Friday, September 4, 2015

The Uinta Highline Trail

The Uintas in Northeastern Utah are a pretty special place.  Aside from residing in the coolest of the 50 states, the High Uintas exist under a wilderness designation, leaving it void of roads and machinery.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Wilderness Act of 1964

The High Uintas joined the wilderness party in 1984 and includes the highest peak in the state, Kings Peak at 13,528 feet, as well as numerous other peaks above 13,000 feet. This is also the most prominent east-west mountain range in the lower United States, outdone on US soil only by the Alaskan Brooks Range. The towering range is a spine of 2,500 million year old rocks pushed up on near vertical fault lines to form harsh ridges and large sweeping basins.

And where there's big mountains, there's trails.

The Uintas are no different, with the Unita Highline Trail running east-west along ridges and through passes, grazing the high point, and rarely dipping below 10,500 feet.  It's a trail I've had my eye on ever since moving to northern Utah a few years ago.  Unfortunately, it has a small hiking window; you can feasibly only hike the warmer summer months as the high elevation leaves it cold nearly year round, and the bugs can be vicious after the first hatch. It might make a good ski tour...but that's a different topic...

This map is way too heavy....

As for the other major obstacle: the shuttle.  I've considering this hike in the past as a yo-yo hike, or double traverse of the route, since the logistics for a car shuttle are a nightmare, but shied away from carrying so much food.  It took 5 days to traverse the route and we traveled fast because our packs were light.  Ten days of food wouldn't be very light.  And I wouldn't be very fast, or happy.  Thankfully my friend Shay was able to procure some free time and was able to come hiking, since he had been eyeing this trail for a while too.  I think it was first mentioned back in 2013, but we were finally finding the time to hike it.  This provided us with two cars to use for the shuttle, and it proved rather helpful having two sets of eyes to seek out old trail markers in sections.  He grew up not far from the Uintas, so his family was going to help by dropping his car off at the western terminus while we drove 4 hours to the eastern terminus in my car.  We would then hike east to west, arriving at his car in a few days, then begin the 4 hour drive back to my car.  The shuttle is not ideal, but it is at least a pretty drive for an amazing hike.

Admittedly, I let Shay take over most of the planning as I had a fairly full schedule in the days prior to the hike. I just asked how many days of food he was planning, if I need any extra gear, and when to be ready.  He runs a food resupply business for hikers, Trail Logistics, that I've been helping with, so I tossed a few of his huge and tasty dinners in my food bag along with some bars and gluten-free goodies and dug through the car assembling my gear.  The best part of having a dialed in system is that you need the same gear for 5 months or 5 days, so I stuck with the old favorites.  Shay did a great job figuring out the finer details of where we would start the hike, and he chose the longest hiking option, roughly 100 miles from the eastern to the western terminus in it's entirety.  He even found some cool caves near the start of the trail that we checked out before hiking.  These caves have routes marked along them that we donned helmets and headlamps for, and dove in following the breadcrumbs.  There were some tricky down climbs, huge log jams to monkey through, and the spooky feeling of being in completely disorientating blackness. Thankfully Shay has some experience with caves and a super bright headlamp, and it was a pretty cool side-trip.

Day 1: US-191 to Carter Yurt

So on Tuesday morning we finally grabbed our bags from the back of the Subi and hit the Highline Trail from the parking area along US-191, the road between Flaming Gorge and Vernal UT.  This easternmost section is the least often hiked, as the elevation is lower, the vistas are so-so, and the navigation is tricky.  Most of this day was spent hiking on old ATV trails, in trees and sparse open patches, always looking for a cairn, hatch-cut trail blaze on a tree trunk, or snowmobile markers.  Without great views of mountains, we were left with wandering through tall grass in roughly the right direction at times, wondering where we would find water, pinpointing our location on the map with each dirt road crossing.  We repeatedly underestimated the distance on the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated maps, the 1:75,000 map size throwing us off, and the 100 ft elevation lines disguising minimal but soul crushing micro climbs all day.  Underestimating the distance to our first water, we left the last source with much less than desired over the hot hiking day, and when we finally came to an open meadow near late afternoon we eagerly checked for running water.  At first the drainage was dry, then small trickles through cow patty-filled fields began, and enough walking down the riverbed finally revealed flowing, clear water.  We happily threw our packs on the ground while waiting for our water to treat.  

After chugging some much appreciated water and snacking along the creek, we were ready to hop back on the trail.  Of course we couldn't find it, so we followed atv tracks to a known road junction with a yurt nearby.  Always tempted by a structure to sleep in, we checked the doors, but it was a locked, stocked, structure that was open to paying backcountry travelers in advance.  Around this time, Shay mentioned that he wasn't feeling too great, so we decided to camp in the woods nearby the cabin, considering the 18 or so miles hiked today to be sufficient.  Not long after I started setting up my camp, Shay came over and mentioned that he had just vomited.  Potentially from too much water or electrolyte powder, he felt rough the rest of the evening, but thankfully woke up feeling fine.  

