This is a massively belated post about an excursion last summer. This one is long, which I am thinking gives me an excuse to be 9 months late with it. I also took notes while on this excursion, and then lost them months later when I finally did find time to write. I was hoping I would find the notes eventually, but I didn’t so this is now from memory. It’s fun to relive.
The ReasonWhen Drew was proving himself worthy (to himself, not to me; he already did that when he proposed to me with a mountain bike instead of an engagement ring) racing the Brec Epic mountain bike race last August (2014), I had an adventure of my own. I set off in my trusty camper van, Dewey, for a two-night camp and hike in Utah’s High Uintas, a.k.a the Uinta Mountains.
The PlanI would time my journey into the Uinta Mountains, which are located just a few hours drive east of Salt Lake City, so that I could cheer on the racers in Utah’s premier professional bike race, the Tour of Utah. Then go find a camp spot at one of the many Forest Service campgrounds along the Mirror Lake Highway. I would do an easy hike Friday afternoon, then a big hike on Saturday, and possibly another short hike on Sunday before heading back.
I would read a lot at night, listen to music, have plenty of solitude, be free of anyone’s schedule but that of the mountains, and above all else, get out into the amazing Uinta Mountains, a place I had not seen enough of since becoming a biker.
The ApproachOn Friday afternoon, I made it just to the base of the Uintas east of Kamas before I ran into the road closure for the bike racers coming down the mountain.
The Tour of Utah peloton flies by as a helicopter films overhead.The cyclists streaked by me so fast I couldn’t recognize any jerseys, although I know there was some world-ranked talent in that line of bikes.
On to the mountains
There are loads of campgrounds along the Mirror Lake Highway, but lucky for me, they were all almost completely full of large noisy families of campers crammed into trampled spaces, because that forced me to seek alternative primitive camping. Also lucky for me, this road appeared navigable in my 2WD van.
The road to my picture perfect campsite.and at the end of this road I found this spot.
Dewey at the Uinta’s best camp spot.
Test HikeAfter setting up camp, which includes popping up the top and setting out a camp chair, and which takes all of 10 minutes, I laced up my trusty old hiking boots and set out from camp cross country to find the trail to Fehr Lake, described in guidebooks as a popular easy hike you can do from the highway. I figured I would time my pace and explore lakes farther along that trail if time allowed.
A map of my camp stop in red, Friday’s test hike to Fehr Lake partially shown in the lower right by the green line, and Saturday’s big hike.Fehr Lake trail is well traveled and goes through meadows and forest and skirts several lakes.
Crystal clear Fehr Lake and Murdock Mountain in the background. Murdock Mountain, like all of the peaks in the Unitas, is composed of Middle Proterozoic (1.0-1.6 billion years old) sedimentary and metasedimentary rocks carved by Pliestocene (<2 font="" glaciers.="" million="" nbsp="" old="" year="">2>
Shepard Lake.and on farther to Hoover,
Maba Lake. My favorite of the evening with its lovely lily pads.So far the hike was mostly downhill and I was getting hungry. I decided it was time to head back and cook up some dinner. I cut cross-country again to my camp spot just in time to grill a chicken sausage and enjoy a glass of wine before dusk.
Dinner with a sublime view of Hayden Peak.
Hayden Peak, center, is named after an early U.S. Geological Survey geologist.I prepped for my bigger hike the next day and retired early to my cozy van.
The Hike Part 1: Making MilesThe hike I had planned for Saturday was about 11 miles long and I would climb more than 1600 vertical feet. Not a huge hike for any reasonably fit hiker, but I admit I was a bit apprehensive. I used to hike a lot before I met Drew, but we are primarily bikers now. I wasn’t too worried about the elevation or miles, I was worried about my knees and feet. I had confirmed on Friday’s hike that my trusty old hiking boots were, in fact, slightly too small. Not enough to notice on the short hikes we usually do or the limited hiking I do for work, but I suspected my feet would pay the price after 11 miles on Saturday. My knees felt OK after Friday, but I know from experience that longer hikes irritate what remains of my soft tissue in my left knee. My saving grace was that I would hike the loop I had planned counter clockwise, getting most of the elevation challenge done in the first two thirds where I would be the least worn out.
