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Elk Park

Elk Park is located in the Uintah Mountains just southwest of the Flaming Gorge recreation area. The turnoff from Highway 44 (if you decide to start your ride there) is located just within the boundary of the recreation area, but within 1/4 mile you're in the Ashley National Forest. At Elk Park there's beginner-level dirt road and ATV track for camping families, plus the tough Elk Park Loop for advanced riders.

View from FR 539 as we descend toward the confluence of Carter Creek and Deep Creek. We're looking northeast at Carter Creek. Ride and photos August 16, 2012.

Beginner-level riding:
I noticed several groups in primitive camping spots with kids' bikes alongside the trailers. Further in, I encountered a helmetless guy on a rigid bike exploring the dirt roads. There are undeveloped campsites right at Elk Park along FR 229 (left turn just past the Elk Park sign).

We've reached Elk Park. That must be an elk right there.

There were plenty of bike tracks on Trail 13, a 4-mile ATV track that heads south to the Old Carter Military Trail. A short out-and-back on Trail 14 could also be fun, but beginners and intermediates should turn around instead of descending into Deep Creek (see high-res topo map).

Just past the Elk Park meadow, this sign marks your return route. Or your exploration route if you aren't planning to do the big loop. For the loop, keep straight on the right side of this sign.

A nice ride for strong conditioned beginners is an out-and-back to the fire lookout tower on top of Ute Mountain. From Elk Park, this ride is 14.2 miles on dirt roads. From Highway 44, it will be 18.6 miles. 

View down FR 539 as we begin the descent from Elk Park into the Carter Creek canyon. The trees here block the views into the gorge, but you'll have some eye candy later.

The out-and-back ride to Ute Mountain will have about 2200 feet of total climbing from Elk Park, 2400 if done from Highway 44. (You'll have to climb out of the Carter Creek gorge in both directions.) Top altitude is 8800 feet. 

To ride the out-and-back, just follow the loop ride directions below, then backtrack from Ute Mountain. Also consider doing this ride from the Deep Creek Campground for less vertical and a shorter ride.

At the bottom of the canyon, we cross Deep Creek and pass the Deep Creek campground. Then we cross Carter Creek (shown) and begin climbing.

Experts: The Elk Park Loop
The Elk Park Loop will not become your favorite ride. But if you're in the neighborhood and have a few hours, maybe you'll want to give this tough loop a try. The North Elk Park Trail 14  version is an adventure of varied adversity. The alternate South Elk Park version via Trail 13 (while not choked with deadfall like 14 and with a shorter easier push-a-bike) is still tough. The ride is 21 miles with 2400 vertical feet of climbing.

View from FR 539 above Carter Creek.

Every rider will be able to find something they absolutely hate about this ride. What's on your hate list?
  Long dirt-road grunts? Got that.
  Gasping thin air at altitude? Check.
  Rocky treacherous terrain? You bet.
  Careening through ATV churn? Oh yeah.
  Route-finding challenges? Well, yes.
  Brutal long push-a-bikes? Yup.
  Riding with wet shoes? Hate that.
  Climbing over countless deadfall? "Trail 14".

Looking uphill as we climb away from Carter Creek.

But you, being an aggressive and skilled rider, are already wondering when you'll be able to head for Flaming Gorge and tackle this loop. Heck, Trail 13 is for pansies and crybabies. You'll want to go for the Trail 14 version.

We're at the top of Ute Mountain. Notice there are no stairs to get up into the lookout. Damn. "Renovations."

But do yourself a favor. Don't take intermediate riders on this trail unless you have all day to wait while they walk the long and multiple tech sections. And don't dream of taking a less-skilled spouse. The bike ride is bound to come up, years later, in the divorce proceedings.

Bouncing over the Uintah Group precambrian quartzite on Ute Mountain Trail 005 as we head downhill toward Browne Lake.

What? You're still reading?

OK, here's the lowdown on the Trail 14 Elk Park loop ride.

Start from the parking along Highway 44, altitude 7800 feet. Pedal up FR 539 for 2.2 miles. You'll gain 200 feet. When you reach the big open meadow with the Elk Park sign, keep straight on the main dirt road. You'll be returning via the broad doubletrack on your left.

Dropping a chute that's trickier than it looks.

The road will descend into the Carter Creek canyon. You'll lose 500 feet of elevation. At mile 3.8, pedal past the Deep Creek campground at the confluence of Deep Creek and Carter Creek. Begin climbing back out of the canyon.

Approaching Browne Lake. The path through the creek and up the opposite side is an alternate if you don't mind getting wet. The official trail veers to the right and across the dam.

