ALPINE ODYSSEY: A SAGA OF DISCOVERY ALONG THE UINTA HIGHLINE TRAIL

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MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 296
edited March 8 in ROUTES & TRAILS

Words and Photos by Cody Jackson, Jenner Haseltine, and Chase Ordway Smith

THE EXPEDITION PARTY: 

Cody Jackson - Born and raised in Connecticut, Cody learned to love the outdoors through the wilds of New England. Currently, he resides in Morrison, Colorado, with his wife Kelly and their Golden Retriever Honey. His entry to the world of long-distance backpacking began with his first thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2017. Since then, he has pursued his passion for human-powered adventure with many exciting trips globally. He has worked professionally in the outdoor industry since 2018 and currently manages the premier front-range consignment shop at Wilderness Exchange in Denver. 

Jenner Haseltine - Jenner grew up in Vermont and fell in love with the outdoors at a young age. In 2016, he and Chase hiked Vermont's Long Trail, planting the thru hiking seed that flourished into hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2022. He currently resides in Denver and manages the rental program at Wilderness Exchange. 

Chase Ordway Smith - Chase made a return to backpacking for this trip, having not been a part of any long-distance outings since hiking Vermont's Long Trail in 2016 with Jenner. He has spent the interim rock climbing and skiing, along with pursuing career goals. Chase is a licensed Electrician in Vermont, currently residing in Burlington. When offered a spot on the trip, he jumped at the opportunity to explore the truly wild and unique mountain range that is The Uintas. 

FACTS, HISTORY, AND BACKGROUND BY CODY 

Today, we're going to dive deep into the Uinta Highline Trail! This is a tale of adventure for three friends and some trusty Windriders who set out to see what treasures lay in wait in the Utah backcountry between September 2nd and September 9th of 2023. For those looking to get a taste of thru-hiking, alpine wilderness backpacking, training for a longer trail, or simply wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of civilization and decompress, the Uinta Highline Trail is the ticket! 

Let's start with a little background on the area and trail. The High Uinta Wilderness encompasses 456,705 acres and is jointly managed by the Wasatch-Cache and Ashley National Forest services. The trail is between 80 and 104 miles depending on your starting point, and is best explored between the months of July to September. The elevation gain is approximately 16,700ft and the common direction traveled is east to west. The landscape is filled with Utah's highest peaks (King's Peak being the highest at a towering 13,528 ft), as well as many landmarks from its glacially carved past. Thanks to the Utah Wilderness Act, this area received legal designation as a wilderness space in 1984. For those unfamiliar, the purpose of wilderness designation is to preserve parts of the earth as places dominated by natural forces. The UHT is a symbolic example of this mission. 

The Uinta Highline Trail is a backcountry route that traverses the loftiest parts of the mountain range from east to west, crossing eight passes that exceed 11,200 ft elevation and reaching its climax at 12,700 ft over Anderson Pass. Magnificent basins and valleys are interspersed between the higher points. The trail passes through a variety of forests, subalpine meadows, and alpine tundra. Here, within such an incredibly vast and wild expanse, one can effectively come to disconnect with their over-civilized selves, reconnect with their true nature, and experience one of the last great wilderness areas. It easily achieves top-shelf ranking for one of the best backpacking trips on the merits of scenery, freedom, and deep backcountry immersion. 

The eastern trailhead is approximately a 3.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City Airport and approximately a 6.5-hour drive from Denver Airport. Vernal, Utah, is the nearest town to the trailhead to stock up before starting. The first 20 miles from the eastern trailhead to Leidy Peak are commonly reported as a dry zone with a mix of forest and meadow walking. For the sake of time, one can eliminate this section and insert yourself by car along a dirt road to pick up the trail at Leidy Peak, which is where the true "high" part of the Highline really begins. 

To gain a feel for the trail, it helps to study various maps, both physical and digital. Both the National Geographic High Uintas Wilderness physical map and the digital topographical map sets through the onX Backcountry app are a great combo. Both proved essential for navigating as the trail can sometimes be difficult to follow. There is little to no option for resupply on this trail, so accurate food prep is another key ingredient for success. A timeframe of six hiking days is fairly adequate for an experienced hiker, but others may want to extend that. 

Being such a high-elevation trail with a lot of exposure, you should definitely prepare for a wide range of weather. In our first two days, we experienced massive thunderstorms, hail, and snow. Using the onX app to keep us on track was critical in the snowy sections where navigating by cairns was a bit tricky. A couple of other perks are that wild camping and good water sources are abundant along the route. 

