My Doomed Adventure Hiking the Highline Trail

We set out to hike 100 miles across the mountains of Utah at altitudes above 10,000ft. What happened next wasn’t planned.
Adam

Written by Adam on 2021-10-24. Travel, Personal. 2 comments. Find out how I make money.

In July of 2021, a friend of mine reached out with a simple question: “I’m thinking of hiking the Highline Trail in August. Want to join?”. I immediately responded “Yes! I’ve been wanting to hike it for years!”. At that time I absolutely did not know what I was getting myself into.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Highline Trail, you’re not alone. It’s less popular than the big three hiking trails in the US (The Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail). The Highline Trail sits in eastern Utah and travels 101 miles across the highest parts of the Uinta Mountains. This mountain range is the only range in the US one to run east to west rather than north to south. The trail is only open from late June after the snow melts to October when it comes back. Its best hiked in August/September after the bugs have died down.

I had a physical map as backup in case our phones failed.

The most unique thing about the trail is that it’s almost entirely at 10,000 ft elevation and higher. At this height bears, predators and insects are rare, but altitude sickness, dehydration and sudden thunderstorms are the biggest risks. This is also a lightly traveled trail with few exit points and no cell service. If you run into an emergency, you’ll need to get yourself out of there on your own or use a satellite device to call for help.

The elevation gain for the trail on AllTrails says it only a 18,000 ft, but that feels like an extreme underestimate. Since the trail is typically hiked in 7 or 8 days, let’s just say the real elevation gain is somewhere between 2,000 ft and 5,000 ft gain a day over 12 trail miles (or 15-18 actual miles according to my tracker).

Having watched countless YouTube videos by people hiking long trails, this duration didn’t seem too bad – at least for a week. I’d be in pain sure, but it didn’t sound like anything I couldn’t handle. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the high elevation could play a factor. Here at home in Salt Lake City, we’re already at 4,500ft elevation in our apartment. How bad could another mile up be?

Why Hike The Highline Trail?

I grew up camping. We lived in Florida, and both of my parents had a “no camping in Florida” policy after a mosquito invasion during a trip to the Everglades. Our camping trips were over the summer when we’d load up our Ford Taurus and hit I-75 north out of the state. North Carolina and the Great Smokie Mountains were our most common stop, but we also camped in every state along the East coast, and even into Canada. Once we strapped a canoe to our roof and drove from Florida up to the waters north of Michigan for a week-long stay alone on a Canadian island with 5 people in a car.

As a kid under 10, I loved these trips. This was the late 80s and early 90s, before The Internet was a thing to spend time on. My summers would have otherwise been spent playing with friends, replaying NES games or collecting baseball cards. Getting out and being able to explore around those campsites, or follow along a small river and see where it went was far more fun at that age than anything else.

Even though I spend more of my time indoors now than when I was a kid, there’s something about camping that still reminds me of those trips. Just being outside, building a fire, and dipping my hands in frozen creek water brings it all back.

One thing my parents instilled in me growing up was a fascination with exploring the area where we lived. That started with biking through every street in our neighborhood. Later on that became road trips around all of Florida’s coast – Panama Beach to Key West and back up to St. Augustine. When we finally left Florida, there was almost nothing in the state that I wanted to do but hadn’t (Side note: I still want to go on a bioluminescence tour, get pancakes at Sugar Mill and go snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park).

Since moving to Utah I started a local bucket list. This was a way to stay sane in 2020 when air travel wasn’t possible. Most of the things on this list – including hiking the Highline Trail – were still possible during a lockdown.

One of my top reasons for doing this hike was for the grant views from the mountains. From my research on this hike, much of it is above the tree line allowing for sprawling vistas so far away from society you can’t even see it.

Preparing for a Long Hike

Switching from car camping to backpacking was the next logical step to appreciate and explore more parts of the state that are otherwise inaccessible. Over the last 3 years I’ve slowly build up my backpacking gear. One of my favorite places to get gear is at REI’s yearly garage sale, where you can get great items 75% off if you’re there early.

The best way to test your gear is of course to actually go out backpacking on overnight trips. There are a few overnights here in Utah that I absolutely love and would recommend:

Three Divide Lakes Loop – An easy, short 5 mile total hike to a beautiful lake. With only 500ft elevation gain, this is a great introduction to backpacking.

Grove Greek to Battle Creek Loop – This is my favorite overnight hike. It’s under 10 miles, close to the city, a loop trail, has springs and a river, great views of the city and even has cell service at the camping spot!

