Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Highline Trail - A Guide

The Highline Trail! Yes indeed. I get quite a few questions on it from time to time. This is (hopefully) a straightforward description that answers those questions.

Where is it?

The Uinta Range, in northwest Utah, is Utah's highest range, and a western extension of the Rocky Mountains. Uniquely, it runs east-west rather than north-south.

Why should I hike it?

Big passes, high alpine terrain, hundreds of magnificent lakes. Beautiful wildflowers, great fishing, and solitude. Need I say more?

How long is it? Anywhere from 70-100 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 6-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1.  The "true" trailhead on Highway 191 (105 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 15-20 miles are mostly a forest walk, and don't fit the high alpine theme of the rest of the route.
  2. Leidy Peak/Hacking Lake trailhead (80 miles). This trailhead is located at what I'd consider to be the "true" eastern end of the classic High Uintas. The access road is fairly good. This is the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chipeta Dam trailhead (70 miles). This trailhead makes for the shortest hike. The access road is fairly rough, although doable for most passenger cars with a little care.
I personally highly recommend option #2, the Leidy Peak trailhead. Leidy Peak is the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range, the easternmost point above treeline. Starting at Leidy will give you an all-killer-no-filler hike which has a consistent theme and feels "complete" in my mind. Starting at the Highway 191 trailhead, to me, seems like a 20-mile approach trail just to get to the good stuff. Starting at Chipeta Dam misses a rather nice section of trail, for no real appreciable benefit. As always, hike your own hike!

Where is the western trailhead?

Hayden Pass Trailhead, on Mirror Lake Highway.

How do I get from one trailhead to another?

Good luck. This is the most problematic part about hiking the Highline. Those of you who live in Utah or have friends/relatives in Utah, are probably best off bribing somebody with gas money and a nice dinner. Those of you who from out of state will have a bit harder time. There is at least one commercial service, Wilkins Bus Lines, that offers shuttles to any of the trailheads listed above. In addition, if you scrounge around internet forums you may be able to find additional resources.

When can I hike it?

As soon as Dead Horse Pass melts out. In most years, that's around mid-July. I hiked it in an average snow year, and the north side of Dead Horse was still fairly snowbound as of the 4th of July. If I were planning the trip in advance, I probably wouldn't plan to start until about the 3rd week of July. In a high snow year, it may not be doable, without an ice axe at least, until August. By mid-September, winter is on its way. Call it mid-July through mid-September.

When should I hike it?

In July, you'll have patches of snow garnishing the landscape, beautiful fields of wildflowers, and abundant water. You'll also have muddy trails, potential lingering snowfield issues, daily thunderstorms, and oft-horrendous mosquitos.

In August, you'll have drier trails, fewer bugs, and golden grasses in the high basins. You'll still have thunderstorm issues and quite a few bugs.

In September, you'll have beautiful fall colors (when below treeline), very few thunderstorms, and no bugs. You'll also have colder temperatures and the every-present threat of early season snow.

In my mind, the end of August is an ideal time to hike the Highline - in that short window between when the bugs and thunderstorms subside, and when winter hits. Were I to plan a trip right now, I'd plan it for the last week of August. YMMV!

What direction should I hike it?

It doesn't really matter all that much. It's probably a little bit more common to hike westbound, for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is a more spectacular than the east end, particularly if you stick to the official route. It's a nice feeling to have something even better to look forward to.
  2. Whether you're from Utah or elsewhere, you're likely going to be coming from Salt Lake. Parking your car at the west end and getting shuttled to the east end, before your hike begins, allows you to save a little gas, and walk back to your car when you're done. I always try and get a hitch/shuttle/ride on the front end whenever possible, so I can get that logistical worry out of the way, and so I don't smell as disgusting when someone else is giving me a ride in their car.
Where can I get maps for it?

Maps for this trail are remarkably straightforward. If choose trailhead #2 or #3, as outlined above, you'll need Trails Illustrated Map 711, available at any outfitter in Utah or on the interwebs. If you choose #1, you'll need 711 and 704.

You can also print DIY maps using Caltopo. Simply follow this link (embedded below as well) and print to your heart's content.If you're doing a significant amount of off-trail navigation, this may be a better choice. The Trails Illustrated maps are just fine for on-trail and easy off-trail navigation; however, they have 100-foot contour lines rather than 40-foot contour lines and don't provide as much detail as a Caltopo 7.5" quad would offer.

What's the trail like under my feet?

Trail can be a little faint at times, especially through meadows and open areas. Remember, this trail is pretty remote and doesn't see a lot of people in most areas. It is a bit rocky in places, especially where horses have done damage to the trail. Be prepared for a few slow/frustrating miles. In general though, it's fairly straightforward walking - generally fairly flat, except for the passes.

What about the passes?

Glad you asked! There are eight named passes on the official route, described here from east to west.


