Perhaps the most scenic and peaceful portion of Box Elder County is also the most difficult to reach. Willard Basin, an isolated bowl of forest and meadows (located east of Willard and behind Willard Peak at an elevation of 8,600 feet), can be reached only via a 12-mile ride on a bumpy, steep and winding dirt road or by a 13-mile hike from North Ogden Pass.
But the rugged trip, which climbs 3,300 feet, is worth the effort and makes an excellent mid- or late-summer picnic outing or even a camping excursion.It also offers a bit of history with a valuable lesson in watersheds and the dangers of heavy rainfall and their effects on the population below.
Willard Basin, like the city of the same name, was named after Willard Richards, an early apostle and settler in Brigham Young's time. (The Willard area was originally named "Fort Willow Creek" in 1852-3.)
Uncontrolled cattle grazing, mining, fires and a sawmill had left little vegetation in Willard Basin by the 1920s. All these, as well as extra heavy rainfalls, contributed to two severe floods that originated in the basin in 1923 and 1936. The water flowed through Willard Canyon, the main drain in the basin, 4,000 feet downward to Willard City.
The August 1923 flood (actually a mud-rock flow) was caused by an estimated 6 inches of rainwater hitting the basin in less than an hour. Two women in Willard were killed, and the force of the water carried the bodies one-half mile away.
The rainfall was a lot of water even for the best of watersheds, but the lack of vegetation made it worse. The flow had enough force to move a 500-ton rock as well as a barn containing 150 tons of hay.
But even the loss of two lives was not enough to convince residents of the need for drastic conservation measures. More cattle grazing and land abuse in the basin continued. In fact, it took a similar flood in 1936 to do that. No lives were lost then, but considerable property damage again occurred.
The Utah State Road Commission, Box Elder County and residents of Willard donated money to buy the privately owned Willard Basin after the 1936 flood. The land was then deeded to the Forest Service for protection.
As a result, 700 miles of terraces, trenches and fences were constructed (over a 1,500-acre space) and trees and grasses were planted from 1936 to 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The terraces and trenches in the basin are still readily visible today. These and the rock water-catching basin, just east of the old highway in Willard City, are reminders of the two floods.
The CCC also constructed the 15-mile-long dirt road from Mantua to the basin.
*The basin road starts at the LDS Church in southern Mantua, about five miles east of Brigham City, at an elevation of 5,500 feet. The upper road (10 miles out and near the final switchback before it drops down into Willard Basin) is almost always blocked by spring snow into mid-July. It's not rare for the road to still be blocked on July 24 because the road is never cleared by machines. The snow must melt off. No signs are ever posted indicating snow blockage.
It's no fun trying to turn a truck or car around on the narrow road after encountering snow blockage. Putting your vehicle in reverse for hundreds of yards, in hopes to reaching a wider spot to turn around, can also be very difficult.
The road has deteriorated a lot over the years. In 1979, an automobile could make the trip with few rut/ bump problems, but by 1985, not only had it become unwise to take any car on the road, but even trucks were bumped around plenty as the road had worn down toward a base of solid but rugged rocks.
The road, only wide enough for a car-and-a-half, seems perfect for motorcycles or horses. In fact, with the decision by the Forest Service to close the adjoining Ben Lomond Peak trail system to cars and trucks, there may be more motorcycles on this road than ever before.
The drive from Mantua to Willard Basin takes about 90 minutes one-way. The road eventually passes by Dock Flat, a favorite hunting location for pioneers, and Perry Reservoir, where moose are occasionally sighted.
East of here are private roads that descend into Devils Gate Valley and Devil's Hole Canyon.
The road passes briefly into Weber County and offers glimpses of Pineview Reservoir (to the southeast), and east of Perry Reservoir are the headwaters of the Ogden River's north fork.
The road forks just past Perry Reservoir but dead ends below Grizzly Peak near some old mining areas.
The road rarely gets really steep though, since it switchbacks before dropping into Willard Basin. It's just the bumps and ruts that are unnerving. A sign at the top of the switchbacks (actual elevation 8,800 feet) explains the history of the basin.
Next, the road descends about 200 feet into the heart of the basin. No functional picnic tables or rest rooms are left in Willard Basin. They have long been abandoned and even vandalized. Also, no water or trash cans are available. But the beauty of the basin is that it is not visited by a lot of people. On a weekday, you may not even see another vehicle on the road.
Inside the basin, you are enclosed completely. At the south end of Willard Basin (a 600-yard walk and slight climb) is a small circular lake. Several foot trails from the road lead to the lake, and they merge into one trail that after 1.5 miles and a 600-foot climb reach the mountain saddle (9,200-foot elevation) and connect with the Ben Lomond Peak trail system. From here is an unlimited view of Willard Bay and North Ogden. Willard Peak, the tallest point in Box Elder County at 9,764 feet, is about 400 yards away to the east. Willard Peak is 52 feet higher than Ben Lomond Peak, Weber County's highest, another 1.5 miles away on the Skyline Trail.
The trail is well-marked, but it is not for those afraid of heights. Although the trail is relatively level, it has been carved into the side of the mountain and the many mammoth mountain pinnacles and spires that can be seen from Willard or nearby I-15 are viewed from a different perspective along this trail - straight down!
Inspiration point (elevation 9,422) marks the dead end of the Willard Basin road. It is located another two miles away and 800 feet upward from the basin's picnic area. True to its name, it offers some stunning panoramic views of the Great Salt Lake, Willard and Brigham City by overlooking Holmes Canyon and Pearsons Canyon.
(Some vehicles parked at Inspiration Point on a summer afternoon reflect the sun like a mirror and can been seen from as far away as western Layton.)
There are several old mines in the area, including one below Willard Peak.