Saturday’s hike was a loop from camp, down the Mirror Lake Highway, then NW on the Pass Lake Trail down along the headwaters of the Weber River, cutting south up to the Meadow Lake trail (shown by the blue line on the map above), then on the Notch Peak Trail to the Bald Mountain overlook (orange line) and back to camp on the highway (yellow line). The blue segment is where I covered the most miles and elevation.
I set out from the van at about 8:00 a.m, “hiking” north along the Mirror Lake Highway.
I was not the first to leave footprints on the Mirror Lake Highway.One and a half miles of easy pavement, then onto a good hiking dirt trail in the headwaters of the Weber River drainage. This loop hike started in the headwaters of the Duchesne River drainage and ended in the headwaters of the Provo River. The Weber and the Provo both drain into the Great Basin (no outlet to the sea) but the Duchesne drains to the Green and eventually to the Colorado River. Serious hydrologic terrain!
Pass Lake an the Pass Lake Trailhead are named for its proximity to the intersection of three major river drainages. The trail was groomed and well marked in the beginning.After about a quarter mile though, the trail splits into two forks. The right fork is more traveled and goes to popular Cuberant Lake and Lofty Lake. I took the left fork into the unknown.
Trail split between Holiday Park and Cuberant Lake. I tracked left, on the road less traveled.I was struck by how much water was being shed off the north slope of Reids Peak. In places, the trail was not so much trail, but more a string of puddles.
The “trail”. Even in August, there was a lot of water.
Impressive stream erosion.The farther I hiked down the Weber River drainage, the more obscure the trail became. It was evident that not a lot of people use this trail. I was vigilant about watching the trail for any sign of a trail on my left (south), the one to Meadow Lake. I needed to take that trail to connect to Notch Lake trail. Despite my vigilance, I completely missed this sign
and only saw evidence of the trail junction 20 or 30 feet past the actual junction when I noticed a scattered rock cairn. Now that I knew exactly where I was and that I had made good time, I decided to allow myself a half-hour diversion to the Weber River for lunch.
Lunch stop 10:45 a.m.: Weber River. I had hiked about 4.5 miles and lost about 1500 feet of elevation in less than 3 hours. This was the lowest point of the hike.
The Weber River, a pretty mountain stream.Fueled by a warm and soggy just-the-way-I-like-it PB&J sandwich, I backtracked to the Meadow Lake trail and started to climb.
The Meadow Lake trail was extremely steep and in very rough shape. I could hardly believe it but there was scattered “evidence” of previous mule traffic. Mules are incredibly sure-footed pack animals.For the most part, the trail was simply a swath of forest slightly less vegetated than the surrounding forest. There are no water bars or signs. A confusing arrangement of cairns leads you in the general direction that you need to go, which is straight up the mountain. At the lower reach of the trail, the forest is so dense and the canyon so wide that there are no real landmarks to relate to the topo map, so you just keep climbing up the slope. Eventually though, the grade lessens and I caught glimpses of the surrounding terrain.
The Meadow Lake “trail”.It was just past this break in slope that I needed to find the Notch Mountain Trail coming in from the east. If I missed that junction, I would continue to Meadow Lake, which would be a big detour. About the time I figured I should be seeing the junction, I heard what I thought sounded like two male voices off in a direction that made me think they were likely on the Notch Mountain trail heading toward the same junction. I had not seen another soul in several hours and I was at once surprised (since the trail was in such rotten shape I didn’t think it saw more than a handful of hikers all season), dismayed (that I was coming back into traffic), and relieved (that there were other humans out here in case of emergency). But as I continued hiking, the voices faded and I soon came to the trail junction.
The junction of Meadow Lake trail and Notch Mountain trail.Were the voices in my head? Perhaps, but more than likely the other hikers were simply going cross country to cut off some time, and since they didn’t see or hear me, never even knew I was tracking their progress to confirm my own route.
The trail junction of Meadow Lake trail and Notch Mountain trail is marked on this map at the elbow in the blue route as a lime green dot a little east of Meadow Lake.Another twenty minutes or so of hiking at a moderate incline affording only occasional views brought me to the end of the arduous, but still peaceful and enjoyable, part of my hike. I had covered 5 miles, descended 1600 vertical feet, and climbed 1200 vertical feet in 4.5 hours with stops. From here I slowed my pace considerably to enjoy the scenery and take loads of pictures.
