LoneGrowth

The Uinta Highline Experience

So I’m about a year late to this post, but later is better than never. This is a lot to unpack and I’ve thought about just posting the photos, but that’s what Facebook is for, so without further ado….my Utah experience with Daniel for our attempted Uinta Highline Trail thru-hike.

Day 1 – August 21, 2020:

On our early departure from Dulles International Airport I did something, I would say was rather ambitious. The Starbucks in our terminal was closed, so I had the audacity to travel to another terminal with an open Starbucks, which took longer than I had originally anticipated getting back only a few minutes before boarding time. Dan settled for the $2 coffee at one of the convenience stores, which was a good call. I’m sure he’d love to tell you about it. 😅

After our flight landed in Utah, we pretty much Ubered everywhere we needed to go. Economically, we should have rented a car for the first day, though we didn’t need to worry about parking and had the opportunity to learn a bit about the Salt Lake and Mormon communities from the drivers. Over the course of the day we:

  1. We got an early check-in at the cheapest motel we could find, walking distance away from a bus station in case we decided to take a bus part way to the trailhead. I remember there being an issue with the early check-in. We were willing to pay the extra fee, but something with the doors were not functioning. Not important…

  2. We then hit up REI to pick up the Iso-butane (fuel for stove), that I preordered (can’t fly with this).

  3. Then, quick easy food at Wendy’s next to that REI while Dan asks me about the most boring person I’ve ever met.

  4. Then, a coffee place I wanted to check out. While there, we found out that Marla, who we had planned on meeting later for dinner, which I may have mentioned on this blog before as NPA, (No Permanent Address a.k.a. No Pussies Allowed), was currently returning something to the REI which we were still in the proximately of.

  5. I caught up with Marla who I had not seen in person since 2017. We had hiked approximately 100-miles semi-together from Gatlinburg, TN to Hampton, TN on the AT (Appalachian Trail). Conveniently, Marla had hiked the Uinta trail a week prior and was giving us the lay of the land on water sources, the trouble she encountered navigating the trail with a GPS, and how she got to the trailhead. The original plan was for us to go all together, however due to a job conflict Marla decided to hike it earlier. From her recommendations, we decided and organized to take the bus to Vernal, then taxi from Vernal to the trailhead. Originally, I had scheduled something with Uber, but due to the poor interface at the time, there appeared to be zero guarantees.

  6. Back to motel to chill.

  7. To adjust to the altitude, we decided to hike Terrace Hills, which is supposed to have beautiful views of Salk Lake City. However due to a nearby fire or maybe the California fires (was never clear on that), the city was covered in smoke thick as fog. We should have seen a bit of the city in the following photo. I used this time to get to know Dan better. I was struggling a bit in the dry heat, though I might have been dehydrated. On the contrary, Dan was vocalizing how good he had felt. At that moment, I was sure Dan was in better shape than I was, though I don’t think I told him then. He did realize it later though. 😅 I might have been feeling guilty on not preparing myself for the hike with the same intensity as he did.

9. Dan, Marla, an I met back up at the East Liberty Tap House, which was located in really nice part of Salt Lake City. The new was that Marla had transitioned from long distance hiking to climbing in her free time, but was also in the early stages of starting a company that is now called “Wild Sage Mountain Guides.” The company focuses on all-female backpacking trips for beginners in the Uinta Mountains. Marla is a badass, as well as dependable, so if you’re interested in exploring the Uinta Mountains, check them out!

10. Gelato

11. An interesting Uber driver back to the motel (I’m looking at you Dan) and then 😴.

Day 2 – 10.4 Miles

Early morn we set off to take the bus (that we made the efforts to buy tickets for the day before) to Vernal, UT, which is the closest town to the Eastern trailhead.

This might have been the first and only time I’ve been to a bus station, which Dan got a kick out of. For those of my friends who know about Apple Bees, it’s the same sort of deal, however based on our experience, I think the preconception matched up. 😅🤣

Said and done it was okay, just funny looking back on our different expectations versus what happened. That said, the bus station was a bit tricky to navigate, though I wasn’t alone in the confusion. I’m implying Dan was also confused, but I believe only the regulars and the drivers had a clue. In fact, we almost boarded the wrong bus twice due to misguidance from the people that worked the station. Fortunately, we did eventually board the bus we were supposed to be on. Maybe after an hour past our scheduled departure time, we finally boarded the bus and was greeted by the driver. I think the first thing he said to us was that he would not be wearing a mask and would not expect us to either, yet then said it would be good if we had them though because it might help with the unresolved disaster of a mess the restroom was in. Also, due to the restroom stank 🤢, windows were down, so it was a bit chilly 🥶.