A positive takeaway from the UHT is that with good planning, it is possible to keep the flame of thru-hiking burning without having to dedicate the four to six months necessary for something like the AT, PCT, CDT, etc. It's important to remember there are many other trails that can still be very impactful while also significantly shorter in length. The Highline and others of similar style can definitely stir your spirit for adventure and leave you with a great feeling of accomplishment. Allocating a week to 10 days of vacation time is more attainable for most people and allows oneself to balance their responsibilities while still embarking on a great adventure. 

A STORIED ACCOUNT BY JENNER

DAY 1: LEIDY PEAK - WHITEROCKS LAKE 

A combination of excitement and gorgeous scenery largely curbed the typically grueling eight-hour drive time to the trailhead. My childhood friend Chase and I rode together while my coworker and good buddy Cody drove separately so that we could drop a car at each trailhead. Though our weather window looked pristine for the majority of the trail, gray skies and dropping temperatures at the western trailhead forebode the snowfall we had previously accepted as a possibility on our first day. Sure enough, just as we had finally traversed the arduous tangle of dirt path and straightened our legs at the Eastern trailhead, sleet began to fall. 

We quickly pitched a camp a few hundred yards from the parking lot, Cody and I cozying up in our shelters while Chase sealed himself into his bivvy. In calling out to check on the others, it became apparent that while Cody was comfortable, the claustrophobia Chase had feared as a result of the bivvy was in full effect. I got a good chuckle out of that and dozed off soon after, weary from a long day of adrenaline-fueled travel. I awoke shortly after sunrise, having slept fairly well with the exception of a few strong gusts that had caused hail to pelt the side of my Xmid with a patter not unlike rain on a tin roof. Cody and I took our time breaking down camp, basking in the warmth of our bags and cooking hot meals in our vestibules, while Chase remained trapped in the coffin position. After finally emerging from my shelter, I was happy to see large flakes and a crisp white coating over the ground as it was the first snowfall I'd witnessed of the year. 

We almost immediately had to retrace our steps as the snow began to fall in thicker flakes, and the trail became difficult to outline. It was remarkable how quickly we seemed to be deep into the backcountry. The view on top of our first peak, albeit relatively socked in, reminded me of a landscape you'd only encounter after a lengthy skin or a few days from town on a southern stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The first few miles were easy-going, traversing a ridge until we ultimately dropped down to the base of Gabbro pass. 

The crux of the ascent was blanketed by a wide cornice of frozen-in snow that forced us to strategize another route to the summit. Another group of hikers stood at the base pondering their own approach until Chase began scrambling up a fairly vertical and slick boulder field on the east wall of the pass. As a less-seasoned climber, I was hesitant to do the same; however, Cody and I followed his line, and we ultimately crested the summit with a huge sigh of relief. With our most exciting event of the day behind us, we pushed quickly through the rest of our short 10-mile day. 

The precipitation ceased, and by the time we made camp, a few rays of sunshine had begun to peak through the gray. We marveled at how lovely our campsite was skirting White Rocks Lake, assuming that it would be the best one on trail. Oh, how we were wrong! We made a fire with damp blowdown litter and a pocket rocket at full bore, huddling around until its welcoming warmth crept back into our bones. My own personal loss for the day was growing impatient with how long the fire took to dry my socks, inching them closer and closer until a small hole formed on my left toe. All in all, day one was an invigorating yet strangely gentle start to the Uinta Highline Trail. 

DAY 2: WHITE ROCKS LAKE - FOX LAKE 

It had rained a bit overnight; however, my gear and clothing had finally dried to a comfortable point. According to the forecast we had watched so vigilantly in the prior weeks, we were in for bluebird skies and sunshine the rest of the trail. This knowledge, along with feeling there was no need to cook for breakfast, coaxed me out of my bag much faster than the night before. I quickly broke camp, gleefully shoving my tent into the outer mesh of my Windrider, knowing it'd be crispy dry by the time we reached camp that afternoon. In high spirits, we set out for the day and, several hundred yards later, realized we'd have a mile or two of squishing through the boggy ground where the snowfall had already melted. My socks were drenched as quickly as they dried. However, such a minor inconvenience wasn't going to hamper my excitement for the miles ahead. 