The road will rise above the Carter Creek canyon, then veer to the right along Honslinger Creek. Keep straight at mile 4.6 as the Scraper Spring road joins on your right. Pass two roads on your left at mile 6.1 and 6.2. When you reach the top at mile 6.6, turn left on the straight-as-an-arrow dirt road 221. (The paved road just uphill is the Sheep Creek road.) 

Browne Lake from the parking area near the dam. The continuing trail (Carter Military Road) is behind me.

FR 221 will begin to climb again. Just over a mile from where you joined the road, fork left on the Ute Mountain Road 005. Grunt uphill to 8800 feet elevation, where you'll find the Ute Mountain Fire Lookout. (At my visit, the stairs had been removed for renovation, so there were no views.)

The ATV track of Trail 16 starts out pretty smooth. Then it gets bumpy as it descends to the creekside.

Straight ahead is the Ute Mountain singletrack trail 005. This trail will have some bumpy and nasty sections. And of course there's plenty of the typical Uintah Mountain loose quartzite cobble to contend with. There are, mercifully, a few smooth cruising sections, particularly as you approach Browne Lake.

Line-picking and bike handling skills required. Sometimes the best line is right over the top of the biggest boulders.

As you approach Browne Lake at mile 10.7, decide whether you want to splash across the creek directly to the continuing trail or follow the official route to the right side of the dam. See the bridge across the spillway? That's the official destination. See the path leading to doubletrack near the log fence? That's the shortcut.

The ATV track splashes through a couple of side-creeks as it follows Carter Creek downhill.

Assuming you went right, cross the spillway and the dam. When you reach the parking lot, go through the metal gate in the wooden fence on your left. The gate is by the "Carter Military Road" interpretive sign. The ATV trail number 16 heading southeast is the continuing trail. In general, trail intersections are well marked along the entire loop.

The Icy Hill Dugway. Gotta crank hard and fast. There's no getting over the rocks if you move slow. See how high you can get.

The ATV track will become rough with exposed rocks mixed with loose cobble. While the route is generally downhill along Carter Creek, there are some challenging uphill sections. Keep straight (right) on Trail 16 at the barely-perceptible Lost Spring trail fork. 

After a couple of water splashes from side creeks, you'll come to the Icy Hill Dugway. This is a fall-line path of large cobble with water trickling down it. The dugway is about 0.1 mile long. I was able to make it about 200 feet with maxed-out effort in the middle ring on 29-inch wheels. Time to hike. If you hate this hike-a-bike, you ain't seen nothing yet.

At the top of the hill, you'll find another trail fork. Keep left for Trail 16. (The right-hand trail is upper Trail 14. It will curve around and rejoin 16 in the meadow of Youngs Park.)

View down the trail as we bounce and slide toward Youngs Park (the yellow meadow you can see between the trees).

When the trail drops down to a broad meadow that looks a lot like Elk Park, you'll think you're almost done. Hahahahahaha. At the far side of the meadow, fork left on a barely-visible Trail 14, also called the North Elk Park trail. Your trials are just beginning.

(The alternative loop uses Trail 16. It's longer but faster. To do the alternate, stay on Trail 16 another mile and a half as the trail climbs 300 feet through rocky terrain. Then fork left on Trail 13. After a hike out of the East Fork of Deep Creek, enjoy a cruise back to Elk Park.)

Youngs Park.

You'll spend 4 miles on Trail 14. It starts out mellow. You'll traverse a couple of meadows. Tiptoe over a flowing stream on rickety logs. Blast through a deep bog. There are some rocks in the bottom of the ruts, but maybe you'll get stuck in the middle like me. Upper-shin deep. Enjoy the wet hike to the far side of the swamp.

Water crossing on Trail 14. I didn't even try to ride it. I'm not that stupid.

The trail then enters thick pine forest littered with deadfall. On my ride, trunks of dead trees frequently blocked the trail. I bunny-hopped everything less than 12 inches, but I lost count of how many times I had to dismount and scramble over tree trunks. It was like slow-motion cyclocross with too many barriers. For a long stretch I could usually see the next deadfall as I was stepping over the last one.

On Trail 14 there were many small areas of burn, which appeared to be the result of lightning strikes.

Trail 14. Deadfall city.

There were a couple of stretches where the trail simply disappeared. Many spots in the Uintahs have closely-spaced flat stones that keep tires and hooves from wearing down a tread. Add longleaf pine needles and pine cones to a seldom-ridden route, and the trail is invisible. Just keep going straight and watch for something that looks like the way home.

Jackie cruises along a hard-to-see trail section.

