BYU’s Timp hike, discontinued in 70s, posed serious erosion threat

1,000 Views from 100 Years
The first group of students led by Eugene Roberts at the summit of Mount Timpanogos in 1912. These students made the climb despite the lack of a worn trail. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

More than 50,000 people visited the popular Mount Timpanogos trail from July to mid-October to hike the iconic mountain.

High traffic on the trail presents preservation challenges, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. For decades BYU sponsored an annual group hike of Mount Timpanogos until the damage caused by the event’s huge turnout received negative feedback from the U.S. Forest Service. They asked BYU in 1970 to discontinue the hike.

For almost 60 years, BYU sponsored what started as a summer hike for students and became an annual community activity that attracted participants from across the nation. During its most popular years, thousands would climb to the summit of Mount Timpanogos together on a specified day.

Mount Timpanogos stands out among the other mountains in Utah Valley. Not only is “Timp” a popular hike during summer months, but there are two high schools and an LDS temple named after it.

“I think Mount Timp is an iconic mountain, not only for residents, but also for visitors,” said Colton Rogers, who works for the Pleasant Grove and Spanish Fork Ranger Districts for the U.S. Forest Service. Rogers has been the trails and wilderness crew foreman since May 2014.

In the fall Mount Timpanogos glows red as its ecosystem transitions into winter. According to Colton Rogers, a trails and wilderness specialist, the hiking season for Mount Timpanogos is during the summer months. (Harrison Stafford)

“(Mount Timpanogos) is known as something you have to do if you visit Provo; it kind of gives you bragging rights,” Rogers said. “As far as one of our local hikes, it’s the most important to be done.”

The origin of the community hike dates back to 1912 when Eugene Roberts, an athletic coach at BYU, wanted to encourage physical activity among students. The first hike of Timpanogos was completed despite the lack of a worn trail.

Roberts’ idea to hike Timpanogos with students was a result of his mission in Switzerland.

In a dissertation published in 1955 by William Smith on “The annual Mount Timpanogos hike: its origin, background, and development,”  Sytha Roberts, Eugene’s wife, says, “In Switzerland he watched religious pilgrimages to some of the mountains. The spiritual significance and beauty of this lingered in his memory and later when he was teaching at BYU he wanted to share this uplifting experience with his students.”

The hike grew in popularity every year until 1972. The success of the annual hike became the reason for its discontinuance in 1972, building on the Forest Service letter:

Hundreds of hikers wait in line at the summit in the 1950s to receive credit for reaching the top. In 2015, over 50,000 people attempted the climb. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

“The problem seems to stem from too many people at one time and/or not enough control.”

By then, thousands of people were participating in the hike, and less than 25 percent of the participants were students.

Israel Heaton, who was the chairman of BYU’s Department of Recreation and chairman of the Timpanogos hike, pointed out that BYU should not be sponsoring the hike when “less than one-fourth of the hikers are BYU students.”

Michael Kelsey, a Provo resident and mountain guidebook author, wrote the book “Climbing and Exploring Utah’s Mt. Timpanogos” in 1989 that featured the history of Provo Canyon and Mount Timpanogos.  Kelsey first participated in the annual hike when he was 12.

During the annual Mount Timpanogos community hike people rest at Emerald Lake along the Aspen Grove trail in the 1950s. Emerald Lake remains a common stopping point today before the last couple thousand feet to the summit. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

“That was my start,” Kelsey said. “That was the beginning of all those books.” He is currently working on a sequel to his first Mount Timpanogos book.

As a BYU student in 1967, Kelsey achieved the fastest round-trip hike of Timp time that year at two hours and 15 minutes.

“When the Timp hike was going on, you were never alone,” he said. “There was something special about going up there with so many people.”

Seven thousand hikers were expected to participate in the Mount Timpanogos hike in 1970.

“Current wilderness regulations today would not allow such an event to occur,” Rogers said. Now, the maximum number of people allowed to hike Mount Timpanogos together is 15.

The trails see the most use during summer months. From July to mid October 2015, Rogers said over 50,000 people were counted on the trails. Trail register sheets and traffic trail counters estimate how much traffic the mountain receives.

Hikers walk up Timp in icy conditions. The maximum number of people allowed to hike Timp together is 15, but for 60 years BYU sponsored a hike with thousands. (Ryan Grout)

“Clearly this is a lot of people packed onto 16.95 miles of trail over a four-month period,” Rogers said. “This presents management challenges on many levels. Ultimately the goal is to preserve the naturalness and wilderness of the area as untrammeled.”

The responsibility to preserve the wilderness on Mount Timpanogos falls on visitors. Rules prohibit fires and trail cutting and endorse  “Leave No Trace” ethics.

When the community hike was allowed, the “Leave No Trace” rule was constantly violated, causing concern for the natural habitat on the mountain. High numbers of people on the trail resulted in erosion, destroyed wildlife, overuse of the few sanitary facilities and a shortage of parking. 

Solutions offered in 1970 by the U.S. Forest Service and hike leaders like Heaton suggested the installation of more outhouses or separate BYU hikes and community hikes.

The Mount Timpanogos trail is worn and recognizable for hikers to follow. According to wilderness ranger Colton Rogers, trail adoptees work to keep trails in good condition and rehabilitate shortcuts. (Harrison Stafford)

Today there are two trailheads that lead to the 11,572-foot summit of Mount Timpanogos. The hike can be started from either the Aspen Grove trailhead, which is near Sundance, or the Timpooneke trailhead in American Fork Canyon. The hike is 8.58 miles from the Aspen Grove trailhead to summit and 8.37 miles from the Timpooneke trailhead.

Harrison Stafford, a BYU student from Auburn, Washington who is studying geography, has hiked Mount Timpanogos over a dozen times.

“I like that it’s close, fairly high altitude and it’s in the alpine (above tree line),” Stafford said. Stafford’s National Parks pass gets him Alpine Loop for free instead of the normal cost of $6 per car.

Stafford believes a community hike is a great way to encourage physical activity and outdoor recreation, but also stressed the importance of knowing all that Mount Timpanogos entails.

“A lot of people hike Timp just because their friends are going and don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Stafford said. “I think some people have a bad experience and it turns them away from hiking so the consequences of being unprepared are unfortunate.”

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