Mount Timpanogos is Utah’s second-highest mountain at 11, 752 meters tall. It’s a popular tourist destination that holds a special place in the hearts of Utah residents everywhere.
But while the locals find Mount Timpanogos special, so have the skiing enthusiasts, hikers, and vacationers who have been visiting for decades. And the history of the mountain goes even farther back than that.
To understand how Mount Timpanogos got its name, one needs to delve into its history and the history of the people who made the mountain their home.
If you’re planning a visit to Mount Timpanogos, reading about the mountain’s history will make your stay more meaningful. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation of the majestic mountain, and you’ll be able to view its awe-inspiring peaks with a more profound sense of understanding.
To learn how Mount Timpanogos got its name, read on.
Mount Timpanogos’ Roots
Geologically speaking, some of the rocks that comprise Mount Timpanogos are over 300 million years old.
During the Carboniferous Period, when there was still sea covering what is the Utah area today, sediment collected on top of the seabed. As the sediment built up, the seabed began higher, eventually pushing through sea level and becoming the peak of the mountain. As the rest of the seabed rose, Mount Timpanogos rose even higher, finally reaching the immense height it’s at today.
Home To The Early People
While Mount Timpanogos has been proudly sitting above land for millennia, the first recorded humans arrived in the region around 12,000 BC.
They were called the ‘Early People’ and lived on the plains that surround the American Fork Canyon, which Mount Timpanogos is part of. The caves in the mountain contain paintings and other evidence that the early people lived in the caves or used them as shelters during hunts.
Thousands of years later, the Fremont people, who were both farmers and hunters, made their way into the American Fork Canyon. They began cultivating corn and beans but also survived by hunting the game around the area. As the weather became colder, the Fremont people stopped farming and turned solely to hunting. Historians believe that the Fremont people were the ancestors of the Timpanogos Utes.
In around 1000CE, the Timpanogos Utes – also known as the Timpanog, Utahs or Utah Indians – begin making their mark in Central Utah. As their name suggests, it was with the entrance of the Timpanogos tribe that Mount Timpanogos began to form its unique identity.
Home to the Timpanogos Tribe
The Timpanogos tribe made their home on and around Mount Timpanogos. They were hunter-gatherers, and their population grew and thrived thanks to an abundance of plants, animals, and water in the area.
Historians and tribal legends have found that the Timpanogos tribe was profoundly religious, and clans would gather each day to thank and celebrate their gods. As they flourished in the area, they developed a deep connection with Mount Timpanogos.
Some believe that the word Timpanogos was derived from two words in the tribe’s language – ‘tumpi’, which means rock, and ‘pagonos,’ which means canyon.
Others think that Timpanogos is derived from the Pauite language and that the word translates to ‘sleeping woman’ or ‘reclining women.’ Other translations state that Timpanogos means ‘water on rock,’ as the mountain has several lakes and rivers on and around it.
A more straightforward suggestion is that Mount Timpanogos got its name because it was merely the place where the Timpanogos tribe lived.
However, the Timpanogos tribe called the mountain Timpanogos for a variety of reasons. These are best explained through their legends. Each of the tribe’s legends highlights why the word Timpanogos is as deeply connected with the mountain itself as it is with the tribe.
Twelve recorded legends have survived the passage of time, and all of them center around the ‘sleeping woman’ that can be seen in the mountain’s silhouette. They also involve the ‘Great Heart,’ a heart-shaped stalactite that is in the Timpanogos Cave Monument. Most of the legends say that the silhouette symbolizes the body of a princess who committed suicide, while the Great Heart is the union of her heart and her lover’s.
Utahna and Red Eagle
One legend tells the story of an Indian princess Utahna and a warrior Red Eagle.
In a time of famine and drought, the mountain god Timpanogos demanded a sacrifice to end the people’s woes.
Utanha was selected for the sacrifice, and she went to the summit of the mountain to throw herself off the cliff.
As she knelt at the summit and prayed to the god to send down rain, Red Eagle, a warrior, saw her and fell in love with her beauty. He approached her, and Utanha was convinced that he was the god Timpanogos answering her prayers. The two found a cave in the heart of Timpanogos and lived in it for some time, growing deeper and deeper in love.
But when a bear injured Red Eagle while he was hunting, Utaha realised that he was not a god. She cared for him and nursed him back to health and then left the cave, determined to complete her sacrifice to the god.
