock, arid tablelands, barren and desolate canyons. The canyon country is revealed from this magnificent height as on a map and I can imagine, if not read, the names on the land.” (Desert Solitaire, a Season in the Wilderness, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968)