- Going uphill is certainly hard. I'm not well conditioned to do it, so I require lots of stopping to catch my breath. Especially at altitude. I need to get better at climbing and hiking uphill before I go on another major backpacking trip in the mountains.
- My altitude acclimatization days didn't really work. I spent the time, but still got hit with exhaustion and altitude sickness the first day that I actually backpacked anyway. I'd have been better off starting right away and getting another day of backpacking done, rather than frittering the day away at high (but still lower) altitude seeing stuff that I'd already seen before.
- You need to keep busy and keep moving. When I end up with too much downtime, I just get bored and second guess how much I really want to be out in the wilderness. Having places to go and things to see every day is important.
- 10-12 miles in a day isn't terribly hard. Sure, elevation gains can make a big difference in how far you walk, and the floor of the West Fork Blacks Fork canyon is relatively flat. But that's relative. From where I parked my car at the ford to Dead Horse Lake, we gained 1,551 feet. That's not nothing, even if it lacked any big, steep sections where we switch-backed and gained a lot of elevation over a very short distance. Although I should keep in mind that the elevation gain may have contributed to my rough first day; but my son had a rough day back out, which I did not. So, while it contributes, it's probably not as big a deal as I think it is. Especially if I get a little better conditioned to hiking uphill before I go next time.
- I couldn't possibly have done this trip in less than 6 days. 7-8 is even better if I want to have a couple of days where I'm exploring from a temporary base camp without my pack. I'm not sure that I really want to be out that long, or if I tend to feel like I'm "done" after about 4 days. Then again, I'd probably do better if I slept better, and I've still struggled with gear just a bit. I shouldn't be too eager to say that I don't want to be out longer when I've had a few minor gear struggles that in spite of being minor, certainly dimmed much of my enthusiasm for staying out. I need, if I go with Alex or Logan again next time, to have another Escape 50 pack (the Escape 50 has performed well for two trips now; the other pack that I used last year did not) and another warmer sleeping bag (once again, my ability to use my little, compact sleeping bag did not end up being sufficient to keep me warm, making my nights pretty miserable.) Solve those two problems, and I think I can spend a little longer in the field without getting tired of it.
So I'm tempted to resurrect the so called "Uintas 2015 Epic Loop" itinerary, with a few minor modifications. Here's the original map again; I've cleaned up the lines just a bit.
- Day 1: Rather than acclimate on the Mirror Lake Hwy, get to the trailhead as early as I can and hike nearly 10 miles to Lower Red Castle Lake. Set up camp. Take pictures and otherwise enjoy the area. Maybe build a campfire, even. Here's the directions to the trailhead. Given that drive time, I'd need a very early start in the morning from my sister-in-law's place in Vernal; like 5 AM hit the road early. I do recognize that with a later start (because of traveling for a few hours before I can start hiking) and getting up and over Bald Mountain before heading into the Red Castle area is likely to make this a pretty killer first day. But if I poop out early and break camp, I've got Day 2 (see below) to make up whatever I don't accomplish on Day 1. But ideally, I'd actually camp past Lower Red Castle Lake (see tent shaped marker.) Another option to make better time this day is to skip seeing family in Vernal until after the hike, and go directly to the trailhead. There's camping there too. Distance: 9.67 miles. Elevation Gain (not net): +2,860.
- Day 2: Explore the Red Castle area a bit, including Red Castle Lake, Upper Red Castle Lake and cresting Wilson Pass to look over into Oweep Creek Basin. Later in the itinerary, I'll hike that, but for now, it's just a photo op. Relatively easy day, but with a campfire and some things to do and see, it shouldn't be an overly long and boring one. If I stopped a little early on Day 1, start the day off by moving the tent to the new location at the small unnamed lake near the tree line between Lower Red Castle Lake and Red Castle Lake. Distance: 6.84 miles. Elevation Gain: +1,732.
