The High Uinta Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the state of Utah. As such, it is home to some very notewor thy hiking, namely the Highline Trail which follows the spine of the Uintas for about 85 miles from the western trailhead at Castle Lake to the eastern terminus of 12,028-foot Leidy Peak. Most of the Highline Trail is situated between 10,000 and 12,500 feet and over 60 miles of the total distance is true wilderness walking…no road crossings, few signs, and only cairns to direct you cross country. In July 2003, I hiked the Highline Trail in three and a half days and shared the trail and camp with more wildlife than humanoids. Quite pleasant. Despite the absence of humans, the real glories of the High Uintas are the large glacial cirques, open flowered meadows, and numerous (cold!) alpine lakes.
Day 1: (July 6, 2003) After obtaining my “Pay-to-Play” Wilderness Passport I headed up to the Castle Lake Trailhead (10,700 feet), parked the car and headed into the woods in the early evening. Most of the people I saw were coming out after spending the July 4 weekend in the Gray Areas. (designated “high use” areas on Trail Illustrated Maps — read Boy Scouts, dutch ovens, and big blue inflatable air mattresses). Heading due east, I dropped down into, and then climbed back through, heavily forested southern slopes to 11,400-foot Rocky Sea Pass. Descending the steep, snow filled eastern slope, I edged my way down into twilight as the sun dipped below the pass. Dropping into Rock Creek Basin, the temperatures began to drop as I set up camp, cooked some food, and settled in for the night — the entire basin void of humans — a great reward for an eight mile effort!
Day 2: (July 7, 2003) I awoke on trail time. Just as the sun began to influence the morning sky I packed up, bowl in hand and spoon in mouth, eating as I hiked to generate some much needed heat. Dropping to Rock Creek proper, any morning cobwebs were immediately remedied with a brisk thigh deep ford, my legs turning scarlet as I climbed briskly back up above treeline (11,000 feet) trying to encouraging blood flow. Wrapping around the eastern edge of Ledge Lake and climbing out of the forest and into the sun was a welcome sight.
The high alpine meadows were aglow with abundant wildflowers as a light mist evaporated from the dewy slopes with the warming sun. Looking east, Explorer Peak rose on the skyline, a giant mass of colored talus. Due north, 11,600-foot Dead Horse Point, a low slung saddle of crumbling limestone and shale which I would sweatily ascend and then precariously descend through snow, mud, and loose talus 1,000 feet to Dead Horse Lake. Much of the Highline Trail is laid out in this manner — relatively steady grades through rising alpine meadows to a brief, steep pass which typically shoots up at least 1,000 feet in a short and intense distance. So, I was not surprised to be climbing above treeline again to 12,000-foot Red Knob Pass where I took a brief rest stop to climb up to the top to get a full 360 degree view of the High Uintas.
After my visual feast, I descended the southern slopes of Red Knob Pass following a cairned route for a few miles which paralleled the Lake Fork River until a quick climb northeast into Lambert Meadow, skirting the forested slopes as the trail stayed on the edge of timberline.
Five miles distant, I began to climb out of the glacial cirque onto the eroding slopes of 12,200-foot Porcupine Pass — the talus-sloped fingers of Wilson Peak to the East. Two and a half miles later I stopped just short of Tungsten Pass for a water refill, a hot dinner, and good foot soak. Continuing onward over 11,400-foot Tungsten Pass, the trail winded northeast, staying above timberline, crossing countless alpine trickles, and disappearing through boggy meadows. Elk began to bugle, noting the setting sun as I climbed upward to the headwaters of Yellowstone Creek to the base of 12,400-foot Anderson Pass.
Feeling a bit frisky despite the late hour, I proceeded upward, climbing towards the stars and the enormous hulk of Kings Peak to my East which at 13,528 feet is the highest point in Utah. Once atop Anderson Pass, I discovered a sloping bivouac (aren’t they all?) and had a quick snack as I watched the scattered lights of southern Wyoming blink in the distance nearly 8,000 feet below. Five passes and 33 miles for the day ensured a good sleep!
