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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