Upon arriving in Vernal, UT, we grabbed a quick bite and then made the call to the taxi service we called yesterday to verify we could get a ride to the trailhead before booking tickets on the bus. Well, the taxi service to our surprise went back on their word, informing us they could not transport us due to a failing transmission in their only taxi. Dan was like, did the transmission go out since yesterday? They said it has been going on for months. Dan, visibly frustrated, said you really put us in a bad place. We planned our day around getting this ride. We took a Greyhound all the way from Salt Lake City. They then said, well we can try to take you in the car with the transmission issues, but cash only. Dan replied with a thank you and that we would call them back once we found an ATM. Dan turned to me justifying why he got upset with them on the phone. I reassured him and said I would not have been able to navigate the conversation as calmly and politely (considering the context) hearing that news for the first time.

In order to avoid dealing with them further, Dan advised me to find another taxi in Vernal, but unfortunately I could not find a single alternative. After finding an ATM, we called back and they pushed back again that their vehicle could not make the trip given their current transmission issue. Dan repeated himself some more on the gravity of the mess up, which eventually resulted in them giving us the number to their only competitor, which had no issue getting us to the trailhead.

Number for the Reliable Taxi which took us from Vernal, UT to the Eastern Highline Trailhead

Trailhead – 1:30 PM

Those first 10-miles were killer. So much so, I ate all of my heavy stuff the first night. You know I was carrying two packets of Udon Noodles on top of the 36 ProBars I had packed? 😮 Yeah they’re yum 🤤, but avoid the heavy yum items when long distance backpacking. I’m going to go on a bit of a rant about my food…

Very quickly, Dan and I really started to hate the the ProBars we opted and committed to for this hike. I had high opinions that simply backfired when it became the only bar we consumed, day in and day out. The food you eat between your start and end is important. Yes, the body is a machine and you need to fuel that machine, but pick foods that you have tried and look forward to. I made this mistake on my thru-hike and had forced myself through hundreds of bars. While I was able to force myself on the AT with hiker hunger, I’ve found it harder to force myself now.

The stupid part, for lack of a more educated word, with the internet at my finger tips is that the ProBars were my idea over the course of 10-months of preparation. Dan trusting my course of action, followed in my footsteps and brought the same bars. Another mistake, were those EPIC Maple Salmon bites. They were great on our Spring and Summer Backpacking trips, however I got really sick of them on this trip. I don’t think I could stomach to ever look at them again. I’m having a hard time now just imagining them. 🤢

So the trail, as we expected did not have many markers. Mostly when the trail (#025) divided with another official trail. The pattern we were following was what looked like a trail, cairns on passes, and the GPS once we felt like we were lost. That said, we walked off the trail a few times, especially for the first 25 miles (trail up until Leidy Peak). The first 25 miles of the trail while apart of the thru-hike of the Uinta Highline Trail, was seldom trekked through. If Marla did not give us her sage advice prior, I think we would have walked off trail more than just a few times.

Trail 025 Marker

The first day was not only the heaviest, but also the highest I’ve ever been while backpacking, so pace was naturally slow.

Sleeping at high altitudes was quite the experience. Throughout the night, I kept waking up from shortness of breath, which sort of resembled the shortness of breathe you’d experience while having a panic attack.

Day 3 – 20.6 Miles

Sunrise with Dan

With the intention of doing big miles, we really speeded through the first half of the day. At one point we met up with a group of six other individuals also doing the through hike like us. While talking with them, both me and the guide from the other group, Steve lead our groups about half a mile in the wrong direction. In order to avoid backtracking, we decided to trek through what I would call steep brush until we found the trail again. From our conversation, I would say Steve and I had similar aspirations with hiking. Once we got back up the the trail, we separated, and didn’t see them again until maybe 2-hours after Dan and I made camp.

Actually, you know what, we did see them a little before the cows (as you can see above in the photo) at a water source.

As soon as we reached Leidy Peak, Dan and I experienced our first taste of the Uinta Mountains, which consisted of the prominent exposed mountain terrain. Cloudy and unfamiliar with the terrain, Dan and I were a bit nervous. Plus, Marla warned us not to pass the passes in the afternoon, which was what we were currently doing. I think what we were trying to do was beat the storm. Thankfully, the storm had passed.

I remember this section of the hike being the longest section of exposed trail.

So, generally passes are quick, but this section as you can see circled above, is one long section of exposed mountain, similar to a plateau, but not quite. We knew this hiking in, but did not actualize it until the wind started to pick up. I think the game plan was to hike off trail toward the trees if we heard thunder.

Looking back at how far we’ve hiked

After our last pass for the day, pictured above you could see for miles. None of the pictures I have do a justice. I mean yeah they are aesthetically pleasing, but nothing can compare to seeing this majestic landscape in person.

As we made our way down the pass to Deadman Lake, Dan and I could see a family of moose down by another lake to our left, maybe a mile away from where we were camping for the night. There was some concern, but figured they were too far away to be a bother. Bears are also another thing to consider however, we read prior that bears typically do not spend very much of their time at high altitudes.

