Uinta Mountains: The Highline Trail
Fall Backpacking Trip: September 24 - 30, 2005

Click here to go back to the Frontier Home Page.

Directions: There are pictures after every day log entry.  All  pictures, except the first one, are thumbnails, click on any picture that you would like to see larger.  We use thumbnails to make sure pages download faster.

Click here to see a detailed Highline Trail map.

Fox and Brook Lakes from North Pole Pass

How I lost my GPS.  This prelude to our hike ends up being an important side story.  Christine had a work related meeting in Casper (about 3.5 hours from our home in Green River ) on Wednesday morning September 21.  She drove up the night before and stayed in a Holiday Inn.  I decided to motorcycle some Wyoming roads I hadn’t gotten to yet and spend the night with her in Casper.  Tuesday I road over Battle Pass (9955’) in the Park Mountains and Snowy Range Pass (10,847’) in the Medicine Bow Mountains before meeting up with Christine in Casper.  We had an enjoyable evening together and then separated Wednesday morning.  Christine went to her meeting and I ran a few errands in Casper before heading back to Green River .

I have a special hookup on my motorcycle for my Garmin GPS V that I often use.  After running around Casper I searched through the tank bag on my bike to hookup my GPS and radar detector for the ride home.  I couldn’t find the GPS.  I figured that it had fallen out of my tank bag back at the hotel.  I rode back to the Holiday Inn and came up empty handed.  I left my name and address and hoped that somebody would turn it in.  Meanwhile, I headed back home—thinking that my GPS was gone.

Wednesday evening I shared this sad news with Christine back in Green River .  She also was disappointed, because she had counted on me bringing the GPS on our Uinta Highline Trail thru-hike.  In all my miles of backpacking I had never hiked with a GPS until earlier this summer.  Two friends from Dayton , Ohio came out for a 4-day hike through the Wind River Mountains .  Dave, one of the friends, brought a Garmin eTrex  GPS to play with on this hike.  I had mapped out our hike on my computer using National Geographic’s TOPO software so that I could print out custom maps.  This software also makes it easy to save waypoints and routes for uploading onto a GPS.  Thus we loaded this hike onto his GPS as a novelty.

It was the 4th of July weekend in the Winds and the snow was still considerably deep at the higher elevations.  There was so much snow in fact that the trail was often impossible to pick out.  During one section unfamiliar to me I was leading the three of us further away from the actual route until Dave consulted his GPS and helped us get back on route.  This was no small incident.  I was quite convinced that I was reading my map correctly, however I was very wrong.  In hindsight, I was very grateful to Dave for bringing the GPS.  In this case, it was not just a toy.  Relating this story to Christine later led her to encourage me to bring my GPS on our Uinta (pronounced: you-in-ta) hike.  My GPS is rather bulky for foot travel, and our late season hike meant that trails would not be covered with snow.  I again trusted my own map and trail reading experience to get us through this hike, so I wasn’t as intent on bringing the GPS, but had conceded to bringing it for her peace of mind.

On Thursday morning, September 22 I got a call from the Holiday Inn in Casper with the news that my GPS had been recovered.  They agreed to mail it to me.  I was very pleased.  I didn’t even think to request them to expedite it to me.  I was just thrilled to know that I was getting it back.  I assumed it would arrive in the mail while we were gone on our hike.

Friday morning I drove my truck down to the eastern terminus of our hike.  The Leidy Peak trailhead sits at just below 11,000’ up a 24-mile dirt road west of US Hwy 191, north of Vernal, Utah.  I hadn’t driven this road before and didn’t know how rough it would be so I didn’t want Christine driving the sedan up it.  I had my mountain bicycle in the bed of the truck.  After a 45-minute bumpy truck ride, I parked at the trailhead and began the long bicycle ride back to the highway.  After nearly two tiring hours I met Christine waiting for me at the highway as planned.  When we returned to the house, we found that the Holiday Inn had expedited the mailing of the GPS and it was waiting for us.  That evening as we finalized the packing, I loaded all of the Uinta maps onto the GPS.