We stopped for a second breakfast at the Chepeta Lake trailhead, where we chatted with some hikers being shuttled in on side-by-sides. There was a public bathroom that saved me from the effort of a proper cat-hole and even had toilet paper stocked inside! We made our miles quickly, finishing our shorter 12-mile day by mid-afternoon once again. With the exception of the passes, I came to realize that the hiking was relatively easygoing. Rather than the roller-coaster of green tunnel I had come to be expectant of on the East Coast, we cruised through wide open valleys and stepped over gorgeous alpine streams lined with wildflowers and greenery. Even North Pole pass, our ascent for the day, was a relatively quick up-and-over despite reaching the 12,000-foot mark for the first time on-trail. We made camp just up the ridge from Fox Lake, another stunning site with what appeared to be an old guard station on its eastern edge. The sun was finally out in full effect, and we cooked dinner under bluebird skies and retired early in the evening. 

DAY 3: FOX LAKE - PAINTER BASIN 

The third day marked our first higher mileage day at around 15; however, with the terrain being surprisingly gentle up to that point, I was excited to have a longer day on-trail. Unfortunately, Cody had been experiencing some severe foot pain the night before that hadn't seemed to improve with a good night's rest. We hiked a few miles to what was marked as a junction where he'd make his decision on whether or not to get off the trail. 

The junction was faintly visible. However, it was evident that it would likely require a degree of route finding to make the push to the closest ranger station, about ten miles down from where we were. We were also unsure of if there would even be a ranger stationed inside upon our arrival. After careful consideration, he decided to push on in the hopes that enough vitamin-I and persistence would allow him to "walk it off." While this is not necessarily advisable, he did begin to feel better as the day went on. 

My feet were finally crispy-dry by the time we reached our site in Painter Basin at the base of Anderson Pass. Cody was feeling good enough to push on, and morale was at an all-time high once we had settled enough to truly take in the scene around us. Painter Basin blew our first two campsites out of the water. I would even venture to say that it was a top-five all-time campsite for myself, between my experience with the AT, PCT, LT, and much of Colorado. 

The basin granted us a 360 view of snow-capped mountains with western saddles just prominent enough to enjoy the full scope of a deep-pink late summer sunset. Greenery ran rampant through the valley, juxtaposed by gray silt and faded yellow wheat grass. A stream ran several feet to the south of our site, which was perfectly cold for tempering our swollen feet, and lulled me quickly to sleep with its graceful babble. We had a spirited game of Blisters, a dice game gifted to me by my mentor, which I always carry as a good-luck charm. I was cooked and then dosed off shortly after the sun had finally set behind the crest of the saddle. There was something particularly extraordinary about the stars that night, one of the few occasions I was able to draw a comparison to the brilliance of the Milky Way in Uintas and the same scene on a perfectly clear night back home in Vermont. 

DAY 4: PAINTER BASIN - PORCUPINE PASS 

We started our morning climbing Anderson Pass. While it was certainly one of the more taxing ascents we'd faced so far, with a summit at 12,800', I was just excited to tag King's Peak and enjoy the view from Utah's highest point. With earbuds in and the welcoming adrenaline boost of a good tune, we reached the summit in no time. After enjoying the already-stunning view from atop the pass for a few minutes, Chase and I pushed on to tag what we thought was King's Peak on the eastern slope of the pass. 

We quickly reached the peak after several minutes of ferocious scrambling but couldn't shake the anticlimactic nature of our summit. Another hiker was kind enough to inform us that Kings Peak was actually across the pass on its western slope. Relieved, we clambered down and began ascending the steeper western route. There were certainly a few dicey sections of loose rock, icy shelves, and large step-ups. However, we ultimately reached the outcropping that was undeniably King's Peak. 

According to the map, it was about seven-tenths of a mile to the summit, which took us about a half hour to climb. An old faded sign and a slightly newer wood-burned one leaned against the rock, so of course, we hoisted them both for the sake of a few choice photographs. The view was remarkable, however, not drastically different from what could be captured from the top of Anderson's pass. The novelty of standing just a head above everything else in the Uintas was what made the peak so epic. Our last few miles took us up and over Porcupine Pass, another hefty ascent that brought us above 12,000'. Porcupine was different from the other passes in that rock was a lot less chunky, and fragments of red and sea-green rock mixed beautifully with the gray. There were a couple of looser sections of talus and scree that made the descent a bit technical at times. 

