My experience backpacking on the Uinta Highline trail in Utah. With trip planning and logistic info.
The Highline Trail in the Uinta mountains of Utah, often called the Uinta Highline Trail (UHT), captured my imagination since a past partner and I took a trip to the nearby Dinosaur National Monument this past Memorial Day Weekend. Looking from our vantage point on a trail, I could not help but think about these mountains that form a definitive boundary on the Colorado Plateau.
Distant view to the Uinta Mountains from the Rupple Point trail in DNM
The Uintas are one of the few East-West ranges in North America, contains the highest peak in Utah, has more above contiguous above tree-line terrain than any range in the lower 48, along with the San Juans of Colorado, but is a lot less visited.
I was intrigued.
And I wanted to hike it.
As I did more research, I found that there is a trail that traverses this range and is not quite 100 miles. About right for my annual week-long vacation I get to take for myself.
The logistics of a trek would not only involve a long drive but a massive 160 mile long shuttle between the two termini of the trail (more info below on logistics).
Luckily, my good buddy Mark had taken the summer off after working a contract performing microchip design. He was now was finishing up his Canadian climbing/hiking/backpacking adventures by driving down the Rockies back to his Colorado home. Mark was also intrigued by the range and was happy to join me.
Joining us for the trip would my friend Andy (Garlic) who had just moved back to Colorado after five years in Arizona.
Shuttling logistics assured, we made plans to meet up near the Hayden Pass TH.
Garlic and I drove up from Colorado and met Mark in Evanston, WY not far from the Utah border. The following morning, we parked Mark’s car at the Hayden Pass trailhead, piled into my vehicle and ~3 hrs and 160 miles later we arrived at the eastern terminus of the UTH. The trailhead was just up the road from Vernal, Utah on the very well-traveled Highway 191.
Now, I should say that our choice of starting at the far eastern end of the trail was unusual. Most people who hike the trail start at two other trail heads that make for an ~60 miles or an ~80-mile hike.
The ~80-mile option starting at the Leidy trailhead was briefly considered, but we all came to the conclusion that we would rather hike more and drive less. The Leidy Peak trailhead option would mean a lot more driving. Roughly 120 miles and ~2.5 hrs more of driving total.
Starting from the TH near Vernal, UT also made logistics for the end of the trip easier as this trailhead was just off a major road and was also on our way back to Colorado. Naturally, the ~60 mile option seemed to miss some scenic chunks of above tree line hiking. And, at least according to Google Maps, even more, driving time and miles driven than taking the longer hiking option!
So, more hiking and less driving with easier logistics seemed to make far more sense. 🙂
Enough logistic info. Time to hike!
We parked my vehicle at the sparsely used TH in the pine and aspen forest surrounded by low, wooded hills.
We were barely out of sage country and at the very start of the Uinta mountains.
For a brief period, we were on a shared ATV trail. No ATVs were in sight, but the rocky and rutted trail showed that ATVers did come through at least on occasion.
The trail did have one of the coolest emblems of any trail I’ve seen:
The trail started paralleling the road. So we decided to hike CDT-style and just hike the road! 🙂 On this quiet day, it made logical sense.
Eventually, it no longer made sense to road walk. Above Lonesome Park, we joined the trail proper again. Well, relatively speaking:
From this point, to the Leidy Peak TH, the trail would be series of connect-the-dots to find the trail. Cairns, the occasional orange diamond, old-school axe blazes, fresh cuts on blow downs and new flagging marked the way. There was obvious and new trail work done this past summer. We were all grateful for the work done by the anon. trail crew. Otherwise there would be many blow downs and difficult trail to follow.
Mark trying to convince me he found some REALLY high elevation trail markers. 😉
From a high point on this section of trail, we caught a view of what looked to be the first above treeline peak on the UHT going westbound – Leidy Peak.
The high country was not much further!
After about 15 miles of hiking, we made our camp at the edge of Summit Park.
