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?

Unlike many other classic backpacking destinations (Winds, Sierra, Cascades), the Uintas aren't particularly jagged. Instead, you'll be impressed by the bigness of the place. The Uintas are high enough that the basins, not just the peaks, sit above treeline. The views from the passes are truly incredible, and there's nothing better than walking past an alpine lake while peaks tower overhead. And speaking of the fishing, it's pretty great in many of the lakes. The Uintas (and in particular the UHT) have become more popular in recent years, but solitude is still found in abundance.

How long is it? 

Anywhere from 65-102 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 5-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1. The "true" trailhead at McKee Draw on Highway 191 (102 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 20-25 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 (78 miles). Leidy Peak marks the east end of the classic High Uintas. It's the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range, as well as the easternmost peak above treeline. The dirt access road is fairly good, but it's the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chepeta Dam trailhead (65 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. 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 benefit other than shortening the hike. As always, hike your own hike! 

Where is the western trailhead?

Highline Trailhead, near Hayden Pass 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.  
 
I've seen various people offer their services on the internet over the years, but they come and go quickly. Recently, multiple users have reported good experiences with Mountain Trails Transport. 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 on 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 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 some lingering bug issues.

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 far more common to hike westbound for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is 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 hikers. 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. Just before you get to the top, you'll find a reliable, albeit shallow spring. 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 snow-covered, 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. The East Fork Fire of 2020 did considerable damage to Rock Creek Basin, and the trails below treeline have likely suffered as a result. The official UHT takes a direct route through the basin, but also drops way down into the lower elevations to do so. It was reported to be in rough shape before the fire, and is almost certainly impassible after the fire. Fortunately, the Head of Rock Creek trail travels through mostly sparse tree cover right at the edge of timberline. There will certainly be damage to the trail, but it's probably passable with a little creativity. Even before the fire, it was the best option (in my opinion), and that's even more true now.
  4. Mirror Lake Finish. A few tenths before the western terminus, a trail splits from the UHT, heading SW to the campground at Mirror Lake. If you're not quite ready for your High Uintas adventure to be over yet, head to Mirror Lake. There's a great view of Bald Mountain reflected in Bonnie Lake along the way, and Mirror Lake makes for a great place to yogi a ride down to Kamas if need be.
  5. 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 stays at/above 10k for its entire length. Proper food storage (e.g. bear-bagging) is required, but bear canisters are not. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

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 September of a dry year.

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.
 
Campfires are prohibited in many of the more popular basins along the UHT. If you plan to have a campfire during your UHT journey, be sure to download or print a list of campfire-restricted areas, available on the Forest Service's website. Do not rely on the Trails Illustrated maps - while it does shade some popular areas in purple, I've noticed several discrepancies between the TI maps and the actual Forest Service order. Better yet, please consider forgoing a campfire - in sensitive alpine environments, the impacts of campfires can last for years.

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

9 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?

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  7. Regarding water, if you're starting from the eastern terminus, it looks like from the map there would be water at the East Park Reservoir around mile 8 or 10? Is this fenced off as a public water supply area? Does the stream draining into it run dry? A little worried about a lowlander with a big water carry along with 10 days of food starting out. ASking for a friend, har har ;-)

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    Replies
    1. East Park Reservoir is reliable. The dry stretch starts west of there. You may find water in some of the "parks" (aka flat meadows) in the area, particularly if you lose a little bit of elevation to cross the parks farther downhill, where a stream is a bit more well-established.

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