Naturalist Basin Trail – This beautiful 15-mile trail in the Uinta Mountains is generally done as a 2-night hike. It starts with a hike up to a lake where you camp for the night. You can leave your tent there and explore the basin area on the second day before hiking out on day 3.

The point of all this is to test your gear and determine if you really want to go for a long hike. Going for a 5-month Appalachian trail hike takes a lot of working up to. In my case, a 2-night trip was good preparation for a week-long hike – or at least that was the thought.

Gear

Preparation will make or break your hike. You’ll need to carry all food and gear for the entire hike from the start. If you forget something you’re out of luck.

To help with planning, I’ve been actively reading the /r/ultralight subreddit for the last few years. This is a gold mine for hike preparation. Hikers post their gear lists and get feedback in order to dial in their gear and lower their weight. It gets to the point of obsessive – recommendations to drop a few ounces of weight here or there. For a short hike that weight won’t make much of a difference. For a long hike you’ll be happy with every ounce you cut.

I started planning out my gear for the trip and ended up organizing it on Lightpack, a super-useful site for helping plan out what to carry. I settled on a total bag weight of about 37 pounds – with 8 lbs of that being water for the first 15 miles where water is in short supply.

My gear for the Highline Trail

This seems like a lot, but it’s actually not. Almost all of this is a few big things: tent, sleeping system, food, stove and water. The rest has almost no weight, but is essential for having a good hike. Food too starts out at 9 pounds, but will be reduced by more than a pound a day.

Afternoon candy bars made every day better.

Looking at it all laid out, it doesn’t look like much for a week. Most of the table is food. I used some pre-packaged meals, some ramen, salami and cheese and a can of PB&J with thin sandwiches. The goal was to mx it up so I’m not eating food in bar form all day long.

My pack all loaded up.

After getting some feedback from other hikers we were ready to head out!

The Hike

On Saturday, August 21 2021 Mrs. Minafi drove my hiking partner Max and I four and half hours out to the trailhead! We decided to hike the trail from east to west – starting lower and ending higher elevation wise. This seemed to be the most common route to go.

Along the way there are a few different trail markers to help you stay on course. Sometimes the trail is obvious, but often there are no signs for miles. The three most common markers were the orange diamond, cairns and the letter “i” carved into a side of a tree.

In the densely wooded areas the trail is well established. Above the tree line it’s less clear, with cairns as the only markers. I’m used to looking at AllTrails nonstop to make sure I’m still on trail, but that wasn’t an option here if I wanted to keep my battery alive for 8 days. I often tried to see how far I could go before glancing down at my map to make sure we were still on course.

Day 1: Trailhead to Lonely Meadow (11 miles)

We started around noon and wanted to see how far we could get. At the 4-mile mark we reached the East Park Reservoir – the last chance to get water for 15 miles. We hunkered down for lunch here (Salmon, salami, cheese and Twix) before continuing on.

East Park Reservoir

If I were to do this hike again, I’d camp here for the first night for a few reasons. It’s close to water, it allows more time for altitude acclimatization and it wouldn’t tax our body quite as much.

But at this time we were still fresh and excited to hike! We kept going another 7 miles.

A well worn area of the trail
A slim trail through a meadow.
My camping setup for the first night
My camping setup for the first night
The meadow we camped in the first night.

After 11 miles we were tired, but not exhausted. We crossed our fingers and hoped to find some water in the meadow. We found some, but it was standing water that many animals were using as a water source. To play it safe we stuck to filtered water that we carried in.

During this first day we didn’t see a single other person. We were still relatively low altitude wise – between 8,000 and 9,500 feet.

That first night was rough. Between heavy wind and rain we realized it wasn’t a great camping spot. We’d picked a spot just off the meadow behind some trees. Unfortunately the entire meadow became a wind tunnel at night and the trees didn’t help. Next time we’d move farther away and camp in the forest.

Day 2: Lonely Meadow to Leidy Peak (18 miles)

When we woke up it was cold. It dropped down to the 20s at night. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of my sleeping bag and take down our camp. We decided to wait until sunrise (7am) and get up then. It was a later start than we planned, but we were able to get going by 9am.

A few miles in we ran into our first hikers – a pair of guys in their 60s who were moving fast and passed us. Over the next few days we’d go back and forth passing each other.

Our lunch spot – starting to gain some elevation

After lunchtime we made it to the next meadow – one that we hoped would have water. We walked down to the lowest point and ran into a couple hammock camping. They assured us there was flowing water hidden farther down in the meadow. While we were filling up our water we ran into 4 bow-hunters on the lookout for elk that surprised us out of nowhere.

