Backpacking Box Elder Peak

Known by some as simply "The Box", Box Elder Peak sits quietly at an elevation of 11,101 feet in the northeast corner of Utah Valley. Nearby neighbors, Mount Timpanogos to the south and Lone Peak along with several other peaks along the Alpine Ridge to the north get a lot more attention.  Perhaps it's due to their more dramatic ridges, cirques, and so on or perhaps its simply their higher elevations.  Either way, I decided to give Box Elder some love.

- Day 1 -
Friday - July 8, 2016

While Box Elder Peak can easily be done as a simple day hike, I always like to make it a backpacking trip if there is the opportunity to do so.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  There's just something empowering about being able to carry all that you need to spend a night (or many) out in the wilderness, and relatively comfortably at that, all on your back.  Doing so for peaks like this also gets you closer to the peak for a morning ascent and enables you to get home earlier after bagging the peak.  Depending on the peak, it's also a way to beat some of the crowds.  All of the above would apply with this trip.

For this trip, I also opted to make the approach via the Dry Creek Trail out of Alpine to the west of Box Elder Peak.  Most people that hike Box Elder Peak will drive up American Fork Canyon and start from the trailhead at Granite Flats campground which sits on the east side of Box Elder, perhaps because it's a couple miles shorter with much less elevation to gain, and perhaps because it provides more open views.  For me, I was just wanting to avoid the $6 recreation pass fee required for using the other trailhead and take a route less traveled.

As it happens so often, I got a pretty late start on the trail.  It was just after 7 pm when I started, which meant I only had a couple hours of light to try and do 5 miles with 4000 feet of gain up to Community Flat where I planned to camp for the night.  While it was unlikely that I'd be able to get to the flat before dark, given the elevation to gain, that late start did result in much cooler temperatures.  The sun was already behind a ridge to the west, assuring me shade the whole way up.  It also meant that I wouldn't be taking many pictures along the way up.

Sunset from Dry Creek

A little higher up

I passed by lots of people early on, no doubt coming down from the Horsetail Falls, a popular waterfall not far off the same trail, but after that, the encounters with other people were far and few between.  There was one family with some younger kids struggling up with some overnight gear that pulled off to set up camp near the junction with the North Mountain Trail just above the falls.  As I had continued on and upward, I heard a bit of excitement from their camp and stopped to look back down where it was apparent they had spooked a big bull moose out into the open.

Moose in the middle

A fuzzy digital zoom of the moose

I continued on to another big wide open meadow with another trail junction, this time for the Box Elder trail.  There I took a good rest and got my headlamp out to have that ready.  Less than a mile after exiting that meadow, the dark of night had fully settled in.  I will say now that it can be a bit unnerving to be hiking alone in unfamiliar territory in the dark beneath a canopy of tall dark conifers.  I began to smell camp fire smoke and soon saw the fire and a group of flashlights off in the distance which helped calm my nerves a bit.  Not long after passing by that, I encountered a trail runner on his way back down who inquired about the moose.  I told him it was still there at about the same point he had seen it.  By then, I wasn't too far from Community Flat, and the little anxiety I had vanished away.  I looked back and caught one last glimpse of the lights in Utah Valley, the valley I had just left.

Night lights in the valley

It was about 10:30 pm when I finally arrived at Community Flat.  Being a Friday night, I was pretty confident there would indeed be a community of some sort camped out up in the flat.  From what I knew, it is another popular place for scouts to venture up to.  Sure enough, as I got to the junction with the trail that heads off straight for the peak, there was a group of tents surrounding the junction.  There was no campfire though and no sign of anybody being out and about.  There were a couple sets of animal eyes staring at me about 50 feet away.  At first I thought deer or maybe some dogs that belonged to the group, but then it became apparent that they were some pack llamas.  

I ventured up the meadow a little ways and found a cozy little site for me to set up my tarp.  I'm starting to experiment with some ultralight setups and so this would actually be my first time camping with just a tarp for shelter outside of my back yard.  Before calling it a night, I heated up a late night dinner and enjoyed the view down into American Fork Canyon where several campfires flickered throughout Granite Flat campground and beyond.   