Though this section of trail was not dramatic, the wide open meadows were very pretty and well worth the hike.
Just before the Leidy Peak TH, we took our breakfast at a ditch that looked to be remnants of old ranching days.
Shortly after our break, made it to the Leidy Peak TH. Though on a well graded and improved dirt road, there was hardly any signs of popular use. My thoughts that we would be seeing more people once we made it to this TH did not hold to be true so far.
Once pass the TH, the terrain also immediately opened up to rolling tundra.
We had arrived in the high country!
Mark and I love off-trail hiking. And the gentle terrain with the obvious ridge line was too good to pass up. So off trail we went.
At one point on our route, we could see Flaming Gorge. The obvious, glacier formed valley, reminded me of a mini-Glacier National Park.
Shortly after we joined the trail again, we saw our first hikers. We would not see any hikers until the Kings Peak area many miles up the trail.
The blue sky was replaced by an overcast day, but the terrain was still pretty.
We soon reached Chepeta Lake. From this point forward, there would be no road crossings on the UHT from now until Hayden Pass.
We made camp and it rained during the night.
Blue sky briefly peeked out the following morning. The optimist in me hoped it was sign of a good weather day to come.
We approached North Pole pass. The large cairns reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Japanese pilgrimage routes.
Once at North Pole pass, the weather moved in.
The gray and drizzly weather gave the mountains a Pacific northwest feel.
We briefly had talked about going off-trail again at North Pole pass, but the uncertain weather and above treeline exposure made us stick to the UHT proper.
We descended back into the trees and quickly spotted a young bull moose just off the trail.
The wide open valleys of the sub-alpine areas were very beautiful to hike as well.
Through this day, Mark seemed to be in pain. We first thought it was some ankle injuries, but it turned out to be a case of shin splints. 🙁
All three of us decided to make camp shortly before Painters Basin. Mark would take some “Vitamin I” and use some ice-cold water in a ziplock bag and see how he felt the following morning.
The following morning, we hiked to the aptly named basin.
Though there were low hanging clouds above the high peaks, the area was still astonishingly beautiful. I took numerous photos in this area:
Photo courtesy of Mark Thomas
Alas, despite all the beauty, a decision had to be made.
Mark was not healing and was grimacing as he walked. The terrain was about to get more difficult. And a major side trail joined up and lead to a TH that had spots for 50 people according to our Trails Illustrated map. For my own part, my left ankle was still tender from twisting my ankle while rock climbing about a month prior. It rolled, painfully, twice in the past few days.
The decision was made: I’d hike out the ~15 mile side trail with Mark. We’d hope to get a ride to Evanston where we’d wait for Andy.
Andy would power hike back to the car at Hayden Pass (~45+ miles) and drive back the following night.
Andy said his temporary good byes. Mark and I headed off on our own. (Andy’s account on the UHT past Painters Basin is included further below. He gave me permission to quote his trip report).
Just before we veered off the UHT proper and up to Gunsight Pass, we enjoyed some looks to the fog-shrouded Kings Peak and caught a glimpses of the rugged country that awaited Andy.
Once over Gunsight Pass, we entered an expansive meadow. One of the largest that both Mark or myself had ever seen.
We sat there for quite a while. The sun had some out in the valley and it felt good to be warm and dry. As we were drying out our gear, we looked up the clouds hanging on the high peaks above. We wondered about the journey Andy was currently experiencing.
Eventually, we moved further down the well graded and obviously well used trail.
Tents were spotted, people were seen and a herd of sheep was grazing in the distance.
The Henry’s Fork trail was the shortest way to get to Kings Peak (but still ~20 miles one way from the TH) and it showed.
Our trail took us along the river and a camp was made in area that had the always comforting river sounds to lull us to sleep.
The following morning we made the short hike out. A moose cow greeted us just off the trail.
