Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 3

Day 5 – Kidney Lakes to Whiterocks Lake

It wasn’t the bright sunny morning I was hoping for but the light wispy clouds weren’t particularly ominous but I packed up quickly and was on the trail by 7:50am, just in case they turned into something more serious.

The trail mostly wound down through pine forests before splitting several times. I had located the oddly-named Fox-Queant Pass that hadn’t made sense to me yesterday (it is the pass south of the one I was aiming for).

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Eventually the trail led us to Fox Lake which was below North Pole Pass. I had hoped to be at the base of the pass by noon to beat the afternoon thunderstorms but I managed to make it by 10:30am which was awesome. I grabbed a bite to eat and watched the gradually-building cumulus clouds in the west…the kind that eventually turn into thunderstorms. With that in mind I started the climb up North Pole Pass.

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I think this pass was my absolute least favorite pass to climb, initially because it was in the trees and had no view and then because it was steep and nasty and rocky, and I didn’t know where the top was…not to mention I was keeping a sharp eye on the possible rainstorm behind me.  I generally don’t mind the steepness of climbing the passes because you can see the top and have a goal, but not this one…it just kept going on and on and on. It’s only saving grace was the very pretty waterfall/canyon that we had to cross a few times.

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It was gorgeous at the top…endless alpine tundra and rocks and beautiful views in all directions but I was more worried about the storm building behind me and couldn’t fully appreciate how stunning it was. I was in a hurry to get off the high plateau and get to lower, safer ground. North Pole Pass was unlike others in that they were generally a saddle between two higher peaks and there was a very short distance between the up side and the down side whereas North Pole was a wide and  expansive tableland. This was not a place you would want to be if a storm came through.

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After a mile of hiking across the tundra and passing the wilderness boundary sign the trail finally started to descend just as raindrops were starting to spatter but there was no thunder…yet. Thankfully the trail was easy to follow and the cairns were obvious and we slowly descended into the valley. The impending storm had not yet materialized and the storm looked to be going around us to the north. I didn’t stop until we hit treeline and there we took a much-needed break. After a quick look at the map and being thankful that the rest of the day we would be below treeline I set my sights on Chepeta Lake, three miles from our location. The hiking was fairly easy and the trail was decent and we made pretty good time.

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Chepeta Lake was also a trail head and parking area and I chatted with one guy about the weather forecast (an obsession for me in a place like this) and about where I was aiming to camp that night. The map showed a great location before two final passes and just below treeline at Whiterocks Lake….he said it was 4-4 1/2 miles. That didn’t sound encouraging and I wasn’t sure I could manage another two hours of hiking although it was barely 4pm and I certainly wasn’t ready to stop for the day as there is little to occupy my time once camp is set and 5 hours of downtime would be way too much.

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The trail on the map looked pretty consistent and level, staying at around 10,500 ft for the entire distance so I decided to see how far I could get, even if it wasn’t quite to the lake. As the map promised the trail was level and easy to hike (the best section of the trail I think) and we made it to the lake in an just over an hour and a half. At the lake the sign said 3.5 miles so we made good time. Storms had been going around us pretty constantly and the growl of thunder to the north and south was pretty consistent but the skies above us remained clear and blue with a few clouds. I was thankful.

It was also the first time I got the chance to walk by and photograph a large herd of elk in a long meadow.

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I decided to make for the creek at the far end of the lake and we found several decent, flat campsite locations in the trees not far from the creek. A deer almost wandered into camp before bounding off as dusk set in. I finished the normal camp routine and chores for the night, including filtering water with my now-leaking dirty water bladder and went to bed which is when I usually write my journal entries.

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For some reason my phone kept booting me out of my app for an “Unlicensed App” but of course I was in airplane mode and had no service so couldn’t fix it. Writing usually fills up the last half hour before I sleep so without that to do I stared at the roof of my tent as the sky darkened and twiddled my thumbs for a while as I listened to the passing of deer and elk in the night.

