Uinta Highline Trail: Quick and Dirty Guide

Uinta Highline Trail Quick and Dirty Guide

The Uinta Highline Trail is a 104-mile trail that runs along the Uinta Mountain Range in Utah’s Ashley National Forest and Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The trail is noted for its expansive views and varied terrain, which includes lodgepole forest, glacial valleys, alpine lakes, and high mountain passes. The trail has an average elevation of 10,700′; it crosses eight mountain passes that are over 11,000′, requiring 16,700′ of elevation gain end-to-end. The trail’s highpoint is Kings Peak at 13,528′.

The Uinta Mountains uniquely run east/west, whereas most other ranges in the Rockies run north/south. The Highline Trail begins in a forest consisting primarily of lodgepole pine and opens sometimes into big meadows. In each of the eight basins along the trail, you will be going in and out of the forest, occasionally passing lakes.

The upper ends of many of the basins are tundra. Whenever the trail leaves the forest and climbs over a mountain passes, you’ll find yourself in exposed, rocky, tundra-like terrain. Depending on the month and the prior winter’s snowpack, expect to cross some snowfields too. The Uintas are made up of a metasedimentary quartz-sandstone which is somewhat crumbly and is slowly eroding. Because of this, trails are exceptionally rocky, with grapefruit to basketball-sized rocks embedded in much of the trail.

Highline Trail Route

If you want to do the full hike, start at the Highline Trailhead at McKee Draw, and end at the Highline Trailhead at Hayden Pass. This is about 104 miles. I would recommend this version of the trip simply because it is the longest and may give you that feeling of accomplishment, having hiked the whole thing. Both trailheads are near paved roads, as well, making the shuttle exceptionally easy (under three hours according to Google Maps). Starting at McKee Draw gives you a pretty mellow first 25 miles, meaning you can warm up slowly instead of going over a giant pass right out of the car.

High Uintas Map

Alternative Routes

79-mile version (Leidy Peak Trailhead)

Some folks want to dive right into the most dramatic-looking section of the Highline Trail and so start at the Leidy Peak Trailhead. If you don’t have time for the full Highline, this is a good option. One downside to this is the longer shuttle (about 4 hours each way according to Google Maps). You’ll be on dirt roads for a while, which are slower, and frankly jarring to a lot of people. Even though the 13 miles between this trailhead and the Chepeta Lake Trailhead are not designated Wilderness they have the same Wilderness character as the remaining 66 miles with the exception of that one road just before Chepeta Lake.

66-mile version (Chepeta Lake Trailhead)

If you want the entire trip to be in designated Wilderness, this is the trailhead for you. Starting at the Chepeta Lake Trailhead allows you to skip all the road-walking. For 66 miles you won’t cross a road or hear a motorized vehicle. One downside to this is the very long shuttle (about 4 and a half hours according to Google Maps).

Descending one of many high passes; a typical scene on the Uinta Highline trail
Descending one of many high passes; a typical scene on the Uinta Highline trail

Permits

Backpacking permits are not yet required for hiking the Uinta Highline Trail or any other part of the Uintas.

Weather

There’s a resort on the south slope of the Uintas with a sign on the door that reads: “Today’s Weather Report: Rain. Unless it doesn’t.” I think this perfectly sums up the weather in the Uintas. In years past it used to rain every single day at 4 pm, without fail. Not anymore, though. As weather patterns are altered due to climate change, rain is too difficult to predict in the Uintas.

That said, watch how the clouds stack. Clouds will start flying over you from the west often in late morning, and stack up from east to west. Once the stacking is complete, expect a storm. If this seems to be happening, try and climb over mountain passes earlier rather than later in the day. Lightning storms in the Uintas are downright awe-inspiring, and you don’t want to be exposed when one of them rolls in.

