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Utah's High Uintas & Great Salt Lake

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

I joined some friends for a late summer backpacking trip in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, bookended by solo birding and camping in the Salt Lake City basin. This was my first trip to Utah, and I was blown away by the scenery. Although our trip was limited to northeastern Utah (and a bit of southwestern Wyoming), I/we covered a lot of different habitats between 4,200 feet and 12,500 feet: a salt lake, salt flats, rocky islands, dry playas, freshwater impoundments, high plains, sagebrush steppe, high desert, aspen-pine-spruce forests, mountain rivers and streams, alpine lakes, wet meadows, plateaus, snowfields, cliffs, and rocky mountain peaks. Overall, the scenery was just a bit more impressive than similar places in Colorado and Montana that I’ve visited, which is saying something. Wildlife abounded, including a nice mix of western mammals, birds, and invertebrates. My only complaint was the weather: we experienced daily monsoons (afternoon storms) in the Uintas.


Wednesday


After flying in late Tuesday night, I was up before dawn on Wednesday, ready to squeeze in some birding before my friends arrived. I started at Antelope Island State Park, a 15-mile-long island in the Great Salt Lake. The 6-mile causeway onto the island offered panoramic views of the lake and its ever-growing shoreline (the lake level has dropped significantly in recent years due to drought and water diversion).


The volume of ducks and shorebirds near the causeway was overwhelming. It would have taken hours—and a scope, which I didn’t bring—to accurately count and identify all the birds. I opted instead for a less scientific “soak it all in” approach. Hundreds to thousands of Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets were the stars, followed by similar numbers of Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes.


The ducks were hard to identify, as most were in drab “eclipse” plumage, and many were distant. The dominant species seemed to be Cinnamon Teal and Northern Shoveler. Hundreds of White-faced Ibis, dozens of Eared Grebes, and a variety of gull species (including Franklin’s and California Gulls) rounded out the waterbirds. Landbirds on the sparsely vegetated causeway included small flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a few other species. Aerialists included hundreds of swallows (mostly Bank Swallows) and a Peregrine Falcon that flushed all the shorebirds.


I spotted a lone Coyote wandering the salt flats adjacent to the causeway, perhaps prowling for injured birds? The early morning sun also awoke some odonates on the causeway, including Variegated Meadowhawks, Blue-eyed Darners, and Alkali Bluets (all lifers). A female Blue-eyed Darner crashed into the back seat of my moving truck, resurrecting a couple hours later as I was leaving the island. I also saw some handsome Western Spotted Orbweavers in the sagebrush along the causeway.


Once on the island, I headed south along the “coastline” towards Garr Ranch. En route, I saw a half dozen Chukars on some roadside boulders. This was my first life bird of the trip. Chukars are actually native to Eurasia, but they’ve been breeding in the wild here for decades, so they “count” as wild birds, according to the bird police. I also saw another introduced gamebird—the ubiquitous Ring-necked Pheasant—while driving through the dry grasslands.


Garr Ranch hosts some of the island’s only trees and is accordingly the island’s top birding destination. The mosquitos were bad, but the birding was pretty good. A small patch of flowers (Rocky Mountain beeplant) attracted a near-constant stream of photogenic hummingbirds, including Rufous (lifer) and Black-chinned. Several hummingbird-like White-lined Sphinx Months also joined the flower feeding frenzy.


I also saw a bunch of typical western songbirds (too many to list here). The most exciting was a Gray Flycatcher—probably the drabbest bird I saw all trip, but a hard-to-find lifer. It was also cool to see a bunch of (8+) Common Nighthawks resting in some bare trees. While at Garr Ranch, I also spotted a Northern Side-blotched Lizard, another lifer.


After Garr Ranch, I explored the north end of the island by truck. Following tips from some locals, I saw Burrowing Owls in three different locations, as well as Rock Wrens, a Loggerhead Shrike, and both Bison and Pronghorn. The Bison were brought here in the late 1800s in an effort to preserve the species, and the Antelope Island herd is now one of the largest free-ranging herds in the country. The native Pronghorn inspired the island’s name.


