Sunday, September 4, 2016

Uintas "Alpine" Traverse

I've been tinkering a bit in Caltopo with what I call the "Alpine Traverse" of the Uintas.  For those who may not have read any of my earlier posts, here's the High Concept of this hike: the Uintas, if you look at the entire range in satellite view, look like a rugged green tadpole with a kink in the tail.  The Uintas are an interesting range, and I often divide them into three sections that have three very distinct characters ( divides it into four, but two of them are more distinguished by land use differences rather than by actual physical characteristics per se); I've described my divisions in this post.  It's worth pointing out, however, that even my section C can be pretty fairly divided in half, at the Green River Canyon.  Looking at the satellite image, on the east of the canyon the mountains are very desert-like in nature, while west of the canyon, up until we get to my section B, they are semi-desert, gradually starting to change into the more alpine forested High Bollies or Flaming Gorge section.  Section C between the section B boundary and the Green River canyon is therefore a hybrid between the more overt desert and the more overt mountain forest.

What does all of that mean?  Well,  relative to my own potential hiking plans, it means a few things.  First, the season in which to hike the alpine section of the Uintas does not coincide well with the season to hike the desert section of the Uintas.  What is great for the alpine section is terrible for the desert section because it's too hot and dry in the desert, whereas what is great for the desert section is terrible for the alpine section, because it'll be when snow is heavy on the ground in the alpine area.  Therefore a traverse of the entire range becomes somewhat impractical, or at the very least, undesirable.  I would much rather stick with the alpine section and leave the desert off.  As it happens, it's easy to jump on at the Green River canyon, at the so-called Gates of Lodore Ranger station (to be technical, right across the river from it) and hike my transition section into the High Bollies, and then all the way across the alpine High Uintas area.

So, I've been twiddling around with what I call the "Alpine Traverse" of the Uinta Range, leaving off only the most dry little tadpole tail rump of the eastern desert mountains untouched (as well as a foot traverse of the Green River canyon itself, which I'm not 100% sure is doable.)  This is still a pretty epic hike; it nearly doubles the official complete length of the actual Highline Trail, which is 96 miles—but how close to doubling depends on a number of potential options, scenic detours, and other potential diverges.  The longest the route could possibly be is 196 miles.  But it could also be as short as 161 miles and still be considered "complete."  What are the various options?  I've divided the route up in Caltopo into various segments, numbered 1-8 (going from east to west, although it could also be reasonably hiked the other way too, I suppose) with other labels for some of the other spurs, detours and alternate routes.  Let's have a look, shall we?

Segment 1:  This is the starting point at Gates of Lodore, and requires a fair bit of bushwhacking through the scrubby semi-desert until you get to Allen Draw.  Allen Draw is the terminus of this section, and Allen Draw is actually (relatively) easily reached by the road that goes through Crouse Canyon, so it represents a kind of alternative starting point.  But if you want to catch the Gates of Lodore experience, this segment will add nearly 16 miles—probably a good two days given the bushwhacking, although maybe it can be done in less time—of more of the transition between the Dinosaur National Monument terrain to the Flaming Gorge/High Bollies terrain.  Because it walks to the alternate eastern terminus, it becomes completely optional, and the hike can be easily done without it.  Except for a fairly steep initial climb, it's relatively flat, once you get up on Diamond Mountain.

Segment 2:  This segment, on the other hand, is part and parcel of the entire concept of the expanded hike; that is, to add a bunch of the Flaming Gorge alpine and semi-alpine miles to the total.  Whether you drive through Crouse Canyon to Allen Draw, or hike from the Gates of Lodore, either way, this is just over 27 miles that can't be missed without abandoning the high concept of the hike altogether.  Combined with Segment 1, this adds over 43 miles to the Highline Trail.  Admittedly, a fair bit of this segment is on rinky-dink dirt roads rather than trails, which may not appeal to many.  On the other hand, this is a very little used area of the range, and it also has a not insignificant number of miles of bushwhacking.

