It had been since last August that my boots had touched down in the Uintas. Another amazing winter gave way to spring camping and hiking in the desert, and now the cycle is moving to the mountains… with one problem. The endless winter of 2011 has the mountains buried under 100+ inches of snow. Even the lower peaks in the Wasatch have only recently become climbable without snowshoes or an ice axe. My hiking buddy, Skip, and I were dying to do some backpacking in the high country, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Mirror Lake Highway is the gateway to many of the top trails, but mile marker 21 was the end of the line as of late June. We had to find something else to hold us over.
As we scanned the maps for places to go we came across Shingle Creek. We had driven by the area countless times on our way to a trail deemed more worthy. Now the snowline was forcing us to adapt, and Shingle Creek began to emerge as the frontrunner for our night out in the woods. I couldn’t find much intel on the trail; in fact, the only good source of information was a website dubbed Backcountrypost.com. The author had made a June trip in 2006, and his pictures convinced us that it was worth checking out.
We arrived at the trailhead under full sun. It was 70 degrees and climbing, and there wasn’t a single other vehicle in the parking lot- a good sign! Soon we had shouldered our packs and we headed out with Janna and George (our trusty pooches) blazing the trail. The path was easy to follow and stayed close to Shingle Creek most of the way. Lodgepole pines and aspen groves made up the familiar forest terrain. Butterflies floated lazily on the air currents and here at 7,500′ the wildflowers were blooming in full force. It was a truly gorgeous day. Shingle Creek was swollen- the snowmelt was ballooning the creek to 3 times its normal size. Instead of a gentle stream it was a raging river… we kept a close eye on the dogs when they got near the banks.
We crossed the first of two sturdy backcountry bridges… the only ones I have seen like this in the Uintas. Kudos to the Forest Service for constructing them! The trail got considerably tougher and became a tough hike up loose rock and dirt in a section named The Narrows. When we arrived at the top we needed a rest- looks like our legs and lungs aren’t quite in “mountain shape” just yet. We ate lunch on a large rock under some pine trees before heading back out. The trail was much easier at this point, meandering in and out of the forest and providing incredible views of lower Shingle Creek and two high ridge lines. There were patches of snow lingering despite the full exposure to the sun.
After crossing the second bridge we came to a small, rocky meadow. Just beyond the meadow the snow line began abruptly: a couple of small patches immediately turned into foot deep snowpack. We decided the meadow would be home for the night. We scouted for the best location and soon had our tents set up under a small cluster of pines. We knew that the hike wouldn’t be too long or hard, so we had each brought a couple cans of delicious beer. Skip had a mesh bag to hold the cans, and into a small stream it went to keep our bounty ice cold. Beer stashed and it was time for a dayhike. We hoped to make it to East Shingle Creek Lake which was about 2 miles up the trail. Through the snow we all went, post-holing at times where small flows of water had carved out the foundation below our feet. Before long the trail disappeared entirely and we did our best to navigate through the forest. It was a gorgeous scene: any tree or plant that wasn’t covered in snow was bright green; the woods were dead silent save for the four travelers making their way slowly through them.
It became obvious that we would not reach the lake without some serious effort, so rather than risk returning after dark we headed back to camp. The hike lasted less than an hour and we didn’t make it to the lake, but it was still awesome. Skip got to work improving the existing fire ring and I collected and sorted through firewood. When our toil was complete we celebrated with a cold beer and some whiskey. Man, I don’t know if there is anything quite as satisfying as cracking a can of suds in the backcountry… gets me every time!
I lounged and wrote in my journal as the sunlight lit up the ridgeline to the east. Alpenglow bathed the aspen trees high above us- just another amazing mountain sunset. We ate our dinner at the bottom of the meadow and cracked our last beers as the stars came out. Most people insist that the sky is best viewed from the desert, but I contend that I’ve seen some of the most impressive displays in the Uintas. By 11 o’clock we were being dazzled by amazing views of the Big and Little Dipper, the Scorpion and even the Milky Way. The beer and whisky ran dry, and soon we called it a night. Janna pup curled up next to me in the tent as I stared out at the night sky, eventually drifting off for a broken but peaceful night’s sleep.
I awoke before Skip, which is quite rare on our camping trips. I ate poptarts and drank coffee as the sun rose over the ridge to the east. It was a peaceful moment for me with Janna laying by my side. Soon enough Skip emerged from his tent, ate his breakfast, and we broke camp. Back down the trail we went. About halfway down we stopped to chat with some packers making their way up the trail. As luck would have it one of them was the man behind Backcountrypost.com, the site that had prompted us to come here! Nick is his name, and he and a buddy were making their way up to the camp he had written about in 2006. I plan to contact him in the future about his website, maybe even get a chance to camp with him. Funny how the mountains always seem to bring people together. We parted ways and passed numerous other groups before returning to the parking lot. Seems our timing was perfect as the trail was quite busy this fine Saturday morning.
It was a satisfying trip: we may not have bagged a peak or got to spend the night on a mountain lake, but damn if it wasn’t a great way to spend a weekend. Two friends and their dogs enjoying some early season camping in the big mountains of the west… I’ll take that any day!