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Popular Y trail leads to iconic symbol of the valley

By Dave Kenison - Community Columnist - | Apr 4, 2014

It’s impossible to live in Utah Valley, or even to drive through, without noticing the “Y” on the mountain high above Provo. Hiking up the well-groomed trail to stand on that iconic symbol is a thrilling and unique experience. The trail is popular with college students wanting a cheap and fun date, families wanting to share an outing together, athletic teams who are in training, and individuals who appreciate the workout the trail provides.

Those looking for a “cardio workout” can push hard up the somewhat steep and steady incline; but those in a more leisurely mood can take their time, and are rewarded with spectacular views of Provo and the whole Utah Valley all along the trail. (Don’t forget your camera!) Plan on 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on your hiking speed, to cover the 2.2 miles round trip up the mountainside.

Over 100 years ago, faculty members at Brigham Young University first had the idea to create a lasting symbol. They anticipated placing three letters — B, Y and U. The hillside was surveyed, and the places for the letters were staked out.

They decided to start with the center “Y” in order to make sure the others were balanced at the sides.

The first Y, a simple letter with no serifs, was created in 1906 by passing bags of lime up the mountain along a chain of students. The work was so exhausting and time-consuming, both to create and maintain the letter, that the other two letters were never constructed. The next year, a layer of rock was added. In 1911, the serifs were added on the top and bottom to give the letter its current appearance. It was whitewashed and improved every year, and lit on special occasions with kerosene torches (replaced in recent years by electric lights powered by a generator). Today, it’s made of concrete covering rock and measures 380 feet high and 180 feet wide.

The trail has gradually improved through the years. The current trail, zig-zagging up the steep mountainside to the south of the Y, consists of 14 segments that vary in length from almost a quarter mile (the first one) to only 150 feet. (See a diagram of the switchbacks in the online version of this article.) The trail to the top of the Y is a little over a mile long, and it climbs more than a thousand feet in elevation; that’s fairly steep for casual hikers. But the trail is wide and mostly smooth, making it easy to hike side-by-side with companions and enjoy conversation along the way. Horses, bicycles, and motorized vehicles are prohibited.

The trail can be hiked year-round. In winter, it’s snowpacked and sometimes icy; it’s best to hike with microspikes attached to hiking boots. On summertime afternoons, the trail is hot and dry, and no water is available past the trailhead — hikers need to be prepared with adequate water and sun protection. Spring and fall are ideal times to enjoy the trail; in April and May, colorful wildflowers grow along the way. Many people enjoy hiking at night or early in the morning before sunrise; the lights of Provo provide enough illumination to see without a flashlight.

You’ll meet fascinating people along the trail; take time to say hello. Many of the “regulars” have their own stories and memories about the trail. One local man, 72-year-old Ben Woolsey of Orem, recently hiked the trail 15 times consecutively in a single day! Others have been hiking several times a week for many decades.

Note that a trail continues to the south from the top point of the Y. This route will lead you up Slide Canyon and eventually to the very top of Y Mountain. We’ll cover that option in a future article. Hikers are warned NOT to explore on the cliffs directly above the Y. A number of people have been injured or stranded in that area, requiring rescue efforts.

There are several ways to reach the trailhead, high above the homes on Provo’s eastern edge (see a map in the online version of this article). One good way: Drive down 900 East to 820 North. Turn east and follow it as it veers left and becomes Oakmont Lane. Turn right onto Oakcliff Drive. Where Oakcliff ends at Terrace Drive, turn right; the access to the trailhead is just to the south. There is paved parking and restroom facilities at the trailhead.

David Kenison has been hiking the Wasatch Mountains for many years, since he was a Boy Scout in Payson. He currently lives in Orem and posts reports of his hiking adventures to the “Wasatch Peak Baggers” group on Facebook.

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