Day 6 – Whiterocks Lake to Hacking Lake Trailhead

It took me a while to get to sleep last night as I was stressed about today’s weather. I set my alarm for 5am so that I could be hiking by 6 when the light was just about bright enough to see the cairns. I didn’t have too many miles to hike to the truck, about 8 from camp to trail head, but all but the first mile were above treeline with absolutely no cover. I was hoping for a good weather window.

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I was awakened at 2:30am by the low grumblings of a thunderstorm which slowly got closer and which was directly overhead 20 minutes later. I pretended to continue to sleep so the dogs would think I wasn’t worried…I think it worked as they didn’t overreact too much when the thunder was loud and almost overhead. Unfortunately I was also now very much awake and barely snoozed until my alarm went off.

It was a very cold way to pack up camp but we were hiking before 6am, and I managed to spook a cow elk who must have been sleeping in the brush not 30 feet from the tent when I went to put my back pack on. How I had not disturbed her before that point I don’t know.  We managed to spook several deer and at least two more herds of elk as we climbed to some unnamed pass to Dead Man Lake.

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I lied when I said yesterday was my least favorite pass…today was worse.

This no-name pass had no trail, rough footing and sooo many rocks…plus it was a lot longer and further of a climb than it looked from the treeline. It wasn’t much fun, but the sky was blue, the sun was slowly turning everything gold and the views were amazing…it certainly could have been a lot worse.

We trail then led in two directions…one in a steep descent to Deadman Lake and the other over another pass to the north. Now why the Highline Trail goes down to the lake only to have to climb back up again is a mystery to me but it would have been perfectly feasible to stay on the higher trail and cut across.

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I, however, followed the trail that was on the map and hiked down to the lake, through a herd of cows who eyed us suspiciously, especially the dogs. We paused for a break at the sign post before starting our climb to Gabbro Pass…the final pass of the trail before the Hacking Lake TH. We gave wider berths to the small pockets of cows and calves despite the fact that they were all pretty much standing between the first half mile of cairns. It was the only section of trail today that was easy to find and follow, even if it wasn’t as easy to hike.

And this was where I started to get pissed off…after negotiating around the cattle. Not only were the cairns tough to find but there were also random cairns that didn’t actually have a point…I wasted at least half an hour wandering from the only cairn I could see to the next cairn I could see a mile away but 90° in the wrong direction only to have to recross the meadow and rocks back to the only other cairn I could now see. There seemed to be a lot of random cairns strewn about and it got confusing. It was only due to my GPS app that I was able to fully determine which was the actual right way to go. (Coming up from Hacking Lake TH this trail would be easier to navigate as the lake would be an obvious and visible point to head to). This half hour delay would prove to be worse than imagined.

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Now on the right track we crossed Gabbro Pass and took the north trail around Wilder Lake. It was a prettier option (vs the southern trail) with views looking down the valley and over the lake, and less climbing was involved at the other end since it didn’t go down to the lake level. It was a little rough and overgrown in parts so seemed like it was less used. Eventually the trail turned upward again and we were climbing towards Leidy Peak and again we had to gently ask some cows to move along on their merry way.

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Although the sky had remained clear and blue all morning, and still was above me, just over the ridge to the north there were black clouds building in a line of succession that looked like it ran for miles. I thought about trying to wait for it to blow by but they were, at that moment, only dark clouds and I made the final ascent to the top of the ridge which was actually more of a plateau like North Pole Pass. The clouds weren’t looking better, nor were they looking worse and at that point I had no choice to go on.

Once again I went to the wrong cairn and had to backtrack after visible cairns disappeared and I again made use of my GPS app. Once I located the right cairns on the plateau they were easy to follow and I finally reached the intersection of the north and south trails aroud Leidy Peak. The Highline Trail goes to the north so that is the trail I took…and yet more misleading cairns, up, down, back etc. I was relying heavily on my GPS as I didn’t know which cairns to trust anymore.

And this is where that lost half hour from earlier was really missed…and less than half a mile from the truck. Initially a short, no lightning grumble-storm came through but I kept hiking as it was pretty minor but following that came a major thunderstorm. It was as if the black clouds hit the head of the valley and magically transformed into some growling, drooling monster within minutes. This one was serious.