Water in the 3rd meadow.
The larger 3rd meadow was filled with cattle

As we continued on we were passed by a few other hikers – a couple in their 20s that flew in from Connecticut, a solo woman in her early 20s going solo and trying to speed hike.

We setup camp just before Leidy Peak close to a river. Leidy peak is the first time you get to 12,000 ft elevation on the trail and we knew that there wouldn’t be a chance to camp for a while after that.

Hiking 18 miles in no joke. It took us 10 hours, with a bunch of stops along the way. I was winded, but knew I had a bunch more energy in me. We’d often take a break for 5 or 10 minutes, strip off our shoes and socks and sit in a position where our feet were above our heads. This helped my feet feel refreshed – at least for a few minutes.

Half way through day two the problem started. I had a small blister on left pinky toe, but nothing to be concerned about. I wrapped up with some tape and kept on hiking. It hurt, but it was just a blister, right?

Once we reached camp and I got my shoes off I took a look at my toe. It was bad. Like horror movie, emergency room bad – at least that was my gut reaction. The tape I’d placed on my toe had somehow led the entire toe to become a one way street where blood was getting into it, but not back out. It had grown in size and now looked like a small blood balloon (aren’t you thankful I didn’t take a picture?).

I disinfected and heated up a small safety pin and drained it – hoping things would be better tomorrow.

Day 3: Leidy Peak to Chepeta Lake (16 miles)

This was the first full day of real alpine hiking. Much of the day was above the tree line with beautiful vistas in every direction. We left by 8 AM because we knew this was going to be a long day.

The first 5 miles or so were a struggle. Leidy Peak has 4 different trails around it, which makes it difficult to navigate. We ended up doubling back, taking a different trail, then going back to the original one – a decision that cost us a few miles and a lot of morale. If we were doing this trail again, we’d take the route north of Leidy peak instead. The older hikers started that trail after us and got past the peak before us.

Soon after though, we were rewarded with some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. These pictures don’t do the views justice.

Looking out after Leidy Peak
Hiking downhill to the lake… then back up.

Immediately after the peak, we headed back downhill to the next lake. We could already tell we were walking into a dead end and there’d be a steep climb in our future to get over it.

Luckily we spotted some snow melt coming down which gave us a chance to top up on water.

Most of the rest of the day was more up and down. We’d spend an hour getting over a pass, an hour back down – repeat.

When we finally got back down to the forest we were happy to give our feet a break from the rocks. That’s something I didn’t think about going into this. You’re mostly walking on rocks at high elevation. That means the forces on your feet aren’t going to be uniform or cushioned.

After a tasty lunch lakeside, we started approaching Chepeta Lake. We knew were close because we saw an actual road – the most established one yet!

Chepeta Lake itself was… a bit of a let down. Due to lower snow levels over the past few years, the lakes water level wasn’t what it once was. We found a beautiful campsite right by the lake and hunkered down there for the night.

Chepeta Lake
Chepeta Lake

As we settled down for the night we were both exhausted. 11.5 hours of hiking and 16 miles is a long hike any day, but 16 miles at 10,000+ ft elevation and over 5,000 ft of elevation gain while carrying 30+ pound packs is no joke.

When we finally got our tents setup and had dinner I was feeling OK. My toe was in pain, but it wasn’t much more than yesterday. I’d also developed some chaffing between my thighs which made every step uncomfortable. Add to that choosing underwear without enough ventilation and things weren’t very comfortable down there.

My hiking partner Max was feeling a lot worse. He had some blisters which were causing him trouble while also suffering from stage 1 altitude sickness. Looking back we both were even though I didn’t know it at the time.

That night was rough. I’d gotten 5-6 hours of sleep for nights 1 & 2, but this night I barely got 1 hour. I had a headache, I was cold, my thighs hurt, my toe was getting hot and I could feel every heartbeat through it. Add to that needing to use the “forest” in the middle of the night in 30 degree weather and it was more about making it through than anything else.

Day 4: Chepeta Lake to Salt Lake City

At about 1 AM while lying awake and uncomfortable I had a realization – what if I leave tomorrow? Can I do that?

There are very few places to leave The Highline Trail – East Lake Reservoir, Leidy Peak and Chepeta Lake were the only 3 “roads” in. I say road in quotes because it’s a 2 hour drive from the closest town up a rough mountain trail that requires vehicles with high clearance.

I pulled up my phone and checked out Google Maps. I’d downloaded offline maps for most of Utah, and checked how far the drive was from our apartment to the Chepeta Lake trailhead. Turns out it would be a 5 hour drive – with the last 2 hours being unpaved mountain roads without cell service.