Segment 3:  2 ends at the official eastern terminus of the Highline Trail (albeit, that far eastern leg is rarely done—even after a big effort at trail clean-up and maintenance from the nearby town of Vernal.  This is also a potential spot for a food drop, as is the western portion of this section, Chepeta Lake—the last road before you really dive straight into the High Uintas Wilderness.  Chepeta Lake is also the most westerly "eastern terminus" that you can hike and really credibly claim to have hiked the Highline Trail; although many people consider themselves as having hiked it if they do the Hacking Lake TH midway through this section.  This is almost 37 miles long; nearly as long as the entire two sections before it, and it gradually transitions from the Flaming Gorge character of its eastern edge to the High Uintas true alpine nature at the western edge.  By Chepeta Lake you will have hiked, if you do all three segments, 80 miles, and you're close enough to the midway point to count it as a potential celebration.  If you hike fairly quick, you can probably make this your only food drop (or if you carry an awful lot of food).  If you average somewhere between 10-12 miles a day, you will have taken a complete week to get this far.  You'll also have eased yourself somewhat into the higher elevations, above tree-line alpine tundra that you'll face for much of the next section, and will have gone over a few good passes.

Segment 4:  From Chepeta Lake, this goes to the Smith's Fork Junction deep in the High Uintas wilderness.  It also will have taken you over Anderson Pass, less than a mile from the summit of King's Peak, the state high point in Utah.  Few consider that a natural place to end a segment, except that at the junction, you need to make a decision; to stick with the official Highline Trail (a shortcut) or take a scenic detour to see the Red Castle area while you're at it.  This crosses two big passes, North Pole pass in the east and then after crossing Painter Basin, Anderson Pass.  There's pretty big elevation gain to summit these passes, but otherwise, you spend a great deal of time in Painter Basin (and then Yellowstone Basin) enjoying relatively flat and scenic views of unobstructed alpine tundra, with forest only in the very lowest portions of the river valleys.  At 29 miles, this is a good two and a half or even closer to three day section, probably—especially when you consider the summit spur option below.

King's Peak Summit Spur:  This is optional, but hardly anyone who hikes the Highline opts not to summit King's Peak while they're right there.  It's just an up and back, 1.5 miles round trip.  The summit is just under 1,000 higher than the Anderson Pass summit, and there's reportedly an easy to follow social trail to the top.

Segment 5:  My default route includes this and the official Highline as an unofficial shortcut, but of course, most people hiking the Highline would consider it the opposite.  This is 11.5 miles where you turn off of the Highline in Yellowstone basin and summit Smith's Fork pass instead into the Smith's Fork basin.  Keeping going north and then west to round the horn of the Red Castle massif, probably spending a night at Lower Red Castle Lake, which is one of the scenic highpoints of the entire range.  Going back south (and up again) over the pass behind Upper Red Castle Lake (which isn't labeled on my map or on Caltopo, but which I've often heard called Wilson Pass because of nearby Wilson Peak) you can get back on the Highline nearly right away in the "Oweep Basin."  There isn't a marked trail over this pass, but scuttlebutt is that much of the route is actually a social trail, with relatively little route-finding/scree-whacking required.  Although there is some.

Alternate shortcut:  On the other hand, if you just stay on the Highline and ignore the allures of the Red Castle area, you knock nearly 6 miles off of your route—at least half a day, maybe more if you spend some time actually enjoying the Red Castle scenery.  You cross Porcupine Pass from the upper western Yellowstone Basin into the upper Eastern Lake Fork Basin (this spur is often called "Oweep Basin" because Oweep Creek runs through it.)  This is a super scenic pass in its own right, although you get similar views from "Wilson Pass".  If you do the Red Castle option, you will have hiked 122 miles by the end of this section, and if you hike this shortcut instead, you're still at 116 or so miles.

Segment 6:  This 16 and half mile section mostly follows the Highline up and over Red Knob Pass and to Dead Horse Lake, where there's again a choice to be made.  It does include a very small detour from the main route to see Crater Lake, though—the deepest lake in the Uintas and one to which no trail (and therefore extremely few hikers) goes to.  The top of Red Knob Pass looking into the West Fork Blacks Fork (Dead Horse) Basin is one of the most scenic views in the entire range.