Lightning was visible and the thunder was loud…it was overhead and I wasn’t going to take unnecessary risks. We had just reached the very scrubby, low evergreen trees that were the beginnings of treeline and I dumped myself and the dogs by one of the larger groups of trees that would be useful. I grabbed my poncho just as the rain started to pour…then the marble-sized hail came, all during which the thunder banged and crackled overhead and lightning sizzled around us. I witnessed a lightning strike not far from where we sat and the gunshot-like sound had Kye pretty scared, running back and forth and not knowing where to go until I got her calmed down and under a shrub.

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Eventually the backside of the storm came over and I risked getting up and moving on in the direction of the trail head. I no longer had cairns to navigate by and was relying solely on my phone to get us to the right place. Another storm was already growling on the heels of the last one and I was almost jogging in order to get to the truck before it hit. At least we were now near taller trees, although the lightning hit we had seen earlier didn’t give me quite the confidence in their safety.

In my hurry to get to the trail head I manged to roll my ankle, although not badly this time, stumble, trip and do a complete 180° tumble finally landing on my backpack with some of the contents spilled out on the grass, and complete with a nice bruise on my arm…not what I needed with the encroaching weather. I quickly gathered my fallen belongings and secured them in my pack before walking, slower, to the trail head. I came across two backpackers and a trail sign at the same time and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of my truck. It was definitely a day of frustration and emotion and probably my least favorite day on the trail. But it was over and I was headed back to Wyoming and what passes for civilization out here in the untamed west.

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Trail After-thoughts

While the trail and the Uinta mountains are gorgeous I don’t know that I would choose to do the trail again. I say this for two reasons: 1) The constant threat of thunderstorms, and the reality of multiple thunderstorms a day made for a very stressful hike. I was constantly watching over my shoulder to watch the weather and calculating where I needed to camp and hoping I wouldn’t get caught in a storm. I was actually extremely lucky in that the only storm I truly got caught hiking in was in the last half hour of the last day; most people I talked to got caught in multiple storms on multiple days during their hike. I don’t count the two night storms that came through as I was safely ensconced in my tent and generally below or at treeline. And 2) The tread of the trail was a lot rockier and on a lot more of the trail than I care for which made hiking it pretty tough. There are always exceptions and if I was to hike it again I think I would go the opposite direction and aim for early to mid September when thunderstorms are less likely.

Water was crazy abundant, even at the end of July and on a dry year, and the longest dry stretch started maybe two miles east of Anderson Pass for several miles to Kidney Lakes. This obviously isn’t a problem unless its a hot day and you didn’t filter enough at the previous location. Even though the map lists all permanent and seasonal creeks (of which 99% were flowing) there are dozens of springs and other seasonal creeks that aren’t marked. I was surprised at how much water was available at the top of some of the passes or above treeline…it seemed like every 10 ft I was stepping over a water flow. Some of it was easy to get to and others were tougher or would be hard to filter from but were fine for the dogs.

The highlights of the trail for me were the basin between Dead Horse Pass and Red Knob Pass where the turquoise blue of Dead Horse Lake surrounded by towering granite cliffs took my breath away, and Anderson Pass and Kings Peak.

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Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 2

Day 3 – Lambert Meadow to Yellowstone Creek

No one ever wants to be awoken by the sound of rain on the tent but that’s exactly what woke me at 6:30am; it was not the sun to warm the tent I had wanted and positioned my tent for. It showered briefly and quit and I laid there with my hat over my eyes until the second shower passed. It did not bode well for a pleasant day of hiking.

I let the dogs out and packed up faster than I ever have before as I watched another band of rain move in from the west but thankfully it missed us this time and we only got a few sprinkles from the edge of the rain cloud.

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I broke my morning record yet again and was out of camp at 8am…still not sure how THAT happened! I knew I wanted an early start as I was hoping to cross at least two passes before the thunderstorms moved in.

I had attempted to put the worst of the early non-pass climbing behind me yesterday but there was still some rocky trail to navigate. There wasn’t much and after about an hour the trail leveled out at around treeline. We made good time and took a break at 9:30 when a family of four, three kids and their dad, passed us going the other direction. I asked them where Porcupine Pass was and the answer was not what I wanted to hear. It looked to be about 8 miles from Lambert Meadows where I camped last night so after an hour and a half I was wanting to hear something closer.

