UHT - Day 5: West Fork Black Fork to Olga Lake


Ready For More
Jul 23, 2013
Day 5 marked a new milestone for me, extending the most nights out for me in one trip on the trail to 4. We made it yet another 2-pass day with both Dead Horse Pass and Rocky Sea Pass. Other features we'd visit along the way included Dead Horse Lake, Ledge Lake, Helen Lake, Lightning Lake, and Pigeon Milk Spring before settling in for the night at Olga Lake.

Uinta Highline Trail - Day 5
Thursday - August 18, 2016

Our camp ended up being only about 600 feet lower in elevation than the previous night and skies remained clear through the night once again, but the temperature felt noticeably warmer waking up, even before the sun hit our camp. It was still chilly enough to enjoy some warm oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast.

Morning aplenglow with Mount Beulah along the right

Yellow Daisies

I want to take a moment here to talk about bears and food storage in the Uintas. As of this writing, only black bears inhabit the Uintas, and there is a general understanding that they rarely come up above 9000 feet or so. Their preferred habitat lies further out on the outer, lower flanks of the Uintas where their food sources are also more abundant. The Highline Trail stays well above 9000 feet the whole way. That said, others have observed signs of bear, and even others have reported seeing bears roaming in some of the high basins. So, it's probably wise to still take at least minimal precautions in protecting your food and other scented items from bears, not to mention other wildlife, though countless others have gotten by without such precautions.

In most areas of the High Uintas Wilderness, it can be incredibly hard, if not downright impossible, to find any trees that can support an adequate bear hang. So for me, it comes down to three options: take a bear canister, an Ursack, or rely on odor-proof (OP) bags. Bear canisters can be costly, bulky, more difficult to pack, and even with the lightest weight brands, they still add significant weight to your pack. An Ursack would be a great option as it is much lighter in weight and much more packable, but it too, can be costly. Another thing to keep in mind is that while an Ursack may well be impenetrable by a bear, without the optional aluminum lighter that can be used with an Ursack (which also adds more weight), your items are still at risk of being smashed up and otherwise damaged and compromised.

That leaves odor-proof bags. This is the option I go with. They are ultralight and much more affordable. The caveat on them is that they are also much less durable and can easily be punctured or torn if you're not extra careful about what you pack in them, how you pack them, and where you place them, both in and out of your pack. It's particularly important that the packaging of any food placed in them have no sharp corners such as those found on many pre-packaged freeze-dried backpacker meals. In such cases, I highly recommend getting some scissors and rounding out the corners or repacking the meal entirely into a freezer bag and use a cozy method for rehydrating in the freezer bag or in your pot. Any puncture or tear can render them useless. However, depending on the puncture or tear, a patch of duct tape or Gorilla tape may be sufficient for a field repair.

I like to use them as a liner inside an ordinary stuff sack of compatible size. The stuff sack provides a barrier of protection from things inside my pack and from abrasive objects and surfaces the bag may otherwise come in contact with when I place it outside of my pack. It also makes hanging the food easier. At camp, after meal time, I seal them up real good with my trash bag (usually a gallon size ziploc) and other scented items also inside, and will rig an appropriate bear hang on any nearby trees that afford the opportunity to do so.

However, as already mentioned, finding such a tree in the High Uintas can be an exercise in futility. So I resort to just hanging the stuff sacks on broken limbs or any suitable branch I can find off the trunk of a tree within easy reach (usually about 4 or 5 feet high), and I make sure it's at least the standard 200 feet away from where I'll sleep. I now informally call this bear hang method, almost comically, the "High Uinta Method", or simply, the "HUM". Adam and Steve employed much the same method as well. I've used this method well over a dozen times now including this trip at various places throughout the High Uintas and have yet to wake up to any sign of critters trying to access my food.

Bear bags hung using the "High Uinta Method"

Once we had completed our morning routines, we set off across the rest of the basin for Dead Horse Lake and ultimately, the long awaited Dead Horse Pass, both over a mile away. Being ahead in our itinerary, we also sought to make it yet another two-pass day with Rocky Sea Pass and thus set ourselves up to be much closer to the end for the final day to follow.