Soon after, we reached the Henry’s Fork trailhead. A gentleman dropping off his son-in-law and grandson for a backpacking trip was kind enough to offer Mark and I a ride to Evanston, WY since it was on his way to Salt Lake City.
We did not realize how far off the beaten path we were. We drove through several types of eco-zones and ended up in sage brush country.
Perhaps ninety minutes later, we were dropped off at Motel Six. We thanked the gentleman (who not accept our gas money), grabbed a room and I started having flashbacks to my thru-hikes:
- A big breakfast calorie gorge was had at the diner across the street
- Laundry was done
- Showers were taken
- Supplies were bought at the truck stop and gas station next to the motel (razor, a cotton t-shirt and beer. Natch)
- We kicked back, relaxed and discussed the next plans
Day Four—Injury and Plans Change
It was soon apparent that Mark’s leg was going to be a problem. The slower pace and night’s rest did not help. We had enough food for three more days of hiking with about forty-five miles left. But we were not keeping a 15 mile per day pace. So Mags, our leader, came up with a plan. He and Mark would hike very slowly out over nearby Gunsight Pass, about fifteen miles to a developed trailhead at the Wyoming border. I would continue out to the car at a fast pace, hopefully two days, then drive the car around to pick them up.
West of Anderson Pass and Kings Peak, the Uinta Highline Trail changes character. The broad ridges and passes of the east change to rugged notches and arêtes. The trail crosses the divide many times to find a hiking route among the rough country.
We said our goodbyes and I took off, heading straight up Anderson Pass, at 13,000’ the high point on the trail, and the first of six remaining high passes on the route.
It has been over two years since my last long distance, multi-day hiking trip. In recent years I’ve been concentrating more on bicycling. I’m in good condition, but not trail-hardened. I was hoping for a certain amount of “muscle memory”, some skill, and a little luck. The muscles cooperated, but the skill and luck didn’t completely.
Rain showers continued again most of the day, but I had some clearing at Anderson Pass and could barely make out the summit of Kings Peak. On a nice, relaxing day I would have scrambled the five hundred remaining feet to the summit. But not today—it was neither nice nor relaxing. I was concerned about my friends, and my ability to hike the next 45 miles in two days. And storm clouds were rolling in from the valley in front of me.
Anderson Pass was simply stunning. The trail on the far side of it is perched atop a cliff over 1000’ above the valley floor. The trail traverses the cliff to a steep scree field, then switches steeply back and forth to make the descent. I took the scenery in among swirling clouds and rain, thankful again for no electrical activity. It was simply breathtaking up there.
I was further amazed by the Yellowstone Creek valley below. South-facing snowfields, rare in the mountains this season, lined the bottoms of red cliffs and waterfalls were cascading over those cliffs. I took the time to take a bath, do a little foot maintenance, and soak in the scenery.
Next came Tungsten Pass. It was an easy climb, maybe too easy. And here I met the only person I would see on the trail between Anderson Pass and the trailhead, a backpacker eating his lunch and contemplating his approach to Kings Peak. My attention flagged a little and I took a wrong turn at its base. I made a mistake and my luck ran out. I noticed I was going in the wrong direction, but somehow justified it during a map check. No excuse, but the map covered a huge area at a very small scale, and contour lines were 100’ apart, making detailed navigation tricky. There were no trail tread or signs in this remote back country, either. I finally reached a distinctive lake that told me I was two miles and 500 feet down the wrong route. I cussed a bit, but immediately turned around a started a fast climb back up.
That mistake cost me nearly two hours in a tight time frame. I was really disappointed in myself. I rarely make navigation errors of that magnitude, and why now when an injured friend is waiting?
The next pass, Porcupine, was a difficult climb back up back to 12,400’ and an equally difficult descent. This was my third of the day and fatigue was setting in. Very heavy recent rains had soaked the area and the trail tread had largely washed out, and the upper slope had slumped over the constructed benching. Like Anderson Pass earlier, this was a vertiginous route on a big wall. It was stunning, especially in the clearing evening light, but it was not as enjoyable as it could have been.
