Wild Heber: Close-to-Home Adventure

Sunrise search for trout on the Provo River.
Sunrise search for trout on the Provo River.

Words: Kristen Pope | Photography: Adam Barker | 8-minute read

At the Wasatch Mountain State Park Visitor Center, park ranger Kathy Donnell had warned us part of the Pine Creek Trail was under water. The raging spring runoff was covering the trail, but no worry: the other side of the creek had a trail that was perfectly fine.

We set out on the 2.6-mile roundtrip trail, making our way along the cool, shady path lined with chokecherry, bigtooth maple and quaking aspen, while listening to the roar of the creek cascading below. When we reached the flooded part of the trail, we followed the simple detour park staff — attuned to the creek’s seasonal rhythms — had set up.

Earlier on our hike, we had noticed a tie-dyed sign for the “WOW” trail. Infamous among the mountain biking set, devotees make pilgrimages to experience the “Wasatch Over Wasatch” which offers up stunning (but leg burning) scenery.

We didn’t see any bikers, and only saw two hikers despite it being a holiday weekend. Instead, we shared the trail with squirrels, butterflies and a happy white pit bull lounging in the creek alongside its owner. Elk, moose, mountain lions, and bobcats live in the park’s 22,000 acres, but we didn’t see any sign of them on our hike — including signs we had just learned about before setting out.

  • Mountain Biking

    Judd Salvas and Tina Nardi on the Wasatch Over Wasatch — known as WOW Trail — in Wasatch Mountain State Park.

  • Wasatch Mountain State Park

    Heber Valley as seen from the Wasatch Over Wasatch Trail.

  • Magic Hour

    The sunset descends on the Wasatch Over Wasatch trail.

  • Guardian of the Park

    Tracy See, Park Manager of Wasatch Mountain State Park. Teaching people about rare species and how to protect them is an important part of the job of park employees.

  • Wild World

    Kathy Donnell, Interpretive Ranger/Park Naturalist, loves teaching people about the natural world through her work at Wasatch Mountain State Park.

  • At the Creamery

    Jada Chipping enjoying her ice cream scoops from Heber Valley Artisan Cheese's creamery.

  • Catching Rays

    Judd Salvas starts his morning fly-fishing on the Middle Provo River.

  • Wildlife Biologist

    “At sunrise or right before is definitely the time to see the most of [the birds],” says Stephanie Graham, a Wildlife Biologist in Utah Field Office's for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • Heber Valley Artisan Cheese

    This dairy farm to creamery delivers a true farm-to-table experience, and offers weekly tours.

  • Fly-Fishing

    Throwing loops on the Middle Provo River during the sunrise hatch.

  • Day's Catch

    People come from all around to catch brown trout (pictured), rainbow trout and Rocky Mountain whitefish, among others, on the Provo River.

  • Restoring a River

    Paula Trater, Biological Technician for the Provo River Restoration Project undertaken by the Utah Reclamation and Mitigation Conservation Commission.

  • Paddle Splash

    The Chipping family splashes around on Deer Creek Reservoir.

  • Morning Glow

    A glowing Mount Timpanogos sets the scene for Mia (right) and Joanie Chipping's sunrise kayak on Deer Creek Reservoir.

  • Deer Creek Reservoir

    Spencer (left) and Miles Chipping lead in the landing at Deer Creek State Park.

  • Restoring a River

    Mark Holden, Executive Director for the Provo River Restoration Project, played a role in restoring a river that resulted is great wildlife habitat and prime angling.

  • Jordanelle State Park

    Bird's-eye view of Jordanelle State Park, a locals' favorite for weekend picnicking, camping, boating or paddling.

  • Morning Paddle

    Julia Geisler and Blake Summers out for a morning paddle on the Jordanelle Reservoir.

  • Jordanelle Reservoir

    Julia Geisler and Blake Summers stand-up paddleboard with a Wasatch Mountains backdrop.

Traversing the Seasons

When we first arrived in the park, we had stopped for a chat with Donnell, who provided a quick orientation to the park, told us about the trails and answered a few questions. We also wandered around the visitor center, looking at exhibits about early settlers and Native American culture, displays of red fox, beaver, coyote and mountain lions, and even a case of life-like scat from critters like moose, elk and cottontail rabbits.