Day 1, 9/24/05                                    9 miles

We left Green River early this morning in the sedan and drove to the Uinta Highline Trailhead (10,400’) on Mirror Lake Road at the west end of the Uintas.  We parked the car and began our hike at about 10:00 AM with cool breezy temperatures and overcast skies.  We had pretty light packs considering the cold weather we were prepared for.  My pack weighed in at 41 lbs. and Christine’s was 34 lbs.  This included about 17 lbs. of total food and a couple liters of water.  The first five miles went quite quickly.  We hiked with a forest ranger for a while and saw about ten people in all this day.  There was a brief bit of hail, but no rain.

Our original plan was to do the planned 78-mile hike in eight days. About 7 miles the first day, then average 11 miles a day for the next six days, and end with about 5 miles on the eighth day.  I had never done any hiking in the Uintas to know whether this was a realistic pace or not.

The first day was going so well that we decided to press on over Rocky Sea Pass (11,250’), the first of nine passes that we would encounter on this hike.  The trail over this pass was very rocky, as was very much of the trail ahead over the coming week.  We descended into the Rock Creek drainage on the east side of the pass and camped near a pond.  We quit walking at 4:30, pleased with our speed through these first 9 miles.  Christine had prepared all our meals for this hike (lucky me), and we started off with Peanut Satay with Chicken over Noodles—very tasty.  Christine brought a paperback book along (“Riding the White Horse Home”, by Teresa Jordan) and we began taking turns each evening reading aloud before turning in.

Christine approaching Rocky Sea Pass   East from Rocky Sea Pass into Rock Creek Basin  Christine east  from Rocky Sea Pass  Christi ne descending from Rocky Sea Pass

1) Approaching Rocky Sea Pass; 2) East from Rocky Sea Pass into Rock Creek Basin; 3) Christine at the top of Rocky Sea Pass.  It was very windy and cool. 4) Descending from Rocky Sea Pass.

Day 2, 9/25/05                                    9 miles             18 total miles

We lazily started walking this morning at 9:00 AM.  It really doesn’t get light until 7:00 AM this time of year.  We had our normal breakfast of cold cereal (granola) with milk (powdered that we mix up the night before) while inside our sleeping bags.  It’s a comfortable way to start the day.  We took advantage of the morning sun to dry out the condensation on the inside of the tent’s rain fly before getting under way.  The day was very clear and cool as we crossed Rock Creek basin toward Dead Horse Pass.  The rocky trail was strenuous hiking.  We took a lunch break at Ledge Lake before humping over Dead Horse Pass (11,600’) into West Blacks Fork drainage.  The views from Dead Horse Pass looking north were tremendous.  To the northeast I was certain that I could see our next pass, Red Knob Pass.

We descended the steep switchbacks down toward the light glacial-dust blue of Dead Horse Lake .  I spooked a moose or elk along the trail, but only got a faint glimpse through the trees.  The day’s tiring miles led us to stop at 4:00, short of doing a second pass (Red Knob) that day.  I picked out a campsite below the cliffs that I hoped would catch the morning sun (it did not).  We cooked dinner (mac & cheese with tuna fish, a hiking mainstay) nearby in a sunlit meadow.  We were tired, but content with the 9 miles covered today.  We were still on track.  We fell asleep to the sound of elk bugling nearby.

Christine crossing Rock Creek   Christine by Ledge Lake  Christine approaching Dead Horse Pass  Red Knob Pass Blacks Fork Basin from Dead Horse  Joe on Dead Horse Pass  Dead Horse Lake  
  Christine descending Dead Horse Pass  Looking toward Red Knob Pass  Campsite at head of West Blacks Fork Basin

1) Christine crossing Rock Creek; 2) Christine taking a break at Ledge Lake; 3) Approaching Dead Horse Pass; 4) Red Knob Pass and West Blacks Fork Basin from Dead Horse Pass; 5) Joe on Dead Horse Pass; 6) Dead Horse Lake; 7) Christine descending Dead Horse Pass; 8) Looking towards Red Knob Pass, Joe has the fake and the real pass labeled; 9) Campsite at head of West Blacks Fork Basin.

