You would never think that this mountain gem is surrounded by arid desert in all directions. The Uinta Mountains are just an hour and a half drive from Salt Lake City. It's an incredible place for all types of recreational activities during all seasons: hiking, backpacking, riding horses, dirtbiking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, trout fishing...I mean the list goes on. And one of the best things about the Uintas is that is almost all dispersed camping. There are sites all along the Mirror Highway where you can boondock to your heart's delight! I've never had a hard time finding a place to camp for the night and several trailheads are available if all the dispersed sites are taken. There are also a few developed campgrounds if you're looking for more civilized accommodations.
This was almost the last hike of the warm season for me before the snow hit. I ended up driving out to the Unitas because I had been getting a bit of city fever. I had started teaching again in Salt Lake City and had gone from a summer of adventure back to getting up at 5:30 AM to commute in traffic to a very enjoyable but demanding job. I needed a weekend away in the woods, so I looked on Alltrails and found a popular hike in the area. Then, I hopped on iOverlander and found boondock sites close to the trailhead.
If you're an outdoor enthusiast or enthusiast of anything seasonal (including pumpkin spice anything...ew gross), you know the anxiety and pressure there is to experience as much of that activity you can before the season ends. For me, it's hiking. When I moved away from Seattle there was a little bit of relief because I felt less pressure to crush it every weekend: wake up at 4;30 AM or even sleep at the trail head to make a summit time and back to the car before daylight ends, driving several hours to complete a hike and getting a parking spot at the trailhead, fighting Seattlites for parking spaces and camping spots. When I got to Utah, things slowed down quite a bit. Unless you're going to the national parks, parking is not a problem...you will find a camp spot....just drive out into the desert and there you are. However, I still felt the need to go out and get it done one more weekend before the snow set in especially after getting back into a habit of being off the road and on the job.
It was September when I did this hike. The day was warm and to be honest, when I was packing the truck, I did it quickly and did not bring the proper sleeping bag. During the summer, I always keep my truck packed with my camping gear so I can just hit the road on a moments notice but at that point I had removed some of my gear including my cold weather sleeping bag. I checked the weather and was like "Oh, I should be okay with two quilts." Yeah, no. It was super cold that night. When I got to the trailhead I thought about sleeping there but kept driving down the forest service road looking for a prime spot with a view, fire pit....
I ended up finding the most amazing spot in an open field with epic views of the valley, a huge fire pit, and conveniently next to the site were slash piles the forest service had set up that are ideal for fire kindling. I layered up and started a fire to help keep the cold away. As I've mentioned before in another post, much of the land in Utah is open range so cattle can graze during the warmer months. It was pitch black except for fire light and I heard footsteps approaching me out of the darkness. Camping alone in the wilderness and not having a light source, my heart was pounding. I was thinking worst case scenarios....bears, drunk dudes, Sasquatch...and poof....fear subsided when I saw a herd of cows black camouflaged by the darkness of night creeping closer to the fire for warmth or possibly curiosity. It was nice to have the company! They ended up hanging out all night and slept around the truck. I woke up the sound of their early morning moos as they moved off in search of food.
I woke up to ice on my car, gray skies, and rain. I had not expected so much rain and was honestly disappointed. I drove to the trailhead and sat in my truck hoping it would subside, It didn't and I put on my rain gear: rain pants, jacket, gloves and decided to hit the trail anyway after putting in the effort to drive all the way out there and sleep in the freezing cold under a thin quilt.
The rain wasn't just a light drizzle. It was a downpour. I mean, there was a small river of water flowing down the trail as I made my way up to the first lake. I passed several backpackers headed out due to rain. My mood was morose. Every step I was thinking "Why am I out here? Is this even worth it? I could just turn around." I got to the first lake, Wall Lake, and took in the views and thought to myself "Man, this would be an epic spot if it wasn't raining and completely enveloped in fog." I checked the map and followed the trail around the lake and up to a small rock wall. I decided I was already soaking wet, my pack was completely wet, might as well keep going just to check it off the list.
A group of horses and riders passed me on the trail which was a moment of happiness. Their dog was super friendly and kept bringing me sticks to throw for it until the riders called the dog away to continue on. After they passed and I made it to the next lake, a miraculous thing happened and the rain cleared up! I mean beautiful blue skies appeared like the rain had just been a figment of my imagination.
The scene that I painted from this hike was right after it cleared up and I was able to get the most amazing lake reflections that the area was known for. On the hike, you pass several big and small lakes, and they are like a mirror reflecting the trees and sky. Hence the name, Mirror Lake Highway. I was so incredibly grateful I kept going because I was rewarded with epic view after epic view. And that is exactly why we do what we do: we put in mile after awful soul crushing mile to get to that one view that makes it all worth the effort and pain.
I was able to complete the loop with fantastic weather and every other hiker I passed shared the same joy as me that we had stuck it out and the reward had totally been worth it! I had hoped to make it back to that area during the summer for an overnighter, but I never found the time. And I guess that's life? We hope that we will make it back some day but time only moves in one direction and you're only really in one place once. I'm grateful I got to experience the Uintas as much as I did. While I lived in Utah I got to hike, camp, snowshoe, and snowmobile in that area and it was an amazing experience!