Utah might be the prettiest state. From the sunset-red arches and pinnacles in the south, up through the spiraling sleek canyonlands and slickrock until the tall rambling mountains at the Wyoming border, it’s nonstop stunning all the way.
I flew into Salt Lake and drove directly to the Uintas as the blue sky bruised to a hazy purple and rain spattered my windshield. From the last bit of pavement to the trailhead my cell coverage disappeared and the temperature dropped, from 73 to 49 degrees. I sorted my gear in a muddy parking lot and headed up the trail through a now steady late afternoon rain.
The narrow trail is rocky but gentle, sloping uphill with the Henry’s Fork river roaring constantly to my left. The path meanders through stately lodgepole pine, often crossing over a small creek that braided mischievously underfoot. A pair of elk hopped out of the trees to my right, saw me, and hopped right back the way they’d came.
The rain let up late in the afternoon, and the low sun stretched the shadows of the trees into arrows along the ground, now opening up to a wide meadow. Birds emerged with a few tentative chirps.
I crossed a footbridge over a burbling portion of the creek and plunged into scrapy shin-height manzanita, the trail a well-worn gutter of red mud cut through the green shrubs. The peak lit up before me, a golden pyramid bookended by lesser mountainous cliffs on each side, dotted with lingering snowfields that caught the setting sun like the shine on a salmon’s belly.
I diverted off the trail in a basin of lakes and scattered stands of trees to refill my water, the low red sun painting the lake into a pool of lava. Nearby I found a sheltered spot among soft pine duff to set up camp, and just as I was settling in I heard a strange shwoopf sound and investigated to see a fuzzy-antlered moose staring back at me, only a few meters away. “Hullo Moose,” I greeted casually, ready to dart behind a tree if he decided to test out those soft new antlers. He regarded me for a moment, then ducked his head and shwoompf calmly stripped the foliage off a low tree branch and munched the leaves, already bored of me. I climbed back into my tent and fell asleep to the gentle patter of rain on the tent fly.
The morning dawned cold but dry. I clapped my hands to warm them and headed south through the manzanita labyrinth and scattered tiger-striped red boulders to Gunsight Pass. The rising sun angled over the horizon to paint the King’s face a rosy pink, glowing like a beacon straight ahead.
Gunsight Pass was an aptly named swooping divot between towering peaks, as I scrambled up the nearly 12,000’ notch I sidestepped to avoid a pair of horses and missed the switchbacking trail, leaving me clambering up the steep loose scree to the top, my breath puffing out in clouds against the chilly morning, snatched away by the winds that threatened to shove me back downhill. At the top of the notch was a rocky outcropping already toasted warm by the sun, and I plastered myself against the dark stones like a lizard.
Below me the valley was an impressionist painting, lush green grasses dotted with jeweled lakes and tie-dyed with a swirl of late summer purple lupine, all of the land over the pass already lit golden by the sun and sparkling with last night’s rain. I tumbled down into it gleefully, so enamored with the easy path and vibrant beauty that I again missed my turn, adding a lovely but unnecessary two-and-a-half miles before regaining the route and slogging up the long steep rocky shadeless slope to the next pass.
The pass! I can finally see to the west and checked the sky. Puffy clouds had congregated but were still holding off, so I left my trekking poles here at the trail’s end and began hopping up the furniture-sized blocks of stone to the summit.
A low line of slate-colored rain smudged the space between the horizon and the clouds, and the air tasted like water drunk from a tin cup. There was no path up the giant rocks, just a neverending boulder hop, bouncing from one unstable pinnacle to the next, false summits looming to hide and then reveal the next pile of rocks. The grey crept closer, racing in to finally meet me as I briefly topped out at the summit and then chased me back down the dusky blocks of granite.
About the beer:
My stereotype of Utah is always blown away whenever I get a chance to taste their outstanding beers, although purchasing them isn’t always the easiest task. Here at the highest point of the Uintas it seemed only right to bring along something from Uinta Brewing Co., and so I went big with the Dubhe, a powerfully strong Imperial Black IPA brewed with hemp and hops and deeply roasted malts. It’s a solid punch of bitter dark cocoa layered over charred peat and sticky oil, followed up by a slap of tawny pine resin like a night in an ominous evergreen forest. It’s a complex flavor that stayed with me for a while, an unusual but welcome companion in a cold grey rain.