“I love wildlife, but this is getting ridiculous,” Pete laughs, after a coyote wail scares the bull moose we’ve been watching just outside of camp. He has a point. We’d only hiked a half mile from the trailhead near Hacking Lake on a warm August day when we stopped to ogle a herd of 35 mountain goats. Minutes later, a weasel darted upon our track with a mouse hanging in its mouth. Another half mile, and Pete stumbled two spotted elk calves lounging near timberline. Then, two more goat herds on the five-mile climb to 11,700-foot Gabbro Pass, from which we flush 100 elk on the far side. After just 10 miles of hiking, we’ve had about one animal encounter per mile. And that’s just counting the obvious ones. We surely missed more, with 100-mile vistas hogging our attention nearly every step of the way.
Views of every kind—distant horizons, nearby wildlife, isolated lake basins—are better on ridgeline hikes. And the king of the hill is the Highline Trail, which runs 78 east-west miles through the 456,705-acre High Uintas Wilderness of northeast Utah. The often-bouldery track crosses nine major passes and seldom dips below 10,500 feet. It’s the perfect aerie to spy the wilderness’s 26 summits above 13,000 feet, an estimated 1,000 lakes and ponds, 36 major streams, and megafauna galore. My partner, Pete Rives, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker from North Carolina, brought a fly rod, and I’ve packed my camera, the tools of our stop-and-play hobbies. This is not a recipe for ticking off miles, but with these surroundings, we’d be fools to rush it.
You’d think all of this unobstructed beauty would attract a crowd, but fewer than 50 people a year thru-hike the ridge-hugging track—it’s overshadowed on a regional menu that includes the Tetons, Sawtooths, Wind Rivers, and Colorado’s Fourteeners. The Uintas’ long, brick-red ridgelines of billion-year-old quartzite, gradually being swallowed by their own talus, have a powerful majesty that 19th-century explorer Ferdinand Hayden singled out among all the mountain ranges he’d seen. Compared to others, he wrote, the Uintas stands alone for its “contrast so pleasing to the eye.”
Of course, treeless alpine grandeur doesn’t come without some risk. The next night, we camp at Fox Lake in a bowl not far below 12,710-foot Anderson Pass, at mile 33, the trail’s highest point. Clouds appear and gusts swirl. We get ready to run for it, but fortunately no lightning appears.
We drop packs atop Anderson Pass the next morning to side hike to Kings Peak, Utah’s 13,528-foot highpoint. There’s no summit register, just another world’s-end vista of lake-dotted tundra, spiked pine forests, and mazes of snow-banked ridgeline. On lesser treks, this would be the highlight moment. Here, such views are routine.
Descending from the peak into Painter Basin, we skirt the banks of Yellowstone Creek in a huge bowl filled with stunted pines and rushing blue water, our horizon ringed by tiered ridges. The sun sizzles our skin while the breeze simultaneously cools it. We can’t help but take another long pause, this time to yak, snack, and scratch ourselves lazily in a state of high-road aboriginalism.
The next morning, in Oweep Basin at mile 52, thick frost makes the bouldery trail around Mt. Lovenia a slick-footed struggle. Atop the broad saddle of Red Knob Pass, beneath the talus slopes of Tokewanna Peak, we gawk at the shattered tooth of 12,516-foot Mt. Beulah rearing across the gorge. Our next destination, Dead Horse Lake, shines like a milky turquoise mirror at the head of the valley. Immediately beneath us, a large elk herd grazes on an alpine shelf. Three small calves play on a snowbank, spinning and bucking like rodeo bulls. We watch for an hour, then descend to camp. Feeding trout spread rings across the calm water, and Pete heads off with his rod. I scout the wealth of five-star sunset vantage points. Like every camp so far, this one seems finer than the last.
At mile 62, we reach a junction and a choice: take the official Highline Trail and drop into forest to quickly reach the trailhead (mile 73.4), or extend our vista trek by detouring on the Head of Rock Creek Trail. Duh. We loop north another five miles to stay in the alpine zone. When faced with a quandary, always take the high road.
The way Though this trail is within striking distance of Salt Lake, you’ll need to add one day to your itinerary for the 224-mile (one way) shuttle. Go to backpacker.com/highline for complete directions.
Season July through September. Pack an ice axe for early-season. Mosquitoes are fierce around lakes in July and early August.
Map Trails Illustrated High Uintas Wilderness ($12, natgeomaps.com)
Contact (801) 789-1181; fs.fed.us/r4/ashley