Teaching people about rare species and how to protect them is an important part of the job of park employees.

Brochures and fliers displayed information about the park’s golf courses, hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, OHV riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even geocaching.

Out front, families relaxed in shade tents, kids kicked a soccer ball back and forth, and little ones shrieked with delight on the playground as birds swam in the pond. At the water’s edge, families lined up fishing the stocked pond. The park holds a variety of fishing programs for kids, including a special needs fishing day each year. 

“This is such a good place to fish because of the easy access,” Donnell says. “It’s a great place to come and catch your first fish or practice fishing.” 

“As we climbed the road, the seasons sped by in reverse. Down in the valley, temperatures soared into the 70s, and trees and shrubs were covered in leaves. But as we ascended the road, I watched our truck’s outside thermometer plunge.”

Looking to explore more, we set off for a drive up Pine Canyon Road where we saw a flock of turkeys, including one that crossed the road in front of us. As we climbed the road, the seasons sped by in reverse. Down in the valley, temperatures soared into the 70s, and trees and shrubs were covered in leaves. But as we ascended the road, I watched our truck’s outside thermometer plunge, first a few degrees, then a few more, until it was almost 20 degrees cooler up top. As we gained elevation, tree leaves became smaller, then they were absent. Soon, snow dotted the woods in patches, then the ground was packed with snow. At the very top, we saw snowmobilers — quite the juxtaposition to the families in shorts and t-shirts below.

Middle Provo River in Midway before the river restoration project was finished.
Middle Provo River in Midway before the river restoration project was finished.

After our scenic drive, we headed down to camp. Pulling into the full campground at Wasatch Mountain State Park on a holiday weekend, I was expecting a bit of chaos. I had snagged one of the last campground reservations, so I knew we would have plenty of company. But it was surprisingly quiet in the Oak Hollow Loop.

Our site was surrounded by vegetation, and trees and shrubs encircled our little patch of space. We sat in camp chairs, peacefully watching the shadows climb up the mountains as day turned to night. The pleasant sound of a strumming guitar drifted over from a few sites down, then the night was quiet and our moods settled in for a different kind of outdoor experience, which the park is working to preserve: the pristine dark skies of the high-elevation park. Would we see the Milky Way?

Strawberry and the Early Birds

After a restful night’s sleep, we headed up to Strawberry Reservoir in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Nestled in sagebrush-covered rolling hills ringed by snow-capped peaks, the reservoir has marinas for boating, campgrounds and areas with dispersed camping, and an abundance of wildlife — particularly birds.

Stephanie Graham, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Utah Field Office, notes the reservoir is great for birding, but it’s best to be there early. “At sunrise or right before is definitely the time to see the most of them,” she says.

Mark Holden and Paula Trater stand in the restored and maintained Provo River.
Mark Holden and Paula Trater stand in the restored and maintained Provo River.

Pelicans frequent Strawberry Reservoir, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ PeliTrack project is a fun way to see just where they are. Researchers placed GPS collars on pelicans and tracked their movements, which are displayed on their website. PeliTrack gives each bird a name and you can see Barnabus, Abigail and Chester are just a few of the pelicans spending time at Strawberry Reservoir. Other birds at the reservoir and in the nearby forests include ducks, great-horned owls, avocets, ospreys, herons, sandhill cranes and bald eagles.

Reclaiming Paradise and a Rare Pocket of Fireflies

But Strawberry Reservoir isn’t the only area near Heber to provide vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. The Provo River Restoration Project worked to realign and restore the middle Provo River from Jordanelle Dam to Deer Creek Reservoir (where we’d head later in our exploration), adding vegetation and wildlife habitat for vulnerable species like migratory birds and the Columbia spotted frog, a state-sensitive species. Construction on the project began in 1999 and lasted for eight years.