The beginning of the Uinta Highline trail is mostly in dense lodgepole forest
The beginning of the Uinta Highline trail is mostly in dense lodgepole forest

Mountains

The most commonly hiked peak along the Uinta Highline Trail is King’s Peak. It is the highest peak in the range as well as the highest point in Utah at 13,528 feet. From Anderson Pass, it’s only a short hike to the top. There are several other peaks over 13,000 feet and many of them are accessible from the Highline. Make sure you give yourself extra time if you’re going to be peak bagging.

Peaks over 13,000 feet in the Uintas:

  1. Kings Peak 13,528
  2. South Kings Peak 13,512
  3. Gilbert Peak 13,442
  4. Mount Emmons 13,440
  5. Painter Peak 13,387
  6. Second Gemini 13,306
  7. Roberts Peak 13,287
  8. Gunsight Peak 13,263
  9. Trail Rider Peak 13,247
  10. Henrys Fork Peak 13,240
  11. Mount Lovenia 13,219
  12. South Mount Emmons 13,170
  13. Tokewanna Peak 13,165
  14. Mount Powell 13,159
  15. Wasatch Peak 13,156
  16. Mount Powell-Middle Peak 13,151
  17. Mount Powell-South Peak 13,137
  18.  Dome Peak 13,103
  19.  Pinnacle Peak 13,068
  20.  Cliff Point 13,064
  21. Wilson Peak 13,040
  22. Mount Wapiti 13,039
  23. Quandary Peak 13,032

Bears

There are black bears in the Uinta Mountains, so store your food and smelly things appropriately. Bear canisters are not required.

Water

Water is scarce along the first 25 miles of the Highline Trail. After Leidy Peak (around mile 25), you won’t have to worry about water again for the remainder of the trip. Filter or purify all water along the Highline Trail.

View to the southwest from Anderson Pass in the High Uintas Wilderness.
View to the southwest from Anderson Pass in the High Uintas Wilderness.

Getting There

The nearest airport is the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting from there to the Uinta Highline Trailhead is easiest with a car. It is about an hour and a half drive from Salt Lake City to the western terminus of the Highline Trail at Hayden Pass. It is then an additional three hours to shuttle to the eastern terminus at McKee Draw. The quickest shuttle is on the northern side of the Uintas, partly in Wyoming, but you can also drive through the Uinta Basin on the south side.

Towns and Supplies

Salt Lake City is the nearest city and the best place to load up on groceries and fuel canisters. There are plenty of grocery stores to choose from including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. There’s an REI just a couple of minutes from I-80 as well. On the way to the western terminus of the Highline Trail at Hayden Pass, you will pass through Kamas, which has a decent grocery store, a couple of food trucks, and some diners. Samak is just beyond and has a bar with typical bar food.

If shuttling through Wyoming you will drive through Evanston which has motels, restaurants, and groceries. You will then pass through Mountain View and Manila among several other tiny towns with minimal amenities. If shuttling along the southern side you will go through Heber, Duchesne, Roosevelt, and Vernal. There are plenty of lodging and food options in each of these towns. Vernal is the largest town near the eastern terminus, so if you need a motel on that end of the hike, Vernal could be the place.

Parking

All of the trailheads mentioned here have good parking. Because the Highline Trailhead at Hayden Pass is so close to Salt Lake City it is sometimes pretty packed. A recreation pass is required for parking here and needs to be displayed on your dash. The America the Beautiful – National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass can be used as well. The Highline Trailhead at McKee Draw on the other end, by contrast, is often quite empty as it is not popular at all. No recreation pass is required there.

Search and Rescue

Most of the Highline Trail is in the Ashley National Forest. The local Forest Service recommends calling 911 in an emergency.

Some phones get cell service at Anderson Pass which is the highest point on the trail and roughly the halfway point. I know Verizon has service there. You may get service in other high places, but I don’t recommend relying on it. Given the remoteness of the area and lack of reliable cell phone service, I’d consider carrying a satellite GPS messenger like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ or Mini that lets you send text messages to rescuers.

