Uinta Mountains

(See our article about hiking Kings Peak)

The Uintas includes a high, pristine mountain area in northeastern Utah that is popular for fishing, hiking, backpacking, horsepacking, hunting and other outdoor activities. Much of the area is designated as a roadless wilderness where vehicles are prohibited. A few roads, and a handful of rugged 4X4 tracks, provide access to areas outside the wilderness, and to trailheads.

The mountains pick up heavy snowfall and include several areas designated for snowmobile recreation. In addition, a few trails are open to ATVs.

Most of the Uinta Mountain Range is contained within the Ashley National Forest, which was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The western portion lies within the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which was created by presidential proclamation in 1906, and the Cache National Forest, which was designated in 1907. The High Uintas Wilderness was established by Congress in 1984. It includes 460,000 acres and is the largest wilderness area in Utah.

There are well over 1,000 natural lakes in the Uintas and more than 500 of them support populations of game fish. There are also over 400 miles of streams. Over 2.5 million visitors come to the Ashley National Forest each year for outdoor recreation.

The Uinta Range is the highest in Utah, and is the only major range in the contiguous United States with an east-west orientation. Elevations range from 8,000 feet in the lower canyons to 13,528 feet atop Kings Peak - the highest point in Utah. Ridges divide the area into large, scenic basins; many ridges rise abruptly several thousand feet above the basins.

The mountains' skeleton is pre-Cambrian rock over 600 million years old. These ancient rocks were elevated under tremendous pressure to form nearly vertical faults. Parent rocks are primarily quartzite with sandstones and shale beds.

In contrast to the surrounding desert, the Uintas receive about 40 inches of precipitation annually, mostly as snow. The growing season is short. Temperatures in areas above 10,000 feet are seldom above 80 degrees during summer days. Night temperatures during summer are 30-40 degrees, with freezing possible at any time. Summer afternoon thunderstorms may occur with little warning.

Most of the mountain slopes are forested. Coniferous trees (lodge pole pine, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, sub-alpine fir) grow in large continuous stands. Quaking aspen occur in scattered patches throughout most of the lower elevations. Isolated meadows - resembling large parks - and willow fields add variety to the timbered areas. Many peaks extend above tree line.

Camping

Developed campgrounds are located wherever roads extend into the forest. Camping is also allowed in undeveloped areas. Most developed campsites can be reserved prior to arrival through Reserve America, and reservations are strongly encouraged for summer weekends. Advance reservations are definitely needed for campgrounds along the Mirror Lake Highway, and for sites anywhere over major holiday weekends. In other areas, most campgrounds have sites available most summer weekends.

The peak season for most campgrounds is Memorial Day through Labor Day. Most Ranger Districts keep some sites open after Labor Day, weather permitting.

The best maps and guides

The High Uintas Wilderness Map, published by the Forest Service, is a great resource. It shows the entire area in detail. It's essential if you are backpacking.

The Lakes of the High Uintas booklets published by the Utah DWR are also extremely valuable. This is a 10-booklet set that describes all waters managed as fisheries. The booklets provide hiking directions and describe fishing opportunities, along with details about camping, spring water and horse feed. They also include maps of specific drainages.

7.5 Minute topographical maps for your specific destination are also important.

Uinta adventures for everyone

Mention the Uintas and most people think about backpacking: forty pounds of weight on your back, four gallons of mosquito repellent in your pack, and 10 miles of steep trail between you and your destination, which is located above tree line, next to a snowfield that never completely melts.

These rugged mountains are ideal for backpacking, and provide opportunities for long trips and solitude. But backpacking is only one great way to enjoy the area. Several options are discussed below:

  1. Auto-tour. U.S. Highway 150, which is a national treasure, formally designated the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. It is one of the most beautiful high mountain drives available anywhere. The paved highway stretches 42 miles through mountains and forest, from Kamas, Utah, to Evanston, Wyoming.
  2. Numerous lakes and campgrounds are adjacent to the highway, providing opportunity to camp, fish, hike and mountain bike. The lakes are stocked heavily, and fishing is often good.
  3. Many forms of wildlife can occasionally be seen from the roadway, including deer, elk, moose, small mammals and many species of birds.
  4. Visitors need to be aware that the highway climbs from an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet to nearly 12,000 feet. The highway is usually open from June through early October. A permit is needed for recreational activity along the highway. You don't need the permit if you are just driving, but if you stop to picnic, hike, fish or camp you need to purchase and display a permit. Permits can be purchased at fee stations on the Kamas side, or at Bear River Service or the Ranger Station on the Evanston side.
  5. Highway 150 is a popular snowmobile route in winter.
  6. Other roads penetrate the mountains from every direction. Most are gravel, and are maintained for summer use.
  7. Day-hike. Many lakes and scenic destinations can be reached by short hikes. Along Highway 150, there are many lakes just l or 2 or 3 miles from trailheads. The Highway 150 map that you get at the fee station describes some possibilities. Countless other hikes are available, originating from trailheads all along the route. Day hikes are also possible from other access roads.
  8. Short backpack. Some of the best fishing in the mountains can be found at the end of a 5-7 mile backpack. Pack in, set up camp, and you still have several hours of daylight to fish and explore.
  9. Extended backpack. Pack into one of the more distant basins. Or make a base camp, then day-hike to the top of King's Peak - the highest spot in Utah.
  10. Cross-country backpack. Start at a North Slope trailhead and have someone pick you up at a South Slope trailhead, or vice-a-versa. Or hike for 50 miles or more along the Highline Trail, which runs east-west across much of the wilderness area.
  11. Pack in using horses or llamas. Bring a soft bed, comfortable chair and Dutch oven. (Llamas are quickly growing in popularity as pack animals. For their size, they can carry a considerable load. They are less intrusive and easier to handle than horses.)
  12. ATV trails. Motor vehicle travel is restricted in much of the area. But three roads (Murdock Basin, Broad- head Meadows and East Portal) link more than 20 miles of ATV trails.
  13. Snowmobile. The mountains are a popular destination for snowmobilers. Highway 150 and some other roads are open to snowmobile travel. Be sure to stay on designated routes.

Seasons

Most roads open in early June and provide access to lower-elevation campgrounds and lakes. Many higher lakes and trails are accessible by July 4th. Extremely high elevation areas start to dry out by the middle of July, and the highest passes usually open in late July. (These dates may be pushed up a bit when winters have light snowfall or when early summer temperatures are higher than normal.)

Some high passes have snowy spots throughout the year, but should be passable from late July through the month of August. High passes may start to accumulate new snow in September.

August is the big month for backpack trips into the high country. Late July and early September can also be good. Some years October is dry and can be pleasant in the high mountains. But fall backpackers need to be extremely careful - harsh storms can arise in a hurry and trap campers.

Most roads and trails become snowpacked during November. At that time it is possible to ski, snowmobile or snowshoe into some lakes for early ice fishing and other recreational activities.

Snowmobiling is popular on designated roads and trails in the Uintas. That season is long, often stretching from November into May. Remember, the heart of the Uintas is a protected wilderness area, where motorized travel is not permitted. Stay on designated trails.

Hazards in the Uintas

Lightning occasionally kills people in the Uintas. It's a serious threat, especially above tree line. If a storm starts to build, take cover. Don't wait until you see lightning - by then it might be too late. Get off the peak or ridge. Head for lower ground. Don't hide under a tree which stands by itself; but you can take refuge under a grove of trees off the side of a ridge.

Hypothermia can also be a killer. Be prepared for harsh weather. Bring clothing and gear that protects against rain - it rains almost every day in the high country. It often snows and hails, even in August. The weather can change from hot to freezing cold within just a few minutes. If you get wet and cold then do whatever it takes to get dry and warm. Put up your tent. Build a fire. Drink warm soup. Spending the night in a wet sleeping bag can be more than just uncomfortable - it can be dangerous.

Sunburn is a common problem when hiking at high elevations. The atmosphere is thin and does not filter the sun's rays, so people bum quickly. Wear a hat and sunscreen.

Blisters can be a big problem. If you're 10 miles back, carrying a heavy pack, and you can't walk because of a blister you're in trouble. Wear boots that fit and are well broken-in. Wear good socks. Carry moleskin and use it before you get a blister. If you feel a "hot spot" developing then stop and adjust your boots and socks. Then cover the spot with moleskin.

Mosquitoes are public enemy number one in the Uintas. They are everywhere, and they can drive you crazy. Bring strong repellent - it really helps.

Black bears occasionally cause concern at some campgrounds at mid-elevations. Watch for advisories. Never leave food or garbage around camp, and don't keep food in your tent.

Moose can also be dangerous. They are often seen along the rivers and in marshy areas. Don't try to approach a moose. Pay attention and never walk between a cow moose and her calf.

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