Red Castle Lakes Backpacking Trip
Updated: Oct 28, 2019
Duration: 3 nights, 4 days
Miles hiked: 37-40
Fishes Caught: 1
Hours Fished to Fishes Caught: 10:1
Dates: July 27-July 31, 2018
My long time high school buddy and former roommate in Aspen back in the 90's, Andrew, was looking to escape the sweltering summer heat of Washington DC so decided to go backpacking in the high Uintas. I have done some multi-day backpacking in the past (Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley and a few Mt Shasta summits) but I must admit- I was a little rusty and I had never led a trip. So I spent in an inordinate amount of time researching and preparing for this trip as I didn’t want to be responsible for any failures (but there would be some). Since Andrew was flying from the east coast, our criteria was to find a remote place within 2 hours of the SLC airport and because it was summer time- we wanted to stay away from the southern Utah desert. Based on this criterion, the high Uintas were the perfect choice. As you research the best hikes in the Uintas, the ones that come up the most often are: Red Castle Lake, King’s Peak/Henry’s Fork and Amethyst Lake. Our goal of this trip was less about peak bagging and more about exploring great lakes, fishing and hiking so we selected Red Castle.
I picked up Andrew at the airport and we headed straight towards the central Uintas via Wyoming (after a quick detour in Evanston to hit the liquor store which only weighed down my pack even more). Just a few miles before reaching China Meadows, we saw a moose in the distance so we parked the car (but kept it running) and got a little closer to take a picture (I know- not wise but Andrew insisted J). Once we got to the East Fork Smiths trailhead it was about 3 pm and we started going through the task of dividing our gear. I live in Park City so I was acclimatized and therefore I agreed to be a nice guy and carry more weight so we loaded my pack with the most of the shared items like the pots, the stove, water filter and tent. We estimated my pack to weigh about 50 pounds at the start. I was so heavy that when we sat down to take breaks along the hike, Andrew had to help pull me up.
The distance to Lower Red Castle Lake is about 10 miles so we knew it would be aggressive to reach that lake before nightfall so our goal was to go about 7 miles. The first 6-7 miles of this trail are relatively mellow with altitude gain of less than 1,000 but with our heavy packs we were only averaging about 2 miles an hour. So at around the 7 mile point, we found a suitable place to camp that was close to the trail and only a few yards from the stream. After setting up our tent, we started a fire and began to prep for dinner and that is when our first “fail” happened. Despite testing the gas burning stove several times, it failed to light. We were both baffled as to why (and it started when we got home). Andrew was – shall we say slightly perturbed (and concerned) and I couldn’t blame him. There was no hiking back to the car so we concluded that we would have to resort to cooking all of our meals the old fashion way- over a burning fire. We would find long logs to act as a grate over the fire and we would place our pots on top of the logs. To be honest, this made the experience more of an adventure but I didn’t like the fact that every meal was seasoned with ashes.
After a good nights sleep, we made some oatmeal and OvaEasy dehydrated eggs which turned out to be surprisingly good. We broke down our campsite and headed along the trail. At around mile 8 you cross a bridge
and then you enter the switchback section that last for about a mile. After you emerge from the switchbacks, Red Castle Peak comes into view in the distance.
