Mount Timpanogos rises about 7,000 feet above the valley floor in Utah County to a height of 11,750 feet. Easily the most dramatic (although not quite the highest) of mountains in the Wasatch Front, Timp, as it’s called locally, is literally surrounded with pristine, lung-busting singletrack. While the upper reaches of the mountain (pretty much everything above 9,000 feet, give or take) are out of bounds to bikes, the Great Western Trail lies conveniently just to the lower side of the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness area. In fact, the GWT interrupts its meandering route from Brighton and Alta in the North to split at Timp, traversing both front and back of the mountain before rejoining itself to continue its journey South through the Southern portion of the Wasatch and on towards Mexico.
The Alpine Loop road, an exceptionally beautiful and challenging road ride, circumnavigates Timp over about 40 miles of excellent pavement, incorporating an elevation gain of about 4,000 feet in 15 miles, topping out at just over 8,000 feet. The Timp portion of the Great Western Trail singletrack lies mostly within the Alpine Loop, but rises and falls many times as it makes its way around the mountain.
You can ride around Timp either direction, but because the Southeast part requires about 10 miles of pavement, we opted to begin at the mouth of Provo Canyon, at the Southwest corner of the mountain, and proceed around the face of Timp, around the 11,300 foot North peak, around the back, finishing the ride with a 10 mile pavement cool-down past Sundance (of film festival fame) and back to Provo Canyon. 40 miles total riding, 30 of it singletrack, about 7,000 total feet of elevation gain. Of course, you lose 7,000 feet too. And remember, we’re not talking about climbing 7,000 feet on fireroads, or even jeep roads. This is 7,000 feet of climbing on steep, technical singletrack, littered with roots, rocks, and logs.
Mount Timpanogos rises straight up from the Valley floor, and forms a mostly sheer face about 5 or 6 miles across for most of its upper reaches. Four mini-mountains buttress the mountain in front, the tallest of which tops out at 9,000 feet, with the lowest reaching 7,600. Timp drains down the front through a series of canyons between these mini-mountains: from South to North, they are Provo Canyon on the South side, Dry Canyon between Little and Big Baldy, Battle Creek between Big Baldy and G mountain (so-named for the perky G emblazoned on its face, for Pleasant Grove High School), Grove Creek between G mountain and Mahogany Mountain, and American Fork Canyon to the North. The Great Western Trail climbs up from Provo Canyon and crosses the face of Timp, passing over the upper shoulder of each of the mini-mountains as it traverses, before rounding the North Peak and heading back into the heart of the Wasatch.
We started around 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday late in July. It had been a big snow year, and we didn’t want to add portaging bikes over large snow fields to the task. We each carried a full CamelBak and two bottles on the bike. I packed my favorite trail foods: deli-fresh fried chicken and Twizzlers. After a nice 10 minute warm-up heading two miles up Provo Canyon to Canyon Glen Park on the paved riverside trail, we took a sharp left up the Great Western Trail. From here, the trail wouldn’t point anywhere close to downward for another 8 miles. Rudely awakened by a 500 foot gain in the first half-mile, we settled into a rhythm, winding 3 miles to a large meadow, at the top of the local ride affectionately known as Frank. This was the last bail-out point before the climb to Little Baldy, and then on to Big Baldy. A fast, roller coaster-like singletrack went left, back down the mountain and to civilization. Our course went right, straight up.
After a few rocky sections and challenging moves, we settled into the trees and the trail turned to soft dirt and pine needles. Mellow switchbacks punctuated the climb every 100 yards or so. We moved very quickly up the hill, still focused and energetic. After about 2 miles, we emerged from the trees to a sharp traverse across an almost sheer face, just below the Little Baldy pass. Looking left and out across the valley, we could see points over a hundred miles away South and West, from the North end of Utah lake to majestic Mount Nebo, the monarch of the Wasatch to the South. Unimpressed, we turned and resumed climbing.
After passing over the Little Baldy shoulder at about 7,600 feet, we descended some rough and rocky trail to meet the track coming up Dry Canyon. We bottomed out at about 7,200 feet, and turned upward toward Big Baldy, about 2 miles and 1,000 vertical feet above us. The climb was loose and dusty at first, but after about 200 yards, we once again began to switchback the face. Topping out at the Big Baldy pass at around 8,300 feet, we sat down for our first extended break. After 10 miles of climbing, a rest seemed in order. The view was breathtaking, because we could now see all points Northward as well as the incredible South view we enjoyed from the earlier traverse. Just over the Point of the Mountain to the North, a large traverse ridge that juts out of Lone Peak, we could see the whole of the Salt Lake valley, all the way to the far side of the Great Salt Lake.
