The Red Castle Lakes are a hidden gem to anyone outside of Utah, and a must for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in Utah’s Uinta Mountain Range. The Unitas are Utah’s highest range and home to 17 of the tallest 20 peaks in Utah. Our trip to the Unita Range was last minute to say the least. Our original plans were to hike in the Sawgrass Range (Idaho), but a phone call to the ranger station on the morning of the trip quickly change those plans. Even in a light snow year, those plans were deterred due to the amount of snow still remaining in mid-June. Although the rangers told us the trail was passable, losing the trail was going to be a concern with the snow. Call us lucky, but The Red Castle Lakes exceeded all expectations. Not only does the area offer 4 alpine lakes surrounded by +13,000 feet of crumbing, red rock peaks, but the hike in takes you through scenic meadows, mountain streams, waterfalls, and an opportunity to catch sight of some great wild life. Don’t forget your fishing pole or camera for this trip. Simply put, this place is a backpacker and photographer’s dream.
Coming from Salt Lake City, the two trailhead options are roughly a 2.5 hour drive. I flew in on a Thursday night, with plans to sleep in the car at the trailhead. My buddy, and backpacking partner for the weekend, had recently moved to Salt Lake City so he picked me up at the airport a little after 11 pm. We made a quick pit stop at In-N-Out Burger – I’m a Midwesterner, so of course we stopped here (yes, I ordered my burger “Animal” style). We left SLC shortly after, but our drive was prolonged further when we realized we had forgotten a few necessities. The only good place on the route to pick up those last minutes things is a Walmart in Evanston, WY (off I-80 E). After stopping there, we finally arrived to the trailhead at around 3 am. When we arrived, the Milky Way was as clear as I had ever seen. Given it was so late and we had plenty of nights left, we decided to forgo the astrophotography shots and get some rest.
We woke up at 7:00 am on Friday morning to the peaceful mountain sounds and wonderful aroma of a septic truck emptying out the out houses at the trailhead. As awful as it was, it did put a little pep in our step, as we did not hesitate to pack up, and get off on the trail. We hit the trailhead in record time, within 15 minutes from waking up. There are two trail options for getting to the Red Castle Lakes, you can either take the East Fork Smiths Fork trail via China Meadows or the East Fork Blacks Fork trail via Bald Mountain. Both trails are about 10 miles to Lower Red Castle Lake, add another 3 miles to Red Castle Lake, or 20 and 26 miles round trip respectively. We chose the first route as we had read the trail was better maintained and the elevation gain was much less daunting with all of our camera gear (2K ft. gain vs 3K ft). The first 7-8 miles are relatively easy. With exception to a few rocky areas and stream crossings, it’s an easy to moderate hike to this point.
Over the course of the next couple days, we did several day hikes to the surrounding areas to explore the +13,000 foot peaks and high alpine lakes (Wilson Peak is a feasible summit for the fit and adventurous). We discovered another waterfall flowing down from Red Castle Lake, and spent an afternoon crossing boulders and snow to get up close and personal with it. That day was capped off perfectly when we saw a moose on the walk back to our campsite at the Lower Red Lake. Unfortunately, the weather in the High Uintas is highly unpredictable, so the first night when we arrived was really the only good night for astrophotography. Each day after was nice and sunny followed by nights filled with clouds and intermittent rain showers. The wind was pretty intense on the first night at camp, so I suggest finding some cover camping next to trees (healthy looking trees – there are a good amount of dead trees that you want to steer clear of setting up camp next to.)
Whether it be fishing the high-alpine lakes, bagging some of Utah’s tallest peaks, or just enjoying the wildlife and scenery, the Red Castle Lakes area is a must-visit for backcountry enthusiasts. Pictures do not do this place justice, so we recommend you check out the colossal Red Castle yourself!
Thanks for checking out our adventures. – Sean Evans, Owner/Maker/Adventurer, Standard Knight Co.