It was a nice long sleep that night; being in camp early and not having a sense of urgency in the morning was relaxing.  We were packed up and moving around 8, aiming for what we guessed was around 17 miles to set us up for being near Kings Peak the end of the next day for a potential summit at sunrise.  Now in full disclaimer, we had no idea how long the trail was.  We thought the trail was roughly 80 miles, and we were aiming for 5 days.  It ended up being 95.7 miles, plus an extra two to summit Kings, and we still did it in 5 days.  Later we ramped up the miles, but with no mileage listed on the maps and no data book for the trail, we were mostly just winging it and hiking our average speed for most of the day and figuring out where we were along the way.  Thankfully hiking thousands of miles gives you that sort of confidence, and we both did fine with pushing big days with signification elevation gains.  

Day 2: Carter Yurt to Taylor Lake

The second day finally rewarded us with some big open views.  And also rain. We approached Leidy Peak within a few miles, this being the trailhead the 80-mile Highline hikers use.  As we contoured around the north shoulder of Leidy Peak the wind kicked up, blasting saturated clouds into us.  It was wet like rain, but the small droplets seemed suspended in the near horizontal wind ripping over the summit.  We became saturated in the foggy air, and moved quickly to stay warm, conversation limited to calling out directions of the barely visible cairns.  These old sloopy mountains are less jagged than others, the surfaces consisting of barren spaces covered in rocky veins between short tufted grasses.  But the hiking can be frustrating, each step on an uneven surface, some rocks shifting beneath your feet threatening to trap an ankle or trekking pole.

Looking out towards Flaming Gorge From Leidy

Approaching Gabbro Pass

We pushed on for the morning, the wind and water easing up on us, allowing us to take in the sweeping vistas that were forming in front of us.  We climbed up over Gabbro Pass, staying high along the ridges until dropping back into a basin below.  We cruised through the valley below, water no longer a concern as the trail was now along lakes, rivers, and through marshes.  Eagerly wanting to see a moose, we always scanned for them, but never ended up seeing one.  We did catch a few small herds of elk, spooking them to bounce back into the cover of the forest effortlessly.  As we approached Chepeta Lake we were racing into a storm head on, and as trail luck would have it, there was a creek with a road, and more importantly, a bridge over it!  Always eager to channel my inner troll, we jumped in under the bridge, watching the skies open moments after we were tucked away.  It was a rather spacious bridge, and we took the chance to hydrate, snack, and Shay even boiled water for tea.  It was a fast and drenching rain, but it quickly passed and we headed on our way.  

Gabbro Pass looking west to the big mountains

Water was no longer an issue after the first day

Chepeta Pass is roughly the 62 mile option starting point of the Highline Trail at Hayden Pass, and honestly, if you were short on time, then this is the chunk to hike.  The section east of here was pretty and enjoyable hiking, but the real beauty of this hike is the western High Unita Wilderness section.  The wilderness boundary begins a few miles west of the Chepeta Trailhead, and from here you hike over 50 miles of trail without crossing a road.  It's harder and harder to find trails like that.  And it's stunning. And we only ran into a handful of hikers.  We pushed passed Chepeta for a few miles, then dropped down into a high alpine lake off the trail to camp for the night instead of hiking up higher for the next few miles.  It was another early camp, but after being cold and wet for most of the day, I was concerned about having a warm, dry camp, so we called it a day near Taylor Lake.  We found a rare flat spot in a sheltered area of haggard pine trees and built a bunker from the wind.  It was another good long sleep, something I would be grateful for a day later.

 (photo: Shay Blackley)
Oh Cairns. Without you, we'd be frustrated! (photo: Shay Blackley)

Day 3: Taylor Lake to Kings Peak

We woke up in the morning with the idea that we could get close to Kings Peak tonight and if weather allowed, we could aim for a sunrise summit of Utah's highest peak.  Feeling good, and ready to get above treeline again, we shot straight out of camp directly onto the ridge to bisect with the Highline Trail.  We had dropped off the trail to camp and didn't want to backtrack, so this route served as a short cut, and an invigorating way to wake up the lungs.  We scrambled onto the ridge and looked west towards King's Peak before sliding down to follow fingers of the Uinta River.  At some point in the day the idea to camp on the summit of Kings was hatched.  The days-old forecast was favorable, and the river hiking was easy on the legs so we decided we would try.