Day 3, 9/26/05                                    11+ miles         29 total miles

We awoke from our coldest night and started walking at 8:40 this morning.  The fast running stream that I had pumped my water from last night was now frozen over.  It must have gotten quite cold.  Christine and I both now have high quality down sleeping bags rated for zero degrees.  We slept very comfortably in such warm sleeping bags.

We approached our climb up to Red Knob Pass (12,000’) and spooked 7-8 elk from the base of the climb.  The elk scattered up the talus slope to higher elevation away from our route.  The climb was a long steady traverse up to the pass.  We reached a saddle that I had been certain was Red Knob Pass.  There was a cairn (pile of rocks designating trail locations above tree-line) continuing further up the mountain side that I disregarded, because of how certain I was about this saddle being the pass.  I saw a trail descending down the other side and wrongly led Christine down this trail.  Christine asked me if I was sure about this being the right way.  I replied to her that I was “certain” that we were on the correct route.  My certainty quickly began to erode as the trail petered out after about a quarter-mile.  I reviewed my map closely and realized a flaw of printing my own maps.  This pass was the northernmost leg of a route that I squeezed onto one page by not showing the terrain north of the route.  Because of this I was unable to see that we were descending northeast into the wrong drainage, instead of crossing the pass into a southeast drainage.  I pulled the GPS out for the first time and puzzled at the data presented to me.  I finally admitted to Christine that I had been wrong and that we were off the route.  I apologized for being so certain, and yet wrong.  We trudged back up to the false pass and followed the cairn leading us up another couple hundred feet to the true top of Red Knob Pass.  From here we had a great view south into Lake Fork drainage.

We enjoyed some less strenuous miles as we descended along Lake Fork River .  It was less than 4 miles later that the GPS again saved us from mishap.  My map showed the Highline Trail leaving the course of the river at a trail junction and climbing up to high Lambert Meadow.  This junction was so poorly marked that we walked right by it and continued a quarter-mile down the wrong trail before I grew suspicious.  The GPS successfully led me back to the concealed trail junction.

For years I have hiked successfully with a map, mileage sheet, and a watch.  I have developed a great sense for walking speeds and can estimate distances covered just by tracking the time.  After using the GPS twice in one day to keep us on the trail, I now committed to turning it on whenever I was in doubt.  The Highline Trail is simply a hard trail to follow.

We walked through some mixed woods and meadows that afternoon.  The light use of the trail left little or no track to follow through some of the meadows.  Occasionally cairns were visible to help relocate the trail on the far side of the meadow, but in many instances without cairns the GPS again kept us on track.

Today was our warmest day.  We hiked in short sleeves and removed the leggings from our convertible pants, making them shorts.  We walked until 5:00 and stopped within two and half miles of Porcupine Pass high up in the Oweep Creek drainage.  We set up camp at 11,200’ in the exposed high alpine terrain.  Dinner was a meatless dish of cheesy rice and vegetables.

Christine climbing to Red Knob Pass  Dead Horse Pass  West Blacks Fork Basin from false pass  Joe atop false Red Knob Pass  Joe and Mt. Lovenia  Christine with Aspens  Joe  in Oweep Basin
  Christine at campsite at head of Oweep Basin

1) Climbing to Red Knob Pass; 2) Dead Horse Pass and West Blacks Fork Basin from false Red Knob Pass; 3) Joe on top of false Red Knob Pass; 4) Joe and Mount Lovenia; 5) Christine with Aspens; 6) Joe in Oweep Basin; 7) Christine and campsite at head of Oweep Basin.

