I first discovered the Uinta National Forest in my early twenties. Since then, the area’s isolated wildness has resonated with a place deep within my soul. One of the few mountain ranges in America that runs east to west, the High Uinta wilderness is home to more than 2,000 alpine lakes, lush meadows filled with wildflowers, and some of Utah’s most rugged peaks. Here you can discover yourself, and find refuge from the busyness of the daily grind. From day hikes and afternoon picnics to grueling backpack trips deep into the backcountry, the Uintas offer a diverse range of recreation to all who seek it.
Within an hour and half you can be out of Salt Lake City and far enough up Mirror Lake Highway to feel like you’ve really escaped. My family regularly enjoys Sunday afternoon drives to Moosehorn Lake, Trial Lake, Pass Lake, or Butterfly Lake for evening campfires, relaxing fishing, and seriously good grub. Although these easily accessible lakes can be a bit crowded during the high season, there’s always a quiet spot to be found. Sometimes, we leave after work on Friday to pitch a tent and pull out our comfy camping chairs for a quick overnight stay at Mirror Lake Campground or Washington Lake.
Now that my two boys are getting older, I’m itching to put on more than a day pack. I can’t wait to get them into the wilderness and onto the trails that made me first fall in love with the place. My favorite green book, High Uintas Backcountry, is beside me now and I’m lusting over its pages as I relive memories and dog-ear pages for trips to come. This book provides insightful fishing recommendations, usage information, available water, and tips like this one on a kid-friendly, overnight trip to Divide Lakes: “You couldn’t ask for a better nature trail that offers a wide variety of scenery, complete with fishing holes.”
The High Uintas Backcountry is endless with over 1,700 miles of trails, and it would take years to discover all her hidden gems, even for the most seasoned hiker. Hopefully, these ideas inspire you to find your own adventure, whether it be only for a few hours on a Sunday evening or a week-long sabbatical along the Highline Trail. Here are a few of my favorite Uinta destinations to visit, some near, some far, but all worth it.
- I’m shocked by how many people, young and old, make it to the top of Bald Mountain. It may be just two miles up, but bring plenty of water. The views of Hayden and Agassiz Peaks will take your breath away, and it’s worth every quickened breath.
- Bring a map and explore as many as 25 lakes along the 6.5-mile Clyde Lake Loop Trail. Overnight camping is excellent if you want more time to fish and take in your surroundings.
- Don’t forget a camera if you meander to Ruth Lake. Beautiful waterfalls and meadows will keep your shutter clicking. You’re likely to spot small wildlife along this easy 3/4-mile hike that even the littlest ones will enjoy. Be careful though, you might miss the tiny parking lot!
- Even though Mirror Lake is often crowded, the quick and easy hike around its sparkling waters is enjoyable for all ages and abilities. Skip a rock or two and breathe in the fresh mountain air. This is also a wonderful campground for families, but be sure to make reservations in advance!
- Starting at the Trial Lake/Crystal Lake Trailheads you can head up to Long Lake or Island Lake. Both are popular for their close proximity to the highway. Head off the main trail up Mt. Watson or Haystack Mountain for grand views and a longer hike.
- Not sure you want to find yourself all alone in the wilderness but yearn to try your luck at a real backpacking trip? Scenic Spider Lake is a well-trod destination for good reason, and the moderate 7.8-mile hike will have you ready for a warm supper.
- Park at the Pass Lake Trailhead and leave the world behind as you head up to the pine-filled Cuberant Basin. Take your pick from five pristine alpine lakes: Lake 2 is the most used, so skip ahead to Lake 3 and find spring water, then visit Lake 4, which makes my heart leap every time!
- Ryder Lake is a hefty nine miles from the Christmas Meadows Trailhead, but there’s plenty to see and good camping along the way. Once there, explore the higher reaches of the basin and maybe even summit a peak or two.
- I’m not going to fib and say that I’ve “bagged” King’s Peak, which towers over 13,000 feet, but I plan on doing so…really soon! The 29-mile roundtrip from Henry’s Fork Trailhead is on my bucket list. Get up there this summer, and let me know how it is!
Yes, happiness abounds here, but don’t forget that you’re in the wilderness. Be prepared for your adventure, read up, and know what you’re doing and where you’re going. I have almost never spent the night in the Uintas and not heard the clap of thunder or seen the flash of lightning. The weather can turn in an instant, but it’s part of the magic if you’re willing to brave the elements. The nights are chilly, even at the height of summer.
Although rarely seen, bears live here and evidence of their presence is everywhere. Other creatures make these mountains home too. Respect them and keep your distance. Darkness will settle sooner than you may expect, so be prepared with headlamps. It’s a long way back for help if you’ve lost your footing or your way. If available, check in at trailheads and write down your destination and when you plan to return. Really, just follow the Boy Scout motto and “Be prepared.”
Information and Resources
Heber-Kamas Ranger District: Call 435-783-4338 for information on closures and openings, as well as other pertinent information.
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service: Information on camping, horseback riding trails, ATV use, and more can be found on this site. fs.usda.gov/uwcnf
High Uintas Backcountry By Jeffrey & Brad Probst: Even with the Internet, this is still the best resource on the Uintas. These guys know their trails! REI carries this book.
Developed Campsite Bookings: You can drive around, find a spot, and pay the ranger to camp, but on busy weekends and holidays I would never suggest this. Make a reservation by calling the National Recreation Service at 877-444-6777 or visit their website at recreation.gov to reserve your spot.
Annual Pass (the best way to go): $45
7-day Pass: $12
3-day Pass: $6