As a spider web of lightening illuminated the green and gray rain-fly of our Nemo tent and the rain soaked the ground, my chest tightened in panic. I hope we don’t end up like those 300 dead reindeer in Norway, I thought. The rain continued to fall from the angry sky; the water creeping closer and closer to where we lay. Wide-awake, we waited for the silence of midnight before we closed our eyes again.
A two and half hour drive from Salt Lake City, the Unita Mountains, a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains, are a jagged east-west chain of mountains. Formed by reverse fault uplift millions of years ago, the peaks range from 11,000 – 13,538 feet and included the highest point in Utah, Kings Peak. Fairly inaccessible, expect for a few roads in from the north through Wyoming and from the southwest, the Unitas are a peaceful retreat from the crowded Wasatch Range and the RV and ATV packed desert of Southern Utah. Looking for an escape from the city for the long Labor Day weekend, my boyfriend and I set out for a backpacking trip through this secluded landscape.
This was our first time to the Unitas and first backpacking trip since moving to Salt Lake City from Oregon. We loaded our bags with minimal gear, but all the essentials – food, water, rain gear, sunscreen, a change of clothing, a warm jacket, and first aid kit. It’s been hot all summer in the city, and we longed for the cool reprieve of fall and the high alpine.
Setting out on the trail from China Meadows, we set our sights on hiking to Lower Red Castle Lake for the first night; to sleep under the stars with the reflection of the beautiful rock feature in our dreams. The next day, we planned to hike to the upper lakes and explore the area before hiking back to the car on the third day. A popular 25-mile with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, the hike to Red Castle Lake is known for its incredible scenery, photography opportunities and abundant wildlife.
The weather in this part of Utah is notoriously unpredictable. We knew before starting that forecast predicted a thirty percent chance of rain, so we were prepared for wet weather and the possibility that our plans would change.
Gradually leading up to a little over 11,000 feet, the trail traveled past green and gold meadows, tall pine trees riddled with beetle kill, and pops of bright red ground covering that signaled that fall was on the horizon. Happier than California cows grazed in this abundant landscape and took naps in the shade of the lifeless tree forms. We kept our eyes out for deer and moose in the pocketed forest. Ambling downhill, a clear blue stream meandered through the forest and into the meadows. The trail loosely followed the creek and crossed bogs on slowly decomposing wooden platforms.
Two hours into the hike, we tossed off our packs to give our backs a break from the burden of the gear. As they hit the ground, a small puff of dust kicked up. In both directions, other hikers walked past as we enjoying a snack of pepperoni, cheese and a small tumbler of wine. We still had a long way to go, so after stretching and putting away the extra food, we continued on.
Slowly the landscape started to change as the trail gained elevation. Fir trees and blue spruces replace the aspen groves and a neon green shrub grew along the forest floor. We lumbered across rocks to forge several small creeks that cut across the trail. The skies also darkened.
Around five o’clock, a huge black cloud enveloped the surrounding peaks and hung on the horizon, just over the trees. We guessed we were still a mile two from the lake. Sensing this storm wasn’t going to wait for us to get to our destination and not likely to pass by quickly, we rushed to find a campsite and to set up shelter. In a small cluster of trees about 200 yards from the now rushing stream, we set up our tent. Our tent is only big enough for the two of us, so we laid our backpacks on the ground, spread a tarp over them, and held it down with large stones. The wind picked up. Just as the rain started to pound down, we crawled in the tent.
For the next hour or so, we hunkered down. The rain puddled next to the tent. Finally, the down pour turned to sprinkles and then stopped. We popped our heads out of the tent like a prairie dog checking its surroundings for predators. All around us sun glistened on the wet ground and flora and the full spectrum of colors seemed more vibrant. A double rainbow appeared just across the stream from our tent. I’d never stood so close to a rainbow, I thought as I stood in pure awe. While the beauty gave us pause, we knew that was not the last storm.
The evening continued on. One band of clouds would roll through, a short break, then another storm. Between, we made a quick dinner of chili and mac and cheese on the jet boil and shared a beer while huddled under some pine trees.
As the sun started to set and finally fell behind the westward trees, we settled into our sleeping bags for the night – unsure what the darkness would bring. Thunder rolled loudly through the valley as the late summer, heavy clouds fought to climb over the mountain ridge. Several times we were awoken to the flashes and clashes of too-close-for-comfort lighting making contact with the ground and drumming rain. After one bolt sounded, we guessed with 100-yards of our tent, we turned on some music to sooth away the storm shivers and noise.
The morning brought more rain, hail, and a cool constant breeze. We decided to hike back to the car instead of spending the day stuck in the tent or another sleepless night listening to the echo of thunder. But before departing, we left our backpacks as our campsite, put on our jacket and rain pants, and hiked another mile further up the trail. In a momentary break, Red Castle appeared in front of us. Framed by yellow and green bushes, evergreen trees, and the low hanging black clouds, we soaked in the view we came for as the rain soaked our coats. With no one else around, we studied the harsh lines of this rock feature against the soft, changing landscape. While our trip hadn’t gone as planned, we got what we came for. The trail gifted its peace and solitude, the weather, cool temperatures, and nature put on a show of its beauty and power.
Hiking back to the car, we sipped a breakfast beer as the clouds and rain quickly dissipated and turned to sun down valley. As we unloaded our packs, slipped on our sandals, and relaxed in the car, the next round of storms silently crept in – ready for its next performance for the hikers just now setting out.