Day 4, 9/27/05                        7.5 miles          36.5 total miles

We woke from a warmish night without frost, but heavy low clouds were moving in from the west, the prevailing direction of weather.  We quickly got going by 8:10 AM to try to get over Porcupine Pass before weather overtook us.  The wind had muffled our footsteps as we approached the base of the climb, permitting us to get quite close to four elk before spooking them.  I snapped some good photos of the elk on the run.

I was feeling a bit underpowered this morning so Christine led the climb up Porcupine Pass (12,236’), a steep wall of talus that concealed a narrow ledge of a trail traversing up its face.  I took off my outer fleece layer expecting the climb to heat me up, but my timing couldn’t have been much worse.  Less then half way up the climb the weather moved in and overtook us with fog and snow.  Christine kept plowing ahead in her steady rhythmic pace.  I imagined a tether connecting me to her and dragging me up the climb.  I just didn’t have much pep this morning.

From the top of Porcupine Pass we descended into Garfield Basin on the east side and down into fog and snow.  As we dropped elevation the snow became a soaking wind-blown sleet that coated our packs.  We put on our rain jackets and kept moving.  We were above tree line and utterly exposed to the elements.  These are classic hypothermia conditions.  Our best strategy was to keep moving and not let ourselves get chilled.

We were heading toward Anderson Pass (12,600’) the highest on the Highline Trail, and the base of Kings Peak, Utah’s highest Point at 13,528’.  We had no plan to climb the peak or the pass in this weather, so we just endeavored to get as close as we could and still camp near water.  We ended up quitting at 11:45 AM having already walked 7.5 miles.  We chose a campsite along Yellowstone Creek about 3 miles from Anderson Pass.   We had really moved steadily this morning without any stops in the bad weather.

By noon we had the tent pitched and were stripping out of our wet clothes and climbing into our warm sleeping bags.  I carefully fired up the stove in the tent’s vestibule and made a quart of hot tea.  The warmth and dryness of the tent and the soothing tea soon rejuvenated us.  I was kicking myself for not having brought a deck of cards along.  We passed some time with a spirited game of Hangman as the precipitation cycled through rain, snow, sleet and hail over the next couple hours.  Mid-afternoon brought a reprieve in the weather.  I took advantage of this opening to go pump some water.  The clouds were shuffling rapidly, but there was a definite improvement in the conditions.  I decided to try to get a fire going and dry out some of our clothes and boots.

For the next three hours we passed the time keeping a small fire burning as we dried socks, gloves, boots etc.  We built the fire in front of a clump of trees that made a great wind-break.  You could almost call the circumstances pleasant there for awhile.  After everything was dry and dinner hour approached we debated whether to cook and eat outside.  Our decision was made for us as the rain and sleet returned.  We climbed back into the tent and I carefully cooked up our meal of black beans with spicy sausage.

Elk at head of Oweep Basin  Elk in AM at head of Oweep Basin  Porcupine Pass  Oweep Basin from half way up Porcupine Pass   Christine climbing Porcupine Pass  Oweep Basin from Porcupine Pass 
  Christine descending into Garfield Basin from Porcupine Pass  Joe drying out gear by Yellowstone Creek

1&2) Elk in AM at head of Oweep Basin; 3) Porcupine Pass; 4) Oweep Basin from halfway up Porcupine Pass; 5) Christine climbing Porcupine Pass, yes, there is a trail there; 6) Oweep Basin from the top of Porcupine Pass, the weather moved in quickly; 7) Descending into Garfield Basin from Porcupine Pass; 8) Joe drying out boots and other clothes.

Day 5  9/28/05            13 miles           49.5 total miles

I awoke to the depressing sound of small hail pellets getting whipped against the tent.  This precipitation surprised me.  I was occasionally awakened through the night to the sound of wind slapping the tent’s rain fly.  In my half sleep I had noticed that the wind had shifted directions during the night and was now coming out of the east.  Weather systems out of the east are often signs of trouble in the mountain states, but these winds had a dry high pressure feel to them.  I was hoping for clear skies this morning.