There is a nice little waterfall as you approach the lake
and then you get to a fork in the trail soon thereafter. If you go to the right, it will take you to the west side of the lake and if you continue on for about another 3 miles past Lower Red Castle Lake (LRCL) it will take you to Red Castle Lake (then Upper Red Castle). We elected to go to the left as it looked less crowded. We headed across a meadow until we found an amazing camp spot slightly above LRCL that offered a spectacular view of the lake with Red Castle Peak in the background. It was such a relief to drop our gear and set up camp for two days. But the hiking wasn’t done for the day. We hiked east along the lake until we intersected with the East Red Castle trail which parallels Mount Powell. I had aspirations of summiting Powell but the route to summit this peak was up from Flat Top Mountain which required hiking up from Henry’s Fork (the next drainage over). East Red Castle trail takes you past many named (East Red Castle Lake and Smiths Fork Pass Lake) and unnamed lakes on its way towards Smith Fork Pass. This trail is a lot less crowded than the western side of LRCL although we passed a few horseback riders and people fishing. When we arrived at Smith Fork Pass we meet two nice ladies that were reconning their route for tomorrow’s trek to King’s Peak which would be a 20+ mile hike for them. These two girls and their dog started a goal to hike 15 days in a row, then it became 30 days and they were now up to over 130 consecutive hiking days. I was interested in bagging a peak so I wanted to heads towards Wilson Peak with the hope of capturing one of Utah’s twenty 13,000+ peaks. Given that Andrew was coming from sea level just 24 hours before, he elected to hike back to camp with the two girls. I started traversing west towards a saddle between Wilson Peak and south side of Red Castle Peak. I passed a few snow fields along the way and then started the steep ascent up to the saddle.
Once I reached the saddle I expected to see a route to the summit of Wilson but there was none and any route from this side seemed unobtainable without ropes or serious climbing ability. Since I was in an extremely remote part of the Uintas with no one in sight for several miles and without cell service, I made the right choice and headed over the saddle towards Upper Red Castle Lake. But the descent to URCL was no joke and in fact it was very hairy as it was extremely steep but the worst part about it was the loose shale rock.
I was afraid that the rocks were going to slide like an avalanche or that I was going to tumble down and hit my head. There were several times when I thought the safer move would be to turn around but I continued on often traveling on all fours. After enduring this nerve racking section, it was such a relief to get to flatter and more stable ground. I now headed along the eastern side of Red Castle Lake but there was still no trail and there were still plenty of large rock fields that required scrambling which was becoming rather exhausting after hiking over 12 miles and 6+ hours. But the hike back to LRCL was gorgeous with numerous wild flower fields and waterfalls but the best part of all was the solitude.
This was probably my favorite day because we didn’t have to set up or breakdown camp and we didn’t have to get somewhere by a certain time. Nonetheless, I got up before Andrew and I took my Tenkara fly rod down to the lake. I have fly fished several times before but I have never caught a damn thing. This morning, however, was going to be my lucky day because I caught my first fish with a fly rod. It was a little 4” fish and of course I didn’t have my camera with me so no proof of my first catch was recorded. Andrew and I decided to hike up to URCL and do some fishing in the more remote lake. The lake was sky blue and you could see all the way to the bottom. We spotted several fish and we did our best to lure them in but they were constantly outsmarting us. Andrew was content fishing but with so many peaks in our vicinity – I was compelled to summit one of them. Red Castle Peak was to the east and Wilson Peak was to the south so those were out, thus leaving an unnamed peak to the west which stood just below 13,000 as the only option. URCL sits at just under 11,600 so this quick summit would be about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. I headed west towards a saddle and then turned north up to the summit. From the saddle to the summit was a field of large boulders staked on top of each other. The stable rocks provided for a steady journey but one small stumble could send you face planting into a boulder so concentration was paramount. I was hustling to get up and back so that Andrew wouldn’t be waiting for me but even with under an hour round trip- Andrew was still preoccupied with catching dinner (unsuccessfully).
After spending 3 nights in the “wild”, you are ready to head home and enjoy the modern comforts of a shower and a warm bed. With close to 30 miles covered over the last 3 days, my feet were sore and were starting to get blisters so the goal for the day was to get to the car as quickly as possible. LRCL is at 10,760 and Strava recorded that we descended about 1,300 to the trailhead and we covered 10.1 miles in 3:35 so just under 3 miles an hour. Our last two miles were the fastest two miles of the day and that is because Andrew was on a death march to get out of Dodge. After we reached the car, we were hot, dusty and sweaty so on the drive out, we pulled over to jump in a pristine lake as our final natural bath before we headed home.
A must stop on the way home is to swing by Jim Bridger Trading Post for a root beer float and say hi to the twins!
Carry less weight
Buy lighter pans, stove…
Wear wool socks and sock liners to prevent blisters
Make sure stove works!