Dead Horse Peak from along Highline Trail

Dead Horse Pass beckons in the distance

Just before arriving at the lake we stumbled into what some call, Dead Horse Falls. We took a short rest here and topped off our water supply for the big pass ahead.

Dead Horse Falls

Dead Horse Falls

From the falls, it was only moments later that we were standing on the shores of Dead Horse Lake. Dead Horse Lake has a reputation for being one of the most picturesque lakes within the High Uintas Wilderness Area. It certainly lived up to that reputation. It was easy to see why it was such a popular lake to camp at.

Dead Horse Lake and Dead Horse Pass above

As we rounded the southeast shore of the lake, we ran into a scout troop and conversed with them for a bit. They had come up the West Fork Black Fork trail and were set to head back down that way. Some seem surprised to learn that the trail we were on would take you over the high cliffs standing guard to the south. I can't say that I blame them. Looking up at the pass from the lake, it bewildered us as well as we pondered how there could be a trail that safely leads you up and over Dead Horse Pass. A first for Adam, Steve, and myself, it was time to find out.

South Allsop Peak from across Dead Horse Lake

Along the way, the turquoise hue of Dead Horse Lake, infused with minerals released by the glacial effect of rocks being ground against each other into fine powder cascading across the southern shore, became more and more vivid as we rose higher and higher above it.

Looking back at Dead Horse Lake and South Allsop Peak before ascending Dead Horse Pass

Panorama of Dead Horse Pass, South Allsop Peak, and Dead Horse Lake

Dead Horse Pass

Adam and Steve beginning the big ascent up Dead Horse Pass

A look back down at Dead Horse Lake and West Fork Black Fork from halfway up Dead Horse Pass

Dead Horse Lake, WFBF, and Red Knob Pass (right) from halfway up Dead Horse Pass

Halfway up Dead Horse Pass

Rounding the last switchback toward the top of Dead Horse Pass

Nearing the top of Dead Horse Pass

In a shorter than expected duration of time, we reached the top of the pass. The pass gets its name from a horse that allegedly died on it. In fact, others have found the horse's skull sitting off to the side of the trail somewhere between Dead Horse Lake and the pass. We forgot to look for it.

Adding to the lore of the pass is the exposure, a steep grade, and the fact that after big winters, patches of snow can remain on the pass late into summer, complicating the trail conditions and adding to the risk factors. Fortunately for us, the trail was snow-free, dry, and in relatively good shape. There were small stretches with moderate exposure near the top, but I felt much more stable and sure footed the whole way up than I did coming down from Red Knob Pass the day before. I also found it to be no steeper than any of the other passes we had come over.

As with most of the other passes, the views down both sides were incredible! And like many of the other passes, it was astonishing to be able to look back and see how far we'd come from the last pass and to look out and see how far we'd yet go that day.

We celebrated. We rested. We surveyed the surrounding landscape in awe.

Dead Horse Lake and West Fork Black Fork basin from top of Dead Horse Pass

Looking west into Rock Creek Basin from Dead Horse Pass

North side panorama from Dead Horse Pass

South side panorama from Dead Horse Pass

Group photo on Dead Horse Pass, left to right: Will (Me), Steve, and Adam

Just for fun

Geared up for the descent down

Another panorama down into West Fork Black Fork from Dead Horse Pass

West Fork Black Fork, Wapiti Peak (middle left), and Red Knob (middle right) from Dead Horse Pass

Having triumphed up the northern side of Dead Horse Pass, it was now time to descend the milder southern side.

Descending down the south side of Dead Horse Pass

Leveling out at the base of Dead Horse Pass

Heading west for Rock Creek Basin

Looking back at the south side of Dead Horse Pass

From Dead Horse Pass, we pulled over at Ledge Lake for a break. It was there that we saw that a threatening storm was looking imminent. With many more miles still to cover we didn't stay long and moved onward.

Ledge Lake

Not long after Ledge Lake, we faced a decision. We could keep to the Highline Trail and go straight down and across Rock Creek, staying in the trees, or take a scenic detour taking us by Helen Lake and Lightning Lake along the upper basin to the right. Even with the looming storm, we opted for the latter.

The scenic detour

Looking east at Dead Horse Peak (left)

Looking east across a tarn

Progressing around the basin. Spread Eagle Peak (left) and Ostler Peak (right) in the distance.