 Approaching Kings (photo: Shay Blackley)

As we approached the first planned camping spot, we noticed the skies grey with ominous looking clouds.  Some clouds look nice, fluffy and cheerful, others more menacing, heavy and angry.  These were of the latter variety, and we thought it was best to wait on climbing to the summit.  We found some workable camping spots and I set up my camp while Shay laid low beneath his flat tarp.  I worked on calories and staying warm while Shay played amateur meteorologist.  The clouds were ripping through Gunsight pass, then sucking down the valley we were in.  As the cold air came ripping through, the cloud let their raindrops fall, and for a brief while, we got rained on.  It came and went quick enough that soon we were standing outside reconsidering the summit.  It was decided that the clouds were trending on friendly and we were going to try and sleep on Kings.  We packed up our stuff and headed up the mountain.  

Friendly Clouds and Kings shadow from the summit

It was a brutal climb from where we fake camped, and I was glad we weren't doing this early the next morning, as alpine starts and I don't get alone well.  We had full water bottles, so we could cook at the summit, but it was mostly the unrelenting climbing that was so exhausting.  We made it to Anderson Pass for a quick break, then from there free climbed the huge blocks of rock leading to the summit.  There was no exact path, just a jungle gym of rocks to climb, the occasional block rocking beneath your foot.  Surged by the desire to summit, we clambered to the top for our celebratory photos, then quickly retreated to a nearby bivy spot.  While climbing up we had noted spots with some wind protection that were big enough and dirt covered for sleeping.  On a mountain covered in rocks the size of micro-fridges, this was a harder than anticipated problem, but there was a perfect spot near the summit that only required some slight rock moving to prove suitable.

The rocky Kings Peak ridgeline (photo Shay Blackley) 

Standing on Kings Peak at 13,528 ft (photo: Shay Blackley)

Unfortunately the winds shifted soon after we found this spot, and soon we were nearly being blown off the summit.  There was no way cook with the sustained winds, and it was a struggling to hold onto gear that could blow away.  Having a light sleeping bag, I was worried about how cold I would get, and attempted to wrap myself in my rainfly as a bivy, but the risk of it flying away left me sleeping with one eye open.  Just kidding, I barely slept.  It ended up getting really cold, and I was constantly changing position to try and limit how many cold spots I had.  The wind was so loud that I resorted the headphone and podcasts to doze in and out of consciousness, and I eagerly watched my clock and the horizon for any glimpse of the coming sun.  It made for a memorable night, but the sunrise was completely worth it.

Phase one of Turtle Mode.  Just minutes after finding this spot the winds kicked up and sustained for hours.  This was the first position I assumed, then I climbed into my sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep. (photo; Shay Blackley)

Day 4: Kings Peak to Dead Horse Lake

Waking up after a long night, feet in backpack for extra insulation.

This is my "Glad I made it through the night" face

The horizon teased me for what seemed like a eternity, the glow slowly expanding further along the curve of the earth.  At first it was faint, only slightly lighter than the dark blue sky, then growing to include purples and oranges and yellows.  Finally a huge red orb pushed up into the sky, blasting us in a golden glow as I felt my body begin to warm.  It was a beautiful iconic sunrise, that pictures couldn't do justice.  You'll just have to camp on Kings Peak to know what I mean.

 There was definitely a moose at one of those lakes.

With the winds dying off in the early morning hours, we were finally capable to cook, and I dove into a pot of hot cocoa and coffee while Shay cooked his dinner that went uneaten the night before.  Feeling sluggish from a lack of sleep, but eager to get moving, we packed up, and began our long descent from the summit to the basin below.  My legs were protesting, annoyed with a less than restorative sleep, constantly fidgeting and wiggling to stay warm, and for the better half of the morning I lagged behind Shay, struggling to motivate my feet to move faster and smoother.  Tungsten Pass proved an easy path between basins, but then Porcupine Pass crushed my dreams.  

I struggled to push up the steep path, wanting to take a breath at each switchback, lacking the gusto to drive to the top for a rewarding break when I got there.  I still took a break at the top, but it was more derived of defeat and desperately needing calories.  Whether the pass was particularly steep, or I was extra tired, I felt I got beat up by Porcupine Pass, and if the valley on the other side wasn't so damn beautiful I would probably have a deep-seeded hatred of it.  Yet the reward for this climb was so mind blowing that I had forgotten about the struggle as soon as I began my descent on the west side of the pass.  It was a huge sweeping basin, surrounded on three sides with steep mountain walls, while the valley lowered into Oweep Creek.  It was so grand and picturesque that it almost appeared two dimensional, like a painting.  We hiked for miles down this basin, imagining backcountry ski possibilities and trying to conjure a moose or bear to complete the scene.