The Uinta Highline Trail goes in and out of forest and meadow.
The Uinta Highline Trail goes in and out of forest and meadow.

Wilderness Regulations

Similar to other Designated Wilderness Areas, you are expected to camp 200 feet from a trail, water, and other campers.

The High Uintas Wilderness has a unique rule for fires. Over the years, lazy campers have used up much of the firewood in high use areas around lakes. Once the wood was mostly gone they took to hacking branches off live trees and even cutting them down. In response, the Forest Service now requires you to be ¼ mile from any lake if you want to have a fire. This way the forests surrounding the lakes may be able to recover.

As a former ranger, I have to say please bury your poop and pack out toilet paper. I spent a few seasons out there and found piles of poop and toilet paper nearly every day of my tenure, having to bury it with my shovel. The Highline Trail is a high-use area, despite what much of the internet may tell you. Take care of it for the sake of the ecosystem, the rangers, and future hikers alike.

The complete list of Wilderness regulations can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/uwcnf/about-forest/districts/?cid=fsem_035477

  1. Groups entering the wilderness must be no larger than 14 people and 15 head of stock. Groups exceeding the size limit must separate into groups of 14 or less and remain at least one mile apart on trails and while camping.
  2. All campsites must be greater than 200 feet away from water sources, trails, and other occupied campsites.
  3. All litter must be carried out. Do not bury anything other than human waste, which should be buried 6 inches.
  4. Horses may be tethered for no more than 1 hour within 200 feet of any water source.
  5. Horses may not be tied to any tree for more than 1 hour and must be moved sooner if damage is occurring.
  6. All feed and hay taken onto National Forest land must be tagged as “Certified Weed Free” by the county extension agent.
  7. Campfires are not allowed in Naturalist Basin. Camp stoves must be used for cooking.

Maps

The National Geographic Trails Illustrated High Uintas Wilderness Map is probably the best physical map of the area. The Highline Trail is clearly marked on this waterproof map, making it very easy to use. There are contour lines and elevations are often noted, including on passes along the route and prominent peaks nearby. Wilderness regulations and Leave No Trace guidelines are noted on the map too so you don’t really have any excuse for not following them.

The Delorme Utah Atlas and Gazetteer will help you navigate the shuttle if you don’t have a phone or if  your phone loses service.

Gaia GPS App allows you to download maps in the area where you will be hiking. This is the app I used when I hiked the Highline, although I didn’t check it all that much because the trail is quite clear for the most part.

Additional Resources

These guides and information sources can help you plan trips to local alpine lakes and other trails in the High Uintas.

More Quick and Dirty Backpacking Guides

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About the author

Ben Kilbourne has been backpacking at least once a month every month for the last twelve years. His explorations have taken him all over the west, but especially the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. The geography of the west has become familiar to him. He has developed a rudimentary understanding of its geology, and an awareness of the subtle changes in flora and fauna due to soil, elevation, aspect, and precipitation and how these elemental things interact with both ancient and modern humans. His experiences on the land, whether triumphant or thwarted by events either in or out of his control, have provided the foundation for the work he does. Find Ben’s paintings, songs, and essays here http://benkilbourne.com/.

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14 comments

  1. Wow. Something else to add to my bucket list if this $#@! pandemic ever ends.

  2. I’ve always been intrigued by the Uintas. They’re on my list as well.

    I guess if most of the trail is around 10K feet above sea level, I’ll acclimate. One of my best friends lives in Leadville, CO at the same altitude. I feel it when I exert. I find I start feeling the effects of altitude above 8K feet but the body does adapt fairly soon.

