A Day on the Highline, High Uintas

Day-long trips to the mountains have their place in my heart, but overnighting in the middle of the backcountry is where the love is. Another short day of work lead to enough time for two nights in the wilderness, and I knew precisely where I’d spend them.

The High Uintas is littered with remote backcountry trails, but only one runs the length of them.

The Highline trail connects this grand range of mountains together for the adventurous pedestrian; had I had the time I would have gone the length. The future may yet lend the time to complete this trail that has been on my list for a number of years now. This time, I was making it my business to view the Naturalist Basin and the Four Lakes Basin.

The western end of the Highline trail starts on a ledge overlooking the vast expanse of forest ravaged by a pine beetle infestation. The dead trees lend a viewer a greater appreciation for those trees that stand in spite of the devastation.

Once one sinks into the great depths of the Ashley National Forest, the mass die-off is less apparent, as the branches of the living obscure the dead, and you find yourself ambling through a green tunnel.

Every rut, depression, and divot in the landscape is breached with the waters of the great spring melt off. The air is fresh life, and the waters are invigoratingly cold to a traveler such as myself who’s shoes are dotted with holes and tears, who’s wool socks only provide partial warmth.

If this range of mountains could be named for any two things, it would be famous for its lakes and meadows. A person only has to hike so far until they run across one or both of these magnificent spectacles. Wide ranges of grass lined with massive walls of rock, a symphony of birdsong lines the stadium of trees as the grass dances to the tune.

Life in the mountains is in abundance, but is also a fickle thing. As the trees combat beetles, they also have wildfire to contend with. One can hope it will grow back stronger, maybe this forest can return to what it once was. Maybe this entire landscape will turn into something else entirely. All we can do is play the role of observer, though we form a bond with the places we walk through we cannot claim ownership of any facet of the mechanics at play in our wild lands. Not all the shows nature puts on are beautiful or inherently inspiring.

A depressing walk through the charred remains of trees ends ceremoniously, turning back into a lush green tunnel full of enough smells to last you a lifetime. Dry pine, wet pine, a slight cloud of dust burning your nose as you walk. The wind washes the range with the smell of wildflowers and distant lakes.

I left the Highline Trail behind temporarily to ascend towards Naturalist Basin, and was quickly rewarded with the views one comes to expect on a backpacking trip in the High Uintas.

In the big spring thaw, these high basins turn into a delicate marshland. Local frogs bellow happily along the banks of wide rivers and stagnant ponds.

The higher you climb, you come to meet the few points where all water flows. These high lakes and waterfalls are the engineers of all life in these wild lands; walking to them almost feels ceremonial, to pay your respects for the beauty you come to appreciate.

Instead of going to the Naturalist Basin proper, I end up at Morat Lake. Two respectable bodies of water separated by a strip of land, though that line is quite obscured by a lingering patch of snow.

Snow is in abundance at these elevations. I wonder if finding camp will be difficult later in the day, where even the snowless patches of land would be difficult to set up on. Every step I take is met with the crunch of snow or the sound of water seeping to the topsoil and leaking into my shoes.

If the rewards of water aren’t enough for a hiker, the top of this basin gives another view of the surrounding peaks of this small section of the High Uintas. If a view like this doesn’t inspire a person to hike further into the wilderness, I don’t know what would.

Even if they are – once again – reminded of the grim reality of life in the wilderness. Trees are often attributed to strength, a longstanding observer of time in this rapidly changing world. They are yet to be invincible. In my days hiking this wilderness as a child, I remember a vast ocean of green. This devastation may have taken my lifetime thus far, but in the context of the life of an entire mountain range, you can imagine it must feel instantaneous. Given another 30 years, I wonder if this will all become grassland littered with sticks and branches of the forests that once stood here.

As the mountains burst at the seams with water, they borrow our footpaths to channel water to all their designated locations. Water-shy hikers need not visit these trails in June.

After another long walk through the trees on the Highline Trail, I meet a fork in the road indicating my final destination of the day. I push towards Four Lake Basin with hopes of finding at least one suitable campsite.

Before long, I find myself at the foot of a crumbling giant, noting the walls that line this basin.