I fell instantly in awe with this basin.  (photos: Shay Blackley)

We continued along the treeline of the basin, then followed Lake Fork River up to our last pass of the day, Red Knob Pass.  It was a long slow approach, though we were entertained by the thousands of sheep grazing in the basin.  Sheep grazing is one of the few industries operating in the wilderness, in the same fashion as years ago, with herders living in the field in tents along with their horses and dogs before driving the sheep out of the mountains for the winter.  We dragged ourselves over Red Knob Pass and crossed to the northern side of the range before dropping down to Dead Horse Lake to camp for the night.  This proved to be a popular Friday night camping spot, as it is roughly ten miles from a trailhead, and provides an epic backdrop for fishing and camping.  We ran into three other parties there, but were able to find a flat camping spot for the night, and after a long day of hiking, and a long night of not sleeping, I didn't need much.

The nose of Mount Lovenia from Lambert Meadow

The view of Dead Horse Lake (center, top third) from Red Knob Pass, Dead Horse Pass climbs south (left) from the lake over the ridgeline.

Home sweet home. 

Dead Horse Lake

Day 5: Dead Horse Lake to Hayden Pass

We woke up that last morning to the sun illuminating the wall across the lake that held the trail up to our pass.  Dead Horse Pass is "Hazardous to horses" unsurprisingly, and was a fairly steep, through straightforward route up and over the pass back to the southern slope of the range.  The route looks improbably from the lake below, but the actual path was easy to follow and very manageable for a hiker.  From this pass, the trail drops low into the next basin, going below 10,000 ft for the first time in a while crossing Rock Creek.  From there it was a brief climb up the last pass, Rocky Sea Pass, then we cruised down the trail a few hours to the car parked at Hayden Pass, near Mirror Lake.  We ran into over a dozen hikers on this section of trail, either weekenders out for a few nights or day hikers heading back for some late summer sunshine.  It was nice to see other people out enjoying this fine trail as it deserves more recognition than it gets!

The view of Dead Horse Pass. The route switchbacked through the scree to the pass in the center of the picture.  It looked less feasible than it was; it was actually well maintained trail.  

My last morning view of the sun-soaked cliffs 

The Highline is a pretty awesome weeklong hike that is filled with quad-burning climbs, rewarding vistas, and solitude.  While the shuttle proves inconvenient, it can be done, and the hike is definitely worth the extra effort.  Maps were key for navigating the often confusing trail signs along the way, but otherwise, it is a fairly straightforward hike. We managed the trail in a little over 4 and half days, with time on the 5th day to stop for milkshakes and floats in Kamas before driving back to my car near Vernal 4 hours away.  Shay turned back to Park City and work the next day, and I turned towards Colorado.

Hi Mountain Drug in Kamas for huge old fashioned rootbeer floats and loaded bacon cheese fries....yummm

I rolled out of Vernal the following morning after a night sleeping near the Steinaker Reservoir where a friendly policewomen woke me up in the middle of the night to ask if I was okay.  That was a first for the summer, but she didn't tell me to leave or yell at me, just wanted to check in with me.  In the morning I made some coffee, went for a swim/bath in the reservoir, then chatted with two old cowboys for a bit.  I then went to Dinosaur National Monument for my first time to check out fossils of Stegosaurus and Allosaurus and swim across my favorite river, the Green River. It's a beautiful landscape that is worth a visit if you're in the area, and I discovered my newest idol there, Josie Bassett Morris.  She was a hard lady that homesteaded this rugged land, using box canyons as corrals and eschewing traditional feminine roles for a life of intimacy and dependence on nature.  She brewed brandy and wine during Prohibition, was accused of rustling cattle in her 60's and hosted outlaws, including Butch Cassidy.  She sounds like she had some good stories to tell.  

Steinaker Reservoir

The Quarry Wall at Dinosaur National Monument filled with piles of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodicus fossils


The Green River in Dino. NM

Hopefully we all end up with good stories to tell.


  1. I enjoyed reading your post on the Highline. I completed it last year with a friend and will be doing it solo again this year (August 1st.) I always enjoy reading the stories and adventures from other women like me. I truly love the Uintas. Next year I am hoping to do a portion of the Colorado Trail.

  2. Looks like a great hike. Thanks for the info. Question: what time of year did you go?

    1. It's fantastic, though I do recommend thru hiking just the 60 or 70 western miles for the biggest bang for your buck. If I go back, I'd spend more time in the big drainages like Yellowstone. We did this hike in August. It was hot, and also snowed. Alpine travel is great!

  3. Annie...I read in one of your posts about a guy who does HIGHLINE utina food drops???? can you please send me his information...

    1. My buddy at Trail Logistics was running a trail support business, but is in Nepal this summer. Other than that, I'm not sure anyone is running Uinta food drops.

    2. To bad thanks...if you hear of anyone please let me know...appreciate it