Segment 7: 22 mile segment 7 is closer to the official Highline Route.  However, even it has a few detours, including the "north trails" detour that most hikers use in the Rock Creek Basin to see all of the lakes along the edge of the basin, like Helen, Lightning, Gladys, and Rosalie Lakes.  I have a little off-trail detour to see several lakes in a very small sub basin in the upper northeast portion of Rock Creek; Boot Lake, Jodie Lake, Doug Lake, Reconnaissance Lake, and Triangle Lake.  Once you get back on the Highline, you cross Rocky Sea Pass and continue on to the official western terminus of the Highline Trail... but of course, the concept of this hike is that that's not the end.

Alternate Northside Route:  This alternate is actually shorter than Segment 7 by about 4 miles, but is probably much more difficult, given that instead of crossing two passes, you're going over twice as many... all without trails.  I know that it's doable; I've seen trip reports of hikers who have hiked all of these sections (although not strung together like this).  Although it misses Dead Horse Pass and the scenic Rock Creek Basin, at the same time, the North Slope basins here are almost uniformly considered among the most scenic in the entire range; Allsop, Priord/Norice, Amethyst and Middle Basins.  The western edge gets relatively more traffic, because they're closer to the Mirror Lake Highway, and relatively easy to reach, but that's still relative.  I'm a little unsure about this; it depends on my confidence and condition while hiking a putative through-hike of this route, if I take this or opt for the more standard route of Segment 7.

Packard Lake Spur:  This small spur; just a mile and a quarter one way (which has to be hiked back again (would be a desirable camp site if doing Segment 7 that's off the beaten path a bit, and gives a great view of the very scenic East Fork Canyon; a small spur canyon that joins the Duchesne River canyon.  You can get great views of the latter too if you go off trail from Packard Lake and pole around the edge of the canyon rim near the eastern edges of Wyman and Wilder Lake spurs.  If I do Segment 7 instead of the Alternate Northside Route, I'll absolutely stop here.  I'm actually more likely to stick with the official route of Segment 7 rather than my more ambitious Alternate, but either one that I pick, I'll be disappointed in missing the other.

Segment 8: 25 mile Segment 8 is linking trails with a few minor spots of bushwhacking to see the western end of the Uintas beyond the Highline Trail.  There's a lot more usage of this area, because it's closer to the Mirror Lake Highway and easy to get to; in fact, you will actually have to walk along the MLH for a small distance (three quarters of a mile.)  While its usually considered less dramatic than the actual wilderness area to the east, there's a lot of really beautiful spots here, and this route is designed to try and see some of the most important of them.  At the end of the segment, you have to decide which finishing spur you'll use.  The one that goes to the Yellow Pines trailhead is probably what I'll do, as it's easier both to hike and to leave a car.

Terminus Spur:  At just shy of 4 miles, this is just the last afternoon of hiking to get from Yellow Pines lakes to your car.  You won't see anything really dramatic here (I don't think) except for trees.  But it has to be done to get to your car.  On the other hand, the other option was a little bit of ridge-walking left, and takes you all the way to the literal very edge of the mountain range, as you walk out Hoyt Canyon literally onto the streets of Marion, a small town that's in the big valley between the Wasatch and Uintas mountains.

Alternate Western Terminus: As described above, this is one last gasp of scenery before you're done, although after what you've already seen, it's no doubt going to be understated and less impressive.  Walking out Hoyt Canyon on a 4-wheel drive road may be less impressive, but I've seen great views from Hoyt Peak, which you'll be very near.  In fact, it might be worth a small jaunt up to this final summit for a last look at the mountains before you come back out.  This route is 11 miles, and probably adds another day to the route.  With the right vehicle as your ride, you could cut part of that off and drive out Hoyt Canyon instead of walk out.

Although obviously this comes with options and spurs and detours and diversions, some of which could be cut out to shrink the total, as measured by my desired route, this is almost a two hundred mile hike—and even shortened it's well over 150 miles.  To really do proof of concept, maybe I should start at Cross Mountain even further to the east, but as I said, it's got problems.  Averaging 10-12 miles a day, and giving some slack for potential bad weather or just the need for some down time (or days that are short for other reasons; like we arrive at a highly desirable camping spot early and don't want to go on because we're already at where we wanted to be) it's still three weeks in the wilderness.  With at least one food drop (and potentially three) this really works best if well planned in advance, and with a friendly local who can help you move your cars around and stuff.

It's very, very ambitious.  But one of these days, I'd like to do it...

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