Christine and I had discussed evacuation plans yesterday in case the weather didn’t improve.  I felt remiss for having not properly documented the many routes out of the High Uintas.  I felt our safest route would be to descend a trail south along the Yellowstone Creek into the Uintah & Ouray Indian Reservation.  It would have taken a couple days to get out this way, but we would have quickly dropped into tree protection and the warmer temperatures of lower elevation.

We proceeded with our ritual of breakfast in bed and began packing up our gear.  By the time we emerged from the tent the hail had stopped and there were positive signs of clearing skies above.  The eastern wind was pushing clouds over the now snow covered Kings Peak .  It all looked very promising so we dismissed any thoughts of bailing out.  We shouldered our packs at 8:45 and began the climb up Anderson Pass.

Christine had already decided that she was not going to climb Kings Peak, a 1.5 mile round trip excursion from Anderson Pass that meant scrambling up nearly another thousand feet of snow covered boulders.  I had held onto hope of making the summit until I reached the top of the pass.  Kings Peak is precipitously steep on its west face, but the east side has a less intimidating slope, making it the preferred route to the summit.  Because of the overnight shift of weather all the snow had accumulated on the east side, and now a steady chilling wind made it very uninviting.  With only a pair of polypropylene glove liners, I decided to skip an attempt on the summit this day.  I was just too poorly prepared to make the climb in these conditions, and moreover I didn’t want to do it alone.

Christine supported my decision and we descended into Painter Basin clomping through a few inches of snow down the rocky trail.  The snow actually filled in the spaces between the rocks and made the going a bit easier on the feet.  As the morning wound down, we descended into a beautiful day.  The now clear skies showed off peaks all around that were gleaming with the fresh dusting of snow.  Today turned into a high mileage day after the long rest we received yesterday.  We walked until 5:30 and made camp at a lovely site between the Kidney Lakes at just below 11,000’.  Dinner was corn chowder with TVP (textured vegetable protein).  TVP is a soy-based food product that is very light weight.  It is a good meat substitute for protein.

  Kings Peaks in AM Frosty campsite in AM  West to Wilson Peak  Anderson Pass Kings Peak  Kings Peak East from Anderson Pass into Painter Basin 
  North from Anderson Pass  Christine descending Anderson Pass  Joe in Painter Basin  Christine in Painter Basin  Joe pumping water in Painter Basin  Joe cooking dinner by Kidney Lake

1) Kings Peak in AM; 2) Frosty campsite in the AM; 3) West to Wilson Peak; 4) Anderson Pass and Kings Peak, they are labeled on the picture if you enlarge it; 5) Kings Peak; 6) East from Anderson Pass into Painter Basin; 7) North from Anderson Pass, one of our only brief glimpses of Wyoming; 8) Christine descending from Anderson Pass; 9 & 10) Joe and Christine in Painter Basin; 11) Joe pumping water in the afternoon; 12) Joe cooking dinner at Kidney Lake.

Day 6  9/29/05            13 miles           62.5 total miles

We woke to another clear calm day today and were walking by 8:30.  We moved pretty well through today’s miles until we reached another seldom used section of the trail.  From Fox Lake past Brook Lake and over North Pole Pass (12,230’).  I used the GPS frequently trying to find our way.  Once above tree line, the cairns and trail were quite evident, but there really wasn’t any sign of a trail for a couple miles before that.

North Pole Pass was our first pass east of Kings Peak .  The Uintas can be roughly divided into two sections, east and west with Kings Peak being the dividing line.  The peaks and passes to the west that we had already crossed were steep and jagged.  North Pole Pass and the remaining passes to the east are much more rounded off.

Christine and I took a break midday and I asked her if she had thought about getting off the trail Friday.  Our original 8-day plan left us with 5 or 6 miles to hike out Saturday.  The slow going earlier in the week had us worried as to whether we could even get out in 8 days.  The prospect of a 9th day of walking without any extra food had been discussed gloomily.  Here we were now making big mile days and considering aloud for the first time that we might be able to finish early.  We agreed to take it as it comes and see where it got us.

