It’s a western thing: writing a letter into a nearby mountainside where it can be seen for miles and miles around. I’ve seen them before (especially in my family’s 2016 trip to southern Utah), but none so large as the Y on the east side of Provo. At 380 feet tall, the Y is longer than the Hollywood sign. The sign was originally created by a bucket brigade of BYU students in 1906, who planned on writing “BYU” into the mountainside in limestone until they realized just how hard it was and quit after one letter. The letter is regularly painted by whitewashing via helicopter, and a small generator is in place (BYU bought Y Mountain from the USFS) so that the letter can be lit up at night for special occasions. It’s considered a pilgrimage for BYU students to hike up the side of Y Mountain to reach the letter; it’s also a top spot for Provoites to walk their dog. And on November 17, 2023, the Y Mountain Trail – 2.2 miles out and back and 1074 feet of elevation to reach the top of the Y at 6,221 feet above sea level – was the site of a bunch of gasping, struggling Oklahomans who had bitten off more than they could chew in the mountain air.
Not that Elizabeth and I were worried. As always, struggling on popular trails like this was for little piggies. We drove our rental BMW up to the east side of town, where the buildings became more widely spaced as the street began to tilt upward. Eventually we reached the parking lot on a bluff at the base of the mountain. Even from here, you could see the entire Utah Valley spread out beneath us.
And above us was the first indication that we’d bitten off something that was going to take a while to chew.
Suddenly the doughy 40-somethings in OU gear panting in the parking lot were a little less funny. The trail map itself was something to behold:
A trail made entirely of steep, demoralizing switchbacks. It was like Elizabeth’s own personal hell. I was reminded of the Bear’s Hump in Waterton Lakes National Park, where we’d had a similar straight-up, all-switchbacks slog. However, that had been after several days of acclimating to altitude, and we were probably in better shape in 2022 than 2023.
And there was absolutely no ease in. The first and longest branch between switchbacks took off from the trailhead and immediately ascended almost 200 feet in less than 0.2 miles. Elizabeth went into struggle mode almost instantly. I didn’t feel bad myself, but seriously doubted we’d make it to the top of the Y at the rate we were going. At least Turn 1 was shaded, and there was a little bench tucked underneath the tree. Elizabeth plopped down on it for 5 minutes while I got the initial delight of seeing that the BYU trailmakers had put in a sign at every single turn telling you how far out and up you’d gone, something about the trail or the wildlife in the area, and a motivational phrase. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes a hike that much more enjoyable. But I’ll admit that it’s a lot easier to enjoy stuff like that when you aren’t in oxygen deprivation.
The climb to turn 2 wasn’t much easier. It was only a little shorter and in fact a bit steeper. The trail was made of dirt and hard-crushed gravel, a bit wider than a typical bike path, and was moderately crowded on this mild Saturday afternoon in November. The locals cruised past us without a second glance, while the Sooners plodded along at the same pace Elizabeth was doing. We overtook one middle-aged couple at Turn 2, and I mentally made a note that these people were not going to make it to the top.
At least the next several turns were a shorter jaunt than the first two. There was something better about having a tangible goal for Elizabeth to work toward – just get up to that sign and then we’re there! You can sit on a fence rail once we get to the switchback. I could truthfully tell her that we’d already done about 1/3 of the elevation without doing a corresponding ratio of switchbacks remaining.
Coming out of one of the even-numbered turns (was it 6 or 8?), Elizabeth must have been encouraged by the short distance to the next one and decided to take off at a run to beat me to the next one. It was a pretty funny moment for me and one that came with a whole boatload of regret for her (once she’d gotten her breath back to be able to lament her decision). But we were steadily making our way up the mountainside so that the bottom of the Y seemed no worse than a couple more minutes of effort away.
Turn 11 to turn 12 was definitely the worse of the remaining stretch of trail – it was long, there were several sharp uphills to reach little plateaus, and it was so close to the Y itself.
All the while, BYU students on (dates?) their walks kept filtering by.
After about an hour or so to get up the little-over-a-mile (shut up), Elizabeth and I crested Turn 13 and made it out to the top of the Y. The sun was already starting to sink in the western sky even though it was only 3:30 – it was a good thing we hadn’t gotten out here any later in the day. Someone with a whole lot of foresight and kindness had added benches to the top of the Y so that weary hikers such as ourselves could take a load off and enjoy the sweeping vistas that the location afforded. Plop.