“The result is great wildlife habitat, and prime angling. People come from all around to catch brown trout, rainbow trout and Rocky Mountain whitefish, among others.”
Stephanie Graham birding at Strawberry Reservoir. “At sunrise or right before is definitely the time to see the most of them,” she says.
Stephanie Graham birding at Strawberry Reservoir. “At sunrise or right before is definitely the time to see the most of them,” she says.

“We essentially rebuilt about 10 miles of river channel, so the river habitat has changed drastically,” says Mark Holden, executive director of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission. “It went from a straight channelized river to a more meandering and naturally functioning river system.”

The result is great wildlife habitat, and prime angling. People come from all around to catch brown trout, rainbow trout and Rocky Mountain whitefish, among others.

Every winter, crews count bald eagles in the area since many of these massive birds spend their winter along the river corridor. Osprey also nest nearby, and sandhill cranes are seen in the spring migrating, though some stay all summer, nesting and raising their broods.

Seven public access areas let people enjoy the 800-2,200-foot-wide public corridor along the river. Though there are housing developments and a U.S. highway nearby, the reclaimed space feels miles away, and is ideal for hiking, fishing and wildlife viewing. We saw visitors with binoculars around their necks, looking for a glimpse of waterfowl, beaver, marmots, moose or even an occasional bear, mink or river otter. The area is also home to fireflies for a brief period each summer.

“Fireflies are fun to see during certain times of year,” says Mitigation Commission biological technician Paula Trater. “There are very few pockets that are documented in Utah.”

Teaching people about rare species and how to protect them is an important part of the job of park employees. Kathy Donnell loves teaching people about the natural world through her work at Wasatch Mountain State Park. She enjoys introducing visitors to the wild world and encouraging them to care about the planet and its well-being.

“If we don’t have the planet, we don’t have anything,” Donnell says. “We really need to take care of it…It’s not about us but what we can pass on to our children and grandchildren and the health of planet.”

Kristen Pope

Kristen Pope is a Jackson, Wyoming-based freelance writer and editor who writes about outdoor adventure, science, conservation, and travel for Backpacker, Western Confluence, Audubon.com, and Discover, just to name a few. Visit her at www.kepope.com.

Enter Your Email Address Get new stories delivered to your inbox

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Heber Valley, Utah

See three state parks and access the trails, camping, rivers and lakes of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Explore the Heber Valley

Heber

Heber

Heber City is a gateway to a handful of Utah's best state parks, including Wasatch Mountain (with Soldier Hollow), Deer Creek, and Jordanelle. The sprawling Wasatch Mountain State Park offers national-park caliber views with summer camping and trails and winter XC skiing.

If You Go

Heber is an outdoor oasis for people of all ages. Hike along a raging creek, get your adrenaline pumping on a mountain bike, snag a prime tee time, or spend the day out on the water fishing, swimming, boating, or having a cookout on the shore.

When to Go

Summer offers warm weather and plenty of recreation opportunities, while spring and fall have fewer crowds. Winter brings opportunities for cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, eagle watching, and peaceful quiet.

Things to Do

See our Events page to learn about popular Labor Day Weekend festivals in the Heber Valley, including Swiss Days, Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championship, and the Heber Valley Music & Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Wasatch Mountain State Park
With 22,000 acres, the adventures are endless. Camp, hike, mountain bike, golf, fish, ride ATVs, or go for a horseback ride. In winter, ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile.

Deer Creek State Park
The reservoir is the focal point of this park with opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, sailing, hiking, camping, and ziplining.

Jordanelle State Park
Cast a line for trout, bass, or perch, or relax on the beach, camp, boat, swim, hike, or picnic. In winter, ice fishing is popular, along with snowmobiling and snowshoeing.

Strawberry Reservoir
Located in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Strawberry Reservoir has four developed marinas as well as plenty of camping. Go boating, fishing, birding, ATVing or, come winter, ice fishing or snowmobiling. 

Where to Stay: Camping, RV and Lodging

Make reservations for Utah State Parks (RV, tents and limited cabin accommodations), explore nearby developed campsites or dispersed camping opportunities on the national forest or check out hotel accommodations in Heber and the Swiss-inspired lodging of Midway.

Daniels Summit Lodge is an adventure base camp closer to Strawberry Reservoir.