Backpacking in the Uintas

“This place is incredible, why do we not come here every single weekend?” I remember asking Courtney just after passing Clegg Lake. Our friend Brett promptly reminded us that just two weeks prior, the bugs and mosquitos were so bad, they left bite marks through their pants and clothes. “Oh, yeah, that’s why we only get to spend a few months here every year. Nevertheless, the bugs were gone this weekend, and we had one of the best backpacking trips we’ve ever been on!

With the long weekend ahead of us, we wanted to plan something new to do for Labor Day weekend. A group of us decided on backpacking in the Uintas. Court and I have spent many weekends camping in the Western Uintas, and only recently discovered the Mirror Lake areas, but had yet to go backpacking in them. The plan was to go with our friends Kyle & Erin and Brett & Morgan, along with all 5 of our dogs, to Meadow Lake. The hike in was around 5-6 miles, navigating through the valley between Bald Mountain and Notch Mountain and passing by three stunning lakes named Clegg, Notch, and Bench.

After car camping Friday night in the Uintas, we drove up to the Bald Mountain trailhead to wait for the other four. Well, as the time passed later and later, beyond our planned time of departure, Court, Gregor, and I almost left without anyone figuring they bailed on us. See, there’s no cell service in the Uintas, so we had no way of knowing if everyone was still on time, or even if they were coming or not. Luckily, they showed up 4 minutes before we were planing to head out! So as we all tossed our heavy backpacking packs over our shoulders, securing the hip straps, and then we let the dogs lead us into the mountains. All 5 of them! Kyle & Erin’s 3, Brett & Morgan’s 1, and ours as well.

Quickly we came up on our first lake, and not more than a few seconds went by before the dogs sprinted into the water. The five of them, every chance they got, ran and played in the lakes and ponds along side the trail. We felt like we had our own little wolfpack on the trail with us. Hiking with that many dogs can have many challenge of its own. If the trail was more crowded, I think it would have been an issue, but in total, we only passed by 5 groups of hikers in the 6 miles. And everyone we passed was pretty excited to see and pet a few pups on the way.

Even though the hike was primarily downhill on the way to the lake, our packs were still heavy. And the dozen beers I brought in my daypack, wasn’t helping either. Since we were planning to use our camp as a “basecamp” to day-hike, we chose to bring a few more luxuries with us on this trip. You know, like a hammock, lots of food to cook, more than one change of clothes, and a whole lot of wine and snacks. One thing we didn’t splurge on was the bigger tent, which, I’m not sure if we regretted, but we forgot how cramped 2 people and a dog can get in a 2-Person 4-Season Tent. Lately, we’ve been car camping in 3-person and 4-person tents, a true luxury compared to backpacking tents. But this is all a part of the backpacking experience and always worth it in the end.

Finally, we made it to the lake! Every rocky step was worth it. Coming out of the woods and onto the beach was such a relieving feeling. Even though it wasn’t that far, hiking at 10,000′ of elevation is exhausting. The elevation only made the surrounding bald peaks even more stunning. Starring out across the water at the shoulder of Notch Mountain’s north face as the sun was approaching the ridge over Peak 11027. Of course, we still had one more important thing to do before the fun could be begin. We still needed to find a campsite.

The lake looked mostly desolate, with a few others camped out on its banks from what we could see. Everyone, including myself, was really hoping to score a campsite as close to the water as possible. Unfortunately, the only option for that was already taken across the lake. Luckily, Brett found an old logger’s camp tucked in the woods a few hundred feet from the water’s edge on the north side of the lake. There, an old, run-down foundation of a log cabin was being reclaimed into the earth, with all of its iron tools and stoves rusting away around its perimeter. To think, a hundred years ago, people were sitting around the same campfire we were going to be drinking our beers around a few hours later, it was a surreal moment.

As the sun set, and the beer and wine started to flow like water (that we had much less of), the stars started to come out, one-by-one. The Milky Way eventually came into view, reminding us all how small we really are. Far from any cell signal, far from any road or town, and close to the group around the fire. Backpacking can really reset the mind by the end of any trip. Everything you need to survive, and I quite literally mean survive, is packed away into your backpack and hiked into some remote campsite. This one just happened to come with a billion dollar view of the starry night’s sky over a pristine alpine lake in the middle of the Uinta National Forest. And as the wine claimed its victims, one by one, we all eventually retired into our tents, surprised how warm it stayed at night. I think we all were prepared for sub-freezing temperatures, when in reality, it stayed in the 40s over night! Which, even though it may not seem warm, is quite warm for a late summer night, in the Uintas, at 10K feet.

Day 2 of the trip was pretty casual for us. Brett and Morgan headed out early after breakfast with their dog Aspen. Kyle and Erin also decided they were going to head out later that evening because sleeping with 3 dogs in a 3-person tent was just going to be unbearable for another night. Luckily, they decided to stick around for the afternoon so we could all hike out to Ibantik Lake. Since I really hadn’t done much research about the area, this came as quite the welcomed surprise. We were just out hiking, in hopes of reaching the base of Notch Mountain. So you can imagine how stoked we were when we saw this pristine, blue alpine lake.

Again, the dogs immediately ran into the water since it was a whole 5 minutes (read sarcastically) since they were last in some kind of stream. We headed down to the water’s edge where we skipped rocks and watched our pups swim around and chase each other. Around the lake, you could see camps tucked away the trees, some with dogs and some without. An incredible campsite, no doubt, but realized that the ridge that wrapped around to the East would prevent the sunrise from hitting the late until late in the morning. Everyone knows how crucial that warm, morning sunlight is during a cold morning.

Eventually, we had to head back to camp where we heated up and ate our lunches. The dogs, completely exhausted, all just laid in the dirt around camp in the hot sun, snoozing away the afternoon. Following suit, we all took a nap in one place or another. I chose the hammock, realizing this was the first useful instance of the hammock on any trip I’ve ever brought it for. But after we got recharged, Kyle, Erin, and their 3 dogs packed up and headed out for the night. Then it was just 3.

The last day, Courtney and I woke up, boiled some of the water we had filtered the day earlier to make some oatmeal. Then we figured we’d just head out for the day to try and beat the mid-afternoon sun on our hike out. Unfortunately, I did not trust the water I had filtered. It tasted very sediment-y and so that left us less than a half liter of water for the two of us to hike the 6 miles out. This proved to be a big downfall, leaving us exhausted and dehydrated for the last couple miles of the hike. Also, the downhill hike we enjoyed so much getting to the campsite, was now entirely uphill. But, step by step, we made it back to the trailhead and to the truck where we had plenty of water waiting for us!

An epic weekend, at an unforgettable lake in the Uintas. I can’t wait to explore more of these peaceful and quiet mountains.

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