No doubt about it, this was a view worth hiking to. We could see all of Provo, the neighboring towns of the Wasatch Front, the marshy expanse of Utah lake, and plenty of mountains in the background. I happened upon a tweet the next day from a BYU fan telling OU fans how lucky they were that this was the one week in the fall without valley haze. Not sure that they were entirely correct about that given the pictures, but it still made for a much better view than stagnant air can be prone to giving. My main impression of the Y was that I wanted to come back when it had been a little rainy or icy or something and slide down the shank of the letter – but signs everywhere warned of how slippery the rock was, so you can’t actually touch it. If you’re a bit of a child like I am, then you might notice that the signs around the Y do *not* tell you that you can’t pick up rocks and toss them down the face of the letter. So I did – which of course prompted some actual children to start tossing the rocks with a lot more impunity than I had been doing. Every action has unintended consequences.
The children were also excited when Elizabeth exclaimed that she could see bighorn sheep further up Y Mountain. So was I – bighorns are cool as hell. I strained and squinted my eyes in the late-afternoon sun and caught the motion of several large brown mammals walking up the slope away from us. They could be bighorns, though it was far away for me to be able to tell, despite the kids exclaiming and trying to take iPhone pictures from 100-200 yards away. With that said, I was willing to take the claim at face value until we were on our way back down, when another one of those mammals crashed out of the underbrush a few dozen yards away. They had all been mule deer.
I also took a moment to walk over to the bottom of the Y as we descended. This required a bit of a hike back uphill, so Elizabeth immediately opted out, which gave me a chance to do a Trail Run (TM) up to the bottom of the Y. Huffing and puffing and pretending I wasn’t huffing and puffing, I stayed long enough to get this Y Selfie.
The trip back down the Y Trail was a lot less work on the lungs, but the grade (15-20% on average!) and the loose gravel were enough to keep us picking our way carefully down the mountain. There was a rather distinct sense of relief when we got past Turn 1 and (avoiding having a rock chucked on us by a small child above) walked back to the parking lot. It was perfect timing: Golden Hour had begun in Provo.
This town is truly beautiful. One day was all it took to put Salt Lake City way up the radar on “potential places to move to”.
With that said, it had been a pretty exhausting day. We’d been on two hikes (the second of which was pretty grueling), and had traveled the day before, so I didn’t have it in me to stay up on this bluff for another hour and wait out sunset. We drove back to the AirBNB while I took the chance to talk to my parents so they could wish me a happy birthday. And then I watched the sunset alpenglow from the window of our AirBNB against the Wasatch Front.
We had a few hours to kill before our dinner reservation that night, which was dangerous because both of us were pretty worn out from the day. You definitely didn’t want to be too tired going in to my birthday dinner. Elizabeth had set up a reservation at a restaurant in town called Communal, which as the name implies does family-style dining where you order for the table. First some homemade chips, then some brussels sprouts, and then a main course of braised short rib plus mashed potatoes…
It was very, very good. There were so many damn mashed potatoes that we couldn’t eat them all – and if you know anything about Elizabeth’s love of mashed potatoes, that’s an impressive amount. The brussels sprouts were merely okay – I thought they were a little too chewy – but the shortrib. Hoo boy, the shortrib. It was otherworldly. It was like a symphony in your month. I thought the staff at Communal had made a mistake in not giving us anything sharper than a butterknife to cut it with, but nope. It cut perfectly when attacked with a butterknife. And it almost melted in your mouth. Man, was it a top-tier meal.
And then to finish off one of the best birthdays I’d ever had, Elizabeth took me out for ice cream. Rockwell Ice Cream was just a couple hundred feet away on University Avenue. They had an appropriately named flavor: the GOAT, a winner of the Best Ice Cream in America award in 2019. It was a goat cheese ice cream with blackberry, lemon jam swirls, and honey rosemary roasted almonds. Although fatigue was really catching up with us, I had to try this delicious sounding ice cream. And it was… somehow every bit as good as the hype. It was “Communal short rib” levels of good.
NOW it was time to go back to the AirBNB and rest up. I hit the bed and fell asleep nearly immediately that night, and why not? My 26th birthday had been an adventure of finding coffee, hitting the perfect brunch, going up into some truly astonishing mountains, hiking a deceptive asskicker of a trail, and finishing the night with sublime dinner. Elizabeth had planned an awesome day from top to bottom, and I slept not only with fond memories of the day that was, but excitement for the football game to be played the very next day.