Hike to Red Castle in the High Uintas Wilderness
The North Slope of the High Uintas Wilderness is a region of exquisite alpine splendor. The highest peaks in Utah rise up jaggedly against a wide open sky. Miles of well maintained trails allow hikers to wind their way through meadows, spruce and pine forests, and hundreds of scenic lakes filled with fresh water and healthy fish. Picking a destination can be a difficult task, but one sight on every hiker’s list should be Red Castle. While not an actual mountain, the Castle is still worthy of a visit thanks to its unique rock buttresses and the three large lakes near its base. It also doesn’t hurt that the hike to Red Castle is filled with miles of classic Uintas scenery.
There are several ways to arrive at the Red Castle area, and this trip report begins at one of the most accessible trailheads: China Meadows. This well appointed trailhead has 50 parking spaces, horse corrals and ramps, developed campsites and pit toilets- a testament to just how busy it can get during prime season. China Meadows provides access to the East Fork Smith Fork River Trail. From the trailhead it is approximately a 10.5 mile hike to the Red Castle area. The trail begins with very gradual elevation gain as it makes it way through numerous meadows filled with lush greenery. The route is perfect for hot summer hiking because it’s shrouded by a lodgepole pine forest nearly the entire way. Unfortunately a majority of this forest has been decimated by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Trees that were once a deep green color have now been reduced to rusty-hued shells of their former selves. Though the trees are a sad sight, the husks still provide plenty of shade, just watch out for those widow-makers!
The trail passes by gorgeous Broadbent Meadow before beginning a steep section of switchbacks. After these switchbacks hikers top out in the Red Castle region. The trail becomes more rocky and passes through a large meadow before arriving at the shore of Lower Red Castle Lake. Smooth grass fields allow easy access to this splendid body of water. The sights are fantastic: Red Castle towers to the south, the impressive ridge and summit of Mount Powell to the east, and the southwest view showcases the rugged area that houses the two remaining lakes. Continue to Red Castle and Upper Red Castle Lakes on the same trail while gaining 600 additional feet of elevation. It’s a workout, but well worth it to explore such an impressive area.
This hike can be completed as a long day hike or multi-day backpacking trek. Many good campsites can be found near Lower Red Castle Lake so there is no need to create new ones. The lake area can be very busy during summer months; for more solitude try camping in Broadbent Meadow. There are numerous stands of trees, campsites that show signs of recent use, and a river close by. Camping in Broadbent also means you can ditch your heavy backpack about four miles before Red Castle, and turn the toughest part of the trek into a day hike. Broadbent Meadow is also a wildlife hotspot; during my stay there I heard coyotes howling, spotted numerous species of birds, and even caught site of a moose. No matter how you approach it, one thing is sure: Red Castle and the East Fork Smith Fork River Trail are a “must-do” Uintas hike.
Getting There: From Salt Lake City take I-80 East past the town of Evanston, WY. Take Exit 34 towards Fort Bridger, WY and merge onto I-80 Business East. After 5 miles turn right onto WY-414 South. Drive 3 miles and turn right onto WY-410 East. Drive for 7 miles and continue on County Road 283 (this is a well maintained dirt road). 19 miles later you will arrive at the China Meadows Campground, the hikers parking lot is located at the south end of the campground.
Dogs Allowed? Yes, as with all Uintas hiking areas, your pup is welcome. There are lots of horseback riders on this trail so keep your pooch under control.
Special Considerations: Be mindful when hiking during monsoon season (July through September); summer storms roll in fast and can be deadly. Read my account of foolishly being caught in just such a storm here. Use your head and don’t take any chances…these mountains are beautiful but they are also very rugged.