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It was a day for cairn hunting as I lost the trail several times where cairns were needed but non-existent. The irony of this is that there are so many places on the trail where there are dozens of cairns in places where they aren’t needed. It can get frustrating and was the first time I pulled my InReach out to check my location and where the trail was…I was on it, I just couldn’t find the cairns. I did eventually find them and eventually we climbed into the grassy alpine tundra to begin our gradual climb to Porcupine Pass.

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The pass didn’t look that far away and certainly didn’t look like a tough climb…then of course I pulled out my map and realized I was looking at the wrong saddle. I seem to have a habit of mistaking passes! I kept an eye on the weather behind me but at that point, well above treeline, I was committed to the trail and the pass.

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The trail slowly climbed across green rolling tundra before turning sharply into the scree field and climbing steeply up to the pass. I was still watching the weather but when we were maybe two hundred yards from the top I watched a band of rain moving to the south of us. It didn’t look ominous but I pulled my poncho out as it started to spatter in our direction. Then 100 yards from the top the thunder started to rumble. I quickly took a seat and watched the storm build above and to the south of us. I waited and watched for a while. Eventually I made a mad dash for the top and over the crest and quickly descended. The storm was still now directly east of us and heading over Kings Peak with what looked like torrential rain. It looked amazing from my point of view but I was glad I was nowhere near it.

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I took a break and had to pee. I only realized Shan was walking up from North Star Lake towards Porcupine Pass as I got done…hopefully he was too far away to see anything or was just watching the ground as he hiked. We chatted for a while and I gave him his car key fob that I hadn’t been able to store in the place he had asked me to leave it.

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With the weather still threatening we both moved on. To the south black clouds and thunder rumbled, and just on the other side of the ridge to the north thunder growled but other than a few raindrops I was spared the storms. I was thankful. Tungsten Pass was ahead of me and I’m not sure it could really be classified as a pass…it was more of a low saddle/ridge vs a pass.

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It was starting to look black behind me, the way the weather was coming to me, and I hurried over the pass and down the other side, passing a lake or two in my bid to get to lower ground. Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah loomed ahead of me and to its left was the saddle that was Anderson Pass…the highest pass on the Highline Trail. It was what I would be doing tomorrow.

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The trail was either downhill or flat but still rocky and I was careful where I stepped. I had removed my ankle brace as it was causing other issues. We crossed a no-name creek where I got water as I was out, and had been since I had crossed paths with Shan. I was pretty parched as I hadn’t wanted to stop with black clouds behind me.

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Just before we reached Yellowstone Creek I found a great campsite and I quickly unpacked and put my tent up in record time as I watched yet more storms move in, but they continued to go around us and stayed north.

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It was still early but the sun finally came out and we all relaxed in the sun for a moment and I prepared the dogs’ meals. They had just started eating when it started to downpour and I hurled my backpack and the dogs into the tent quickly. It didn’t last long and the sun came back out to warm and dry the tent and the ground, and the dogs finished their meals.

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For another two hours we relaxed and snoozed in the sun. The wind had started to pick up and I was getting chilly so we crawled into the tent and I started to write. Not ten minutes after we had made ourselves comfortable it started to hail and storm in a major fashion and right over the top of us. While we weren’t on a high point  (there were high peaks and ridges all around and in we were in a low dell) and there were some trees nearby but it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience and all I could think about were the two aluminum hiking poles holding the tent up!

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The wind gusted and tried to blow the tent over but it held, and the hail tried to bury us, but again the waterproof cuben fiber held up. I was praying for God to just keep us safe and dry. Cody had leapt on top of me at the first loud thunderclap and I just laid on my sleeping pad in the middle of the tent and held him. I’m not sure who needed it more. Lightning didn’t strike super close but it was close enough to be spooky. I knew the chances of being hit were lower than winning the lottery so I was nervous more than scared…but try explaining that to the dogs!

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The storm finally moved on and left us in peace so I could finish writing, re-tighten all the guy lines of the tent and make one last trip to the bathroom with the dogs before bed.