Heading toward Priord Peak (left) and South Yard Peak (right)

Bypassing Jack and Jill Lakes trail

Heading into trees for shelter. Above: Spread Eagle (left), Ostler (middle), and Priord Peak (right).

After about a mile and half from the Highline turn off, the storm began to really make its presence known. Rain started to come down pretty hard that quickly developed into a good smattering of hail, then a few good cracks of thunder nearby.

We found a good stand of trees off the trail near the stream that drains Triangle and Reconnaissance Lakes beneath South Yard Peak, threw on our rain gear, and hunkered down to wait it out. We had actually hoped to take a lunch break about this time and I was hoping to run up to Reconnaisance Lake for a quick look around, but the storm said otherwise. It was simply too much to even break out lunch.


After roughly 45 minutes or so, the storm lightened up enough for us to comfortably emerge. We decided we'd continue on up to Helen Lake before breaking out lunch.

South Yard Peak from where we took shelter

South Yard Peak from where we took shelter

Ascending the bench for Helen Lake

Looking southwest across Rock Creek toward Rocky Sea Pass

Red ledges along the trail

Heading toward Ostler Peak on the bench to Helen Lake

A little over a mile from where we took shelter from the storm and before we reached Helen Lake, I discovered that my sunglasses were missing. I had slipped them off while waiting out the storm and relied on a para-cord strap I had secured to them to hold them around my neck. Had they been a cheaper pair, I may have just let them go, but these were prescription Oakleys. I had to go back to where I had sat out the storm and check around. So Adam and Steve took up a spot across a stream and started their lunch while I dropped my pack and ran back down to retrieve my glasses.

Sure enough, they were right where I had been sitting. With a huge sigh of relief, I picked them up and dashed back up to where Adam and Steve were and broke into lunch myself. Apparently when I had taken my poncho off, the strap slipped off with it, allowing my sunglasses to fall off with it unnoticed, to the ground.

After lunch was all wrapped up, we picked up and moved on up a short distance to Helen Lake.

Helen Lake

It was a pretty lake, but the setting was void of much color with the gloomy skies still above us. Anxious to keep moving at this point, we strolled on over and down to nearby Lightning Lake.

Lightning Lake

Panorama with Lightning Lake (left) and Ostler Peak (right - hidden)

At Lightning Lake we had another decision to make. We could keep to the trail we were on or take another scenic detour off to the right and go up higher on another bench, passing around Gladys Lake and then by Rosalie Lake. This time we chose the former and would keep to the lower trail we were on, which would take us around the length of Lightning Lake and down through the trees toward Black Lake.

Another decision

Hiking along Lightning Lake

Looking west across Lightning Lake. Ostler Peak sits hidden just beyond the high ridge.

Shortly after passing Lightning Lake we passed by a camp occupied by two older gentlemen. They were out on a leisure fishing trip but were intrigued with our trip as they had traveled much of the Highline in years past and had fond memories of it. They were the first people we had seen all day since the scout troop at Dead Horse Lake. After a brief chat with them we made our way down to a turn off for Black Lake. We were pretty tired at this point and it was tempting to just make camp at Black Lake but weather was improving by the minute and the sight of blue skies and sunlight emerging to the west heightened our spirits and re-energized us to stay the course up and over Rocky Sea Pass.

Turn off trail to Black Lake

We paused at the final major stream crossing before Rocky Sea Pass to refill our water supply. It was also about here that we actually picked up the official Highline Trail again and resumed our way along it.

Looking west toward Rocky Sea Pass (far left)

Crossing the last major stream before Rocky Sea Pass

As we got closer in our approach to Rocky Sea Pass, we passed by an unexpected picturesque lake near the base of the pass. It too could have tempted us to make camp right there, but being so close to the pass with clearing skies, we remained determined to put the pass behind us. Onward and upward.

Looking east across unnamed lake beneath Rocky Sea Pass

Rocky Sea Pass

Looking northwest from trail up Rocky Sea Pass. South Yard, Yard, and Dead Horse Peaks in middle.

It became immediately obvious how Rocky Sea Pass got its name. It really was like climbing up a sea of large rocks and boulders, especially on the lower switchbacks. As the trail got closer to the top however, it did smooth out somewhat.

