1,000 Reasons to Explore the Uinta Mountains

Unita Mountains

Neatly tucked under the notch in the Northeast corner of Utah sits the Uinta Mountain range. This 460,000-acre wilderness area boasts over 545 miles of hiking trails and over 1,000 natural lakes, with more than 500 which support 7 species of game fish (Arctic Grayling, Brook Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Golden Trout, Mountain Whitefish, Rainbow Trout, and Tiger Trout). There are over 400 miles of small rivers and streams that form several major drainage basins feeding water into Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Geography

Most major mountain ranges in the United States run North and South. These include the Rocky, Appalachian, Alleghany, Big Horn, Sangre De Cristo, and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. This North-South alignment is typically a good reference in keeping your bearings when exploring and hiking off-trail. The Uinta Mountain range extends for 100 miles across Northeast Utah and is unusual as this is the highest mountain range in the contiguous United States that runs East to West. Now, before you get your feathers ruffled, I know that there are a few other mountain ranges that run East-West, like the Transverse Range in California and the Holyoke Range in Massachusetts. These are all considered ‘minor’ mountain ranges in comparison to the Uintas. However, the Brooks Range in Alaska is the Grandaddy of them all extending over 600 miles longitudinally across the top of Alaska standing as a gateway sentinel to the Arctic and beyond.

These lakes are evidence of the ancient glaciers that shaped these mountain valleys
These lakes are evidence of the ancient glaciers that shaped these mountain valleys

Prominent Features

Kings Peak in the Unita Mountain Range is the highest point in the state of Utah at 13,528 feet, and it earns its crown as one of the most prominent peaks in the lower 48. Kings Peak is a tempting conquest for peak baggers. At 16 miles, the approach hike isn’t exactly forgiving, especially once you reach the rugged and barren moonscape above the timberline. The exertion and fight for oxygen is worth it, as spectacular views await you at the top.

A few of the many Uinta lakes can be driven to, especially along Hwy 150; most others require day hikes or overnight backpacking. One of the more notable trails is the Highline Trail, which follows the range from Mirror Lake for 64 miles to an area Northeast of Vernal, Utah. Most of the trail is above 10,000 feet and is considered moderate or difficult. Shorter parts of the trail can be accessed for day hikes.

Red Castle and the lakes that surround it are a popular summer destination for backpackers
Red Castle and the lakes that surround it are a popular summer destination for backpackers

Trail Report

In late June this year, I had the opportunity of taking my two boys on a backpacking trip in the Uintas to one such lake. We chose a lake that was a little off the beaten path. I have found that lakes beyond the 7-mile mark typically have fewer people and better fishing. And, while all trails are not carbon-copy, what follows is a typical trail report for the area.

Allsop Lake sits on the Northern slope of the High Uinta Wilderness at an elevation of 10,600 ft. It’s 9 miles to the lake, so it makes for a perfect 1 or 2-night backpacking trip. The trail is fairly easy, with only 1,600 ft elevation gain and only one major switchback.

My boys (ages 15 & 16) have always enjoyed camping and the outdoors. Their backpacking experience up to this point has been mostly with family members or the Boy Scouts on overnight pack trips in the 3-5 mile range. A 9-mile trek would prove to be an eye-opener for them, to say the least. Their scout camping equipment was purchased with durability and disposability in mind. It had to last through numerous overnighters and a week’s worth of scout camp each summer. Despite their best efforts, this gear was often stuffed into spring bar tents where seemingly nothing could avoid being stepped on, spilled on, or dragged through the dirt. Having attended many of these camps, this is where I also came to appreciate a good set of earplugs! Since my boys are growing and maturing, and having nearly worn out their gear used with the scouts, I decided to spring for some updated equipment that, with care, should last into adulthood.

The Uinta Mountain range is a 460,000 acre wilderness area that boasts over 545 miles of hiking trails and over 1,000 natural lakes.
The Uinta Mountain range is a 460,000 acre wilderness area that boasts over 545 miles of hiking trails and over 1,000 natural lakes.