At mile 17.5 comes Deep Creek. This may be the deal-breaker for riders who don't care for hike-a-bikes. The trail plunges straight down to the creek. On the opposite side is a path of loose cobble rising 200 vertical feet in 0.2 miles. That's a 20% slope for those of you who passed high school math. 20 percent. At 8000 feet. Packing your bike. Wearing bike shoes. In sloppy loose rocks. After riding 17 miles. I want to do that again real soon!

The "trail" out of Deep Creek. And this goes on for almost 1/4 mile!

Once you're finally at the top of the push-a-bike slip'n fall zone, it's a nice cruise back toward Elk Park. So take a minute at the top for an attitude adjustment. There's finally some good riding ahead, and you can enjoy it if you're rested.

A fun stretch of Trail 14. Fun if you have full suspension.

At mile 18.6 Trail 14 joins Trail 13. (Look how smooth Trail 13 is. Bet you're wishing you'd done the "16 to 13" version now. It's about a mile longer, but without deadfall and with a shorter hike-a-bike through the East Fork ravine.) Keep straight and cruise back past the Elk Park meadow. 

At the new-looking ATV gate for Trail 14. We're about 1/2 mile from Trail 13.

Bottom line:
Elk Park has a few nice views, but you may find the dirt-road climb tedious and boring. The downhill is challenging with very little cruising. The loop is worth doing for expert riders who are already in the area. But until Trail 14 sees some serious TLC, riders with a bad attitude toward adversity should do the 16-to-13 version of the loop, which is still pretty tough. I saw evidence of recent work by the Forest Service on Trail 14, but it's going to take time and money (and riders putting tires on it) to reach its potential as a cycling singletrack.

Elk Park from the south side. Almost back to the main road.

Riding notes, Elk Park 14 Loop
0.0   From Highway 44, west on FR 539
        N40 51.232 W109 40.647
2.2   Straight at Elk Park (L = return path)
        N40 51.180 W109 42.720
        Descend into Carter Creek on 539
3.8   Deep Creek CG N40 51.304 W109 43.783
        Start climbing uphill
4.6   Keep straight (R = Scraper Spring 366)
        N40 52.251 W109 45.025
6.1   Keep straight (L = trail 007)
        N40 52.380 W109 45.442
6.2   Keep straight (L = FR 628)
        N40 52.418 W109 45.562
6.6   Fork L on FR 221 
        N40 52.651 W109 45.554
        (straight = to paved Sheep Creek Rd)
7.8   L on FR 005 N40 52.653 W109 46.910
9.3   Ute Mountain Fire Lookout Tower
        N40 52.296 W109 47.540
        Straight ahead to 005 singletrack
10.7 Keep R N40 51.694 W109 48.496
        Head to R of spillway
11.0 Cross bridge then dam
        N40 51.860 W109 48.569
11.1 L through fence from parking area
        N40 51.762 W109 48.629
        Carter Military Rd (trail 16)
13.1 Keep L (R = alternate tr. 14)
        N40 50.433 W109 48.025
14.2 L on trail 14 at far side of Youngs Park
        N40 49.997 W109 47.045
        (Alternate: straight on 16 another
         1-1/2 mile, left on trail 13 for 3 miles)

14.7 Through swamp N40 50.060 W109 46.715
17.4 Steep plunge to Deep Creek
17.5 Cross Deep Creek then East Fork
        N40 50.647 W109 44.009
        Ridiculous uphill hike-a-bike
17.7 Finally at top
18.6 Join trail 13, keep straight (north)
        N40 50.960 W109 43.095
18.8 Keep L (R = FR 229 southbound)
        N40 50.965 W109 42.886
19.2 Back at 539, turn R
21.4 Back at highway 44.
Getting there:
From I-80 eastbound: When coming from I-80, the pullout for FR 539 is 16.5 miles from Manilla on Highway 44, on the right side of the road just after you've finished climbing up from the Carter Creek canyon. Look for it 3.2 miles past the paved Sheep Creek Road (or 2.5 miles from the Dowd Mountain TH).
From Vernal or Dutch John: If coming from the east, the turnout will be on your left 9 miles from the visitor center turnoff (12.7 miles from the fork of Highway 44 with SR 260). If you descend into a canyon, you went too far.
Riding Resources:
One-page printable trail guide
GPS track files (right-click and "Save as..."):
    GPX 14 loop (harder)     GPX 13 loop
    Area multi-track
High-res topo map for printing:  View 
Lodging, camping, shops:   Links to Vernal area resources

Developed campgrounds
     Flaming Gorge near visitor's center (9 miles)
     Deep Creek (on FR 539 mile 3.8)
     Browne Lake, Sheep Creek
  Primitive sites along 539
Deep Creek CB, Browne Lake
At campgrounds.

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