Nearing the top of Rocky Sea Pass

Looking northwest across Rock Creek drainage from near top of Rocky Sea Pass

Looking west to North Explorer, Explorer, and Squaw Peak from near top of Rocky Sea Pass

With a good amount of effort, we finally reached the top of the pass. It would be the last pass of the trip. Keeping to custom, we rested, took pictures, and soaked in the views. We could even see Mount Timpanogos off in the distance on the western horizon, a prominent mountain in the Wasatch Range that stands supreme over Utah Valley where Adam and I both reside. It represented home to us, or at least to Adam and I, and "home" was now in sight, if only for a moment.

Panorama of Rock Creek drainage, looking east, from Rocky Sea Pass

Top of Rocky Sea Pass

Rocky Sea Pass marker

Looking west from Rocky Sea Pass. Mount Timpanogos visible in haze on horizon (middle left).

Eager to setup camp, we cruised on down the mellower west side of the pass until we arrived at Pigeon Milk Springs at the base of the pass.

Descending west side of Rocky Sea Pass

Descending Rocky Sea Pass

Looking up at west side of Rocky Sea Pass

Leveling out at base of Rocky Sea Pass

Pigeon Milk Spring

Pigeon Milk Spring

We had hoped to set up camp near Pigeon Milk Springs but found the only suitable site to be already occupied. Other campsites existed closer to the spring, but there were signs hinting they were closed off by the Forest Service in an effort to restore the area surrounding the spring which had obviously been heavily impacted from campers before. I say "hinting" because the signs had obviously been vandalized and defaced to the point that they were no longer obvious in what they were declaring. Apparently there are those that believe if you deface such a sign, and then camp there anyway, you can feign ignorance if a ranger drops by.

"Closed to Camping"

"This former campsite is closed for restoration"

Another vandalized Forest Service post

In hind sight, upon a quick visit back up to the springs the morning after, I found that there was another site or two further up from the spring that were far enough away to be much more secluded and likely allowed for camping due to their seclusion and increased distance away from the springs. No matter.

We ended up heading down to the junction with the Four Lakes Basin trail and followed that for a short distance before going off trail down to well secluded Olga Lake. There we found a nice site and made our final camp of the trip.

Four Lakes Basin Trail

Camp, Day 5

With camp all set up, I spent the remaining hour of good light washing and soaking my sore feet in the lake and watching the sunset. The reflections in both Olga Lake and its neighboring marshier pond were spectacular!

Reflection on pond next to Olga Lake

Reflection on pond next to Olga Lake

Reflection on pond next to Olga Lake

Sunset over Olga Lake

Sunset over Olga Lake

Sunset over Olga Lake

Sunset over Olga Lake

With nightfall upon us, we gathered around a fire one last time and reflected back on the highlights of the trip, things we could have and would have done differently, specific spots and areas we'd love to return to spend a night and/or fish, and so on. It was bittersweet, knowing it was our last night on the trail and that we would be leaving the peace and tranquility of the beautiful backcountry the next day.

It was hard to be too distraught though because we were equally excited to get back to families, not to mention new varieties of food, showers, and other comforts and luxuries of suburban life. Having gone another 16 miles, 18 for me when counting the run back to get my glasses, meant that only 6 more fairly tame and easy miles awaited us in order to wrap up the trip the following day.

You had me at Dead Horse Lake.

Then you added Upper Rock Creek Basin.
Looks like my mind is gone for the day.

My Uinta experience is limited, but I'm totally
in love with the Upper Rock Creek Basin.

Hopefully you got some Pigeon Milk Springs
water. Its seems kinda weird to say this about
mountain water, but it was delicious.
I need a bottle of that.

Your pictures bring back great memories for me.

Thanks Will!
Hopefully you got some Pigeon Milk Springs
water. Its seems kinda weird to say this about
mountain water, but it was delicious.
I need a bottle of that.

Your pictures bring back great memories for me.

Thanks Will!

Unfortunately we didn't. It didn't look all that appealing at the time, but now I'll have to go back! And you're welcome. I wish the weather had been as nice to us as it was to you in Rock Creek, but then we would have been too spoiled. :)