In the months leading up to our hike, I spent time reviewing principles of light and ultralight backpacking with my boys, and we generated a list of food, personal, and shared gear that we would use on this trip. We planned to stay for 3 days and 2 nights, giving ourselves a rest day to explore the lake and surrounding area. So, after arriving at the trailhead, we headed out with 20-25 lb. packs on our backs.

As mentioned, most trails in the Uintas are fairly gradual in their approaches, depending on the destination. In late June, there was still a fair amount of snow melting at the highest surrounding peaks, and with that, the ground in many places was downright boggy. Most years these spongey areas stay wet and otherwise difficult to pass through well into late fall due to the seemingly ubiquitous amounts of water that flow from countless natural seeps and springs along the way. Fortunately for hikers, the Forest Service maintains what has to be miles and miles of boardwalks to bridge the way of what otherwise would be a miserable slog up the trail. This was a welcome help in several areas along the trail.

Most trails are well marked and well traveled
Most trails are well marked and well traveled

Our path paralleled one of the major tributaries (the East Fork) of the Bear River. This gave us ample opportunities to filter water along the way and appreciate the raw force of the rushing water even though the spring run-off was ebbing towards a normal summer flow. At the 3-mile mark, one of my boys expressed some weariness and concern of a growing hotspot on his hand from gripping a trekking pole and a hotspot on one foot. At only 1/3 of the way in, I was concerned that this might be a death march for my son rather than a memorable and positive outing. We took an extended break, applied some leukotape to the hot spots, pulled up a sagging sock, and tightened his boots.

At the halfway point we stopped for lunch next to an impressive waterfall tumbling 2 stories over a massive boulder that was clinging to the hillside. Everyone was feeling good, but I could see fatigue was setting in. The trail continued to climb gradually, with rocky peaks extending their bald heads well above the tree line in view, soon we could see the back of the canyon that held our destination.

Solitude can be found at high mountain lakes such as this one
Solitude can be found at high mountain lakes such as this one

By mile 7.5, my younger son hit a wall. He was pretty tired, and the altitude was starting to affect all of us. The fact is that many people accustomed to living at sea level can feel the effects of altitude sickness at just 8,000 feet. On this trip, the trailhead sat at 9,000 feet with the lake at 10,600 feet, and we live at 4,500 feet. When reaching the elevation of 10,000 feet the available oxygen drops to roughly 70%. At this altitude, it is common to have dizziness, headaches, dehydration, have difficulty sleeping, and feeling constantly winded as heart and respiration rates increase to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Safety should be at the forefront of every trip. Observing any significant cognitive changes at elevation should be addressed immediately (usually by dropping in elevation). A Garmin In-reach is worth its weight to pack for unexpected emergencies of any kind.

After resting a while and ruling out altitude sickness, I gave my son a little pep talk and said that we were probably just a ‘quarter-mile’ from the lake. I offered to carry his pack, but I was so impressed when he just tightened his hip belt, lowered his head a little, and got back on the trail. Over the next mile and a half, he nearly left us in the dust as he gave an all-out push to get to the lake.

My youngest son making the final push to the lake
My youngest son making the final push to the lake

On our final approach, the canyon opened up into a beautiful high mountain meadow with towering peaks above the timberline flanking us on either side. Once we reached an agreeable spot to camp near the lake, both boys nearly toppled over setting their packs down. We laughed as we took time to recover from that last push where we all agreed that it had to be the longest ‘quarter-mile’ that we had ever hiked.

Upper Red Castle Lake
Upper Red Castle Lake

With afternoon storm clouds building, we quickly pitched our tent and organized our gear. Afternoon thunderstorms often appear with little warning, usually in the early afternoon, but are so common in the Uintas that you can nearly set your watch to them. They usually last between 30-90 minutes before blowing over and clearing off. This was the case every day of our trip. And although we had rain gear, we chose to retreat to the tent for an afternoon snack and siesta. As the rain passed, we were anxious to get out of the tent and start exploring.

