The Western Uintas

A Beginners Guide To Accessing One Of Utah’s Most Exciting Landscapes

Panorama of the Uinta Trout Fishing Lake Mountains from cliff at Notch Lake with trees and Mount Baldy in background, Utah, USA

A couple and their two kiddos stand on the summit of Bald Mountain — located in the Uinta Mountains, Northeast of Heber, just off of the Mirror Lake Highway. At ground level, the mountain appears to be just a pile of boulders, but from the family’s elevation of 11,947 feet, the magnificent peak offers incredible views. With big smiles, the children point at distant, abrupt mountains wrapped in cliff bands. Everything around them is visible. Looking past Mirror Lake far below, they spy the Duchesne River drainage filled with pine trees, packed so tightly it is hard to discern the topography. The remains from a wild-fire in 2018 manifest a giant scar of the charred forest above the East Fork Duchesne River. Enjoying the majestic vistas from a bird’s eye view didn’t happen overnight, though. Like most things in life, climbing to the top starts with one small step.

There are many things to do, see, and discover in the Western Uinta’s. For those venturing outside their cars and off the highway for the first time, exploring can seem a bit daunting at first. A few great places to visit before starting your adventure are right at your fingertips — literally. Start by browsing fs.usda.gov for information about the Uinta National Forest, wildlife.utah.gov for information about fishing and hunting, and alltrails.com for maps, trails, descriptions, and difficulty levels. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, where you want to go, and when — don’t forget to check the weather! Go to weather.gov or
noaa.gov for the most accurate weather forecasting for mountain regions.

So, you’ve decided on your venture and are ready to pack and get going. Great! Do you have your recreation pass? Fishing license? Survival Gear? Bear Spray? Brand spanking new boots just begging to be put to work? Let’s talk. When it comes to the great outdoors, being prepared — even for a thirty-minute quick quest — can mean the difference between an amazing adventure or a crappy trip. Dare I say being prepared can be the difference between life and death – especially when venturing in the backcountry, overnighters, or week-long excursions? So what should you pack, and where do you find all the stuff? Here are a few tips.

Recreation And Fishing Passes

If you plan on parking and leaving your vehicle for any amount of time, you must display a recreation pass. The only exception is if you are parked in the lot to use the 5-star restrooms (seriously though, they are kept clean — considering — kudos to whoever has that job — thank you). You can pick up passes on your way to the Uinta’s along Mirror Lake Highway, Trailhead parking areas, and several places in Kamas; the Kamas Ranger Station, Kamas FoodTown (grocery store) Customer Service Desk, Mirror Lake Service (Chevron), High Mountain Drug, and Samak Smokehouse. Passes include the following options: 1-3 Day – $6.00, 7 Day – $12.00, Annual – $45.00 (not available at Pay Tubes), National Parks Passes are also valid in the Uinta’s.

If you want to use the mad angler skills you’ve been practicing, make sure you download the Utah Division of Wildlife Service’s Fishing Guidebook from wildlife.utah.gov or pick one up when you purchase your license. You can buy a license in Heber at Lee’s, Smith’s Food & Drug, Mountainland One Stop, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Timberline Ace Hardware, or in Midway at Ridley’s. Read the rules and know before you go — you don’t want to miss out on some of the best-stocked lakes along Mirror Lake Highway. Some of the Fish Species you can hook are: Arctic Grayling, Brook Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Tiger Trout.

Camping

Whether you feel like roughing it or living in the lap of luxury in your tiny home away from home, there are many places to camp along the Mirror Lake Highway. Campgrounds are very nice and clean, most have a picnic table and firepit at each site, and camp hosts generally have firewood for sale. Remember, it is your responsibility to be aware of fire restrictions. Keep in mind that only a few campgrounds have running water and hookups. There are also several areas for dispersed camping, where there is no fee, other than your recreation pass. These sites have no toilets or hosts. For information on campgrounds and their details, availability, and costs, visit recreation.gov.

Wild Animals And Us

Wild animals are often poorly portrayed in media as friendly creatures that share human behavior. This is not the case. They have a huge personal bubble, and if you get too close to them, they may try to defend their space. Although a squirrel-selfie may be tempting, it can end badly. Respect the wildlife by giving them a wide birth. Large animals, especially moose and bear, with offspring present should be avoided. An excellent resource for learning how to handle wild animal encounters is wildawareutah.org

On the note of bears, only black bears have been known to frequent the Uintas. Because they are generally elusive and rarely spotted, many hikers do not carry bear spray; however, it is bear country, and it would be a wise addition to your belt of tools. Most campgrounds have bear notices, encouraging campers to keep a clean camp and store food in bear-proof containers or vehicles. While bears may love people food, marmots, birds, and squirrels are more likely to steal yours. Don’t leave food unattended. If you are in the backcountry camping, hang your food high, off the ground.

Equipment, Clothing, Shoes, and Safety

There are about as many options for equipment, clothing, shoes, and safety items as mosquitoes in the mountains. (Yes, I’m sorry, but the blood-thirsty blighters are everywhere, so don’t forget your DEET-Free repellent. You can google to see which brands are the safest to use for adults and children, in addition to more natural options). What is best for you, your family, your kids, your dog, your horse, and whoever you invite to join you as you start your adventure, is up to you and them — you’re the best judge as to what works for you and what doesn’t. Peruse the web, read some expert camping, hiking, and fishing blogs, read reviews, and please please break in whatever shoes or boots you choose, BEFORE you go tip-toeing through the mountains. There are several great outfitters in our valley that would be more than happy to help answer questions and point you in the right direction.

Mountain Weather

There is one rule to preparing for weather in the high mountains of Utah: be prepared! We all know that we can experience summer, fall, winter, and spring within hours or minutes. Sunny skies can become a torrential downpour, with lightning and thunder, and a bit of hail thrown in just for fun. Though summer days can be hot, hot, hot, summer nights tend to be cold, cold, cold! The weather during the fall months typically includes prolonged, chilly rainstorms, and it’s not uncommon for there to be snow above 9,000 feet. It’s wise to carry a jacket and emergency blanket as part of your safety arsenal. If you get soaked during a surprise storm, it can be difficult to get your body heat back up.

Animals And Kids

Animals and kids (yes, the terms are interchangeable) can be your greatest joy or worst nightmare — especially as novice outdoor navigators. According to the fs.usda.gov, all dogs must be on a leash in all campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailheads at all times. Pets are not allowed in swimming areas. Doggie ‘poop’ bags and waste receptacles are not available along trails. Make sure to bring your own — if you pack it in, you pack it out — this includes food too, practicing ‘Leave No Trace’ is good outdoor ethics keeping our mountains beautiful for all users and future generations. Little ones are a joy to watch as they discover the world around them. Keep them safe by making sure they stay on trails. Talk often and openly about safety and respect for their surroundings. Practice what to do and how to react in an emergency with them before your visit. Let them carry their own pack and stop often to listen, watch, and ask questions about the flora and fauna.

Before heading home or tucking everyone in for the night, take a moment to sit under the dark skies, marvel at the beauty of our universe as the Milky Way comes into view, and count the falling stars. There are lakes and trails to discover and mountains to climb; all it takes is one small step to start.