The lake was super chill, though too cold to swim in unfortunately, however maybe that was a good thing, hence the name. 😁

The group we met earlier in the day passed us by at camp and I remember one of them saying the exact words, “they crushed us” as they passed. Despite their collective competitive nature, they overall seemed like a nice group of people. A bit before the sun went down, I managed more time to talk to them. After talking to Steve a bit more, I found out we were in the same line of work with similar career backgrounds, which explained our meticulousness planning with trips.

Later in the night, the sky had cleared up and I saw more stars than I had ever seen before. 😃 I tired to wake up Dan to look at them, but he was out cold. 😴 Next morning, Dan was talking about how he tried to wake me up at one point to look at the stars. 😂

Day 4 – 20.4 Miles

Weathered Sign

This might have been my favorite day. We were making good time and it did not start to rain until we were up and over North Pole pass. 🙂

Getting out of camp was a bit weird. We couldn’t find the trail until we were on the other side of Deadman Lake. I’m thinking the actual trail went around to the right instead of the left of the trail opposed to where the GPS routed us.

Morning Vibes

Hiking up and over the mini-pass after Deadman Lake, we began to really get a feel for the Uinta valleys. Everything below tree line after that mini-pass for the most part had been a walk in the park.

Thinking back, the only two challenges hiking the portion of the Uinta Highline Trail that we had hiked was the distance and timing the weather.

Crossed paths with some hunters, who looked to be wearing ultralight hunting gear. They were having a hard time finding small game from what I remember. We didn’t see any either.

Looking back

North Pole Pass without a doubt felt like the longest pass we trekked over, with several false summits. A false summit, is basically a point up ahead that looks like the top, but is not.

Spring on the way up North Pole Pass right before the Up, Up, Up.

Looking Back Again

North Pole Pass

North Pole Pass

North Pole Pass Looking Westward

As we were making our way down off the pass, it started to rain. This was another pass, we decided to pass in the afternoon. In fact, we passed every pass in the afternoon. 😅 At one point it was pouring, however we were in the valley at this point. We trekked on through until it eventually stopped, though the weather did eventually dictate our evening.

Social Grey Jay

The valley after North Pole pass was absolutely stunning, rich with a variety of colors.

Close to what I would say was the end of the day, we got caught up in a thunder storm while looking for a spot to camp with a water source. We found one just in the nick of time. In fact, once we found some nice spots and started setting up camp, the lightning and explosive thunder were zero!!! seconds apart. On top of that, we were more than 10,000 feet high and Dan, making light of our situation was informing me about this group of scouts who were struck by lightning setting up their tents while we were currently still setting up our tents. 😬

After waiting out the storm, we filled up our bottles in the river nearby.

Day 5 – 15.0 Miles

Weather for the most part had been beautiful as we trekked up to Anderson Pass, again in the afternoon 😅 which made at least this section feel like the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’d like to point out that it wasn’t necessarily the climb that was difficult but the pace at which we were climbing. 😤

Another backpacker in the valley a little before the up, up, up to Andersen Pass informed us with news that there had been a forest fire spotted close the trail after Dead Horse Pass. Dan and I thought and bounced ideas on what we should do. With blue skies, we decided to trek on forward and see what we could see from King’s Peak, which is the highest point in Utah. I was really looking forward to those views, considering our near perfect weather, at the time.

Looking Back Eastward

Half way up we started to see some dark clouds forming, then we started to hear thunder 😟. With probably 25% of the trail left to the top, we kept on pushing, but harder. Dan was noticeably anxious, but smart enough to keep calm. I on the other hand was delirious, struggling with intense pressure to get up and over the pass as quickly as possible, which Dan undoubtedly witnessed. 😂😅

Top of Andersen Pass looking Eastward

Top of Andersen Pass looking Westward

Once at the top, I personally laid down for about a minute, took two photos and began to trek down with Dan (skipped King’s Peak for obvious reasons). I quickly noticed that the climb down included some of the steepest grades I’ve ever hiked down. The trail for the first quarter mile was practically on shelves with some loose gravel in the mix. One misstep was for sure a certain death.

I don’t mean to fear monger. Doing it and thinking about will be different. I personally have a hard time thinking about it, but when you are there in practice, you know you can do it. In order to continue hiking with the evident sign that it was about to storm, we needed to put all our energy into focusing on what we could control, which primarily was our footing in order to safely get down without rushing.

Tension for a moment or two subsided when it looked as if the storm had been moving Eastward,

however a mile later it began to hail. As soon as we found tree cover, we immediately set up camp to wait out the storm.

While waiting, I contacted my parents with my Garmin inReach GPS messaging device to confirm the news we heard about the forest fire:

The map above shows our current position on the right to the location of the fork where the trail closure started.

