Been feeling smug and self-important? You can get the necessary attitude adjustment free of charge in the High Uintas Wilderness. The resident mosquitoes and mountain lions will make your real place in the food chain unavoidably clear. Alpine meadows that stretch for half an hour of concerted hiking will leave no doubt about your relative size.
Located in northeastern Utah, east of Salt Lake City and west of Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, the Uintas are the state's highest mountains. Six-hundred-plus miles of trail in and around the 460,000-acre wilderness create a backpacker's Eden. With so much territory to cover, the trick is getting the essence of the place in a weekend-size dose.
But by traveling to the eastern end of the range, it's possible to begin trekking at an elevation that eliminates most of the long and steep traverses, yet still leaves just enough climbing that you won't feel as though you cheated. To reach a backcountry trailhead that delivers you quickly into the full wilderness condition, drive the 20 miles of forest road to Spirit Lake, which lies at 10,000 feet. From there, the hiking options are plentiful, but the better routes head west. Fish Lake, 9 miles from the trailhead along a like-named trail that meanders around glacier-carved basins hiding pristine lakes, makes a good weekend prize. More ambitious weekend warriors might consider continuing west past Round Lake to Island Lake (7 miles one way from Fish Lake), or heading northwest to the Kabell Ridge and North Burro Peak (10 miles one way from Fish Lake). Elk sign is everywhere among the lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, so be sure to pack along binoculars no matter what your destination. If you're really lucky, as we were, you may spot a mountain lion skulking along the high ground.
Arriving at timberline and the camp at Fish Lake (10,685 feet), grab the head nets because the mosquitoes are ferocious. Because horse or mule packers may join you, pick an isolated spot. Come sunset, you can expect a fiery display of alpenglow. Its reflection in the lake is the sort of bonus only backcountry travelers can enjoy.
Be sure to take a day to explore the high country that lies up the talus slope from Fish Lake. The views are staggering, and counting alpine lakes is almost like counting stars at night.
QUICK TAKE: High Uintas Wilderness, Utah
DRIVE TIME: The Uinta Range, at its nearest, is no more than 100 miles from Salt Lake City. To encounter fewer people (but more horse packers) drive to the east end, about 200 miles (4 hours) from Salt Lake City.
THE WAY: From Vernal, Utah, go north on scenic US 191 then west on UT 44 toward Manila. Take Forest Route 218 3 miles to the junction with Forest Route 221. Go west 10 miles on 221 to Forest Route 001, then 3 miles to the trailhead at Spirit Lake.
TRAILS: More than 600 miles of backpackable trail.
ELEVATION: Spirit Lake trailhead lies at 10,000 feet; Fish Lake at 10,685. The ridge above Fish Lake rises to 11,300 feet.
CAN'T MISS: The panorama from the ridge above Fish Lake.
CROWD CONTROL: The heaviest use occurs between July 24 and the third week of August. Midweek trips before and after those dates avoid most crowds and horsepackers. To avoid people completely, steer clear of the lakes.
PIT STOP: That burger you started craving about mile 5 is sizzling on the griddle at Spirit Lake Lodge.
WALK SOFTLY: Limit group size to seven at the most. Avoid cutting off switchbacks, which on steep and muddy trails opens a path for erosion to destroy the route.
MAPS AND GUIDES: USGS topo maps Dutch John and King's Peak give an overview of the wilderness. A large Forest Service map of the Uintas is more informative, but too big to pack conveniently. If you're venturing no farther west than North Burro Peak, then Trails Illustrated's Flaming Gorge/East Uintas map (#704) is your best bet. All are available from the address below.
MORE INFORMATION: Roosevelt Office, Ashley National Forest, 244 W. Highway 40, Box 333-6, Roosevelt, UT 84066; (801) 722-5018.