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Day 4 – Yellowstone Creek to Kidney Lakes

All I had wanted for the morning was to wake up to clear blue skies…and that’s exactly what I got. I was thankful. It was crisp and cold and I had had to put my down jacket on in the middle of the night as it was getting pretty chilly.

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I wanted an early start and was awake at 6am, and despite the cold air I packed up quickly. I wanted an early start as Anderson Pass was my only major climb and I wanted to accomplish it before the now-standard afternoon thunderstorms came rolling in. I was on the trail by 6:50am, which I doubt will ever happen again.

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Other than a few deer in the meadow we saw no wildlife as we started the gradual climb to the shoulder below the pass. We were soon back above treeline and I took plenty of time to admire the views before slowly meandering our way across the boulder-strewn grassland. The trail was fairly clear and when it wasn’t the cairns were easy to locate.

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We took a 15 minute break before the trail started the steep upward climb through scree and shale and boulders of all sizes. I heard voices behind us and looking back I could barely make out several tiny figures about a half mile behind me. It was time to climb and I shouldered my pack as I eyeballed the multiple switchbacks above us, most of which couldn’t be seen.

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It was slow going and I took lots of break as I watched the party of about 15 finally reach the bottom of the climb and pause for a few minutes. Then they too started to climb. I was pretty determined not to let them beat me to the top, but I also wasn’t going to kill myself trying to get there first. The climb was a mix between rubble, dirt, shale and boulders…some of which were more than a ton and had landed directly on the trail fairly recently as the trail was still fresh underneath them. That was certainly an eye-opener and I kept one eye on the cliffs above me.

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I was nearing the top (maybe 200 yards away) when the first four of the hikers I had been watching finally caught and passed me. I could have been an ass and not let them by (it was dangerous to step off the trail y’know) but I’m not that mean. I still have no idea how they climbed so fast with packs much heavier than mine…I think it had something to do with them all being young men under 20!

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So some of them (at least not all of them) reached the top ahead of me but I got there in the end and dumped my pack as I talked with the boys and their group leader for a while. Apparently the first guy to pass me had set his sights on me and beating me to the top…how funny that I had been determined to do the same thing. They were summiting Kings Peak and I told them I was hiking the Highline Trail. I got several looks of disbelief about hiking 80 miles, and how light my pack was compared to theirs (one kid had a 90l pack…mine is only 50l and I still have more space than I need) and surprise and admiration that I was doing this all in 6 days, solo with just the dogs. Their group leader asked me all about the trail and some of my gear and then took some pictures of Cody, Kye and me so that not all of my pictures are selfie-style.

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I said my farewells as the other nine in the group caught up and reached the pass and headed down the east side. Now I started running into a lot of groups who were heading up to summit Kings Peak…apparently it’s very popular and almost every group asked if I had been to the top already. My much-repeated answer was “no, not safe for the dogs”. I finally reached the bottom and ran out of people to ask me.

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I reached a trail junction not marked on the map and as a group came up the left-hand trail I asked them if that trail ran into the trail going east-west to Gunsight Pass and down the valley. They confirmed. I asked the following group and they concurred. So that’s the way I went until I realized it WAS taking me to Gunsight Pass, and probably the trail I wanted but going the long way round. I located the correct trail (the right-hand trail I should have taken) but in doing so I rolled my ankle again on an uneven section of ground…it’s always in the places you least expect it.

Gunsight Pass is the notch in the background:

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I took a break and then followed the cairns across the creek. Once across it was another game of find the cairns which is fast becoming my favorite game…not. With the trail finally located we headed east down the valley dipping in and out of the trees. The trail split and the sign pointing to the path I thought I wanted to take mentioned nothing that was on my map. It was definitely confusing and I cross-checked with my GPS to be sure it was the right trail…it was.

Anderson Pass and Kings Peak:

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We crossed another creek and I stopped to pee, only realizing afterwards that there were three hikers in the next meadow…I’m glad there was a tree between me and them or they would have got an eyefull!

