Uinta Highline Trail: 100 Miles in Utah’s Rugged Backcountry
When I say “Utah backpacking trip,” your mind likely jumps to red rocks, massive canyons, and vast desert landscapes. However, in the northeastern corner of the state, the impressive Uinta Mountain Range boasts countless alpine lakes, 12,000 ft+ peaks, and Utah’s high point at 13,528 feet. When I moved to Salt Lake City a year ago, thru-hiking the Uinta Highline Trail (UHT) was my main objective for my first Utah summer.
In early September, my best friend and I completed a four-day hike through the Uintas. We were blown away by this mountain range.
The Highline Trail is a wonderful alternative or training trip for a hike like the John Muir Trail. It crosses a handful of 11,000 – 12,500-foot passes and mostly stays above 10,000 feet in elevation. You’ll need appropriate rain gear, navigation skills, and strong legs to successfully traverse Utah’s Uinta Mountains.
The Uinta Highline Trail at a Glance
- Distance: 84 – 102 miles
- Elevation gain: ~18,000 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Days to hike: 4-10
- Camping options: Everywhere, follow LNT guidelines and weather safety
- Permit required: No
- Water availability: First 20 miles dry, then abundant lakes, streams, and rivers
- Best time of year: July – September
- Terrain: Rocks, grassy meadows, mud
Why Hike the Uinta Highline Trail?
The Uinta Highline Trail is ideal for hikers who want a thru-hike that can be completed in a week or less while still offering extremely remote and serenely beautiful landscapes. Though transportation to and from the trail can be a bit tricky, the solitude is worth it. Furthermore, although it’s a relatively short trail, the overall elevation and pass climbs provide a significant physical challenge.
The Uintas are Utah’s highest mountain range and the home of King’s Peak. King’s Peak is Utah’s high point at 13,528 feet and just a 1.5-mile round trip from the trail. On the Highline Trail, you encounter bright blue alpine lakes, jagged peaks, and red plateaus around every corner. Though I just got off trail about a week ago, I am already scheming another jaunt through the Uintas next summer.
Where Should you Start?
The official 102-mile trail stretches from McKee Draw (the Eastern Terminus) to Mirror Lake (the Western Terminus). Most people choose to hike East to West, but it can be done in either direction. It is worth noting that most shuttle services will transport from the Western terminus to the East, making a Westbound hike more feasible (more on this later). We hiked East to West and would do it this way again.
The pass climbs seemed more gradual coming Eastbound, which made it a more gradual descent each time. We preferred this, as we were able to stretch our legs and pump out some miles on gradual descents and power up steep climbs. Also, from East to West, the passes gradually decrease in size. We enjoyed being able to knock out the hardest days first.
There are different starting points people may choose depending on their desired trail length. The Leidy Peak trailhead is also very popular, and the one we chose. This made our four-day thru-hike about 85 miles total. The first 20 miles of trail are “pointless and worth skipping,” according to the rumors.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from wanting to hike the whole thing, but the first 20 miles from McKee Draw to Leidy Peak are through cow pasture meadows with no water. The mountainous region actually starts at Leidy Peak, while the first 20 miles are through lowlands. Do it if you feel so inclined, but we didn’t feel as if we had missed out at all in skipping the first day.
Furthermore, there is one more option to make it an even shorter trip. There is a road that connects to Chepeta Lake, which makes it about a 70-mile trail. This could be done comfortably in four days, or three if you’re quick. With the Chepeta Lake option, you only miss out on one pass and immediately start climbing up and over 12,000 feet.
McKee Draw is about a 3.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and Mirror Lake is about a 1.5-hour drive. It takes roughly four hours to drive between the two termini. Logistically, this poses some challenges.
There are no public transportation options, but there are a few shuttle services (linked below). We chose to stash a car at the Western Terminus the day before, so we could drive home quickly after finishing the trail. With that done, we had either the option of booking a shuttle or finding a ride to the Eastern Terminus for the start.
We looked into shuttle services, but the prices were absurdly high and many were already booked out when we started planning this trip about a week in advance (whoops). An angelic friend and coworker of ours offered to drive us to the Leidy Peak trailhead and back (eight hours round trip). This truly is the most convenient option, but it requires some bribery. If you want to hike the UHT, hit me up. I’m based in Salt Lake City and owe some serious trail angel karma.
If you’re flying in, the largest nearby airport is Salt Lake City. However, there is a small airport in Vernal (a town close to the Eastern Termini options) where you could rent a car and drive yourself. Most of the private shuttle options will take you from the Western Terminus to the East, so if you do rent a car and drive yourself to the Eastern Terminus you could book a ride to take you back at the end of the trail. Here are the most reputable shuttle options:
To park a car at the Western Terminus, you’ll need to display either a self-serve recreation pass ($12 for 7 days) or an American the Beautiful National Parks pass on your dashboard.
