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Northern UtahTrip ReportsUtah

Trip Report: Uinta Highline Trail

A beautiful lake along the Uinta Highline Trail

Trip Data

  • Dates: Wed, Jul 21, 2021 to Sun, Jul 25, 2021
  • Route: West to East. Uinta Highline Trailhead > Hacking Lake Trailhead
  • Weather: Partly cloudy mornings, afternoon t-storms. Torrential downpour on Night 2. Hail and lightning on Day 5.
  • Distance Hiked: 81 miles
  • Time: 5 days
  • Passes: Rocky Sea, Dead Horse, Red Knob, Porcupine, Tungsten, Anderson, North Pole, Gabbro

Map

Background

Earlier this year, our group applied and did not receive permits for the John Muir Trail.

In lieu of hiking the JMT this summer, I got permits for a thru-hike across the Grand Tetons and Justin planned a thru-hike of the Uintas.

In 2014, we took seven days to hike an 81-mile leg of the Uinta Highline Trail from east to west. This time, Justin wanted to do it in reverse, from west to east but in only four days.

He knew it was possible, because he had done it with Jason in the summer of 2019. The weather was mostly bad for their trip, which is typical of the High Uintas. Jason’s boots were so waterlogged, they joked that if he took them off his trench foot would have left nothing but “skeleton feet”.

To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of pushing so hard to hike the Highline in four days. I love challenging hikes, but this sounded like an outright masochistic endeavor.

Even so, I didn’t want to miss it because Jason, Justin, and Clay are the A Team. Over the years, we have made so many priceless memories hiking together.

On top of that, Jason is about to move to Chicago for two years! I won’t be seeing him as much with such a great distance between us.

As a full-time RV’er, I told Justin I didn’t know where I’d be come late July. Still, I’d probably come out for the Highline… and I did.

From left to right: Justin, Jason, Max (the author), Clay at the Uinta Highline Trailhead
From left to right: Justin, Jason, Max (the author), Clay

Summary

The day before our hike, we were all able to leave work and responsibilities early. Because we had extra time, we decided to hit the trail on a Wednesday afternoon instead of a Thursday morning. This would give us four and a half days instead of four.

Justin’s wife Kate was generous enough to drive us up to the Highline Trailhead at Hayden Pass, which is a few miles north of the ultra-popular Mirror Lake.

Day 1

Distance: 10.8 mi
Ascent: 1,591 ft
Descent: 1,776 ft

We started hiking at 3:00 p.m. and reached the top of Rocky Sea Pass (11,263 feet) at 6:15 p.m. There was some light rain.

After covering nearly 11 miles, we made camp halfway between the junctions with Head of Rock Creek Trail and Rock Creek Trail. We settled in to camp at 7:40 p.m.

Looking down on the basin below Rocky Sea Pass
Looking down on the basin below Rocky Sea Pass

Day 2

Distance: 18 mi
Ascent: 4,092 ft
Descent: 3,270 ft

We woke up at 6:30 a.m. and broke down camp. Started hiking at 7:20 a.m.

The trail took us through a huge area of recently burnt forest. It was somewhat eerie and [email protected]$$ at the same time. At one point, we noticed a trail sign that had burned off its post.

We reached the top of Dead Horse Pass (11,500 feet) at 11:40 a.m. The turquoise-colored Dead Horse Lake and weathered buttes and peaks that surround it were stunning from above. When we got down into the basin, we were flabbergasted by the wildflower display.

Dead Horse Pass
Dead Horse Pass
Indian paintbrush among other wildflowers with Dead Horse Lake in the background
Indian paintbrush among other wildflowers with Dead Horse Lake in the background
More Indian paintbrush with rugged buttes in the background
More Indian paintbrush with rugged buttes in the background
A picturesque meadow
A picturesque meadow

We knocked out Red Knob Pass (12,000 ft) at 2:00 p.m. and descended to Lambert Meadow, then back up over a shoulder with a beautiful small lake on it. Clay pointed out that we had swam in that same lake back in 2014.

A beautiful lake along the Highline
A beautiful lake along the Highline

We made camp at 7:00 p.m. in a long valley I like to call Sheep Sh!+ Basin, on account of the sheep poop scattered everywhere you walk.

That night, we got hit with a torrential downpour accompanied by close lightning strikes and loud thunder. I was so tired, I put earplugs in and fell asleep during the height of the storm.

Day 3

Distance: 20 mi
Ascent: 3,225 ft
Descent: 3,441 ft

Our alarms went off at 6:30 a.m., but It took us a bit longer to roll out of bed and break down camp. Our tents and tarps were soaked and our down quilts were damp from condensation but we packed up anyway! It was about to be a long, hard day of hiking.

We hit the trail at 7:45 a.m. and topped out on Porcupine Pass (12,200 feet) at 10:00 a.m.

