Monday, March 2, 2015

Profile of the Uintas

My favorite mountain range, or at least the one where I'm certainly spending most of my energy in terms of planning trips and whatnot, is the Uinta range of northern Utah.  Part of the reason for this is relative convenience; I have a sister-in-law that lives with her husband and my nieces in Vernal, a town in the southern foothills of the mountains near the Colorado border.  Because I can get to their place in two days, that means I can take relatively nice and easy driving days, and only spend one night in a hotel on the way.  I need a couple of hours to get from Vernal to the trailheads I'm likely to use, but it's still a convenient bridge-head into the area.

The Uintas as an unusual range, as they are the highest and probably the longest east-west range in the contiguous lower 48 states--and only the Brooks Range in northern Alaska beats them in North America overall.  Brought up via the Laramide orogeny many millions of years ago, the core of the Uintas is extremely old Precambrian quartz arenite, but the orogeny also raised a number of other types of rocks, most of which make up the flanks and eastern end of the range, while the exposed core makes up the central and eastern portion of the range; this core is an unusual reddish color in many lights, and can vary from brown, tan, gray, pink or maroon, depending on the rock and the light conditions.  The rock is also fragmented and "rotten"; it makes poor technical climbing.  In many ways, in nature, this rock is very similar to the rock that makes up the Maroon Bells and much of the Elk Mountains in Colorado, and the Uintas have a similar look to them.

The Uinas are geologically dead; the only thing happening to them nowadays is erosion, but that's a very slow process, so they'll be with us for millions of years more.  They were highly glaciated during the peak of the Ice Age, but they have been free from glaciers for, at least, all of the recorded history of the area.  The glaciers certainly left unmistakable marks, however; the character of the Uintas is that of a number of high ridges, with ragged tops broken up into a number of related peaks.  Separating these ridges are wide basins where valley glaciers once sat.  This means that the typical Uinta peak has a very predictable profile; a rather squat pyramid, sometimes with some carved cliff faces, but often with just big talus slops leading most of the way up to pointed peaks.

The Uintas are the highest peaks in Utah, and only a few ranges north of them have peaks that are higher (although the Wind Rivers in Wyoming manage handily, and the highest of the Tetons is higher than the highest of the Uintas.)  Going with the guide of having 200+ feet of prominence, the Uintas have 19 peaks over 13,000, with the highest, King's Peak at 13,528.  Even with the stricter 300+ feet of prominence, there are over 17.  Curiously, only about half of these peaks have official names.  The Uintas are an extremely remote range, with very little in the way of settlement, very little in the way of development and very little in the way of roads or visitation, really.  A handful of areas get relatively high visitation (although compared to tourist magnets like Yellowstone or Yosemite, it's still a fraction of that) but many of the remote, unnamed peaks only see a handful of summits a year, if that.  It's not hard to find solitude in the Uintas, once you get off the beaten track (basically, anything right along the Mirror Lake Highway, or right along the Highline Trail west of Rocky Sea Pass, or anything right along the Flaming Gorge area.)

Uintas on Google Earth
Summit Post divides the Uintas into four areas, going from west to east, these are:

  • The Western Uintas and Lakes Roadless Area.  Essentially the area west of Mirror Lake Highway all the way to the edge of the range in the small town of Kamas.  This section of the mountains is mostly but not completely public land, and the peaks are relatively low and often rounded and covered in trees, although they start taking on a much more alpine character as you get closer to the Mirror Lake Highway.  Personally, I believe that the presence of the Mirror Lake Highway and the official wilderness boundaries are somewhat arbitrary; this area truly belongs with the High Uintas as the "core"of the range; the last two sections are eastern portions of the mountains that both have very different character from each other and from the first two areas.
  • Shortly to the east of the Mirror Lake Highway, you come to the High Uintas Wilderness Area.  This is the true core of the mountains.  All of the tallest peaks are located here, as well as most of the most scenic and beautiful ones.  Supposedly, this part of the range has the most contiguous (along with the San Juans of Colorado) alpine tundra above treeline.  I can believe it; there's a lot here.  The most rugged parts are in the west, although the Henry's Fork area, where the two tallest peaks in Utah are located (as well as several other 13ers) is also very rugged.  With the exception of the path through Henry's Fork Basin to King's Peak, which has attracted a lot of notice because it's a state highpoint, and a few other spots to the west of Rocky Sea Pass, the area is relatively little visited.  It's all very remote, and approaches to any of the areas are long.  It's very hard to find very many in and out day trips in the area, but longer backpacking jaunts abound.
  • To the east of the Wilderness area are the remote High Bollies or Eastern Uintas.  This area is bisected by US Highway 191 which is the route you need to follow to get from Vernal to I-80.  Much of this is public land as well; belonging to the Ashley National Forest and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.  The peaks here tend to be remote, seldom visited, yet not hard to reach for those who care to.  They are rounded and forested, although many rise above treeline.  In the map above. this is the part of the longer, straight line that shows as forested.  The entire length of these three combined portions of the Uintas is about 105 miles.
  • Although not always considered as such, Summit Post makes a good case that since the Dinosaur National Monument area was formed by the same mountain building events and faults, it should be considered part of the mountain range as well.  This eastern rump end is mostly the part shown above east of the kink in the red line.  The character of these mountains is quite different.  Because they are lower, they still retain many of the capstone formations that have been completely weathered away in the core areas of the Uintas, including many formations well known in the Colorado Plateau region; the Kapairowitz, the Mancos Shale, the Morrison formation, Cedar Mountain, etc.  Interestingly, as you cross the Uintas from Wyoming to Vernal on US-191, there are a number of signs all along the road telling you what formations you are seeing outside your car window, and what kinds of fossils you can find therein.  While I doubt most tourists passing through care quite as much as I do about geology, I still find this very interesting.  The mountains themselves in this rump end of the Uintas take on a distinctly desert rather than alpine character.  There are also a number of remote and beautiful slot canyons in this area.  Adding this leg, the eastern part after the kink in the red line above, increases the length of the range to right around 150 miles.
The Uintas have a wide array of wildlife; mountain goats, elk, moose, various other deer.  Grizzlies have been extinct in the region since pioneer times, but there are (allegedly) a few black bears in the region.  Nobody I know of uses bear cannisters, but it is recommended that you hang your food (unless, of course, you're above treeline.)  Last time I was there, I normally did, but the first night, when I hadn't yet acclimated to the altitude and I had a pounding migraine and it was raining on me to boot, I didn't bother with it.  The wildlife you're much more likely to encounter are squirrels, chipmunks and--and this may surprise some--large herds of sheep and cows.  When the High Uintas Wilderness Area was formed, some of the meadows were already being used by ranchers as grazing pasture, and as part of the deal when the Wilderness Area was designated, they retained grandfathered in rights to keep their cows and sheep in the area.

Like much of the Rockies, afternoon rain isn't unusual, although the surrounding climate is dry enough that it's rarely prolonged or really hard rain.  Thunder and lightning can accompany these cloudbursts, so it's wise to plan exposure in peaks and high ridges for either earlier in the day, or later in the afternoon, and keeping exit plans open in case bad weather rolls in.  Last August, I had very little in terms of clear skies; I never got a good starry night, for instance.  It's high; even the lower basin floors are often above 9,000 or even 10,000 feet.  Many peaks are over 11,000 and 12,000 and--as noted above--quite a few top 13,000.  It rarely gets really warm, even in August.  I kept a fleece with me at all times, and if I stopped walking, I usually needed to put it on fairly quickly, or start feeling chilled.  Most of the trails are stock friendly, and there are nearly as many horse-parties in the range as there are hikers.  This means that the trails are graded fairly evenly, and stick to the basin floors, often in the trees.  It's hard to get too lost in the Uintas, however, because of the basin and ridge topography that they have.  If you want to get above the trees and ramble off-trail, you won't get lost.  Very few of the peaks and ridges have maintained trails on them, but lots of folks cross passes and ridges that are untrailed, and do it without too much problems.  The peaks of the Uintas are usually considered walk-ups; i.e., they are not technically challenging, and as long as you can handle the elevation gain and don't mind picking your way through loose scree for much of the route, they can be done by even the uninitiated.  It's recommended (by me, at least) to have shoes with some kind of ankle support, however.  Boulder fields and loose scree isn't the funnest to walk on otherwise, and keep in mind that most hiking injuries are to ankles and feet.  A rolled, twisted or even broken ankle in the Uintas back-country will really ruin your day.

One of the things that I love about the Uintas, however, is that they feel relatively safe.  Reasonably safe terrain, especially if you mostly stick to trails, lack of much in the way of really dangerous wildlife, phenomenal natural beauty and lots of opportunity for solitude, as well as relatively easy access, make the Uintas one of my favorite mountain ranges to visit.  They're also really quite large, meaning that there is almost always opportunity for even the experienced to find something new to explore; it would take a lifetime to really get to know these mountains as well as I'd like to.  I've already used up half of mine, and I've got other things to see besides just these mountains, of course, so I'll never get to know them as well as I'd like, but I do feel a certain sense of belonging here; almost as if these are my mountains.

Mount Agassiz from the north in Middle Basin

Approaching Allsop Basin

An above tree-line cairn to mark the Highline Trail.

Christmas Meadows, with Ostler and Spread-Eagle Peaks from the north

Red Castle

Gunsight Pass and "West Gunsight Peak" also known as "Dome Peak."

Ostler Peak, showing, again, the very typical Uinta Mountain profile

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