In the four years since I moved to Utah, every so often my dad would mention, “I’d really like to go camping in the Uinta mountains. We should do a backpacking trip there.”
At first I thought it was one of those comments akin to “I’d like to visit Antarctica someday” or “Gosh, it’d be great to hike the PCT.” It’s a big trip you aspire to but never really get around to actually planning and executing.
At some point I concluded that this wasn’t just a passing interest, and my dad really did want to go backpacking in the Uintas. After looking at calendars and guessing on the best weather window, we decided on the first week of August.
I was going backpacking with my dad.
If you think I’m some sort of backpacking expert, you’d be wrong. I’d only been backpacking for two nights total (on two separate occasions) prior to this adventure. Now, in some weird way, I felt like I was in charge of my dad’s safety and well-being. What if he got lost, contracted giardia, or was mauled by a bear? How would I explain that to my mom?
Luckily, there’s almost nothing you can’t resolve with a list, so I started planning.
First thing’s first: Gear
I had my own backpacking stuff, but what about gear for my dad? Luckily our local REI rents just about anything you can imagine, so I put down a deposit on a lightweight sleeping bag and an Osprey pack. We borrowed other items like a sleeping pad and trekking poles from my boyfriend, and we were all set with the basics.
Instead of two single person tents, we opted to split the weight of the North Face Stormbreak 3tent that I already own. While I don’t think I’ve slept that close to my dad since I was a youngster, it was roomy enough that we didn’t feel cramped.
Finding the Perfect Site
I was a little worried about the trail difficulty in the Uintas, considering many trails are around 10,000 feet elevation and we’d both have heavy packs on our backs. I wanted a trail that was long enough that we couldn’t run back to the car if we forgot something, but it also needed to be flat enough that my flatlander dad could handle it.
A few weeks before our trip, I happened upon the trail to Notch Lake, a nice 2-mile walk on mostly flat terrain to a beautiful alpine lake. There were plenty of campsites around the lake and a trail that continued on to Bench Lake and beyond. It seemed to check all of the boxes, so I quickly decided it would be our destination.
Getting the Timing Right
I’d already advised my dad to come in August, thinking this would be our best weather window to avoid both snow and mosquitoes. It rains fairly often in the Uintas, so I figured we couldn’t avoid that, but we got lucky and it was dry the entire time we were there.
We also planned to do our trip on a Sunday through Tuesday to try and avoid weekend campers. In this respect, it was the right move, and we only saw two other parties during our 48 hours in the backcountry. As we hiked in on Sunday, we passed multiple large parties of people hiking out, which makes me think that Notch Lake is a pretty bumpin’ camping spot on summer weekends.
Let’s Go Camping Already!
After all the planning, packing, and praying to the weather gods, we headed out from the trailhead in good spirits. It took us about an hour to get to the lake, where we busied ourselves setting up camp.
One of the best decisions we made was to pack in two ENO hammocks, even though they added to our pack weight.We spent a good chunk of time each day laying in the hammocks, just enjoying the silence (and lack of cell phone reception).
I’d been worried about how we’d fill our time during the second day at the lake, but I really don’t remember having any moment where I was bored. We went on a short hike to Bench Lake after breakfast and explored the cliffs near our camp site. We also spent more time that I expected filtering water. (The Sawyer Mini filter is small and light, but doesn’t filter a ton of water quickly.) We sat on the lake shore and watched the sun come up and later go down, sharing stories and memories and recounting past outdoor adventures.
What’s for Dinner?
Remember how I said it was really dry? As we drove into the park, the sign listed the fire danger as “Extreme”. Not wanting to be forever known as those jerks who burned down the Uintas, we decided to skip the campfires and use our Jetboil stove for cooking. To make things even easier, we picked up a bunch of dehydrated meals at REI before heading out.
Things I learned: Mountain House beats Backpacker’s Pantry, hands down. The Backpacker’s Pantry meals often ended up watery (even after letting them sit double the time listed on the package, which was recommended for campers at 10,000 feet). Mountain House was reliably tasty every time. Even things like biscuits and gravy, which you wouldn’t expect to be good rehydrated ever, were surprisingly flavorful and filling.
The freeze-dried meals made cooking and cleanup really easy, and while I was definitely looking forward to real food once we got back to the car, it was just fine for two days.
Don’t Forget the Wildlife.
Our first morning at the lake I woke up earlier than my dad, and after puttering about camp making some coffee, I walked toward the long spit of land that jutted out into the middle of the lake. I then started walking in the other direction along the shoreline, toward a large rocky cliff band at the end of the lake.
At some point, a small noise made me turn my head, and I instantly noticed a large, white mammal following in my footsteps. I took a quick photo before I realized this mountain goat was not on a leisurely walk; in fact, it was picking up speed as it headed in my direction.
I was able to scramble away from the shore and watch in awe as it galloped past me. One reaching the cliff, it turned and made its way up the scree slope, headed back up to its rocky refuge.
The next morning I kept my eyes glued to that spot, hopeful the mountain goat would make an encore appearance so my dad could also get a glimpse. Alas, it must have decided to go elsewhere that day for its morning stroll.
So instead we watched the sun rise over the lake, illuminating the cliffs and warming the chilly air. We drank tea and savored the silence and soaked up the final hours of our trip. Life that morning was good.