I stopped and talked to them and they were also doing the Highline Trail and had seen my truck at the trailhead (good to know). As with most backpackers I talk to, and I talk to most of them as they are different from day hikers…there’s an unspoken camaraderie there…we talked about the trail, the weather, the passes and where we had camped the night before. The final information was useful as I later found out.

I said goodbye and continued on down the trail, climbing yet again. I thought I was done with climbing for the day. We stopped and took a 15 minutes siesta just as the climbing started…it helped a lot but it also meant it was tougher to get going.

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I had only filtered a liter of water at the creek crossing and we finished the last of what I had more than a mile before crossing the Uinta River. It was hot and I was parched by the time we reached the river, as were the dogs, and this was the first water crossing that wasn’t a simple rock hop. There was a slender dead tree across the creek but I didn’t like the look of the fall if one of us fell as we tried to cross so I wandered downstream 100 yards and found a better place to cross. Kye still managed to get wet as, for some reason, she didn’t jump to the last rock and instead went into the water. We backtracked upstream and I let the dogs rest for 20 minutes while I filtered water and ate a snack. As I stood up I got a fly-by from a hummingbird who buzzed me then my pack (they love red) and twice he must have landed somewhere on my pack. Eventually he took off after realizing my pack wasn’t a pretty red flower. Quite cool though.

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It was already 4pm and I was pretty tired already. I realized we would never make it as far as I had wanted to…that had been a long-shot anyway and I pulled the map out to give the trail ahead a look. I remembered what the hikers had told me about Kidney Lake. It was a little over two miles away and seemed doable…I figured I’d be there by 5pm.

What I didn’t count on was yet another steep climb that was more rock scramble than hiking trail for a good portion of the way; it was certainly not fun in any way. I walked up on a little buck at one of the creek crossings and didn’t want to spook him into hurting himself (possible because of where he was standing) so I called out. He didn’t hear me over the water and kept eating. I called louder and finally he looked up, stared at me for a second and then took off.

The exhaustion I felt in climbing, climbing, climbing was getting to me and I was desperate to see the sign for the trail to Kidney Lakes. After much begging and pleading I finally got there just after 5:30pm and then had to wander around for 10 minutes to find a suitable campsite (no rocks, level etc).

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Camp was set up quickly and I had to force myself to eat something even if it wasn’t dinner as I wasn’t hungry, and generally hadn’t been for most of the trip. The lake was warmish, for an alpine lake, and I took advantage of the water to wash my feet off…it felt good and they were pretty grimy after four days on the trail. If there’s one benefit to the rain last night it’s that the trail wasn’t dusty.

I watched the sun on the lake for a while before heading to bed and as I typed I heard some cow elk chirping across the lake. I risked a quick walk in the dusk to see if I could see them but there was no luck there and I went back to my tent to try and get some sleep.

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Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 1

Prologue

I left Casper and covered 100 miles before camping for the night north of Rawlins, avoiding all the major thunderstorms that threatened the area. I covered the last 200 miles the following day and met up with Shan, my “shuttle” at the turn off for the Red Cloud Loop north of Vernal, UT. He arrived earlier than expected; I was just finishing lunch and nowhere near ready. I hate feeling rushed, even if I’m not actually being rushed…I always forget something. We switched vehicles and gave each other a run down of the ins and outs of the each other’s vehicle. Shan was heading up to the Hacking Lake/ Leidy Peak TH and would be hiking west from there. I was driving his car to the west end and leaving it at the Highline Trail trailhead on SH150, and would be hiking east. It was a good plan.

I headed south, through Vernal and Duschene and got nailed by some torrential rain. The Lexus hybrid was definitely different to drive. I met up with a friend for dinner in Heber City, another final farewell (there seem to be a lot of those lately), before covering the last 50 miles to the trailhead. I had planned on covering a few miles but it was cold and still threatening to storm so I pulled out my pad and quilt and spent a very uncomfortable night in the car.

Day 1: Highline Trail Trailhead to Rock Creek

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Monday dawned clear and blue and I quickly packed up, made final use of real privies and hit the trail by 9am. For a long time there was very little to write home about as the trail stayed mostly in the trees, passing turn-offs to lakes and basins either high or low. We passed several other groups coming the other way, including some solo hikers and others with loose dogs (and only two out of five kept control of their animals…it gets old, especially without even an attempt or a care, and barely an apology).