Navigation difficulties continued after the pass descent, in large open trackless meadows and marsh. I reached a busy sheep-grazing area with a network of animal trails. Thankfully, sheep don’t build cairns. I learned to triple-check map and compass often. I climbed several more minor ridges and made it to my original planned campsite in a high meadow right at sunset. Later, I found that Mags, looking at his map that same night in his campsite near Gunsight Pass, predicted I would camp at this exact spot.
I treated a couple of hot spots on my feet, and got a little concerned about the again-inflamed knee. On the other hand, I was pleased at my stamina and performance at the high altitudes of the day. I am not acclimated to 13,000’ anymore. I rested well that night.
The next day I arose in heavy fog, soaking wet, ready to tackle three more passes. The knee felt OK, but muscle fatigue from yesterday did not completely vanish. The first pass, Red Knob, had a very difficult map-and-compass approach in foggy marshland. It is hard to connect the dots when you can’t see the dots. But the weather cleared for the final pass ascent and again, I was stunned by the views to the north.
It was a quick dip below treeline to Dead Horse Lake. Then came the eponymous pass, which lived up to its name with pieces of a horse skeleton easily seen from a switchback. Dead Horse Pass was the scariest pass I believe I’ve ever hiked. And there’s a warning note on the map that the pass is not suitable for pack stock. The recent flooding rains made a difficult hike nearly dangerous. A slip would have been fatal. I tried to imagine hiking this with a weak ankle or shin splints, and was pretty happy with Mark’s decision to bail out.
Both Red Knob and Dead Horse Passes were over 12,000’ and the descents to treeline below 10,000’. I was then happy to see that the next and last pass of the day, Rocky Sea Pass, was only around 11,500’. Normally I wouldn’t care about 500’ here and there, but today I was fatigued.
The intervening trail got pretty good for a few miles, allowing me to make good time comfortably for a while. I forded knee-deep Rock Creek. I didn’t trust my wobbly legs and judgment to hop the large rocks or cross on the small tree. But after Rocky Sea Pass I was again faced with heavily used and eroded mud and rocks. The last six or eight miles out to the trailhead increased my fatigue to the point where I was lurching and limping when I reached the car. This was pretty close to my maximum effort. I made it out at about six pm, a couple of hours later than I had hoped.
At 7 pm, the phone rang in our room, it was Garlic! Per our plans, he stopped by the Motel 6 in town first.
We were happy to see him. He was happy to see us, take a hot shower and relax after all his hiking. He seldom drinks beer, but seemed to enjoy one that night. 🙂
The following morning, Mark and Andy offered again to shuttle me so I could complete the UHT. Though I considered it, all the time in town had me lose steam and I wanted to see a past partner again. We made plans over the phone to do a trip together over Labor Day Weekend. The thought of taking advantage of this earlier finish time go on a trip with my a past partner pleased me. Guess I love the gal? 😉
We reached my car at the far at the end of trail and then had a late lunch together in Vernal. Marked borrowed my Utah maps as he was not quite ready to go to back. We said our goodbyes-for-now. Garlic and I made our way back home without incident.
Though the trip did not go as planned, it was still an enjoyable trip. About 70 miles of backpacking with friends is never bad. And the follow-up trip to the Snowy Range in Wyoming was enjoyable too.
Not a bad “end of summer” vacation. 🙂
LENGTH: The length of the trail from the Highway 191 trail head to the Hayden Pass trail head is a little over 95 miles according to the wiki article. If you decide to hike nearby Kings Peak (1.4 mile r/t), the trail is 97 miles total.
VERY UNOFFICIAL SECTIONS OF THE TRAIL: In my opinion, the Uinta Highline Trail can be divided into four distinct sections.