  3. I was able to do this hike with some friends last Aug-Sept. They did the entire 104 miles, but I met them at Chepeta Lake to do the 66 miles. Unfortunately, because of the East Fork fire, 9 miles of the trail, from Dead Horse Pass to Rocky Sea Pass, was closed. We had to exit at the East Fork Bear River trailhead.
    Just a few pointers to anyone who is thinking of doing this hike.
    First, I would recommend getting something to help prevent altitude sickness. I got some acetazolamide from my doctor and it helped tremendously!
    Second, if you decide to do the hike from Anderson Pass to King’s Peak, the map shows the distance to be about 5/8 of a mile, but it is a very difficult, steep, miserable, boulder-hop all of the way. I think it was worth it, but be careful!
    Third, we had planned on fishing the lakes as we went, but everyone was so beat-up by the end of the day, that no one did any fishing at all for the entire trip! If I had brought along my Tenkara rod, I would have used it the last day on the West Fork Blacks Fork creek.
    All things considered, it was a great hike and I would do it again if I had the chance.

    • That’s always the problem with backpacking and fly fishing. You can do one but not the other. I’ve come to terms with that myself and take a day to fish when the opportunity presents itself.

      • Years ago, I hiked with friends in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado. We spent two nights at Archuleta Lake and I (spincast) fished, successfully, for our dinner the second night. There is no way, even then in my 20s, I would have felt like fishing the first night!

  4. I did Leidy Peak to Hayden Pass a few years ago. I highly recommend the Lightning Lake alternate after Dead Horse Pass. There are many beautiful little lakes and you avoid the last big drop and immediate climb through a drainage.

    Dead Horse Pass has a reputation for being sketchy that is slightly exaggerated. I wouldn’t want to descend the north side, but ascending it wasn’t too bad. I’ve talked to people who have crossed it in the snow, and I wouldn’t want to do that, either.

    I met a father/son duo out there who were hiking it for the 7th time. They commented that the first few years they did it, they saw nobody all week. Now they see a few people every day. It’s growing in popularity, so get out there before a permit is necessary.

    • When I did it 3 years ago we saw a total of 75 people the whole way, 50+ were at anderson pass and Kings peak. The rest of the time very sporadic. Funny thing was we didn’t see anyone until chepeta lake, which is outside of the wilderness area.

  5. Back in the early 1980’s wife and I lived in Park City Utah.

    We spent many a week end hiking and camping in the Uinta’s.

    Uintas are one awesome place to visit and experience. BEWARE, this area is remote, so be prepared. Roads are on the outside perimeters for the most part. I did not know of a specific trail map when I lived there. Also trails were not well marked if any markings at all and often changed from year to year.

    This made the Uinta’s just a hoot for me, but if hikers are looking for trail signs and maintained hard surface trails (think of the Smokies back east), at least when I was out there, none exist.

    I am a fisherman. Back in the early days, the Mormon folks hand built little lakes just about any where a reservoir could be built I was told as a water shed for SLC. They did this with hand tools just Awesome to see what they did. Then stocked trout in many of these lakes. I used either a fly rod or ultra light weight spin rod with a ball to get the fly out to the deep water drop offs. Wife and I enjoyed fresh trout dinners many times.

    Do not underestimate the weather. Big storms in the summer. In late September we went to sleep under clear skies. In the early AM I awoke to snow fall. At the time we had a 75 pound Malemute who slept between us in a very small tent. This dog is like a small heater. But she refused to get out of the tent while we packed. At daylight we left camp in heavy snow fall. The dog just looked at me when I said go home Cheena. Took a while but we finally got back to the car. This was before hand held GPS. At this time, I would not go very far into the Uninta’s with out a good GPS and the knowledge to use it.

    This area is a real jewel of a place. Experience it before it opens up more than it obviously has.

  6. I’ve been looking into shuttle services but had no luck. It seems the one out of Vernal no longer operates, as best as I can tell. Does anyone have any knowledge of a service I’ve missed? I’d love to hike this trail next summer. Thanks

  7. Are there spots to water along the trail on the west side of Anderson pass…specifically around the first trail junction that heads over to Smith’s fork pass and red castle lake?

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