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As we took a break after an hour of hiking we were passed by a very large, very noisy group of day hikers…there must have been twenty of them. They were all polite though and I ran into a couple of them a few miles further up as they were resting…they were astounded that I was planning to be in the wilderness solo for seven days with the dogs and insisted on taking our picture…they were very sweet and I obliged.

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It wasn’t until we were only a couple of miles from Rock Sea Pass that things got a little interesting. I had been watching some black clouds to the south and hoping they weren’t going to develop into a thunderstorm…but that’s exactly what they did. So I hiked for a while until it looked like it was coming our way and then I hunkered down under a tree with the dogs…I certainly didn’t want to get caught above treeline with lightening being a threat. The thunder growled to the south for a while and seemed to be moving east more than north. A couple of passing hikers said there was plenty of tree cover for a while yet and recommended I keep going…so I did. By this time the storm was obviously going around us and I thought it best to get up and over the pass before another one came behind me.

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We finally broke free of the treeline above Pigeon Milk Spring and followed the valley up to Rock Sea Pass…as gorgeous as it always is above treeline, in my opinion, but without the lakes of the Bighorns.

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A final short, steep and insanely rocky ascent took us to the top of the pass and we got our first look at the valley and trail below, as well as the storm churning in the east that had missed us…thanked God for that one a lot. Breathtaking is a word I will probably use a lot in this trip journal…but that’s the only way to describe it. Steep cliffs half encircled the rich green dell below us and ponds and lakes dotted the landscape. Ahead of us we could see Squaw Peak and the pass we would be doing the following day, although I was not sure exactly which one it was.

The trail down went below a small snow field and was pretty sketchy; it was rubble and rocks and boulders, and a little bit of dirt path. It was slow going and I was insanely careful, especially with my bad ankle but I still managed to slip once and fall on my ass…better backwards than forwards though on a trail like that.

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We reached the soft green grass at the base and took a break. I let the dogs sleep for half and hour as I finished the last of the water and snacked on some M&Ms. I thought I heard rocks falling and then voices but could see no one on the trail…I finally located two figures at the very top of the pass who were looking down into the lake-dotted valley.

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After a short rest we continued on through the idyllic terrain; an easy flat trail for a short while that soon dipped back down into the trees. It was here that somehow I rolled my ankle again and hit the ground but with slightly less force than on the trail in Colorado. I had been so careful, especially when going downhill. I picked myself back up and continued on, pausing for water at the creek and taking another brief respite.

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The trail soon split and we turned right and east again as the trail paralleled the river. I continued to be careful about where I stepped as the trail was steep and rocky in places. I spooked a small herd of cow elk in an open, marshy meadow as I turned a corner. I’m not sure how I got so close but I couldn’t have been more than 20 ft from the first cow I spooked. Sadly they disappeared before I could get any pictures.

I lost the trail briefly in the grass but quickly found it (no cairn on the east side apparently) and caught a glimpse of a copper-colored coat through the trees. Sure enough I was rewarded by the sight of a gorgeous and huge bull elk grazing in the pines. I don’t think he even knew I was there until I said “hey bull”. He had a gorgeous rack and I got a good picture or two.

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From that point it was another short and steep and rocky descent (are you sensing a theme here?) to Rock Creek. I hunted for a campsite; they were in short supply but I found a flat spot in the trees just off the trail and made do. The dogs were eager to be fed but I wanted to get the tent up before the rain came…which the sky had been threatening all afternoon.

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They were fed soon after and then swiftly fell asleep while I filtered water and cooked dinner. The final highlight to the day was the doe that walked just beyond the perimeter of camp, stared at me and then took off before the dogs even realized she was there. I spent some time trying to figure out why my camera was no longer willing to take HDR but to no avail and I finally gave up and crawled into bed (I did eventually, accidentally figure it out).

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Day 2 – Rock Creek to Lambert Meadow

I slept okay and woke at 7am. I tried to wait until the sun hit the tent before braving the cold but it was taking too long and I wanted to be on the trail early so I could hit the passes before thunderstorms threatened. I let the dogs out of the tent while I packed up inside. It is always good to see them feeling good enough to run and play when we are hiking as it ensures, to me, that I am not over-doing it with them.