As the morning wore on, I headed north along the mainland towards Ogden. The highway was scenic, with open views to the west and the towering Wasatch Range to the east. The Wasatch reminded me of Colorado’s Front Range (but on the wrong side).


By the time I got to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, it was hot and sunny, with temps in the upper-80s. I stayed in my car for a long loop through dry playa (seasonally dry lakebeds) and managed freshwater impoundments.


The stars of the refuge were dozens of similar-looking Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes. This was only my second encounter with the latter species, and it was a particularly intimate encounter. I saw Clarks’ sitting on stick nests, and I saw both species with juveniles in tow. Other species also had young, including American Coots and Green-winged Teals. I also saw lots of juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons, but no adults. Among over 1,000 ducks, the best was a drake Canvasback. I also saw a huge (but distant) flock of approximately 2,400 American White Pelicans. A variety of shorebirds were also present, but in lower numbers than Antelope Island.


Both insectivores (esp. swallows) and insects were prolific at Bear River. I stopped a couple times to examine odonates, and ended up identifying 10 different species, 4 of which were lifers (Tule Bluet, Spotted Spreadwing, Pacific Forktail, and Eight-spotted Skimmer). I also saw my first ever European Mantis—an invasive, but nonetheless impressive, species.


I headed back toward Salt Lake City just in time to pick up my friends Andrew and Michael from the airport. After grabbing provisions, we hit I-80 and headed east through the Wasatch Range. Talk about a scenic highway! My favorite stretch featured towering red rock cliffs, a contrast to the grays and greens of the mountains bordering the Salt Lake basin.


We eventually landed in Mountain View, Wyoming, a very small town situated in a surprisingly lush, green valley. A short walk to dinner yielded some Brewer’s Blackbirds, a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, and a Mule Deer. After packing (re-packing?) our backpacks, we called it a night.


Thursday


Thursday marked the true beginning of our adventure. We woke up early and took the scenic route to the trailhead, in search of Pronghorns. Over a couple hours, we got great looks at pronghorn at 5 different stops. We also occasionally stopped for birds, including American Kestrels and some waterbirds.


Most of our drive took us through the high desert, dominated by sagebrush and barren steppes. While on county road 414 north of Lonetree, we passed through some truly otherworldly desert landscapes: hills of blue rock that seemed better suited to the moon or Mars than planet Earth. I haven’t been able to find much info about this area, but it’s part of the geological region called the Bridger Formation in the Green River Basin. I want to go back and walk those blue hills.


After miles of dirt roads and millions upon millions of sagebrushes, we eventually crossed back into Utah and entered the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. We were greeted by more Pronghorns (aka “speed goats,” as a local here called them), followed by more dirt roads through an aspen-conifer forest. We got to the Henrys Fork trailhead around 9 AM, where we were joined by Andrew’s friend Kyle, an excellent addition to our crew.


We spent the next three days and nights in the High Uintas Wilderness. The basic idea was to backpack to an alpine lake in the Henrys Fork Basin, set up a base camp, then day hike around the basin. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change the formula at all. For one, it’s no fun to take down and set up camp every day. Also, given our relatively short backpacking trek, we able to pack enough gear for a well-provisioned and comfortable campsite; our packs would have been unsustainable on a longer through-hike.


Back to the narrative: Beginning around 9,450 feet above sea level, we hiked alongside the Henrys Fork River, steadily gaining altitude. It was scenic, but nothing out of the ordinary—mostly butterscotch-bark Lodgepole Pine and Engleman Spruce. Many of the trees were dead, apparently from a beetle outbreak in the early 2000s. The hike was pretty quiet in terms of wildlife, but we saw one Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel and a Mormon Fritillary (lifer butterfly for me). Things got more interesting as we progressed past wet meadows to our first high-elevation lake: the oddly named, but very scenic, Alligator Lake. While there, we saw a Uinta Chipmunk (lifer mammal), a handful of Lake Darners (lifer dragonflies), and a couple flightless (molting) Green-winged Teals that awkwardly skittered away over the water.