A sheep skull below Porcupine Pass
A sheep skull below Porcupine Pass
Looking southwest from Porcupine Pass
Looking southwest from Porcupine Pass

After a pleasant lunch next to North Star Lake, we continued over Tungsten (11,450 feet), the easiest pass on the Highline.

The next pass, Anderson, is arguably the hardest pass on the Highline. At 12,700 feet, it is by far the highest.

We reached the top of Anderson Pass at 2:15 p.m. Light rain began to fall on the descent.

Looking west from Anderson Pass
Looking west from Anderson Pass
Looking east from Anderson Pass
Looking east from Anderson Pass

On our way down, Jason told us a curious story about “Edwin” Anderson, the guy the pass was supposedly named after. Jason went on to explain that Edwin was a gold prospector and that he had written a book.

“Somehow, I found time to read it in between work and the move.”

Jason went on.

“I think I know where we can find some gold!”

Justin and I looked at each other incredulously, but we followed Jason off-trail anyway. Even though he sounded crazy, Jason has never given me a reason to doubt him. Most of the time, his off-trail shenanigans pay off, particularly in Southern Utah where we have found ancient petroglyphs, dwellings, and clay pottery shards.

Suddenly, Jason dove into a thicket. I squinted to try and focus my eyes on what was happening. A single outstretched arm extended out from the bushes, holding a gold can. Then another. Within seconds, Jason seemingly emerged from the underworld with four Fisher beers! I can’t even begin to describe how thrilled we were.

We were dying to know the real backstory.

Apparently, Jason and Clay had hiked in the previous weekend to summit Kings Peak and plant beers for our Highline journey.

This will go down as the most thoughtful prank anyone has ever played on me. Boy, was it a treat to guzzle those brews down at camp that evening, especially after a 20-mile day.

We pushed through Painter Basin and passed Milk Lake, settling in at 5:40 p.m.

Looking back at Kings Peak
Looking back at Kings Peak

Day 4

Distance: 19 mi
Ascent: 2,355 ft
Descent: 2,720 ft

Views of Gilbert Peak from a creek next to where we camped
Views of Gilbert Peak from a creek next to where we camped

We got on the trail at 8:00 a.m. and made it to the top of North Pole Pass (12,250 feet) at 3:00 p.m.

This was the third time I had hiked North Pole in my life, but I had never done it from west to east. It kicked my a$$, to say the least. I feel like I always underestimate this pass. Its dome-like shape makes it look less intimidating, but North Pole is a doozy.

We got off trail a few times, but ultimately found a great spot to camp near Chepeta Lake at 6:50 p.m.

We were treated to a great sunset that night
We were treated to a great sunset that night

Day 5

Distance: 12.8 mi
Ascent: 2,192 ft
Descent: 1,647 ft

On our final day, we slept in a little longer since we had fewer miles to cover. After leaving camp at 8:30 a.m., we promptly took our shoes off to cross a freezing cold stream.

We crossed this stream first thing in the morning
We crossed this stream first thing in the morning

After passing Whiterocks Lake, we went over an unnamed pass and on the way down we got hailed on. The hail turned to rain and soon it was accompanied by lightning and roaring thunder.

We sat out the storm under some pine trees next to Deadman Lake (perfect name, eh?) and deliberated about whether to stay or go over Gabbro, our last pass.

“Let’s go if 10 minutes go by without any thunder,” I suggested.

I had barely finished my sentence when BOOM a mighty thunderclap made us all burst out laughing.

Our next move was to set up Jason’s MLD TrailStar and huddle underneath for awhile. Luckily, we were only stuck for 30 minutes or so.

We bagged Gabbro Pass (11,700 feet) without any issues and made our way around the southeast side of Leidy Peak, occasionally losing the trail. At one point, we saw a buck with a great looking rack.

At 3:50 p.m., we reached Hacking Lake Trailhead and moseyed down the road to Hacking Lake, where Kate met up with us at 5:00 p.m., bless her heart!

That evening, Justin and Kate spoiled us with delicious burgers, topped with the best bacon I’ve ever had. Kate also brought an apple pie that she baked and it was delectable.

The next morning, we drove four hours back to Justin’s cabin on the other side of the Uintas. It felt good to finish another legendary hike with my fellas!

Food

This year, RightOnTrek brought me on board as an ambassador and offered to support my hikes and outdoor activities with custom meal plans.

On their website, you can order backpacking meals with fresh ingredients, shipped directly to you.

For the Uinta Highline Trail, I customized a plan that provided me with 3000 calories per day.

One evening, I offered Jason some of my cheesy mashed potatoes with chicken and he couldn’t stop talking about how good it was 😂.

RightOnTrek’s meals are seriously way tastier than the competition.

Use code BackOBeyond50 for 50% off your first order

View at RightOnTrek

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