This day it got us another 13 miles with a lovely campsite beside Lower Reeder Lake .  Two consecutive long days had left me very tired.  We fixed a dinner of lemon spinach couscous with salmon and retired to our tent to continue reading aloud from our book with elk bugling in the background.

95. Kidney Lake AM_re.JPG (148812 bytes)  Trout  Do you know the answer?  Fox and Brook Lakes from North Pole Pass

1) Kidney lake in the AM; 2) Lots of trout, blow up this picture its amazing; 3) What's the question? 4) This is a beautiful pictures, Fox and Brook Lakes from North Pole Pass.

Day 7  9/30/05            14 miles           76.5 total miles

We woke to a warmer morning and were again walking by 8:30.  The unspoken prospect of getting off the trail today and all that went with that (showers, pizza, beer, bed, etc.) was a welcome companion this morning.  We descended down to man-made Chepeta Lake , the only road-accessible point on the Highline Trail between our termini.  Crossing the reservoir’s dam we saw someone other than ourselves for the first time since crossing Rocky Sea Pass our first day on the Trail.

This gentleman from Salt Lake City was a goat hunter.  The entire Uintas only issued three goat hunting permits this season.  This hunter had waited six years to have his name pulled in the lottery.  He let us know that one of the other two hunters with permits had already taken his goat, and that the third one was out here somewhere with a professional guide.  We enjoyed our brief chat with him, but knew that finishing our hike today meant having to keep moving.

We faced two passes today and had to cover several miles before getting to them.  The miles went quite well until we reached the base of our first pass. The approach to this rarely used pass with no name (11,430’) was lost in the trees.  The GPS helped us ascend above the trees and climb a pass that truly had no foot path.  It was well marked with cairns , but there was so much ground vegetation that a specific path had never worn in.  My feet really enjoyed climbing on the soft carpet of greenery instead of the typical rock based path.

The climb went pretty well and we were buoyed by our progress through the day.  We dropped below the pass to Dead man Lake and took a long break to pump water and prepare for our final pass.  The west side ascent of Gabbro Pass (11,700’) was also grassy like the previous pass.  A slow steady climb had us at the summit looking east at Leidy Peak .  My truck was parked at the Leidy Peak trailhead at the base of this mountain.

We now finally gave into the realization that we would indeed finish today.  We opted to take our first shortcut.  Instead of descending down to Lake Wilde and climbing back up, we chose to traverse the mountain side preserving our elevation.  This choice proved to be a bit dicey as the trail we had followed quickly degraded into a slope of slippery talus.  We worked our way through and came across two more people today.  These gentlemen were the third goat hunter and his guide.  This is an extreme coincidence that belies the true vastness and remoteness of these mountains.  We had spooked a couple nannies and their nursery from just below Gabbro Pass when we came across.  The hunters weren’t upset because they were holding out for a billy.  We chatted for a while.  We borrowed their binoculars to see the half dozen mountain goats perched high on the mountain side across the valley.

We had less than three miles to finish.  The final miles were tiring, but we were back at the truck at 4:30 after a 14-mile day.  The hike had been spectacular and challenging.  The Uintas are a much bigger area than I had anticipated and the trails are a bit more strenuous and harder to follow.  All in all I just can’t believe that I live so close to two such well-preserved mountain ranges (the Winds and the Uintas).  I look forward to going back some other time and climbing Kings Peak and more.

Christine climbing up pass with no name  Christine climbing up Gabbro Pass    Flaming Gorge Reservoir from base of Leidy Peak)

1) Climbing up no name pass; 2) Climbing up Gabbro Pass; 3) Flaming Gorge Reservoir from the base of Leidy Peak.

If you have any questions about this website or want to contact Christine or Joe for any reason, please email us at christine@lustik.com or joe@lustik.com.