Facing a steep, loose, rocky descent down the North side of Big Baldy, Jeremy and Ryan, the daredevil downhillers of our party, got a running start and launched themselves down the hill. Following cautiously behind, Jeff, our junior phenom, and I each endoed multiple times in the course of the next mile. After stopping to eat Twizzlers at the roar of a melting snowfield, we quickly crossed over the top of Battle Creek Canyon, and began again to climb toward the North Peak. As we passed the top of Grove Creek (interesting side note: I happen to live the bottom of Grove Creek. Alright, it wasn’t that interesting.), a lagging Jeff disappeared around a bend behind us. Sending Jeremy and Ryan on ahead, I went back to find him. Apart from a full-on bonk, he seemed fine. Fighting back his disappointment, he told me he couldn’t keep going. Gallantly, heroically, hoping for refusal, I offered to accompany him down Grove Creek Canyon (which descends almost 3,000 feet in 3 miles, a bitchin ride by itself) and back to civilization. Luckily, he said he could make it down alone. Leaving Jeff to the vultures, I rejoined my companions, fighting a bit of the bonk myself.
After passing the top of Grove Creek, the trail climbed another 700 feet or so as we began to head around the North Peak. As the trail turned from the face of Timp to the North side, the terrain changed almost miraculously from sage brush, scrub oak, and barren rock to lush pine and aspen forest. Topping out at around 8500 feet, the trail began to undulate regularly, climbing and descending. For several miles we would climb agonizing grunts, and immediately descend wicked luge runs with banked turns and 2 foot log drop offs. Rejuvenated, we crossed the large drainage plain of the North peak, climbed up the far side, and began to drop toward the Timponeeke trailhead on the North end of the backside. Before too long, we reached Julie Andrews Meadow. Really. And what a spot. From here, you could see the majestic back side of Timp, still snow-covered, Lone Peak to the North, the tops of Alta and Snowbird, and to the East lay the full expanse of the High Uintahs. We felt like singing. But we restrained ourselves.
Reluctantly leaving Julie Andrews Meadow behind, we descended some of the rockiest, fastest, turniest single-track I’ve ever been on. I was quickly dropped by Jeremy and Ryan, but, confident that I was the only one who knew the way, I followed at a more reasonable pace. A mile or so later, we emerged at the Timponeeke trailhead, only a few miles from the summit of the Alpine Loop road (and the last of our climbing). We crossed the parking lot and quickly regained the singletrack. After 100 yards or so, we turned left across the stream, since to go straight would have meant entering a Wilderness Area, and incurred the wrath of club-wielding hikers.
Sensing that we were only a few miles from the top, each of us determined not to appear weak in any way, we began a race of sorts for the summit. With only a half mile or so to go, Ryan easily peeled off the front and led the way to the parking lot at the top. From here, we simply needed to descend some terrific singletrack for about two or three miles to Aspen Grove, where we would run out of trail, and finish the ride by coasting five miles past Sundance to Provo Canyon, and then take the rolling highway 5 miles down canyon back to the car.
Of course, during the trip down to Aspen Grove, I suffered the only mechanicals of the trip. Namely, 3 pinch flats. Apparently I was fatigued enough to have no control over my bike, and instead of bobbing and weaving in and out of the rocks and roots in my path, I had taken to riding through and over everything.
Once we entered the Alpine Loop road below Aspen Grove, our speeds quickly maxed out between 30 and 40 mph. I was riding next to Ryan during a particulary steep straightaway, and I noticed a sudden change in the sound of his tires on the pavement. Looking over, I was surprised to find Ryan nonchalantly riding a wheelie down the road at over 40 mph. After 30 miles of ultra-steep, technical singletrack, I could barely keep my hands on my bars, and Ryan and Jeremy were whooping it up on their back wheels. The bastards.
After fighting the typical afternoon headwinds coming out of Provo Canyon, I limped back to the car, after a refreshing dip in the Provo River, finishing up around 2:30 p.m.
Ever since I did this ride two years ago, I’ve intended to repeat it annually. I haven’t yet. But it’s on my calendar for this July. Everyone’s welcome.