Utah has so much more than red rocks, desert landscapes, and skiing. In the North Eastern tip of the state, the Uinta Mountain Range stretches from East to West and offers some of the best backpacking, fishing, peak-bagging, and exploring in the country. The Uinta Highline Trail traverses this range from East to West, climbing multiple high alpine passes and offering views of jagged red peaks and gorgeous alpine meadows. This last summer I thru-hiked an 85 mile version of the trail with my best friend, and I’m already planning another trip next summer.
There are multiple ways to hike the UHT. Its classic route stretches 102 miles from McKee Draw in the east to Hayden Pass in the west. However, the first 20 miles don’t have any water and pass through lower elevation cattle-grazing territory. After a friend before us hiked the entire trail, he told us to skip that section and start at Leidy Peak. We took his advice and didn’t regret it one bit. Additionally, Utah’s high point at King’s Peak sits as a two mile round-trip detour from the trail. It’s absolutely worth it to make the side trip and sit on top of this amazing state.
Overview of the Uinta Highline Trail
- Distance: 84-105 miles
- Elevation gain: ~18,000 ft
- Difficulty: Moderate – Hard
- Days to hike: 4 – 8
- Camping options: Everywhere along LNT guidelines
- Permit required: No
- Water availability: None first 20 miles, then sources every few miles
- Best time of year: late July – early September
- Terrain: High alpine rocky trail, lower meadows on dirt and grass
Why Hike the Uinta Highline Trail?
The High Uintas Wilderness offers extremely remote and beautiful alpine landscapes. If you have the desire to hike through a mountainous region like the Sierra Nevada but don’t have multiple weeks, the UHT is a wonderful alternative. The entirety of the trail can easily be done in a week, including transportation time. While it’s a short hike, it also packs a punch of climbing. Most of the trail lays above 10,000 ft, and you’ll be climbing at least one pass a day. This short but hard mini thru-hike is perfect for hikers seeking a short but challenging wilderness vacation, or as training for a longer thru-hike.
Transportation: How to Get There and Which Way to Go
It is difficult and pricey to get to the start of the Highline Trail. There are shuttle services available (this one is most reputable), but their services are expensive and they book up far in advance. The easiest and most efficient way to get to and from the trail is to drop a car and your ending trailhead and catch a ride to the start. It’s also possible to drop cars at either end, but it’s a 4-5 hour drive between the two termini. Be sure to account for transportation time when considering how many days you will need to hike the trail.
The closest major city to the Uinta Highline Trail is Salt Lake City, Utah. The Western Terminus at Hayden Pass is 1.5-2 hours from the city, while the Eastern Terminus (either McKee Draw or Leidy Peak) is 4-5 hours from the city. For hikers traveling out of state, the easiest way to navigate transportation is to fly into SLC, rent a car and drive it to the Western Terminus, and schedule a shuttle to take you from there to the Eastern end.
Because of both these transportation hurdles and the terrain itself, the vast majority of hikers go from east to west. Going this direction, the pass climbs decrease in length and elevation, so you’re able to knock out the hardest ones first. Additionally, the terrain suited this direction. Most of the passes were more gradual on the western side, which made for steep climbs and longer descents. We both agreed that this was the more efficient way to tackle a pass, and would hike it in this direction again.
Route Finding and Navigation
The lack of trail in some spots along the route really surprised me. There were miles-long stretches at a time where we were following spaced out cairns across an alpine meadow or through a blown-down burn area. It would have been incredibly easy to lose the trail (and we did once). I highly recommend having some sort of GPS device – whether it’s an app on your phone or an emergency electronic device like a Garmin or Spot. This way, you can see your actual location in reference to the trail and see if you’ve gotten off course at all when your only markers are cairns.
Camping, Water Sources, and Weather Concerns
Campsites were plentiful and absolutely gorgeous along the highline trail. We did our best to position ourselves as low in elevation as possible, as well as in an ideal spot to get over passes early the next morning. Lakes were a great campsite destination; as they were usually surrounded by trees and offered covered campsites. Though the alpine meadows were gorgeous, they were more exposed and less ideal for camping.
If you decide to do the full Highline Trail, you will be dry for the first 20 miles. However, west of Leidy Peak there’s flowing water every few miles. Though it’s tempting to drink fresh from these streams, be sure to filter absolutely everything. Cattle wander through the entire landscape.
Arguably, the most crucial aspect of preparation for the Highline Trail is prepping for weather. Temperatures can easily swing 50 degrees (or more) in a day, and storm clouds gather quickly and often. Brush up on your backcountry thunderstorm knowledge, and make sure you have an adequate rain jacket and insulation. On the other hand, the strong alpine sun during the day can absolutely scorch. I recommend carrying a long sleeved sun shirt for the potential of hot days.
A Few Pro Tips / Biggest Takeaways
- Get yourself in shape beforehand. This trail is hard immediately. Even if your daily mileage is conservation, you will be spending a ton of time climbing at high elevations. The better shape you hit the trail in, the more fun you will have.
- Build some flexibility into your itinerary. Afternoon thunderstorms are a given. This can pose problems above the treeline. Make sure that your itinerary focuses on climbing high passes in the beginning of the day, and that you will be able to make up any extra miles at night or in the morning if an afternoon thunderstorm forces you to hunker down for a bit.
- Plan a conservative itinerary. On a similar note, be aware that some of this terrain is slow-going. While my friend and I can normally hike at 3-3.5 mph, we had multiple miles lower than 2 mph. Long pass climbs and tricky burn areas make for some slow going terrain.
- Do King’s Peak – but don’t underestimate it. Tagging Utah’s high point is less than a two mile round-trip detour from the trail. However, it took us (two strong hikers) about two hours total. The climb up is a steep scramble well above 12,000 ft. We had dropped our packs at the junction and were pretty darn thirsty by the time we returned.
- Pack for all conditions. Because we did the Highline Trail later in the season (September), I geared my pack towards cold weather protection. The first two days we were hit with 75 degrees and sunshine, which is HOT at that high of elevation. My shoulders and face were absolutely scorched, as I had not adequately prepared for alpine sun.
- Don’t expect service. The only spot that we had a smidgen of service was on top of King’s Peak. There also isn’t any reception at either of the termini, so be sure to have your rides nailed down. Or, bring a two-way messaging compatible GPS device like a Garmin Inreach.
As stated above, I’m already planning another thru-hike of this trail. It’s length makes it doable for everything, while the remoteness of the Uintas offers a true wilderness escape. My friend and I hiked 20+ mile days on our four day thru-hike, and had a blast pushing through this gorgeous landscape. On the other hand, we met multiple hikers who were taking their time and absolutely loved spending long afternoons at gorgeous high alpine lakes and meadows. There’s no wrong way to hike the Highline Trail, as long as you bring a rain jacket.