The view into the basin below was perhaps my favorite thus far. A network of streams ran through the greenery below, and evergreens sprung up at the northern end. We intended to camp at the base of the pass where water was readily available; however, upon reaching the bottom, we realized that the forest service had recently treated all of the water with rotenone for the sake of the trout population. We found a spring on the eastern side of the basin and made camp shortly thereafter. There were marmot holes everywhere, but we had no visitors throughout the night. I left the outer wall of my tent rolled up that night, and the sky was so clear that I could see the moon glinting off of the surrounding streams. It was a wonderful site. 

DAY 5: PORCUPINE PASS - DEAD HORSE LAKE 

I began day five on a bittersweet note, as the promise of a warm meal has never quite excited me enough to outweigh the journey coming to a close. Though it was the second-to-last day, I had been so enthralled by the beauty of the Uintas that the notion of returning to the bustling city of Denver had already become heavy and unappealing. Fortunately, we had a longer 17-mile day that would give me plenty of time to savor my surroundings. We hiked under the shadow of Porcupine Pass until the sun finally caught up to us at the edge of the evergreens. 

We stopped for lunch on the border of yet another crystalline lake, and I made sure to truly focus on absorbing all I could from the environment around us. Red Knob pass was our big ascent for the day; I found it to be fairly mellow but more sustained than some of the other passes. On the other side of the pass, we ducked into a dense forest for our final few miles. It was the most green tunnel-esque hiking we'd done so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed the mellow ups and downs weaving through the trees. Our destination that night was Dead Horse Lake. It came out of nowhere as we finally exited the forest. The water was perhaps the deepest shade of emerald I'd ever seen, reminiscent of pictures of Banff I'd drooled over after a friend had made the trip a few years back. Dead Horse Pass loomed above it. 

We sat on the edge of the lake for hours, debating on whether to fully immerse ourselves; however, even dipping my feet in had been trying in terms of temperature. As the sun set, so did we, tucking into our shelters for the last time this trip. Sometime in the dead of night, a large chunk of rock dislodged from the pass and came crashing down, awakening Chase and I briefly until we identified the cause of it. 

DAY 6: DEAD HORSE LAKE - HAYDEN PASS 

As we began climbing Dead Horse Pass on our final morning, its namesake quickly became evident. Loose talus and scree left me consciously seeking out positive rock with each step. The trail ran tightly through large boulders at certain points and wandered all over the pass. It wasn't anything obscenely challenging, but it was certainly our most technical ascent on trail. We had about 20 miles to my car at the eastern trailhead, and the promise of a large pizza each awaiting us, so our pace was certainly quicker than usual. 

After a few miles, we entered the four-mile burn zone we had accounted for in advance of the trip. We opted out of an alternate route called the Jack and Jill Trail for the sake of forgoing a few extra miles and stuck to the Highline instead. The Highline certainly entailed route finding and navigating blowdowns in the thick brush of regrowth through this section; however, it only took an hour or so to reach its perimeter and pop back out to the base of Rocky Sea, our final pass of the trail. We breezed up and over the pass in no time, our cravings for fresh ingredients driving us as though the sky could open up at any moment. 

The final stretch was mellow and certainly more well-used than the miles behind us. The path opened up and wound through an ancient forest of Aspens, Oaks, and Firs. Footbridges had been carefully laid over each river crossing, and we began seeing hikers and horses much more frequently as we neared the western trailhead. We arrived at Hayden Pass around three that afternoon, feeling tired but that sort of adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that comes from completing an endeavor.

We drove into Vernal, about a three-hour trip, and stopped off at Antica Forma, where we did indeed devour a large pizza each. We planned to make it to the Eastern trailhead that night and sleep in the car so we could get a jump on our commute early the next morning. I cannot give enough forewarning about the dirt road getting up to the eastern trailhead from Vernal. Despite only being fifteen or so miles, one should expect this section of the drive to take at least an hour conservatively. Even in an all-wheel drive SUV with decent suspension and clearance, every inch of this dirt road requires the focus to pick your lines in order to not end up on the washboard or bottoming out. In addition, be prepared for side-by-sides god-beaming you with their lightbars around every corner. 

Upon reaching the trailhead, Chase and I decided to car camp in my vehicle while Cody did the same in his. Though I was still feeling sad about the trek's conclusion, I reminded myself to simply be grateful for such a unique and restorative experience. We grabbed a lovely meal at Abby's Cafe in Vernal and then hit the open road. 

All in all, The Uinta Highline Trail was one of the most secluded, scenic, peaceful, and wild areas I've ever had the privilege of crossing through. The six-day stretch was just long enough to propel a sense of adventure while negating the need for a leave of absence or other large disruption in societal life.