Friday, November 23, 2018

The Uinta Highline Trail - A Guide


Updated for the 2021 hiking season.
 

Over the past few years, the Uinta Highline Trail has increased greatly in popularity. I often get questions from prospective UHT hikers about the trail. This page is intended to be a quick planning resource to address those questions.

Where is it?

The Uinta Range, in northwestern Utah, is a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. It's home to all 14 of Utah's thirteeners (peaks in excess of 13,000'). It's one of only ranges in the United States that runs east-west, rather than north-south. The UHT parallels the crest of the Uintas through mostly alpine terrain.

Why should I hike it?

Big passes, high alpine terrain, hundreds of magnificent lakes. Beautiful wildflowers, great fishing, and solitude. Need I say more?

How long is it? 

Anywhere from 70-105 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 6-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1.  The "true" trailhead on Highway 191 (105 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 15-20 miles are mostly a forest walk, and don't really fit the high alpine theme of the rest of the route.
  2. Leidy Peak/Hacking Lake trailhead (80 miles). This trailhead is located at what I'd consider to be the "true" eastern end of the classic High Uintas. The dirt access road is fairly good. This is the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chipeta Dam trailhead (70 miles). This trailhead makes for the shortest hike. The dirt access road is fairly rough, although doable for most passenger cars with a little care.
I personally highly recommend option #2, the Leidy Peak trailhead. Leidy Peak is the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range and the easternmost point above treeline. Starting at Leidy will give you an all-killer-no-filler hike which has a consistent theme and feels "complete". Starting at the Highway 191 trailhead, to me, seems like a 20-mile approach trail just to get to the good stuff. Starting at Chipeta Dam misses a rather nice section of trail, for no real appreciable benefit. As always, hike your own hike!

Where is the western trailhead?

Hayden Pass Trailhead (aka Highline Trailhead), on Mirror Lake Highway (UT 150).

How do I get from one trailhead to another?

This is the most significant logistical challenge of the Highline. Those who have friends/family in the area are probably best off bribing somebody with gas money and a nice dinner. Those from out of state will have a bit harder time. Older literature may reference a service - Wilkins Bus Lines - that offered shuttles; however, Wilkins ceased operations in 2020.

I've also seen various people offer their services on the internet over the years, but they come and go quickly. If you use a shuttle service and have a good experience with it, please shout it out in the comments.

For those hikers who are coming from out-of-state or who don't have somebody to shuttle them, it's possible to self-shuttle using a mixture of hitchhiking, Utah Transit Authority buses, and free Summit County buses. For detailed information, step-by-step directions, maps, and more, please visit the UHT Shuttle Page.

When can I hike it?

As soon as Dead Horse Pass melts out. In most years, that's around mid-July. My first UHT hike was in an average snow year, and the north side of Dead Horse was still fairly snowbound as of the 4th of July. If I were planning the trip in advance, I probably wouldn't plan to start until about the 3rd week of July. In a high snow year, it may not be doable, without an ice axe at least, until August. By mid-September, winter is on its way. Call it mid-July through mid-September.

When should I hike it?

In July, you'll have patches of snow garnishing the landscape, beautiful fields of wildflowers, and abundant water. You'll also have muddy trails, potential lingering snowfield issues, daily thunderstorms, and oft-horrendous mosquitos.

In August, you'll have drier trails, fewer bugs, and golden grasses in the high basins. You'll still have thunderstorm issues and quite a few bugs.

In September, you'll have beautiful fall colors (when below treeline), very few thunderstorms, and no bugs. You'll also have colder temperatures and the ever-present threat of early season snow.

In my mind, the end of August is an ideal time to hike the Highline - in that short window between when the bugs and thunderstorms subside, and when winter hits. Were I to plan a trip right now, I'd plan it for the last week of August. YMMV!

What direction should I hike it?

It doesn't really matter all that much. It's more common to hike westbound, for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is a more spectacular than the east end. It's a nice feeling to have something even better to look forward to.
  2. Whether you're from Utah or elsewhere, you're likely going to be coming from Salt Lake City. Parking your car at the west end and getting shuttled to the east end, before your hike begins, allows you to save a little gas, and walk back to your car when you're done. I always try and get a hitch/shuttle/ride on the front end whenever possible, so I can get that logistical worry out of the way, and so I don't smell as disgusting when someone else is giving me a ride in their car.
Where can I get maps for it?

