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Wasatch Range part of Rockies

Mountains stretch from Nebo to the Idaho border

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From Mount Nebo, a mammoth exclamation point on the south end near Nephi, to the craggy Sheep Rock Point at Soda Springs, Idaho, on the north, the rugged Wasatch Mountains span 220 miles as a Western range of the Rocky Mountains.

The Wasatch is indeed part of the Rockies, the product of millions of years of geological activity — faulting, glaciation and even volcanic activity. Part of the confusion over whether the Wasatch belongs to the Rockies is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

That famous national park is but a 25-mile-long sliver of the Rockies. The Rocky Mountains overall extend more than 3,000 miles, going from northern New Mexico into Canada.

Most people also believe the Wasatch goes only from Provo to Ogden, probably because a lot of subranges have their own names.

Paul Jewell, assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, believes the confusion in subnames comes from geography and mapmaking, not geology. For example, the Wellsvilles are definitely a subrange of the Wasatch.

Many residents in southern Idaho — both those around Bear Lake on the east and those in Grace/Soda Springs on the west — call these mountains the "Bear River Mountains," unaware they are actually part of the Wasatch.

In fact, the Wellsville Mountains (sometimes reputed to be the world's steepest) and the Portneuf Mountains on west side of the Gem Valley are segments of the Wasatch, too.

The Wasatch Range actually splits, according to Darrel VandeWeg, geologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Soda Springs. The westernmost finger is the Wellsville, while the main portion of the range heads into Cache Valley. The mountains east of Bear Lake are also the Wasatch, though part of another split.

Geographers like to put different names on it, and that can be confusing. That's because geographic names evolve differently than geologic names.

Soda Point or "Sheep Rock," a craggy point with basalt cliffs, is the abrupt north end to the Wasatch. Here the range is at its shortest — 8,918 feet. Located about four miles north of Grace, Idaho, it is also the site where the Bear River does a 180-degree turn, looping around Soda Point into the Gem Valley to head toward the Great Salt Lake.

Today, Soda Point is a majestic scenic wonder. The stunning view at the north end of the Wasatch is all due to the past volcanic activity in the Gem Valley; lava rock is scattered throughout.

Mount Nebo on the extreme south end is where the Wasatch is tallest at 11,928 feet above sea level.

According to Jewell, the current scientific belief is the Wasatch Mountains were formed some 15 million years ago from the uplift created at the junction of tectonic plates that float on the earth's surface.

The Wasatch Mountains are still growing a fraction of a millimeter each year. However, they may not actually be getting any taller because erosion may be wearing them down faster than they are rising.

The Wasatch isn't the tallest part of the Rockies. For example, Colorado has numerous 14,000-foot-peaks in its Rockies. However, one clear difference much of the Wasatch has is that it is in the literal back yard of Salt Lake City and the majority of Utah's population. No substantial drive is required here. The mountains sit right at the edge of Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo and Logan.

Although the Wasatch is only Utah's fifth-tallest range, it is significant because it creates a watershed and climate that helps sustain about 90 percent of the state's population.

The same geography that makes the Wasatch a part of the Rocky Mountains has adopted the Uinta Mountains, too, though they are the only exception to the predominant north-south pattern of the Rockies. The Uintas run east-west and from orbit probably resemble a type of geological spacer that makes the Wasatch Mountains seem that much farther away from Colorado's Rockies.

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com