Fall Backpacking in Utah’s Mountains


The dog days of summer have drawn to a close, and Utah’s mountains are waiting for their first dose of snow. Now’s the perfect time to head to the hills for a backpacking getaway. You’ll miss out on crowds and scorching temperatures, and you’ll experience fall’s kaleidoscope of changing colors for yourself.

Whether you have just one night to spend or four days to really get away from it all, we’ve got a trip to suit your schedule and your experience level. If you’re a new backpacker, brush up on the basics outlined below. Then grab your gear (see sidebar for some of our favorite picks), and get ready to head out for a backcountry adventure.

Backpacking Basics

There’s no outdoor experience that can compare to the feeling of crawling out of your tent in the morning to an unspoiled alpine view. But if your al fresco overnights have been limited to well-traveled campgrounds, the idea of setting up camp far from civilization may be intimidating at first. With these simple skills and basic pieces of equipment, you’ll be ready for the thrill of your first backpacking trip.

Know before you go. Thoroughly research your destination to avoid unpleasant surprises. What camping or drinking water facilities—if any—are available along the route? How strenuous is the hike in and out? What kind of weather can you expect? Will you need to register for a backcountry permit before heading into the wilderness?

A solid GPS unit is a good idea, but there’s no substitute for an accurate map. Ask at your local outdoor store for recommendations, or check out the 40,000-plus maps and guides available at trails.com. With map in hand, plan your overnight stays ahead of time. Plan on a hiking pace of about 2 miles per hour over rolling terrain on well-used trails, and remember that your pace will be slower over steep slopes or uneven ground. It’s better to cover less ground and arrive at your destination with plenty of setup time than to push on to a further camping spot and arrive too late and too tired.

Trail conditions can change quickly, and even a recent map may not be 100% accurate. Get up-to-date advice from other backpackers by visiting the trail forums at backpacker.com/community. It’s also a good idea to make a last-minute check by contacting the park or national forest you’re planning to visit.

Consider giving your gear a dry run before hitting the trail. Practice setting up and taking down your tent, and cook a meal with your backpacking stove. The last thing you’ll want to do after a day-long hike is struggle with unfamiliar equipment or malfunctioning tools.

Put your best foot forward. Properly fitting boots are a must for any backpacking trip. Chafed and blistered feet can turn your dream trip into a painful nightmare. (Don’t try to make do with trail runners or other athletic-style shoes, no matter how comfortable. A twisted ankle miles from the nearest road can be serious trouble.) If you’re in the market for new boots, buy them several weeks ahead of time and go for a few short hikes to break them in.

Protect your feet with sturdy backpacking socks. Stay away from cotton socks; they absorb sweat and lead to cold, damp and blistered feet. Choose insulating, moisture-wicking materials such as wool, Hollofil or Thermax instead. Bring several extra pairs to make sure your feet stay dry and cushioned at all times.

Pack lightly—but thoroughly. Experts estimate that with modern equipment, your load for a full-length backpacking trip should total 35 pounds or less. When every ounce counts, you want to bring just what you need to stay safe, warm, dry and well-fed. Download a printable gear checklist at backpacking.net/cheklist.html to help you remember all the essentials.

Trips to Try

Emerald Lake, Mount Timpanogos
Trip Length: 2 days (13 miles, round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate (final climb: moderately strenuous)

Located less than an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, Mount Timpanogos is one of the most popular hiking and backpacking destinations in Utah. If you’re making a weekend of it, plan to leave early to ensure you’ll get a prime camping spot. From the Timpooneke Trailhead, it’s a day’s hike to Emerald Lake. The next morning, you can reach the summit of Mount Timp, then have plenty of time to retrieve your gear and head down the Primrose Cirque on your return.

Under-the-Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Trip Length: 3 days (22 miles, one way)
Difficulty: Strenuous

Escape the crowds with this trek across rugged terrain to Rainbow Point, the highest point in the park. You’ll encounter sweeping vistas, shady wooded areas and bizarre rock formations. There are several camping areas along the way to break up your trip. If you’re hiking the entire trail, plan to shuttle back to the start by leaving a car at Rainbow Point. Pack plenty of water: there’s no source of drinking water after Yellow Creek Campground, three miles in.

Four Lakes Basin, High Uintas Wilderness Area
Trip Length: 2 days (17 miles, round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate

Travel above the treeline and explore this series of high alpine lakes. Beginning at the Highline Trailhead, you’ll ramble through meadows and along ridgelines before arriving at the basin. These lakes are popular with hikers and anglers, but if you make it to the far side of Dean Lake, you’ll be rewarded with relative solitude (and a fair chance at a fresh-caught trout dinner).

Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon, Grand Gulch Primitive Area
Trip Length: 3 days (23 miles, one way)
Difficulty: Moderate–strenuous

Immerse yourself in Utah’s prehistoric past with this trail that winds through a series of spectacular archaeological sites. Allow plenty of time to explore the Anasazi ruins and rock art you’ll find along the way. During the late summer, this area is subject to extreme temperatures and flash flooding, so fall is the best time of year to go.


About Author

Molly writes about fitness and nutrition from her home in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her teaching history, hiking the Gorge, or hitting the archery range.

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