Maps for this trail are remarkably straightforward. If choose trailhead #2 or #3, as outlined above, you'll need Trails Illustrated Map 711, available at any outfitter in Utah or on the interwebs. If you choose #1, you'll need 711 and 704.

You can also print DIY maps using Caltopo. Simply follow this link (embedded below as well) and print to your heart's content.If you're doing a significant amount of off-trail navigation, this may be a better choice. The Trails Illustrated maps are just fine for on-trail and easy off-trail navigation; however, they have 100-foot contour lines rather than 40-foot contour lines and don't provide as much detail as a Caltopo 7.5" quad would offer.

What's the trail like under my feet?

The trail can be a little faint at times, especially through meadows and open areas. Remember, this trail is pretty remote and doesn't see a lot of people in most areas. It is a bit rocky in places, especially where horses have done damage to the trail. Be prepared for a few slow/frustrating miles. In general though, it's fairly straightforward walking - generally fairly flat, except for the passes.

What about the passes?

Glad you asked! There are eight named passes on the official route, described here from east to west.
  1. Gabbro Pass (11,700'): nothing particularly complicated, although snow cornices can hang around for an uncomfortably long time on the eastern side. You may be able to sneak around the snow by staying north of the actual pass on the main Uintas crest, as shown on the mapped alternate. After Deadman Lake, there's a 400' climb back up before you crest an unnamed pass and drop to Whiterocks Lake
  2. North Pole Pass (12,200'): This one may hit you like a ton of bricks. It's not very steep, but it's your first 12,000' pass of the trip unless you've been taking ridgetop alternates.
  3. Anderson Pass (12,800'): The highest point on the UHT. It's mostly just a long uphill, and those in good high altitude shape may be able to power up. Don't forget to tag Kings Peak! The west side looks intimidatingly steep, but there's a fairly good trail down.
  4. Tungsten Pass (11,400'): A total joke - hardly worth being called a pass at all.
  5. Porcupine Pass (12,200'): Gradual approach from the east, dropping off sharply on the west side. A decent trail most of the way. 
  6. Red Knob Pass (12,000'): A little confusing. There is a trail junction atop the pass - the East Fork Blacks Fork trail runs parallel to the ridge and joins the Highline trail from the East. You want to head north, then southwest, into West Fork Blacks Fork drainage. 
  7. Dead Horse Pass (11,600'): The crux of the official route. The north side of Dead Horse generally holds snow well into July. It is steep and loose and, if the trail is still snowcovered, a bit treacherous. Be careful!
  8. Rocky Sea Pass (11,300): The last pass on the trail. The western approach is fairly steep and rocky, but nothing to be concerned about. If you did Dead Horse, Rocky Sea won't be a problem.



Any special route recommendations?

While the UHT is a great hike overall, I think there is a little room for improvement. Below are a few recommendations:
  1. Summit Leidy Peak. Leidy Peak is the easternmost peak above 12,000 feet in the Uintas, and is a perfect way to begin your UHT hike (if starting at Leidy) or to introduce yourself to the High Uintas themselves (if starting at US 191). There's no official trail to the top, but the slopes are gentle enough to summit from any direction. Lowlanders will be gasping for breath as they climb above 12k.
  2. Summit Kings Peak. Kings is Utah's highest peak, at 13,528'. It's so close to the Highline Trail itself - less than a mile - that to skip it would be a shame. The route is class II all the way to the summit, staying just on the E (left) side of the ridge. I usually drop my pack at the top of Anderson Pass before taking the side-trip and haven't had any issues with 4-legged critters gnawing it, or 2-legged critters stealing it. Plan at minimum a couple of hours for this side trip - it's not hard, but it's also not fast. 
  3. Rock Creek Basin. After descending Dead Horse Pass, the Highline dives down to the bottom of Rock Creek basin. I've heard multiple reports that the Highline is badly maintained and hard to follow, with no views deep in the trees. I recommend ditching the official UHT here and following the beautiful Head of Rock Creek Trail instead. It adds a few miles, but is unquestionably worth it. The Jack and Jill trail is also fine, but the Head of Rock Creek trail is better.
  4. UHT western extension. The official UHT ends at Mirror Lake Highway, but the Uinta Mountains themselves continue west, ending at Hoyt Peak just above the town of Kamas. Using a hodge-podge of trails, along with a few short roadwalks and a tiny bit of off-trail travel, it is possible to hike from the western terminus of the UHT to Hoyt Peak. This clocks in at about 30 miles. The western Uintas are nice enough that, if I had time to hike 100-ish miles through the Uintas, I wouldn't actually do the traditional 100-mile UHT hike between US 191 and Mirror Lake Highway. Instead, I'd start at Leidy Peak and end at Hoyt Peak, giving me a hike that was both more beautiful and spanned the entire length of the above-treeline-Uintas. Owing to the small amount of off-trail travel, including through a burnt area, this alternate isn't mapped. If you're planning on doing it, map it yourself and carry USGS 7.5' quadrangle printouts for the area.
In addition to the above, savvy hikers will notice that the eastern end of the Uintas (east of Anderson Pass) are pretty gentle. Lots of off-trail alternates are possible through here, including along ridgetops. The travel is slow, rocky and frustrating at times, but jawdropping. Ridgetop alternates are not advised during July and August due to limited bailout opportunities and the likelihood of afternoon lightning storms. 