- Day 2 -
Friday - July 9, 2016

The light of morning came and I debated between heading straight for the peak right away, or hang around my camp and the meadow to wait for the sun to come out and get some pictures. Just a few feet away from my camp was an incredible and wide open view out across the eastern side of Box Elder Peak and Mount Timpanogos further off to the south.  I opted to hang around for some morning camp-side pictures before setting off for the peak.

Box Elder Peak (right) and Mount Timpanogos (middle) at dawn

Looking east across American Fork Canyon

Alpenglow across Timpanogos (left) and Box Elder Peak (right)


A look under my tarp

The neighboring community

After munching away on an energy bar and fueling up, I set off for the peak 1.5 miles away at about 6:30 am.  I assumed the group camped down around the junction was a scout group that would probably be attempting the peak as well but it was clear that I'd be the one getting the head start.

Box Elder Peak from Community Flat

The ascent up the ridge off the final little saddle proved to be exceptionally steep with little to no switchbacks much of the way.  I'd say it rivaled and even exceeded Provo Peak in the degree of the slope for a stretch.  Once I cleared the trees and got back on the rockier ridge-line, the going became much easier.

Gaining the ridge to the peak

Almost there!

By 8 am, I reached the summit.  Clear skies, with a pleasant breeze and a nice temperature made up some perfect conditions to enjoy the view from another of the many fantastic peaks of the Wasatch.

Mountain Timpanogos (upper left) and Utah Valley (upper right) from Box Elder Peak

Western Alpine Ridge featuring Lone Peak (left end) and South Thunder Mountain (middle)

Middle Alpine Ridge featuring Pfeifferhorn/Little Matterhorn (middle) and White Baldy (right)

360 Panorama

Me on the summit

Once again, I was privy to some solitude, enjoying the peak all to myself.  I was surprised to find myself the only one up there on a Saturday morning.  No doubt there were certainly crowds up on Timpanogos to the south, and I could clearly see a group of people on the Pheifferhorn to the north, but for Box Elder Peak, I was its lone occupier for the moment.

I had a good rest, soaked in the views for a while, and then soldiered on down.  Along the way down, I encountered a group of about 5 trail running women who thought they may have bit off more than they could chew as they struggled up the steeper section, then another hiking couple, then another, and then the group of scouts in which the mountain had actually split into two groups.  I wished them all well and continued down, enjoying some of the small patches of flowers along the way.

Wasatch Beardtongue

Colorado Columbine

Colorado Columbine

Colorado Columbine

Once I returned to Community Flat, I turned back to again survey the beautiful mountain view I had just toured.

Box Elder Peak (right/foreground) and Mountain Timpanogos (left/background)

I then approached my campsite to break camp.

Community Flat - if you look close, you can see my tarp behind a tree

Of course, I couldn't resist paying a quick little visit to the llamas that had startled me a bit the night before.

Llama - the mascot for at least two outdoor product companies

Llama selfie, because, why not? It's for the kids.

All packed up, I descended out of the flat and began to make my way back down to my car.  The mountain ridges and meadows I had passed through when enshrined with darkness the night before, were now fully illuminated and a joy to hike through.

Leaving Community Flat

Alpine Ridge and meadows from below Community Flat

Further down the meadows

Box Elder Peak from a lower meadow

I hadn't been to Horsetail Falls since hiking up to it with some friends back in high school, so it was a nice treat to visit again on the descent back down the mountain.

Horsetail Falls

Horsetail Falls

Dry Creek just above Horsetail Falls

To say the falls has grown in popularity since I was a high school lad would be an understatement.  Same could be said for a lot of the local gems. The little bit of bushwhacking and scrambling it takes from the main trail to get up close and personal with the falls certainly isn't enough to keep the crowds away.  And who could blame them?  It's a rewarding and refreshing retreat for hot summer days.

Satisfied with my time at the falls, I finished out the return trip to my car, eager to get back home to my family but thankful for another beautiful and charming little trip up into an area and a peak I had yet to experience.  

I really enjoyed the landscape all around Community Flat and the upper reaches of Box Elder Peak. 
As usual, I look forward to when my kids are old enough for me to bring them back up to these beautiful sites to enjoy the beautiful sights.


  1. This was fun to experience along with you. I hike on horsetail often, but I have knee issues so I don't have the ability to go all the way to the top.
    I appreciate you sharing your adventure! (with photos)

    1. You're welcome, Karen. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Will, just discovered your site and love the detail around Box Elder! Itching now to hike it!

    Well done man!


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