  1. Gabbro Pass (11,700'): nothing particularly complicated, although snow cornices can hang around for an uncomfortably long time on the eastern side. You may be able to sneak around the snow by staying north of the actual pass on the main Uintas crest, as shown on the mapped alternate. After Deadman Lake, there's a 400' climb back up before you crest an unnamed pass and drop to Whiterocks Lake
  2. North Pole Pass (12,200'): This one may hit you like a ton of bricks. It's not very steep, but it's your first 12,000' pass of the trip unless you've been taking the ridgetop alternates.
  3. Anderson Pass (12,800'): The highest point on the UHT. It's mostly just a long uphill, and those in good high altitude shape may be able to power up. Don't forget to tag Kings Peak! The west side looks intimidatingly steep, but there's a fairly good trail down.
  4. Tungsten Pass (11,400'): A total joke - hardly worth being called a pass at all.
  5. Porcupine Pass (12,200'): Gradual approach from the east, dropping off sharply on the west side. A decent trail most of the way. 
  6. Red Knob Pass (12,000'): A little confusing. There is a trail junction atop the pass - the East Fork Blacks Fork trail runs parallel to the ridge and joins the Highline trail from the East. You want to head north, then southwest, into West Fork Blacks Fork drainage. 
  7. Dead Horse Pass (11,600'): The crux of the official route. The north side of Dead Horse generally holds snow well into July. It is steep and loose and, if the trail is still snowcovered, a bit treacherous. Be careful!
  8. Rocky Sea Pass (11,300): The last pass on the trail. The western approach is fairly steep and rocky, but nothing to be concerned about. If you did Dead Horse, Rocky Sea won't be a problem.


Any special route recommendations?

To be perfectly frank, certain parts of the Highline are just plain boring. Fortunately, there are scenic bypasses for all of these stretches, of varying levels of adventure. There are four stretches that come to mind:

  1. Gabbro Pass to North Pole Pass. It's a muddy, buggy slog through lowlands with no views. Bypass: a huge, awesome ridgewalk. I've done the whole thing and can confirm it goes. Shortly after leaving the Leidy Peak trailhead, climb Leidy itself, and simply stay on the main Uintas crest. I'd recommend this to anybody who's in good high-altitude shape, as long as the weather is good. More on both those topics later.
  2. North Pole Pass to Anderson Pass. Another buggy hike through lowlands with no views. Bypass: Another huge, awesome ridgewalk. I have not actually walked the mapped routee, but I'm fairly certain it goes. And if it goes, I'm sure it's amazing. Lot of up and down in this section, but you also get to climb the third-highest peak in Utah, Gilbert Peak.
  3. Rock Creek Basin. After descending Dead Horse Pass, the Highline dives down to the bottom of Rock Creek basin. I've heard multiple reports that the Highline is badly maintained and hard to follow, again with no views deep in the trees. Bypass: Contour around the top of the Rock Creek Shelf, soon thereafter joining up with the Head of Rock Creek Trail. This alternate is almost entirely on-trail, and is supposed to be beautiful. You can also take the Jack and Jill trail if you prefer, but I'd recommend the Head of Rock Creek trail.
  4. Rocky Sea Pass to Hayden Pass. The official route skips Naturalist and Middle Basins, which I think is borderline criminal. Bypass: this alt sneaks over an off-trail pass from Naturalist to Middle basin, and then climbs, still off-trail, over a sag in the ridge and descends steeply to Hayden Pass. This route deserves a caveat emptor. I've only done part of it, and only know one person who's actually done all of it - and he's pretty hardcore. Again, I'm pretty sure it goes - but it's significantly harder, higher, and more spectacular than the boring forest walk on the official route.
In addition to the alternates listed above, make sure to drop your pack at Anderson Pass and tag Kings Peak, the highest in Utah (13,528'). It's 0.8 miles each way from Anderson and won't take you more than an hour or an hour or two, even at the high altitude. 


What about weather?

It's gnarly, no two ways about it. Particularly in the height of summer, the Uintas experience a consistent afternoon thunderstorm pattern. And unless you're interested in getting charbroiled by an ambitious bolt of lightning, you'll probably want to be below treeline by noon each day. That often means you'll hide in your tent for a couple hours while it storms like the dickens outside.

In general, hikers in the Uintas are served well by getting up early and hiking hard all morning, knowing that the afternoon will be slower as the storms roll through. The passes, conveniently, are about a dozen miles apart. Start hiking at 6am, at 2mph, and you'll have done your daily mileage by noon.

What about bears?

They're not a big problem up high. I don't know anybody who's seen one above 10k in the Uintas - and the UHT is entirely above 10k for its entire length. That said, normal bear precautions/proper food storage is always a good idea. No specific bear regulations apply to the area. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

This may change in coming years though. The grizzly has expanded its habitat in recent years, even being seen in the southern part of the Wind River Range. From the Winds, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the Uintas. Perhaps in several years, grizzlies will return to the Uintas. 


What about red tape?

Basically none. Yippee! If you park a vehicle on the west end, along Mirror Lake Highway, a self-service permit is required. Permits are available along the highway, just west of Kamas, UT, or south of Evanston, Wyoming. You can't get the trailhead without passing a permit station along the way. As of 2017, America the Beautiful passes were accepted.

What about fishing?

It's excellent. Fish will bite at just about everything up there. Dead Horse and North Star lakes looked particularly appealing. Don't forget to get a Utah fishing license

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