Camping Along the Uinta Highline Trail
With the consistent high elevation of the trail, it’s difficult to find campsites with less exposure to storms. You can camp anywhere adhering to LNT guidelines, but I recommend structuring your days to get below 11,000 feet. Here are a few great campsite options (mileage is from Leidy Peak trailhead):
Chepeta Lake: mile 15
Fox Lake: mile 24
Basin East of King’s Peak: miles ~35-38
Yellowstone Basin: miles ~42-45
Tungsten Lake: mile 48
Dead Horse Lake: mile 66
Carolyn Lake: mile 79
There is no water east of Leidy Peak (first ~20 miles of the trail). After that, water is abundant and delicious. The Uinta Highline Trail is dotted with lakes, streams, rivers, and marshes just about every mile. However, cattle graze in the area so be sure to filter all your water.
Best Time of Year to Hike the Uinta Highline Trail
Mid-July through mid-September is the safest time to hike the UHT. Depending on the previous winter’s snowpack, you can also hike in June or early July with extra snow travel considerations. In late September and early October, winter can come any minute. We started our four-day hike on September 8th and were treated to two days of sun and two days of storms.
READ NEXT – How to Stay Safe While Hiking at High Elevation
A Few Pro Trips
- Don’t underestimate King’s Peak. King’s Peak appears to be a quick detour—1.5 miles round trip—from the trail. However, in the 0.7-mile climb up to the summit, you gain about 900 feet of elevation, entirely off-trail. The scramble isn’t exposed or extremely technical, but it is physically challenging and slow going. We’re both fit and experienced climbers/scramblers and the detour took us about two hours round-trip. It is worth noting we spent quite a bit of time at the summit as well (as you should!).
- Come in good shape, or plan a conservative itinerary. If you’re coming from sea level or terrain without serious mountains, you may want to consider taking it easy on the UHT. We both frequently run trails in the Wasatch Mountains and are fairly fit, and ~25 mile days was about our max. The consistent high elevation, coupled with tough climbs and some tricky terrain, make for long days if you choose to push the mileage.
- Prepare for slow miles. Elaborating on the previous point, expect a few sections to be slow. There was one ~5-mile section where the trail was littered with fallen trees, massive roots, and mud. Every few steps we had to step off-trail to get around an obstacle, and that took time. Furthermore, we were constantly double-checking that we were still on trail, as we were mostly following cairns hidden in a dark, muddy section. I’m typically a 3-3.5 mph hiker, and most days we were able to average about 2.5 mph.
Safety Considerations: Weather, Elevation, and Route-Finding
This trail requires flexibility. In heavy storms, you may need to hunker down and finish miles at night or early in the morning. Additionally, there are sections of trail that are only marked by cairns and require keen attention to route-finding.
- Thunderstorms. Afternoon and/or all-day storms are guaranteed on the Uinta Highline Trail. They roll in and pass over quickly, but if you’re caught in the wrong place it can be incredibly dangerous. Do your best to climb passes in the morning, and if you see gray clouds forming hunker down until the storm passes.
- High elevation camps and passes. If you’re traveling from sea level, take the first couple of days easy. There are no options to camp below 10,000 feet, and you’ll spend most of your days climbing up and above 12,000 feet. Melatonin and/or CBD are great sleep aids if you’re like me and have trouble resting while camping this high.
- Alpine sun. I relied heavily on the Uinta’s rainy and chilly reputation. I didn’t bring a sun shirt and threw a tank top in my bag last minute. The first two days we hiked in constant 80-degree heat, which is scorching at 10,000 feet. Even with multiple layers of sunscreen, I got absolutely fried in my tank top.
- Cold nights. I recommend bringing a three-season setup even if you’re hiking in the dead of summer. “Summer” in the Uintas is a loose term—you can expect sizable temperature swings from day to night. On the first day, we hiked through 80 degrees and sun and then woke up to 25 degrees the following morning.
- Route-finding. There are long sections of the trail where the route follows cairns across unmarked meadows or rocky sections. Additionally, one long section of the path is mostly covered with fallen trees. It’s very easy to completely lose the trail as you navigate around the debris. I highly recommend having a downloaded or paper map accessible, as it’s incredibly easy to lose the trail with no cairn in sight.
- Remoteness. The only spot of service on the entire trail was on top of King’s Peak. Additionally, there is no cell reception at either of the termini, so be sure to have your rides planned ahead of time. I recommend carrying a Garmin inReach or similar GPS device so you can check the weather or use it in an emergency.
READ NEXT – Gear Review: Garmin inReach Mini
I would hike the UHT again next summer in a heartbeat. The high alpine terrain coupled with its accessibility and length make it the perfect quick trip. Even for those traveling out of state, in can be hiked in its entirety (including transportation time) in under a week. I highly recommend the Uinta Highline Trail for hikers in search of a quick trip to an extremely remote, rugged, and beautiful backcountry area.
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