After tossing and turning with the decision, I eventually was honest with myself: I don’t think I should continue. Aside from altitude sickness and a growing thigh friction rash, my toe was getting worse. It was as if when my toe filled with blood it became a cocoon. Once drained everything ended up different places – included a detached toenail and a swollen toe. It wasn’t a flashy painful injury, but it was enough to make every step for the next week more complicated.

This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I felt like I was letting down my hiking partner, and myself all because of a single toe. Looking back on this decision it was so much more than that. Hiking another 55 miles in that pain would not have been a fun or enjoyable hike. What’s the point of doing this hike if I’m going to be in pain every day?

Max had brought a Garmin InReach Mini – a bright orange satellite device which allowed us to send text messages back to our families. As soon as the sun was up I used it to contact Mrs. Minafi and see if she could pick me up.

The Extraction

Within a few hours she had rescheduled her plans for the day and dropped everything to drive 10 hours (total) to come and pick me up. That’s like driving from Boston down to North Carolina – it’s a long drive. It would take her about 5 hours to get here, which left me with a lot of time to just wait around, dry my gear and contemplate my decisions in life. 😅

The next big question? Will my hiking partner go with me or continue on? There would still be at least 5 more days of hiking to reach the end of the trail. In that time there would be one more extraction point (via car), but it’d be over a few mountain passes – meaning that in order to even make it to those spots they’d need to have the stamina to go up and back down.

Over the next hour or so I tried lightly to convince him to join me in heading home today. Although he’d been feeling down the night before, he woke up in good spirits and ready to continue the hike.

After an hour of thinking about it, he decided to keep going – with the intention of leaving at the next trailhead if something went wrong. I offered to carry anything he wanted to shed, and gave him a some of my Ibuprofin and other first-aid that I had leftover.

What happened next was a lot of waiting. He took off for the day and continued hiking, while I waited around at the trailhead. In some ways this was the hardest part of the entire hike. He had the satellite device to contact the outside world. That left me at a the trailhead cutoff from society.

Fortunately, I wasn’t always alone. The trailhead had a single outhouse, and a parking lot. During the hours I was there about 10 cars came or left – mostly hunters out for the day bow-hunting. A bunch of Highline Trail hikers – I’d guess about 15 over the course of the day – came through as well. For each I offered to carry out their trash, which ended up making people smile in a way it’s hard to describe for someone who’s never carried their own trash for 100 miles.

A beautiful waiting room

The area around the trailhead was still absolutely beautiful. I spent a bunch of that time listening to the river flow, filtering and drinking water and eating some of the extra candy bars I’d brought with me.

The most gut wrenching part of the wait was that if my wife ran into any car trouble making it up here I wouldn’t know. She wouldn’t be able to contact me beyond a point, and I wouldn’t be able to receive any contact for the hours waiting.

According to Google Maps it should take her 5 hours to get here if she left when she said. That would mean she should get to me by 2pm. The future-worrier in my already started planning out worst case scenarios. If she’s not here by 3pm what should I do? 5pm? Should I camp here tonight if she doesn’t show? Or should I try to hitchhike back to town? Maybe I’d see her on the road up broken down.

All of that worry ended up being useless. She showed up at 2:05pm – just 5 minutes after offline Google Maps predicted. I was at the exact spot I said I’d be, which also helped relieve her after an odyssey to get here that I’d soon learn about.

Mrs. Minafi and I at Chepeta Lake

Turns out the road up is not great. The last 2 hours are rocky dirt roads along cliffs. When I commented on how had the road was, she mentioned that this was still the “good” part.

She’d mapped directions to a local urgent care in a small town, and we headed straight there. This was my first time at any kind of medical facility since before COVID. Looking back, I’m extremely glad we went to a small town place rather than the busy hospitals in SLC.

Within a few minutes we were checked in, evaluated, my toe was cleaned up (I’ll skip the details, but a scalpel was involved), bandaged with some special gauze that never gets dry, given an antibiotic to take home and we were ready to drive home. The entire visit took under an hour.

Mrs. Minafi drove the rest of the trip home, with only a stop by In-n-Out burger to pick up dinner before returning home. The entire time I was feeling guilty about inconveniencing her with this emergency extraction – something she very kindly and repeatedly reassured me was no trouble and that she was just happy I was OK.

It was one of those moments when I realized when I asked for help as a kid my mom would often make my feel guilty about it. Just one of those fun adult realizations from reading books like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.

We made it home safe, had one of the best showers in my life and slept for the next week.

What About My Hiking Partner?