She jumps off the peak of Mount Timpanogos, and Red Eagle finds her body at the foot of the mountain with her hair fanned out behind her and her arms spread wide. Heartbroken, Red Eagle also jumps off the cliff, wanting to be with Utanha in death if he can’t be with her in life.
Legend has it that the true mountain god, Timpanogos, took pity on the two lovers. He decided to join their two hearts together, creating the ‘Great Heart’ which can today be seen in the Timpanogos Cave.
Ucanogos and Timpanac
In another legend, Princess Ucangos’ father is looking for a husband for her, but can’t find anyone suitable.
Dispirited, Ucangos goes for a walk on the mountain that towers over her village. In the mountain’s cave, she meets Timpanac, a warrior from another village, and the two fall in love.
Excited to introduce him to her father, the pair hurry down the mountain. But, because he’s unfamiliar with the steep mountain roads, Timpanac slips and falls off the mountain, plunging to his death. Ucaganos is so distraught that she jumps off the mountain too, landing on her back with her hair flowing behind her.
In another variation of the same legend, Timpanac is a ‘brave’ (a warrior) and must compete with other warriors in tests of bravery to win Ucangos’ father’s approval. The warriors had several tasks: to kill an animal with their bare hands and to climb to the top of a mountain. Legend has it that Timpanac’s jealous competitors pushed Tiimpanac off of the mountain. When Ucangos hears about Timpanac’s death, she climbs up to the mountain peak and throws herself off to join him in death.
In both variations, the god of the mountain takes pity on the lovers and unites their spirits in the form of the Great Heart.
In these variations, ‘Timpanogos’ is born out of the combination of Ucanogos and Timpanac. In other legends, Timpanogos is the mountain god. And in different versions still, Timpanogos is the name of a brave chief of a clan.
Time has made it hard to tell which legend led to Mount Timpanogos getting its name. It’s likely that several of the legends contributed to the final naming.
Father Escalante Immortalises Mount Timpanogos In Writing
While the Timpanogos tribe may have been calling the mountain Timpanogos for many years, it wasn’t until the mountain’s name was written that it became the ‘official’ name. The first written records of Mount Timpanogos can be found in Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante’s letters and journals.
Father Escalante was a Catholic priest who, along with fellow priest Atanasio Domínguez, headed a Spanish exploration of the American West in 1776. Their mission was to find a land route from their mission in Monterey to Santa Fe. Their travels took them through Utah, where members of the Timpanogos tribe guided them.
As they met members of the tribe and talked to their guides, it’s likely that members of the expedition heard the tribesmen referring to the mountain as Timponogos, and soon began calling the mountain by the same name.
Interestingly, in one of his journal entries, Father Escalante remarks “none of us can forget this valley and lake and the majestic mountain which gives this people their name: TIMPANOGOS, THE STONE ONE.”
This suggests that the mountain did not get its name from the Timpanogos tribe as is popularly believed, but the other way round – the mountain bestowed its name on the people who lived beneath it.
Father Escalante also called Mount Timpanogos ‘La Sierra Blanca de los Timpanois’, which translates to ‘the white mountain of Timpanogos. In his journal, he called the valley beneath Timpanogos’ El Valle de Nuestra Señora de la Merced de los Timpanogos’, which translates to ‘The valley of our lady of mercy of the Timpanogos,’ and called Utah lake the ‘Timpanogos Lake’.
His writings would later be read by other explorers and would go a long way in reinforcing the name ‘Timpanogos’ in people’s minds.
It helped that the expedition also included Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, who was a cartographer tasked with mapping the area the expedition explored. When he returned to Santa Fe, Pacheco carefully constructed maps of the Utah area featuring ‘Sierra de los Timpanogos’ (Mount Timpanogos), ‘Laguna de los Timpanogos’ (Lake Timpanogos) and Rio Timpanogos (River Timpanogos). Later explorers of the area would refer to his maps and come to call the mountain Mount Timpanogos.
After The Spanish
Once the Spanish explorers departed the area, the area around Mount Timpanogos was left relatively unexplored until the mid-nineteenth century, when Mormon pioneers made their way into Utah.
Skirmishes between the Timpanogos tribes and Mormon pioneers began and would continue for almost a decade until President Abraham Lincoln established the Uinta Valley Reservation. During this time, the mountain was featured in a few nineteenth-century journals and was referred to as Timpanogos Mountain or Timpanogos peak.