What about weather?

It's gnarly, no two ways about it. Particularly in the height of summer, the Uintas experience a consistent afternoon thunderstorm pattern. Unless you're interested in getting charbroiled by a stray bolt of lightning, you'll probably want to be below treeline by noon each day. That often means you'll hide in your tent for a couple hours while it storms like the dickens outside.

In general, hikers in the Uintas are served well by getting up early and hiking hard all morning, knowing that the afternoon will be slower as the storms roll through. The passes, conveniently, are about a dozen miles apart. Start hiking at 6am, and you'll often complete your daily mileage by early afternoon. 

What about bears?

They're not a big problem up high. I don't know anybody who's seen one above 10k in the Uintas - and the UHT is above 10k for its entire length. That said, normal bear precautions/proper food storage is always a good idea. Bear canisters are not required. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

This may change in coming years though. The grizzly has expanded its habitat in recent years, even being seen in the southern part of the Wind River Range. From the Winds, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the Uintas. Perhaps in a few years, grizzlies will return to the Uintas. 

What about water?

If you're starting at US 191, there's a long (20-mile) before you get to Leidy Peak. I've normally found a little bit of water running across the trail in the Leidy Peak area, but it's not reliable. West of Leidy, you should find tons of water and shouldn't ever have to carry more than a liter or two. Of note, there is an unmapped but reliable spring on the E side of Anderson Pass at about 12,400. It flows right across the trail. It's a bit hard to collect (use a quart zip-lock to scoop from shallow flows) but I've seen it running even in a dry September. That way you don't have to haul water up from Painter Basin. 

What about resupply?

There are no practical opportunities to resupply along the UHT. After Leidy Peak, it crosses just one dirt road - at Chepeta Dam - and that road has zero traffic. I suppose you could arrange for a friend to meet you on that dirt road with some food, but to be honest, most hikers just carry all their food with them.

What about cell coverage? It's basically nonexistent, Verizon does get some service atop Kings Peak (and I've heard reports of AT&T as well), but you should plan to be completely incommunicado for the duration of your hike. Get a good weather forecast before you leave. Those of a cautious disposition may consider carrying a personal locator beacon in case of emergency.

What about red tape?

Basically none. Yippee! If you park a vehicle on the west end, along Mirror Lake Highway, a self-service permit is required. Permits are available at the Highline Trailhead itself or at a permit station along the highway. America the Beautiful passes are accepted.

What about fishing?

It's excellent. Fish will bite at just about everything up there. I am a complete fishing novice and even I can catch a few. Don't forget your a Utah fishing license

7 comments:

  1. Excellent resource! Thanks for the post! :)

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  2. As of July 1st, 2020 the Wilkins Shuttles site says: "Due to circumstances beyond our control and health issues, we have no choice but to close our doors completely". I'm not certain when they shut down.

    Craig, Park City, UT

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  3. There is a new business doing shuttles. I can't seem to find their website but you can reach them at thegratefulbliss@gmail.com. They quotes me a shuttle from the western terminus to the easter for $300.

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  4. The business name is Mountain Trails. Amanda would be your contact. Had a great experience with her transport.

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  5. Mountain Trails is the business name. Amanda is the contact. Had a great shuttle experience!

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  6. I'm from out of state. If I fly into Vernal, can I get a cab or Uber to US 191 trailhead? Then when I finish, is it possible to get a cab or Uber from Hayden Pass trailhead to Salt Lake City Airport?

    ReplyDelete