Every trip starts with a little bit of dreaming and then reality sets in.
The idea to hike the Uinta Highline Trail got in my head after watching a documentary about of group of guys who did it back in 2018. Seemed like a fun time, 103 miles in a little over a week. Seemed extremely doable too. I figured if you averaged 2 miles an hour each day and your big days were about 16 miles you could complete the whole thing in a little over 8 days.
We drove out to Utah Saturday morning and arrived at Hayden Pass early Sunday to pick up our friend who had drove down from Montana. The plan was to leave her car at the west end and start hiking to it from the east trailhead at McKee Draw. We got her and got to McKee by 8AM then hit the trail running.
We were all excited to be out there and the first few miles were beautiful. The trail weaved it’s way through pines and aspen trees, we spotted deer, all sorts of birds and of course had a few cows to share the trail with. We covered the miles fairly quickly but got lost along the way a few times. Occasionally the path would disappear in a field of fallen trees and we’d spend the next 15 minutes relocating the trail. It slowly became exhausting. After an 11 mile hike on only a few hours of sleep we decided to call it a day. Unfortunately, we hadn’t found water... We ended the day with a little over 2 liters of water each, not very much for a full day ahead plus making dinner. The next reliable water source was at the end of the next day.
We woke up early on the second day hoping to crush some miles and get to the water before the heat of the day. It was a rough morning and we were all aware of our need of water. We moved fast and then slow and then fast again as our sense of urgency changed throughout the hike. After a very long 10 miles we crossed the Old Carter Military Road and saw the first water for miles. Unfortunately, it was devastated by cow patties everywhere... Long Park Resivour was only a mile off from here so we knew we weren’t out of it yet. After a debate about the best way to get to water and an extremely friendly hunter offering us Powerade and water, we bushwhacked our way off trail to the road down to the reservoir. As we walked the road a truck drove by and asked us where we were heading. We told them we needed water and were heading up the mountain bypassing a 2 mile section of the Highline. Graciously, they gave us a ride up the mountain to an even better water source. This man, Quinn, and his family will forever have my gratitude for their help when we were so close to calling it quits.
After filling our bellies with water and having our spirits greatly lifted we continued another half mile up the road to camp near a beautiful alpine lake (semi-alpine I guess). It was a welcome end to a long day. Quinn stopped by again at one point to take some trash off our backs and offer us a few cold beverages, again, forever grateful for this mountain man. We traded stories about our mountain adventures. He said he was jealous of our journey and we, in turn, were jealous of his family and ease of access to such beautiful mountains to enjoy. It was a perfect ending to a long day.
The third day we planned to get up early, it was the first day we would spend in the alpine. We had three passes to cover for the day, Leidy Pass, Gabbro Pass and Deadman Pass. They were tough, 3 big gains in one day, but it was a beautiful morning. We were all excited to be above treeline finally. Every view was beautiful and the landscape was rugged. We came across another thru-hiker early on in the day, he was moving fast, but it was nice to know we weren't the only ones out there. Before we knew it we were up and over the first two passes, working our way down from Gabbro Pass to Deadman Lake where we enjoyed an early lunch as the clouds began to gather overhead.
I won't lie, not a huge fan of afternoon storms, especially not being in the alpine during afternoon storms. I sat by the lake nervous and ready to get moving at a moments notice as we ate lunch. It looked like the storms would hold off, but I was still on edge after my last time being in a pass with thunderstorms (lightening strikes within 20 feet at 12,000' in the Wind River Range). Again, we quickly made our way over the next pass and began working our way down as it began to lightly rain. I decided to move towards treeline a little faster and before I knew it I could hear thunder in the distance. Luckily it was coming from the other side of the pass so the storm had already passed us. We got down, regrouped and continued on, it was getting late in the day...
We all knew from the beginning that there were going to be long, hard days on this trip. There wouldn't be one or two of them, there would be several of them. Going in, I had total confidence in this group, every one of these guys is tough, they all have some awesome adventures, climbs and hikes on their resumes and none of them are quitters. As the day drug on we got slower and slower, and it became apparent to me that we couldn't sustain this pace and still finish anywhere near on time. I wasn't 100% sure what was happening yet but we took a break to refill water and I brought up the idea of bailing out and said my concerns to the group. One of our party was having issues with their shoes and because of that they weren't feeling great about a fast pace. Nothing monumental, but enough to make them not enjoy the hike and enough to give the rest of us an unfun advantage pace wise. I understood this but I hoped this would improve. We continued on to Chepeta Lake to camp for the night, slow and stead, passing a moose, several deer and some other thru-hikers finishing the last 3 days of their week long journey on the Highline. I dreamed of the emotions they must've been feeling.
When we arrived at Chepeta Lake it was approaching 6:30 PM, a long day of moving. There was one truck in the parking lot and my mind had leaned farther and farther towards giving up on the Highline. I regret some of the way I handled the situation but right then and there, with that singular truck our best way back to the car I stopped walking, looked at everyone and said I want to be done with this hike. I didn't feel great about those words, but almost every bone in my body was telling me it was the right call. There was obviously some pushback to this idea, none of us are quitters. No one wanted to go home and say they failed. We, as a group, opted to mull the options over that night and hope that if we decided to bail there would be other chance to hitch a ride back to our car in the morning. It was a solemn night in camp, we talked sparingly and everyone had different thoughts on their mind. I didn't sleep much that night, preparing for either option the next morning. The thoughts of how do we finish this hike on one side of my head and how do we get to our cars 3 hours away on the other.
The morning was cool, with the sky already overcast, ready for the afternoon thunderstorms we expected most of the trip. We had one last discussion and decided that this journey was over. It was a tough call to make. Two of us decided we'd get walking and work our way down the road to cell signal and get back to one of our cars. We figured we could get there by dark at least.
