Tall and Lonely: Backpacking Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness

By Michael Lanza

As we get ready to cook dinner at our campsite on the edge of meadow and open forest a couple minutes’ walk from the shore of the Fourth Chain Lake, at 10,900 feet in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, the sound of approaching voices prompts all four of us to look up in surprise. It’s our second evening in the High Uintas and the two hikers coming down the trail toward us are the first people we’ve encountered since we started hiking yesterday afternoon.

Moments later, a man and his college-age son see us and stop, the father remarking, “Well, there are other people out here after all.” He says they’ve come to try to summit Kings Peak, Utah’s highest—and like us, they’re taking the long way to Kings. We joke about our success at social distancing out here—it’s mid-July 2020 and the world remains gripped in the throes of a global pandemic, while we’ve hardly said a word or thought about the topic on the lips of everyone in civilization. Then they continue down the trail toward their camp at a lower lake.

In four decades of hiking and backpacking all over the country, I can probably count on my fingers the number of trips where I’d developed an expectation of not seeing many other people—leading to surprise when it happens. This encounter further reinforces our nascent impression of the Uintas as a wilderness where solitude may be the norm, even in July, first fostered when we arrived yesterday at the Uinta River Trailhead to find just two other vehicles there (and no people). We had passed another Uintas trailhead earlier and seen precisely zero vehicles.


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A backpacker hiking Chain Lakes Atwood Trail 43 toward Trail Rider Pass in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness.
My wife, Penny, backpacking Chain Lakes Atwood Trail 43 toward Trail Rider Pass in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.

With my wife, Penny, our teenage daughter, Alex, and her childhood friend, Adele, I’m hiking a six-day, approximately 57-mile loop through the High Uintas Wilderness—and the adjective “High” in the name fits this place like a favorite, old sweater.

Nearly all of our walk will remain above 9,000 feet and at least half of it over 10,000 feet, including three passes over 11,000 and 12,000 feet. That’s higher than many multi-day hikes in the West, including much of Yosemite and the Teton Crest Trail, and it compares with (and provides good preparation for) backpacking the John Muir Trail and Wind River Range. On top of that, we plan to stand on the highest rock in Utah, atop 13,528-foot Kings Peak.

Just two days into it, this trip already feels like a much-needed escape from the stress and home confinement of 2020.

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Two 11,000-Foot Passes in One Day

Early on our third morning, I walk down to the lakeshore. The waters of the Fourth Chain Lake sit absolutely still, offering up a perfect, inverted reflection of the mountains. The air is calm and the temp comfortably cool as mosquitoes buzz around my head—not as thick as I’ve seen elsewhere, although they can be in the Uintas.

By mid-morning, we’re on the trail, hiking toward Roberts Pass—which, at around 11,100 feet, is just a short uphill stroll from the lake. Reaching the pass, Alex stops, looks around and says, “Is this the pass? That was it?”

Morning at the Fourth Chain Lake in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness.
Morning at the Fourth Chain Lake in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.

After descending the other side, we hike mostly through forest until we reach a large meadow southeast of Lake Atwood. It’s past noon and everyone’s hungry—and there’s a good wind to beat down the mosquitoes—so we stop to sit on some rocks and eat. 

Our timing is perfect: As we finish up, a thunderhead rolls in, spitting rain; we start hiking as it turns to a steady rain. The shower lasts less than an hour, the sun re-emerging as we’re walking along Lake Atwood, a broad expanse of wind-whipped water below a row of soaring peaks.

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A campsite in Painter Basin, below 13,538-foot Kings Peak (right) in Utah's High Uintas Wilderness.
Our campsite in Painter Basin, below 13,538-foot Kings Peak (right) in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.

A tough climb brings us to Trail Rider Pass, the highest point we’ve reached so far on this trip, at around 11,700 feet. But the vista, looking back down to Lake Atwood and ahead into Painter Basin, takes the edge off our weariness. We sit a while, enjoying the view and some nourishment until the wind cools us, then continue down into Painter Basin, following large cairns with Trail 43 rarely visible on the rocky ground.

