2011 may be one of the craziest years of late season snowfall that Utah has ever seen. The Mirror Lake Highway, often open by Memorial Day weekend had just barely opened on June 30th. Snow was sticking around like it was late May. But I was determined to not let it stop me from getting out into the Uintas over the 4th of July weekend. After sifting through the mixed reports of conditions throughout the range I decided that a trip to the northeastern side should be doable. The east end typically gets less precipitation and the data coming out of the snotels out that way were looking promising.
Our original goal was to visit Lamb Lakes but ended up a bit east of there at a Lake called Potter Lake. Either destination is accessed from the Browne Lake Trailhead southeast of Manila, Utah. Here’s a map:
View Potter Lake, Uintas – BCP in a larger map or as an Interactive USGS Topographic Map.
The trip started out with the 3 hour drive from Salt Lake City, up through Wyoming and then down to the Browne Lake area outside of Manila, Utah. I don’t remember ever driving through this area before, the scenery was outstanding. I never knew there were such nice badlands over there. I should mention early in this trip report that I killed my fancy camera (Canon 60D) while backpacking in the Uintas above snowline last weekend. I’m withholding that trip report until I get it all worked out with Canon but the short story is that the camera is probably a total loss. So for this trip I picked up a little point and shoot camera to get me through. It is a Canon S95 and I’m just thrilled with how well it performed. I was certainly limited in some respects but in some ways I think it outperformed my 60D.
We metup with Jen in Manila who had driven all the way from central Colorado. Despite the long drive time we all arrived within minutes of each other and we immediately made our way south out of town and into the mountains. The light was incredible as we made out way up and out of Sheep Creek near Flaming Gorge.
We probably stayed up a bit late talking around the fire that night. Morning came way too early for me. I had slept tentless and Patina was so full of energy, she spent the entire night wandering and then occasionally coming and sitting on my legs and waking me up. I was not very happy with her.
After a groggy morning of packing up we made our way over to the trailhead at Browne Lake. I was really surprised at how few people there were out camping in the area given that it wwas the 4th of July weekend.
The trailhead was well marked but there wasn’t really anywhere clear to park. I get the distinct impression that the trails in this area see very little usage. The first few miles was through grassy open meadows and the trail was pretty much non-existent in many spots.
This area must have had a good fire come through in the last 10 or 20 years. It made for a beautiful hike with great views into the high peaks and quirky little Christmas tree forests to walk through. Here’s a few shots from the first 2.5 miles.
About 2.5 miles in, the trail crosses the Sheep Creek Canal. I’m not sure what the story behind this is, it’s quite the eye sore and despite big runoff coming down the mountain, it was barely flowing.
The next couple of miles of trail is more heavily wooded with little ponds littered here and there. The map makes it look like a bunch of good lakes but I would be surprised if anything down this way is holding any fish.
The trail ran right through the middle of this giant runoff puddle. There were quite few of these along the trail through this middle section. The dark oily look to the water really created an interesting atmosphere in this section of the forest.
About 4.5 miles down the trail we reached an intersection and a river crossing. Going right would take us 4 miles on to Weyman Basin. Left would take us on to trail 18 and up to Lamb Lakes or Potter Lake. The only problem is that the river was blocking the way. Just before we left the trailhead on Saturday morning I read a post on Bogley that someone else had tried this hike but got turned around at this point by an ‘impassable’ river crossing just a day or two earlier. At first it looked bad.
Okay, maybe not. It was actually a super easy crossing. Jen was trying to move through it fast and stumbled in the above picture in reality it was never much more than knee deep. When I took the dogs across there was one short section where they had trouble touching the bottom.
After the river crossing the trail starts to pickup some good elevation. It had become a bit stormy and totally overcast since the trail junction which made for a very pleasant climb. I was ecstatic when we finally reached 10,000 feet since so many people believed that nothing above 10k was accessible yet.
The peak of our hike, 10, 219 feet at the junction to Potter Lake, our camp at the lake was 10,185. We considered going into Lamb Lakes but based on the description of extremely rocky, timbered terrain and that the only lake with good campsites was at the back of the basin, we opted to check out Potter.
The first little bit of the trail to Potter was delightful but then it turned into something totally different. Giant ponds and flowing water obscured the trail. And then once we made it to the lake we were subjected to some serious rock hopping and bush whacking to get to the first decent campsite we found. It’s at about this point that Patina was not doing well. She absolutely hated hiking through boulders so I had to take her pack off and give her much encouragement to keep going.
To make things worse, we were not finding any good campsites on the side the trail comes in on. We notices a fire ring on the other side of the lake so we headed that way. To get there we had to cross the point where Upper Potter Lake flows into Lower Potter Lake. This might be more doable in lower water but for us it was impossible to stay dry. I made it through the first section without getting wet but the next one was impossible. Tons of drift wood that would sink 2+ feet deep when you stepped on it followed by short bushwhacks through thorny raspberry bushes. Here’s a little video clip I made from the crossing.
I lost the top half of my spin rod on a cast that I also snagged my spinner on so I was left with no option but to swim for it. The water was incredibly cold and totally exhilarating. I’m glad I had to do it.
As I was cleaning the fish, Patina was crying away like usual. She wanted to go back to camp and take a nap but I was just ignoring her. When we got back to camp I realized why I should have paid attention because Patina had ripped a hole through the door of my tent to get to my sleeping bag.
I had a terrible time sleeping that last night. It was incredibly warm for 10,200 feet and there was very little air movement except up high in the trees. Add to that the fact that I had to close my main ventilation thanks to Patina and it made for a hot, stuffy night. In the morning the sky had filled with clouds which apparently was great for the mosquito population because they immediately went from tolerable to out of control. I think I rolled up at least 400-500 mosquitos in my tent when I packed it.
Some notes on this trip for anyone considering going there. First off, the hike in is spectacular. The constantly changing character of the trail and general easy rate of ascent makes it a wonderful hike. Do not however plan on doing a lot of off-trail hiking. It is an extremely rugged and boulder-filled area, especially up high around Potter Lake and Lamb Lakes. We had high hopes of a day trip or even completing a loop down through Lost Lake but the terrain was so difficult to travel through that we opted to just have a day of relaxation. I do think that this area would be an excellent early season trip during any year. Comparatively, the Uintas along the Mirror Lake highway were still packed in snow well below 10,000 feet while we saw only the occasional drift, most of which high above the lake. I’m quite sure that we could have reached the top of the spine of the Uintas without much trouble from the trail beyond where it splits off to Potter Lake.
View the full set of photos on Flickr.
See more of my trip reports to the Uinta Range.
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