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The trail started off rocky and up…and I was glad I hadn’t attempted it the night before…something I had thought about doing so I would be closer to the pass in the morning. After a mile or two it leveled out and the going was fairly easy although the trail disappeared often in the lush meadows and marshes that were frequent and mosquito-laden. Only once did I have a hard time finding the cairn I needed to direct me but I eventually located it and continued on.

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Fresh cow pies were prevalent…something I’m not sure I like in the wilderness, but I guess the cattle serve a purpose or they wouldn’t be there. I filled up with water at Ledge Lake and checked the sky…a few clouds were skimming across the blue but nothing ominous…and I started the ascent to Dead Horse Pass.

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I had been warned about this pass the day before by a solo hiker who said he would love to do the trail again but probably never would because of this particular pass. So I was definitely nervous.

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The climb was decent but as always, rocky and occasionally non-existent with only cairns to follow. I finally reached the top and was confronted with a Cirque of the Towers-like view with towering cliffs and a couple of lakes below, including the very turquoise Dead Horse Lake.

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The trail was nowhere to be seen and I peered over the rocky ledge to see if I could see where it went…nothing except a faint trail in the scree directly below. It looked terrifying. Thankfully there were two other backpackers who had just come up the east side and directed me to the RIGHT way (don’t ignore the cairns).

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I drained my water and ate some snacks while we took a break before heading down the treacherous trail. I moved my DeLorme InReach SOS device to a place I could reach it better, just in case I fell. While the first couple of switchbacks were definitely nerve-wracking and one wrong move would send you hurtling down 1000ft it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. (This pass, as well as Rock Sea Pass are NOT recommended for horses and pack stock but if you do this trail then coming from the east would definitely be the way to do it as horses do better going up steep than down steep).

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We finally made it to the bottom after several stops for pictures, including one of the horse skull for which (I believe) the pass is named…or some other dead horse. The lake was stunning and looked a little surreal as we circumnavigated it…such a cool color.

That is the pass behind me…and yes, it looks impassable from any distance away:

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From the lake we followed the trail that paralleled the creek before turning off to make the ascent over Red Knob Pass. The climb was fairly easy but I was definitely struggling and my legs had felt like jello all day…but it was still early afternoon and I couldn’t justify stopping for the day.

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After a mile we were thrust above tree line and we were once again following cairns. The trail, which I had seen from the top of Dead Horse Pass, seemed so far above and we were stopping every 100 yards to give my legs a break. We took our last break before the final steep ascent to the saddle and then slowly climbed on a pretty decent trail, albeit with a few rocks.

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I was eyeballing the saddle constantly, watching the pass get closer and closer…but when we reached it it wasn’t the top. Ugh. The views, however, were stunning and I kept taking picture after picture while keeping an eye on the weather although there was nothing to worry about even with the blacker-looking clouds.

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We made the final push to the top and took another break, chugging most of my remaining water before heading down. The descent was easy and soon we were on a flat, cairn-guided trail that traversed the wide open alpine grassland and eventually delved below treeline.

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For another two miles we followed the mostly-level trail beside the creek. Black clouds were now starting to threaten some serious activity but nothing more than a few raindrops appeared. With the storm to the south of us I made the decision to climb 500ft and a mile up to our chosen campsite in Lambert Meadow. The clouds continued to look menacing for a while until they finally started to rumble.

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I was below treeline so didn’t worry too much but once we got close to open ground we took shelter beneath a large evergreen for half an hour as the storm boomed. It never went directly over us and the rain was only cursory, with one decent shower. Eventually I deemed the storm far enough from us to continue and 10 minutes later, and having gone 7pm, we arrived in Lambert Meadow with the storm still growling in the east and black skies shadowing the mountains.

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I quickly fed the dogs and got the tent up, just in case more rain was due but the western sky was sunny and clear and I finished up evening chores before heading to bed at 9pm with the sky a dark azure blue and the almost-full moon beaming down on us.