After learning this was the end of the road for us, we promptly planned our escape route after the rain had subsided. Well actually, we were yelling back and forth (to be heard) in between the thunder while it was still pouring. After realizing there really was a forest fire, Dan and I felt the immediate need to figure out how we were going to get off trail and back to Salt Lake City. Going into this hike we knew getting off trail would be a challenge, though despite being in a desolate area there was an obvious 15-mile route (#057) all down hill, not even a mile further down the Highline Trail, which ran along Yellow Stone Creek to Swift Creek Campground.

I made moves to contact Marla earlier, but realized that I did not have her number. Fortunately!!!, I knew someone that did (Apache)! As for the rest of the planning, the messages in the images below pretty much cover it! 😁

Side Note:

  • The time stamps may be set to the EST time zone.

For the rest of the evening, we just chilled. We were both pretty bummed out. I mean, we were more than half way finished. Because we had hustled 64 miles in the first three and a half days, we were set for lower mileage trekking for the remaining three days with 37.6 miles left.

Dan was convinced some person forgot to put out their camp fire, which is a fair assessment considering staggering number of forest fires started per year by people, however post trip we found that the fire was naturally caused by a lightning strike. Here is more information in an article I found dated the day after we started our hike: “East Fork Fire forces people to evacuate High Uintas Wilderness” (www.sltrib.com).

We noticed that we had a pretty sweet camp site nearby a stream after the weather cleared up.

Day 6 – 15.6 Miles (15 miles off-trail)

Fork of Highline Trail (025) and Yellowstone Creek Trail (057)

I don’t know if it was because I didn’t have to eat another ProBar the rest of my life after today or if it was because today was our last day backpacking, but there felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, Dan and I were making stellar time and we would have finished if there hadn’t been a forest fire, but backpacking while rewarding, is hard work.

I should mention with the looming danger of a forest fire, there was also a little bit of uneasiness or rather the fear of an unknown. At the time, we were largely unaware how large and how fast the fire had been spreading. For instance, wild fires can spread several miles in an hour in forested regions and even faster in grass lands.

By the way, I’ve mapped this section out to be 15 miles on Gaia GPS, but it felt way longer than 15 miles. I was thinking at least 20 miles.

Aside from the easy down hill hiking, the trail wasn’t too exciting, so in order to get through it faster and distract myself, I popped in my headphones. I sort of knew this already from Katie’s (Apache’s) various hints at it previously, but it did not fully click until Dan’s reaction and then imitation of my fast paced hiking. According to Dan, it appeared as if I was dance dance revolutionizing down the trail. In the moment, I felt a little naked. I didn’t realize fully that my speed hiking had looked like dancing. 😅

I think this is what I was listening to at the time:

Maybe an hour or two after arriving at Swift Creek campground, Marla had arrived! She even brought us some beer 🍻 which was lit 🔥.

Marla without a doubt was a life saver! In order to put her support in perspective, she not only took off work, but took a 6-hour round trip just to pick us up! I cannot express how grateful Dan and I were into words. 😃 Thanks again, Marla! 🌊🔥

Marla said she knew we would eventually contact her sooner or later, prepared to pick us up even. She heard news of the fire the same day we started the Highline trail, though since, I had never provided her with my GPS contact information, she did not have a way to contact us, which I must admit was silly of me. 😥😐😅

On our return, to keep things simple for Marla, we checked into a hotel near Parks City.

Day 7:

Day 7 was primarily a rest day. Aside from rest, we picked up a rental car, which we then used to pick up food at the neighboring Walmart. After that, we took advantage of the available amenities such as the laundry and the surprisingly nice hotel pool & hot tub situation, followed by more resting. 🧘‍♂️

Then, later in the day, we treated Marla to dinner to express our eternal gratitude. 🙇🏻‍♂️🙇🏻‍♂️

Day 8:

Unplanned and eager to explore the area, we set out on a hike Marla suggested the day before. I’ll cover the specifics of this hike in a future blog post.

After, we hit up In-N-Out Burger 🤤.

Day 9 ✈ Travel day

Concerned, I messaged Steve to see if their group had made it out. To my surprise, he was largely unaware of the forest fire. He then mentioned that they did see small fires to the south near Moon Lake while camping just below Porcupine Pass, but no smoke. After sending him the location of the fire, he realized and said, that they “must have been fingers off the fire.” They did hear about the trail closures after Red Knob Pass, however the only logical exit off trail was to finish the trail.

NameUinta Highline Trail
LocationUinta Mountains, Utah
Trailhead/ParkingEast End – McKee Draw (Off of Route 191)
West End – Hayden Pass (Off of Route 150)
Trail Name Uinta Highline Trail (#025)
Hike Length101-107 Miles (Depends on Source)
AllTrails LinkHighline Trail

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