And I find the view I was craving. In spite of its beauty, I noted with a nervous lurch in my stomach that there was quite a large amount of lingering snow on the grounds of this beautiful basin. I hastily made my way down the trail and was pushing up and over snowbanks and ponds forming on the rail before long. As I got to the lakeside, it became clear to me I would not find anywhere to camp here. I reluctantly pushed back up to the top of the pass where I’d seen a campsite earlier.

I set up my tent in a cove of trees lined with patches of snow and watched the stars roll over the Uinta mountains. Throughout the night I awoke to strong winds forcing its way over the pass, pushing up against the weak trunks of long-dead trees. They creak and groan and crack around me, all I can hope is that I can sleep through the night without one toppling over on my meager little tent.

With the conditions ahead being as grim as they were, I opted to double back the way I came instead of spending the following day ambling around in a great loop. I had tentative plans to hike with my dad somewhere, so I made my way back, promising the rest of the views I’d come back for them later.

As I got back to the Highline Trail I was greeted with a sign. Had I turned right, I would be making my way up the first major pass of the long dirt path spanning this wonderful mountain range. I entertain the idea of a quick climb in the morning, but a large wall of dark clouds was marching overhead. If there’s any hostile force at play in this place, it would easily be the quick and intense changes in weather. I’ve learned in the past to respect the weather in the mountains, and I wasn’t going to put that lesson to the test again. I leave it un-hiked for the time being, and I vow if I’m ever going to see the top of this pass, it will be at the end of a Highline Trail thru-hike.

More open meadows welcome me back as I take the familiar road to the trailhead.

Mountains peek through the trees to watch the occasional hiker wind through a seemingly nonsensical path through the expansive forests.

And sometimes the hiker gets to peek back as the trail takes them to high overlooks and large meadows.

But the sky and the clouds make both the mountains and the hikers feel small. Rain, wind, and snow can erode the mountains. The hiker puts on their rain gear and braces for the wall of the cold rains of the mountainous west, performing whatever mental ritual they deem fit to ask these clouds to hold off on the lightning until they’re back in the forest proper to conceal their identity as a potential lightning rod.

In short time, I’m back at my car and I recieve a message on my InReach: No rendezvous would be taking place to day, my dad was unable to come. I had a day to myself with no plan, so I drove until whatever potential the day had manifested in front of me.

That’s when I found the meadow. I parked my car, set up my tent, and opted to spend the day relaxing in the safety of tall healthy trees standing by the sides of this large patch of green. Today I would help them keep watch to make sure the wind was still blowing through the grass, that the water continued to flow, that the flowers were still blooming.

I watched the birds pick worms out of the grass as they watched me pick shattered crumbles of pop tart out of their loud foil wrapping. I felt my endeavor to feed myself was less harrowing, I felt the birds may have had that impression as well.

I fix my gaze on the single tree standing proudly in the middle of the meadow. It has the best view in the valley.

Though this valley is in no shortage of great views.

I spend the day doing nothing. If I wasn’t sitting and taking in the views, I was walking short distances to get a different perspective on views I’d already seen. This meadow treated me well.

Until I woke up the next morning.

My small bivy tent sagged on top of me, heavy with snow. In my tired confusion I couldn’t make heads or tails of it until I had a moment to wake up. When I realized what was happening I slapped the roof of my tent to free it from the snows weight. I hurriedly packed up, concerned about my cars ability to make it out of a snowy high mountain range.

My car is enough to get me to these places, but it’s not exactly sporting the features utility vehicles do. It’s simply enough for me and nothing more. I hope to make it last as long as possible, it’s done well to get me where I need to be in the Utah wilderness in spite of its age.

As I drive away the snow thickens and my visibility becomes engulfed in a flurry of white flakes. I have to take the long route north out of the Uintas, into Evanston Wyoming, and back to the Wasatch Front where I live. It’s a refreshingly long drive with a pit stop in a small town where I talk with a local about the insanity of urban development, and how people try to escape to the rural corners of our country to get away from the madness of the city, only to turn these rural areas into another urban hellscape. Our land is the heart of our freedom, no amount of resort condominiums can make up for the loss of emptiness in the American West. It is the overlooked resource, a gold that loses all quality and value the moment you dig it up.

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