More than 11 miles from Fourth Chain Lake, we set our packs down on a patch of flat, not-too-rocky ground a short walk from one of many creeks that comprise the headwaters of the North Fork Uinta River in Painter Basin, an expansive, almost barren plain at 11,000 feet below the hulking behemoth of Kings Peak.

 

After dinner, with the long, pyramidal shadow of Kings Peak engulfing our campsite and most of Painter Basin, the setting sun ignites billowing clouds so tall they dwarf even the mountains, crowding the sky in a wide arc reaching to every horizon. The light show shifts colors and intensity every few minutes, continually improving on itself until, after maybe an hour, its last ember winks out. Neither the breeze nor the mosquitoes have quit yet as we crawl inside the tents at dusk.

Stepping outside briefly during the moonless night, I stare up at a clear sky riddled with stars. The Milky Way resembles a faint, blotchy streak of clouds. We’ll enjoy a sky like that both nights in Painter Basin.

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Hiking Kings Peak

The Uinta Mountains—which span nearly 60 miles in northeastern Utah, one of the rare mountain ranges that extend east-west—are home to an estimated 2,000 lakes, all of Utah’s peaks over 13,000 feet, and more than half of the state’s 12,000-footers. Outside popular destinations like Kings Peak, many trails and summits see little traffic, even though many pose no greater challenge than non-technical, off-trail hiking. Do some research and you’ll discover peaks where years pass between summit visitors. For backpackers and mountain climbers willing to put in the effort, in the High Uintas Wilderness—Utah’s largest wilderness area at over 450,000 acres—solitude is as plentiful as wildflowers.

On our fourth morning, we hike about a mile off-trail across the gently undulating, open terrain of Painter Basin to intersect Uinta High Line Trail 25, then follow it steadily uphill. Alex and Adele jump out front and set a strong pace. Most jolting to us: the number of people walking this trail. Over the next few hours, we’ll pass dozens of other hikers going up and coming down, virtually all of them sharing our objective. 

Reaching 12,800-foot Anderson Pass, we turn off the trail and begin the 700-vertical-foot hike-scramble up the north ridge of Kings Peak.

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Bear Essentials: How to Store Food When Backcountry Camping
How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry
How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

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2 thoughts on “Tall and Lonely: Backpacking Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness”

  1. I’ve backpacked all over the Uintas for several decades.
    Spent a few summers with the USFS working on trails and wildfires in the Uintas.
    There is an increase of users in the range through the years.
    Social media has greatly enhanced the use of the range.
    Because of the pandemic your story is not typical of trailheads or seeing others.
    I do know places in the Unitas where you can not see anyone for days. More wildlife, great fishing and solitude.
    It’s good that we get out and recreate but we are loving mountain ranges and national parks to death.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing those observations, Larry. I’m sure the Uintas have seen more use over a period of decades, just like virtually every other public land in the country, due to the growing interest in outdoor recreation and simply the growing population. Those factors have much more impact than social media, which largely drives increased numbers of visitors to roadside attractions.

      I’ve also, probably like you, heard the phrase “loving mountains and parks to death” for decades. But I see both sides of that coin.

      More people enjoying the outdoors also means more advocates for protecting the outdoors. That has been proven over recent decades with the exponential growth of the conservation movement. (I personally chair the volunteer board of a statewide conservation group, so I see the benefits of growing advocacy and I volunteer my time to that important cause.) We need more supporters of conservation. I would not like to see us return to the days before the conservation movement’s growth, when many public lands faced exploitation and extraction threats.

      Ultimately, as I point out in my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking,” there are ways to find solitude, like hiking farther into the backcountry, to places that few people make the effort to reach—as I’m sure you know, based on your comments. The Uintas may not be as lonely as they were decades ago; no place is. But they are certainly less busy than many other backcountry areas in the country.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      Reply
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