- Highway 191 to Leidy Peak TH: The first 18 miles is in lower elevation terrain. The markings are sparse and require vigilant navigation. Luckily some recent maintenance in the summer of 2013 made this section of trail easier to navigate than in previous years. Not as dramatic as the more western locations, but the open meadows (called “parks”) were very pretty.
- Leidy Peak TH to Chepeta Lake: This approx 16-mile stretch is mainly on rolling tundra with a fair amount of lakes and wooded terrain mixed in. Much easier navigation and quite lovely.
- Chepeta Lake to Painters Basin: Another ~16 mile stretch where, like most high line trails, you go up to a high point above treeline and descend to a lake. The trail is rather dramatic in this area
- Painters Basin to Hayden Pass: The last ~45 mile stretch is the High Uinta Mountains proper. Rugged peaks, passes, and trails. Wide basins and quite stunning. All but the last few miles into Hayden Pass aren’t too well-marked. Mark and I had a small taste of this section; Garlic’s account validates this view in full.
SHUTTLING LOGISTICS: Shuttling is the hardest part of this trip IMO. See above about why we chose to start at the eastern trailhead. Other who have less time and/or can’t hike as many MPD, may want to choose a start or end closer to Hayden Pass.
UPDATE AUGUST 2016: Thanks to Gordon Hirschi of the Uinta Backcountry Horsemen for this info. Shuttling logistics for the full route are now MUCH easier.
I had a meeting this morning with Wilkins Bus Lines Inc. located in Vernal and they are willing to supply a shuttle service for trail users on UHT Uintah Highline Trail from Vernal, Utah(Highway 191 Trail Head) to Kamas, Utah( Mirror Lake) the contact for this service is Mr. Todd Wilkins 435-789-2476
There are various rates depending on where the hikers wish to start. Note that the place where my friends and I started is actually less expensive for the shuttle versus other trailhead areas. The other THs are indeed more logistically difficult!
PERMITS: No permits needed to hike the UHT. However, a pass is needed to park at the popular Hayden Pass TH. The Bear River ranger station on the way up to the TH on HWY 150 issues seven-day passes for $12. If you have an intra-agency “America the Beautiful” pass, you can leave that on your dash board instead or use the plastic hanger that is now provided.
NAVIGATION: For hiking the entire trail, Trails Illustrated Maps #704 and map #711 are suggested. If you hike from Leidy Pass TH or the Chepeta Dam area to Hayden Pass, #711 is the only map needed. For some of the trickier areas noted by Garlic, the appropriate 7.5 scale topo may be helpful.
A free data book is avail at this link that takes in the Leidy Peak TH to Hayden Pass stretch. GPX files are avail as well for those who wish to use a GPS.
For the eastern portion of the trail up to Leidy peak, the following two links are Garmin Adventure links for the appropriate tracks. Thanks again to Gordon Hirschi this information.
If you decide to park a vehicle at the Leidy Pass or Chepeta Lake THs, a backcountry road atlas would be very useful.
WATER: With over 2000 lakes in the Uintas, water is not a problem EXCEPT in the first stretch up to Leidy Peak TH. After that? Plenty of water. Pay attention to your maps for the first stretch. It is not terrible, but you have to gauge accordingly.
GEAR: Standard gear for hiking in the three-season Colorado mountains worked well. We all used trail shoes, some sort of tarp or tarp tent and I even used a 25F quilt.
POST TRIP NOSH: Evanston, WY is small, compact town with a decent amount of amenities. We had some good Mexican food at Don Pedro Family Mexican. Solid, tasty and not expensive with good sized portions. No complaints from me.
If the trip had gone as planned, the Quarry Steakhouse and Brewpub in Vernal, UT was spoken of as a good “beer and burger” place by the ranger office in town.
STILL WANT MORE TO DO?: Dinosaur National Monument is very close to Vernal and is worth a side trip after, of before, your hike if you have the time.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF THE UINTAS: Beautiful, remote feeling and un-crowded mountains that have a unique feel. I’ll be back!