Although our backpacking journey was only about 7.5 miles and 1,400 feet of gain, we were struggling by the end of it, likely due to the altitude. As we neared our intended campsite at Bear Lake, we split into two groups, with me and Andrew bringing up the rear. Michael and Kyle overshot the lake, so me and Andrew arrived first and were treated to two Moose on the lakeshore. Bear Lake was gorgeous. It’s situated around 10,850 feet, surrounded by conifer forest, two marshy meadows, and a boulder field, and it offers views of the towering peaks on both sides of the basin. We had it all to ourselves on Thursday night, save for the Moose, a Uinta Chipmunk, and American Red Squirrel, a few Canada Jays, and a few other birds.


The rain began just before we arrived, so setting up camp involved a strategic exercize (rain shelter was our first priority, then tents, etc.). We spent most of the afternoon and evening hanging out around a sheltered campfire. The rain abated for a spell in the late afternoon, so me and Michael made a short excursion to a scree/boulder field at one end of the lake. The boulders were covered with lichen of kaleidoscopic colors, including some neon green (the photos don’t do it justice). We scrambled up a hundred feet for a nice perspective on the lake.


The night was cold and wet, with temps dropping into the upper 30s or low 40s—quite a contrast to the heat of the SLC basin.


Friday


Friday morning brought sunshine, at least for a spell.


Expecting another day of afternoon showers, we planned a short half-day hike near the campsite. Early in our journey, we came across three more Moose, a Mule Deer, a bunch of rodents (including a photogenic Red Squirrel), and several Police Car Moths.


After a mile or so, we went off-trail and ascended the plateau forming the western edge of the Henrys Fork basin. The relatively flat terrain and stunted vegetation made for a pleasant plateau walk. We hugged the cliffs on the eastern edge of the plateau. At 11,600 feet, we were between 500 and 1,200 feet above the adjacent valley. This offered us a unique perspective not only of our campsite, but also the entire valley, all the way to Gunsight Pass and Kings Peak. The high-elevation plateau reminded me of a similar landscape my wife and I traversed a month prior in Scotland’s Cairngorms.


Although we didn’t see much wildlife on the plateau, we did flush a surprise Prairie Falcon. Other interesting birds included Clark’s Nutcrackers, Rock Wrens, and Mountain Bluebirds. Although we didn’t see any big mammals, we saw a lot of mystery scat. Andrew and I also got brief looks at a Yellow-bellied Marmot.


Before beginning our descent, we hiked across one of several semi-permanent snowfields. This was another first for me, and a surprise for late August. Much of the snow had a pink hue, apparently caused by a high-elevation species of green algae.


We made our 800-foot descent entirely off-trail. This involved traversing the aforementioned snow field, hopping boulders, creeping down a meltwater-fed ravine, scrambling over loose soil, and eventually stepping through a dense forest back to the trail. Charting our own path forced us to engage with the landscape in a much more intentional and intimate way than simply following a path. I highly recommend off-trail adventures.


We made it back to camp around noon, just in time for a few hours of rain. Classic. When it cleared up later in the afternoon, we explored around Bear Lake and the adjacent Sawmill Lake before settling in for another low-key evening by the fire.


While hanging out by our campsite, I heard what might have been a Northern Goshawk, but I never got a look at it. I did, however, get some fantastic pics of the lake and surrounding mountains under nearly cloudless late afternoon skies.


Saturday


We saved our biggest hike for Saturday, which had originally promised the best weather (no cell service made weather-based planning difficult). It was a beautiful morning, with full sun. The first few miles were flat, as we made our way from the forested western edge of the valley into the upper (southeastern) reaches of the Henrys Fork basin. The spruce-pine forest gradually gave way to rock-strewn meadows, wetlands, and lakes, with spectacular views of the mountains, cliffs, and corries/cirques ringing the basin. There were a lot of creek crossings, one of which required a shoes-off wet-foot crossing.


As we crossed one meadow, we were suddenly surrounded by nearly 1,000 sheep, herded by a few sheepdogs, two vaqueros, and a pack horse. The vaqueros were the real deal, literally living in the valley. And although these weren’t the Bighorn Sheep we were hoping to see, it was quite the experience—a picturesque mashup of man, animal, and landscape.