In 1844, John Fremont led a mapping expedition through Utah which recorded the name Mount Timpanogos. But, on the whole, explorations of it had been pushed into the back of people’s minds.
Eugene ‘Timp’ Roberts And The Timpanogos Summit Hike
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Mount Timpanogos’ name began unapologetically making its way back to the forefront of people’s attention. This was mainly thanks to Eugene Lusk Roberts, an athletic coach at Brigham Young University who had a deep reverence for Mount Timpanogos.
Inspired by watching a group of 5000 Catholics make their way up a hill in Switzerland to reach a shrine, he decided to establish a similar community hike in Utah, where hikers would traverse up to the peak of Mount Timpanogos. At this time, there were no trails up the mountain; only boulder fields, rocks, and thick forests.
A few of the University faculty and students embarked on the first hike in 1912, and it became a popular annual event. On the way up to the peak, the hikers would gather in the Aspen Grove, and Roberts would recount the legend of Utanha and Red Eagle, explaining the spiritual significance of the mountain and how it got its name.
Sports Illustrated magazine published an article about Roberts, calling him Eugene ‘Timp’ Roberts and quoting him about the divine beauty and spiritual impact of the mountain.
In 1926, he launched another, less well-known ‘PR campaign’ for Mount Timpanogos, which would go on to become one of Utah’s most famous journalism hoaxes.
He told news editors in Provo that two prominent journalists were in Provo recovering from illnesses, and began sending articles to Provo newspaper under these ‘famous journalists’ names. The pieces rhapsodized about Mount Timpanogos’ beauty and claimed that local Utah people did not appreciate the wonder they had in their backyard.
Posing as the journalist, he wrote about the stunning beauty of the Alpine Loop, a road which runs along Timpanogos, and added that he had heard about the famous Timpanogos hike in Massachusetts.
As the Provo residents began to read about Mount Timpanogos through the eyes of this ‘famous visiting journalist’, they began to see Mount Timpanogos in a new light and developed a deep attachment to it. Provo citizens began to run campaigns to protect and promote Mount Timpanogos. Even though the editors eventually found out about Roberts’ hoax, the deed was done, and Mount Timpanogos was on its way to becoming a beloved landmark in Utah.
Roberts’ massive PR campaign on behalf of Mount Timpanogos worked; the name Mount Timpanogos became well known in hiking circles across America. In 1957, 1,297 reached the summit of Mount Timpanogos together. America was paying close attention.
By 1970, 3500 people joined the traditional summit hike. But, after this significant milestone, the hike’s organizers decided not to continue the annual hikes, as the vast swaths of people participating were having a detrimental impact on the mountain.
But Roberts’ mission was complete; Mount Timpanogos had reclaimed its name and place and was cemented in the American psyche.
Exploring Mount Timpanogos’ History
The story of how Mount Timpanogos got its name is detailed and multi-faceted – and best understood when you explore the area yourself.
There are several places around Mount Timpanogos you can visit to learn more about Mount Timpanogos’ history:
- Timpanogos Cave Monument: The Timpanogos Cave Monument is a national monument which is home to the Great Heart of Timpanogos; the same heart from the Timpanogos tribe’s legends. The National Park Service leads cave tours, during which rangers tell you about the history of Timpanogos and the area.
- Timpanogos Visitor Center: The visitor center is near the Cave Monument and also has information about Timpanogos’ history.
- Natural History Museum of Utah: This museum in Salt Lake City has exhibitions about Utah’s landscapes and the Native Americans. If you make a trip here, you’ll be sure to learn more about the mountain and its people.
While you’re wandering around Utah, it’s hard to forget about Mount Timpanogos, even when you’re not looking at it looming on the horizon. Across Utah, there are schools named after Mount Timpanogos, and in American Fork sits Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple.
It goes to show that Mount Timpanogos’ name is now entrenched within Utah residents minds; it’s even starred in paintings, works of literature and songs.
To sum up, Mount Timpanogos owes several different sets of people for its name. It got its name from Timpanogos tribe legends, which was then recorded by Father Escalante and popularised by Eugene Roberts. But, its story continues to evolve today as it becomes a more substantial part of popular culture.
When you visit Mount Timpanogos, take the knowledge of its history and name with you, and you’ll have a more profound sense of awe as you explore it.