Long story short, we made it about 7 miles down a 20 mile dirt road before we got a hitch with some awesome people. It didn't hit us until we were halfway down the mountain that it was over. As we watched the high peaks fade away and the forest turn to desert we contemplated what we had decided to do. We rode in the back of their truck with their dog Mattie and they graciously took us all the way down to the town of Whiterocks where we waited for another ride to get us back to McKee Draw. The cab that picked us up was operated by two natives from the Uinta and Ouray Reservation, they were a funny pair. They were confused how we ended up in Whiterocks without a car, they had stories to tell about the entire area and they were fun to be with. Their stories removed my tensions, the pair were welcome comedic relief. Before we knew it after hours of riding in cars and waiting around we were back at my car heading for pizza, drinks and to pickup our friends still waiting at Chepeta Lake. We watched a storm work its way over the range and knew they were probably sitting in it up there.
Soon enough we were heading back up the road towards the lake, packing up and heading back down yet again to go get the other car. It was an equally long day of moving once we finally arrived at a place to sleep.
Once we got down and re-evaluated how we were all feeling and what we felt was possible we decided to give King's Peak a shot. Kings is the highest point in Utah at 13,528' and its pretty isolated, 14 miles one way to the summit. We figured with lighter packs, improved morale and some footwear changes we could easily cover the distance in two days. 8 miles in to setup a sort of base camp, early morning, 6 miles to the summit, then 14 down and back to the car. Piece of cake.
We got a bite to eat, grabbed a couple odds and ends from the store then headed to the trailhead. Of course, as soon as we got to the trailhead around 2:30, it started pouring down rain... Luckily, the rain quickly moved on and it was a beautiful afternoon in the mountains, it felt almost like fall. We talked and laughed and joked as we hiked up to Dollar Lake. It was a pretty hike, interspersed between alpine meadows, dense pines and groves of aspen trees. Eventually we made our way into the alpine and could start to see Kings Peak off in the distance. We spent that evening camped near Dollar Lake with many other groups around, almost all getting ready to hike Kings the next day.
Friday morning we were up and on the trail around 4AM, early start for a long day. We quickly worked our way up to Gun Sight Pass before sunrise as the alpenglow began to light up the tops of the mountains around us. It was a cool morning, with a nice breeze that kept us moving. We would occasionally stop to take a break in the dark but the wind would get us moving again to warm back up. Near the top of the pass we ran into a pair of brothers heading the same way as us, backpacking a loop around the pass. It was nice to know we weren't alone up there that early.
As we crossed over into Anderson Pass the sun was racing to the sky, it was looking to be a beautiful day and a beautiful summit. The two brothers were just ahead of us, heading for the saddle up to Kings Peak. We were going a steady pace, enjoying the morning and taking in the views. About halfway up to 700' rock hop to the summit we ran into a mother and her two kids who had been attempting the summit. Her son had made it to the top but her and her daughter decided that they had gotten what they wanted and were turning back a few hundred feet below the summit. A bit of a shame since they were really really close.
We continued up the ridge, getting closer and closer, finding a bit of snow right below the final little climb up to the top of the ridge. Kings is a series of towers that each look like they were stacked there a long time ago and were just waiting to fall over into the valley. We were at the final tower.
As we climbed up onto the summit plateau, the two brothers we'd been playing leapfrog with were climbing down. We'd have the entire top to ourselves.
It was a good feeling to be up there, to be at the top again. I had had it in my mind that this was a consolation prize with not getting the Highline done but that was me loosing focus and feeling bad about myself. I don't do these things to say I did them, I don't hike 100 miles to say its done, I don't climb a peak to say I bagged it, I don't paddle a river to say I've done the whole thing. I do it because I enjoy the beauty of it.
I enjoy being in the mountains and wild places, I enjoy the journeys I have in these often remote locations and I thoroughly enjoy the sights I get to see along the way. At the end of the day, that's a big reason I do all this, I do it for the views... I've seen a collection of things that a fraction of the world will ever get to see in their lives and that collection only continues to grow with each journey. The crazy thing about it is that my collection is a drop in the ocean compared to what else it out there to experience. At the end of the day I realized it wasn't about completing the trail, it was about the stories and the places that I brought back with me after it.
After summiting, we made our way back to the tents and then to the car. I was happy we had gotten up early with the parade that was coming up the mountain as we descended. We had the unique experience of enjoying a pretty popular summit all by ourselves with extremely wonderful weather (minus the wildfire smog). It was a long couple miles back to the car. The day seemed to be continuous monotony of walking.
Eventually we made it back to the car with some very sore feet and a hankering for Mexican food. Luckily there was a town about 30 minutes away with just the kind of grub we were looking for. We filled our bellies and drove another hour or so to camp near Flamming Gorge. It was a warm evening and we were all a mixed of tired out and pumped up. Excited about what we had been able to do with the change of plans but tired from all the moving. We slept well that night.
In the morning, we woke up and moved around lazily trying to get the car halfway cleaned up for the drive back home. We said our goodbyes to our friend from Montana and headed back east. It was the usual boring drive and we made it home the next afternoon.
This trip got me to remember, don't go into the mountains without some wiggle room in your plan. Don't bite off more than you can chew, but if you do eat as much as you can. Last but not least, pack less food, you probably won't starve and your back will thank you for it.
My next big journey is most likely the PCT in 2021 if it doesn't get canceled due to COVID. I'm excited and I'm kind of happy we didn't get the Highline. It showed me the things I'll have to be open to if I want to complete the PCT, it also showed me that sometimes you need a zero day to get you going again. I'm looking forward to me next adventure in the mountains, it'll be the culmination of years of dreaming...
The Hopeless Wanderer