- Day 3: 11½ mile hike to the Oweep Creek basin by cresting Smith's Fork Pass, Tungsten Pass and Porcupine Pass. Although the mileage isn't a lot, cresting three passes means this will be a physically demanding day. Camp in the shadow of Wilson Pass, not far from where I was overlooking the day before; although I will have gone a long way around to get there this time, seeing lots of scenery on the way. And if the weather looks bad, I'll have to add another mile or so to get to the tree line for the night. Distance: 11.5 miles. Elevation Gain: +2,749.
- Day 4: Cross the broad northern edge of the Yellowstone Basin and Lambert Meadows, leaving the trail near the end of the day to get to Crater Lake. At nearly 13½ miles, this is a fairly long day, but without too much elevation change (about the same I actually experienced walking from the Ford for West Fork Blacks Fork to Dead Horse Lake last year, actually—just a pinch more.) Distance: 13.45 miles. Elevation Gain: +1,759.
- Day 5: This is a short day, although it means cresting Red Knob Pass and getting to Dead Horse Lake (deja vu). Because the day is short, I can spend some time finding Lake Ejod and just generally exploring a few areas that I didn't see last time. The original map route also shows a small detour to summit Red Knob (although I took that off for this version.) I can decide whether or not to exercise that option depending on weather and time and how much I just feel like it or not. Distance: 6.17 miles. Elevation Gain: +1,647.
- Day 6: The orange line shows an option for crossing Dead Horse Pass and exploring a bit of the NE corner of Rock Creek Basin. I could also, in theory, cross Allsop Pass to see Allsop Lake, although there's no trail there, and reports are that it's fairly steep and loose. More likely, rather than taking a second day at Dead Horse Lake, I'd pack up and head back to the East Fork Blacks Fork valley, camping again off trail in that big eastern bight of Tokewanna at a little over 11,000 feet, as marked on the map (or maybe at the little unnamed lake just east of Wasatch Benchmark; only a mile or two short of the tent marker I put in.) Distance: 7.28 miles Elevation Gain: +2,367
- Day 7: After a relatively short hike back to the car, we should be back in Vernal by mid-afternoon for showers and hamburgers at Freddy's, or Mexican food at Cafe Rio. Sleeping in a bed and ready to roll the next day back towards home. Distance: 9.09 miles Elevation Gain: -2027.
Will I get tired of being out after 7 days? I dunno yet. I think I can do it. Once I get started, I've only got a few opportunities to cut it shorter anyway: I could drop out Day 2 and just keep moving instead, but I'd have to make that call so early in the trip, that I probably wouldn't; I could cut out the Dead Horse Lake day and head straight from Crater Lake to Tokewanna that day instead. If I did both, it'd be 5 days, but more likely I'd only do one of those if I were to do any. I could also shorten the loop; cutting out the Day 3 mileage and doing Day 2 not as a backless exploration day, but actually taking Wilson Pass with my packs and setting up camp somewhere in Oweep or Yellowstone basin directly. And if I really wanted to bail, I could take Squaw Pass from Yellowstone Basin to the Little East Fork trail, cutting out all of the Western part of the trip entirely.
In some ways, I'm not sure that I like having those options, though. I'd rather feel committed to doing the full loop once I get started.
A bigger question: will Alex (assuming I bring him) or Logan get tired of the trip before it's over? Well, I don't have to tell him that there are bail-out options, do I? If I do, he may be begging for them for days, and who wants to listen to that?
A more salient question is when would I do this, given that I'm really pushing for a Colorado trip this coming summer rather than going back to the Uintas for a third year in a row. I really wish I had time each year for 3-4 big backpacking trips, y'know? Then I wouldn't feel like it's such a difficult question of prioritizing trips that I want to take. There's a very remote chance that I could do this during my shut-down week, where I have to take vacation whether I want to or not, and then still have a chance to head out to Colorado in September. But we'll see. I think the chances of both of those happening in one year are remote.
Here's an image from a guy who explored much of this same territory this past August of the southern tip of the Mt. Lovenia ridge, which I'd pass on my way to Crater Lake. Just as some inspiration.