On our final approach, the canyon opened up into a beautiful high mountain meadow with towering peaks above the timberline flanking us on either side.
On our final approach, the canyon opened up into a beautiful high mountain meadow with towering peaks above the timberline flanking us on either side.

While my boys explored the lakeshore and surrounding meadow, I headed to the lake, fishing pole in hand. The lake was calm, only interrupted by a number of fish that had started feeding at the surface. My second cast hooked onto a nice cutthroat trout. The fishing was as good as I had hoped it would be. About every third cast landed a fish, not everyone was a keeper, but it quickly caught the attention of my boys. We had only brought one pole to conserve weight in our packs, so I willingly gave up the pole to my boys who eagerly passed the pole back and forth between casts and fish. I honestly had more fun watching their joy and laughter as they landed fish after fish. It never got old.

This lake was full of cut throat trout
This lake was full of cut throat trout

Once they had caught and kept enough fish for dinner, I cleaned and seasoned the fish while they gathered wood for a small campfire. As darkness fell, and our fire diminished, we placed our fish on a glowing bed of hot coals, eagerly anticipating the goodness of our foil wrapped feast. Delicious!

Fresh trout cooked over hot coals makes a delicious camp dinner
Fresh trout cooked over hot coals makes a delicious camp dinner.

Night temperatures during summer are 30-40 degrees, with freezing possible at any time of year. We were prepared for the chilly nights and slept comfortably each night.

The next day, our rest day was filled with fishing and exploring around the lake. We packed a lunch and hiked to the back of the lake, where evidence of an ancient glacier that had in part formed this lake, had carved a steep bowl at the back of the canyon. Snow still covered the steep scree slopes with several beautiful cascades scattered along the cliff face. The water running off the snow was instantly numbing to the touch, and after being filtered was a brain-freezing treat. The day was a sunny 70 degrees; however, this t-shirt weather is deceiving as sunburns are more common at high elevation, even in cooler temperatures, and we got a little toasted. After another afternoon rain shower, and later, a fish dinner, we sat around the campfire recounting the fun and adventures of the day.

Smiles and sunburns we enjoyed every moment of our trip together
Smiles and sunburns we enjoyed every moment of our trip together

The following morning, we ate breakfast and packed up our gear. This had been a wonderful trip. As we made our way back to the trail for our return trip, we marveled at the fact that (while not uncommon) for the past 3 days, we had been the only people at the lake. The weather, fishing, and above all the companionship had been fantastic. The hike out passed quickly as we reminisced, with each boy sharing their thoughts of the trip, the hike in, our rest day, and the welcome gentle downhill slope back to the trailhead.

We had the running joke at the known halfway point that the trailhead was only a ‘quarter-mile’ away. I was really proud of my two sons. As we reached the trailhead and pointed our vehicle towards home, my boys were already talking excitedly about new destinations in the Uinta Mountains and the hope of returning soon. For me as a proud dad, I was happy to have shared the remote and rugged beauty that this unique and unusual mountain range contains. We are all looking forward to the next trip- only 999 lakes to go!

About the author

Sven Peery is an all-season outdoorsman who enjoys backpacking, camping, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing. He is also an experienced hunter and fisherman who is not afraid to wander off the beaten path. His wanderings have led him to hike and explore the vast trails of the High Uinta Wilderness, Wind River Range, and the Frank Church Wilderness in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho respectively. Sven spent 8 years with a county Search and Rescue team in Northern Utah. His training includes man tracking, wilderness survival, backcountry, cave, and high angle rescue. Whether hiking in National Parks with family, rising up to 13,527 feet elevation of Kings Peak, or dipping nearly a mile below the rim to cross the Grand Canyon, he is always ready for the next adventure!

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