Day 3: (July 8, 2003) Again I awoke just before dawn. Skipping breakfast I hustled up the windswept and bouldery slopes of Kings Peak and sat on the summit alone as the sun rose, bathing the surrounding landscape in an orange and pink glow. Stiff from the sloping sleeping position and the previous day’s efforts, I slowly descended back to my campsite, got back in my sleeping quilt and ate a hearty breakfast as the day began.
Dropping carefully down into Painted Basin along icy slopes, I eventually ran into the first (and only) hikers I would meet during my hike. After exchanging standard pleasantries I headed another 13.5 miles through the trees and lower meadows fording refreshing Gilbert Creek, skirting Kidney Lakes, and taking a brief siesta at Fox Lake to mend the feet and tend to a heat-induced bloody nose.
After snacking, I climbed up to an unnamed 12,000-foot plateau and the eastern wilderness boundary of the High Uintas before slowly dropping down through the Reader Lakes where I was fortunate to watch a few moose dip their heads into the water and yank mouthfuls of lake bed vegetation. Slinking away with the wind so as not to disturb the moose, I contoured eastward to Chepeta Lake (reservoir) and in doing so, crossed the first road in over 60 miles of hiking. After a good dinner and an even better foot cleaning, the wind picked up incredibly. Snapping limbs and blowing dust easily convinced me to spend time finding a sheltered campsite. Twenty-two miles for the day and a good night’s rest inside the delightfully quiet and wind protected Chepeta Lake Outhouse.
Day 4: (July 9, 2003) I awoke to a cool crisp morning as I emerged from my cozy concrete cocoon and headed southward along the road paralleling the Whiterocks River. Angling eastward again I climbed through dew filled meadows following the fresh scat of elk to Whiterocks Lake (a reservoir). Another stiff climb brought me to a saddle above Deadmans Lake. A herd of elk dotted the lake shore below as I contoured well above the lake, following indistinct trail and infrequent cairns.
Wrapping around the upper reaches of the huge glacial cirque took an hour or so as I aimed towards Gabbro Pass, just south of Mt Untermann and above Lake Wilde. The descent route to Lake Wilde was steep and although the trail was obvious, the upper sections were impassable due to a large cornice of snow. I skirted the steep snow and headed out the southeast arm of Mt Untermann until the ridge ended in a crumbly mess of jumbled boulders and loose talus. Looking north I could just barely distinguish the Teton Range, and to the West the Wasatch were easily visible on the horizon.
After a delayed lunch, I picked my way through the boulders and eventually got back on trail, working my way along the plateau below 12,028-foot Leidy Peak. As I crested a slight rise, a mountain goat looked up and nimbly trotted off, over the edge of the plateau and out of sight. Eventually I contoured around the northern slopes of Leidy Peak, the western arm of Flaming Gorge in the distance and descended to Hacking Lake where the shuttle I had arranged was waiting. Twenty-two miles for the morning and the end of my Highline experience.
Logistics and Advice: The hardest part of tackling the Highline Trail is arranging the shuttle because the trailheads are a three and a half hour drive apart. I was fortunate enough to arrange a car exchange with another group (those I met at Painters Basin). They were taking much longer to do the Highline than I was, so I was easily able to get to their car and drive it around to my starting point to drop it off for them. I would recommend the Trails Illustrated (#771) Map for most hiking in the Uintas.
Navigation is relatively easy because much of the hiking is above timberline and your views are unobstructed. Snow can linger through late July in an average year, and the weather has been known to be uncooperative (snow!) throughout the year. I’ve been told the fishing is excellent but I do not have any firsthand experience. Generally speaking the Uintas are pretty people free. Like most backcountry areas the spots that are accessible are well used, but a little more effort to get away will be very rewarding! If you have any questions in regard to planning a trip to the Uintas, please let me know.