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.

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