His story is his own. I will say he made it back safely to Salt Lake City. He continued on for another few days but eventually altitude sickness hit him hard. That was difficult to anticipate and realize at the time. I was expecting altitude sickness would feel much more obvious. For him it got to the point of feeling lightheaded just walking around – which is a big red flag to get the hell out of there. He did, and he made it home safely to his wife.

What Would I Change?

Even though I didn’t complete the entire trail, I’m still glad I did it. I managed to hike about 45 miles out of 101, while my hiking partner made it closer to 65 miles.

Cut More Weight 🎒

At 30lbs base weight, I thought I’d cut my weight enough. Honestly I should have tried to bring it down to 20lbs. That might have meant replacing a few things: switching from a sleeping bag to a quilt, trimming weight from my cooking setup, not bringing 2 batteries, optimizing my food and a few other things. Less weight means less calories to eat, less wear on your feet and a less effort each day. Even if you’re feeling strong at the start, when you’re climbing over rocks at 12,000 ft all day you’ll wish the pack was lighter.

Simple Food 🥫

I tried to bring food I liked that would give a bunch of variety. During the hike though, I honestly didn’t care what I ate so long as it provided calories. Knowing that, I’d reduce my food options and focus on caloric density. Get more meal replacement bars for lunch. Switch to 1,000 calorie pre-packaged camping meals. But still keep the candy bars, because those were 🔥.

Better Shoes 🥾

The one that did me in. The hiking shoes I wore I’d been using for 3 seasons. They weren’t the most comfortable, but they’d served me well on a half dozen backpacking trips. On some of those trips I’d had small blisters but nothing serious. The thing is though, if shoes give you a small blister on an overnight hike, they’re going to give you 10x that on a longer hike. It’s best to get to the point where you’ve worn in your shoes, and you’ve confirmed they’re not giving you any blisters.

Set a Start and End Time Each Day 🕐

In order to complete the hike in the timeframe we planned, we needed to hike around 15 miles a day. That meant that we were going longer and farther than our bodies wanted to go. Leaving camp at 8am and setting up camp at 7pm wasn’t sustainable for me given all of the other variables (altitude, elevation, feet). A better approach would have been to set start and end times for each day. For example: we’ll leave camp by 7:30am and start looking for a place to camp at 3:00pm. Wherever we are at that time is where we’ll camp.

Would I Complete the Hike?

Probably not. I wouldn’t rule it out if I was with a larger group of hikers I trusted and were around a similar fitness level as me. When I got back from the hike I did realize that I don’t enjoy long periods away hiking.

As much as I love the wilderness, and can enjoy seeing someone share their hiking journey on social media, I prefer the 1 or 2-night backpacking trip instead. It still allows for getting out into nature, appreciating nature and disconnecting from society. I can do that without needing to push my body to its limits, or need to be rescued.

I’d consider going back to hike Kings Peak as a standalone hike. Kings Peak is the highest point in Utah, with it’s peak just 0.5 miles off the Highline Trail. It can also be hiked as an overnight trek from a trailhead. Doing that one next year sounds exciting.

But for the rest of the Highline trail itself? I’m OK with not completing it. This hike helped me realize the kind of hiking and camping I do like. It’s 1 or 2-night trips with friends, where we can hang around the campsite, build a fire and enjoy each others companies. It’s the kid where we can slowly watch the sunset over a lake with some hot chocolate we packed up. It’s the kind that reminds me of camping as a kid. That’s the kind of camping trips I’ll be doing more of in the future.

Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

2 Comments

Why not add to the conversation below? Your voice is welcome!
steveark

steveark

October 24, 2021

What a wonderful post! My wife and I are mostly day hikers in our 60’s but we’ve done a 14r and 120 different Arkansas waterfall bushwhacks(that took ten years). You just have to be smart, and you were, to give up and fight another day. We are both marathoners and familiar with blisters. I finished one race with 50% of the sole of one foot a solid blood blister. Yikes I have nightmares about that. Feet are delicate and necessary. They should not ever be put at risk. Again, you are a tough guy, but a smart one and having a sweet and capable wife having your back, life doesn’t get any better than that. Mine has had mine for 43 years and counting.

Wow! This hike/trip looks amazing, especially the pictures of the meadows in particular.

I’m with you…I think a two night backpacking trip for me would be the max.

You made the right call. Your health is too important and boy oh boy is it a PITA to walk with something like that going on.

Great breakdown of all the gear too. Pretty impressive honestly, whenever we go camping our car is packed to the brim and overflowing.

Glad you are alright, and you’ll have some good stories from it. Cheers!

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