The Hike Part 2: Traverse the BeautyThe middle segment of my hike, shown in orange on the map above, would take me along the Notch Mountain trail, past numerous clear small and tiny lakes surrounded by somewhat sparse fir forest and towering hunks of mountains. The trail is more or less level and fairly well traveled, which was a good thing because my knee was starting to ache, I had a full blister on one heel, and I had had enough solitude to last for a little while.
The Notch Mountain trail where it levels out after ascending from the junction of Meadow Lake trail.To keep my load as light as possible while still carrying enough gear to survive a night on the trail if I was injured or lost, I only carried 2 quarts of water and a water filter. I made it to this lovely meadow before I needed to filter.
Water filtration provided by wildflowers and my Sweetwater water purifier.The next few miles of trail induced euphoria. Easy hiking though open forest, an occasional happy hiker or horseback rider to greet, and lake after lovely lake to gaze upon.
Bench Lake.This part of the hike is sublime; quiet friendly forest for 10 or 15 minutes of walking and then, bam!, a beautiful lake reflecting majestic mountains and fluffy puffy clouds.
Notch Lake panorama with Notch Mountain in the background. Can you guess where Notch Mountain gets its name? Ha, fooled ya. There is an even bigger notch on the other side.
Unnamed lake/puddle.I took a slight detour over to Dean Lake based on the enticing description in my guidebook. I was not disappointed.
Glacially scoured bedrock in the foreground, Dean Lake and Notch Mountain in the background.
Dean Lake and Reids Peak on the right. The boulders in the foreground are part of a glacial moraine, a pile of sediment deposited on the side or end of a glacier.I scrambled over a large boulder field and back to the Notch Mountain trail and toward Clegg Lake. The trail from Notch Lake to Clegg Lake was exceptionally lovely. Up and down little rises and around groves of trees. It was also well maintained by the Forest Service.
Clegg Lake and Reids Peak.There were a fair number of hikers along the Notch Lake trail. Mostly groups of two to four on day hikes from the Bald Mountain overlook and some overnight backpackers, but there was one group of 20-somethings with a boom box playing alternaive music and several of the fellows drinking PBR in cans. They were hauling in a cooler and had backpacks for an overnight stay. They were going to have a fun night! Then there was another group of 30- and 40-somethings with huge packs and all the fancy gear. They seemed to not know each other all that well. Wasatch Mountain Club date hike? My favorite was a 40-ish year old man and a 8 or 9 year old boy out on the boy’s first backpack trip*.
* I sometimes wish I had been taken backpacking when I was 8, but then possibly I wouldn’t have had such an amazing first backpack trip with my friends Jerda and Bonnie into Grand Gulch in southeast Utah circa 1996. Backpacking is fun.
I didn’t ponder geology so much on this hike. The exposed bedrock in the Unitas is mostly old metasedimentary rock of the Mounta Watson formation that doesn’t weather into interesting slot canyons, hodoos, or hogbacks. It’s not a brilliant red hue and there aren’t a lot of shiny bits to pick up. If you are a fan of glacial geology, there are hundreds of cirques and nature has filled them with the aforementioned picturesque lakes. But aside from that, the rocks are mostly gray and purplish-gray quartzite and shale. There is, however, the occasional sight that wows you with geologic significance.
A “wow” geology rock: boulder of weathered metasedimentary rock showing an angular unconformity. At least I think that’s what it is. I didn’t inspect it because I was very tired. But it looks cool.
The Hike Part 3: RetreatThe marvelous middle section of my hike, show in orange on this map…
had taken me almost 4 hours. I had gained and lost only a couple of hundred feet and traveled about 3 miles. Compared to my mountain-goat pace of the first segment, I was nearly standing still. Section 2, however, also included much photography, detours, and an extended rest break (i.e. nap) on a soft patch of grass on the shore of Notch Lake. Now though, it was 4 PM, my blister was killing me, I was ready to kick back at camp, and the trail was less welcoming.