Round, Sand and Fish Lakes Backpacking Hike
Overview: A rigorous overnighter to three lakes in the upper Weber River drainage in the western Uinta Mountains. Good fly fishing for grayling and brook trout.
Start: Dry Fork Trailhead.
Distance: 9 miles out and back (to Fish Lake).
Trail surface: Forest trail.
Seasons: Late June through September.
Land status: National forest.
Nearest town: Oakley.
Fees and permits: No fees or permits required.
Maps: USGS Whitney Reservoir quad; Northeastern Utah Multipurpose Map.
Trail contacts: Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Finding the trailhead: Take Interstate 80 east from Salt Lake City and exit at Wanship. Drive about 10 miles to Oakley on Highway 32. Turn left onto Weber Canyon Road (a quarter of a mile north of the Oakley General Store—your last stop for trail munchies), a county road that provides access to a number of Forest Service trails. The intersection is clearly marked with a sign indicating WEBER CANYON, SMITH AND MOREHOUSE. The trailhead is 19 miles from this intersection. After 12 miles the pavement ends and you begin traveling on an improved dirt road. The road to Smith and Morehouse Reservoir turns right at this point. Continue straight and pass the Thousand Peaks Ranch sign. After 4 miles on the dirt road, bear right at a minor intersection. Before long you cross the Weber River. About 0.25 mile beyond, pass the entrance to Holiday Park. Do not enter the park; rather, bear left and continue 0.5 mile to the trailhead, which is on the left just after you cross Dry Fork Creek. The trailhead is on private land, so respect the landowner’s rights. There is a small dirt parking area. Camping and campfires are not permitted at the trailhead. DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 54 B3.
Trailhead GPS: 40.790002, -110.990444
These lakes are for well-conditioned trekkers seeking good high-country fishing, particularly for the beautiful Arctic grayling. The trailhead is less than two hours from Salt Lake City, including several miles over improved dirt road suitable for passenger cars.
The Dry Fork Trail begins at 8,000 feet and climbs through a rocky fir forest, ending below timberline in a broad, U-shaped basin boasting many small ponds and lakes. Round Lake sits just below 10,000 feet; Sand and Fish Lakes are about 200 feet higher. Fish Lake is about 4.5 miles from the trailhead. This trail attracts heavy horse traffic, so expect to see a few ruts and mud holes on the steeper sections of the route.
From the trailhead, the route heads northeast through an aspen grove for 0.25 mile to the first crossing of Dry Fork Creek. Watch this crossing very carefully, especially with small children in tow. Normally low and easily waded, Dry Fork Creek can quickly rise to hazardous levels in midsummer due to upstream releases for irrigation. With care, older children and adults can cross safely at any time. Incidentally, you follow the stream for nearly 1.5 miles, so don’t overload your water bottles yet. There’s plenty ahead (be sure to treat all water).
After the stream crossing, the trail proceeds east along Dry Fork’s left (north) side through lodgepole pines and firs. The trail becomes rocky, climbing slowly. While you still have your wind and energy, relax and enjoy the abundant wildflowers. You should see yarrow, cinquefoil, assorted sunflowers and daisies, Indian paintbrush, geranium, and monkshood.
After climbing about 600 feet in almost 1.5 miles, cross Dry Fork Creek again in a large clearing near the downstream end of an old washed-out beaver pond. Watch carefully for this spot, where the trail heads south for about 100 feet after the crossing. (Note: On the USGS map, the crossing is mistakenly shown as being past the upstream end of the clearing; other than this error, that map’s trail description is accurate.) While at the clearing, look upward to the southeast at a knobby peak (10,138 feet).You ascend the slope to the right and pass the peak on the south side. Check your water now. While there are creeks in the next stretch of trail, none is reliable, and they may all be dry when you hike.
From Dry Fork Creek, head south on a smooth, gentle trail for about 100 feet, then bear left (east). In about 0.25 mile, at 8,600 feet, begin climbing a rocky trail, still tracking southeast. The trail again levels out, but you’ll soon hit a steep stretch looking much like a streambed. Keep your eyes and wildflower guide open, because you’ll spot white columbine, parrot’s-beak, monkshood, false hellebore, cow parsnip, purple penstemon, red and yellow monkey flowers, bluebells, wild strawberry, and others. This damp area is ideal habitat for many of the showier wildflowers.
From here on, continue to the southeast until you reach Round Lake about 2 miles from the crossing. It seems like 5 miles, especially just before Round Lake where the trail is steepest. Cross the outlet stream from Round Lake, which actually is the trail for about 50 feet. Be careful — the alga-coated rocks are slippery.
Round Lake is small and sits at 9,940 feet in elevation. The one good campsite is on the northwest corner where the trail meets the lake and will accommodate three small tents. Don’t pitch tents close to the water’s edge, because the area is fragile and the water typically creeps up overnight following irrigation releases upstream. Do other hikers a favor and pack out some of the extra garbage in the area.
Round Lake has been stocked with Arctic grayling and brook and cutthroat trout. All readily take small flies, especially dries. The north and northeast shores are best for fly casting, but the largest fish may be on the other side, where many trees have fallen into the water. While fishing, note all of the elephant-head plants in the wet meadows around the lake.
Sand Lake is just southeast of Round Lake, 0.5 mile on the trail. At about the halfway mark, you skirt a large meadow on the north side. Look to your right (south) and notice a beautiful waterfall against the heavily timbered hillside. This cascade is the stream outlet from Sand Lake.
Sand Lake has only a few poor to fair campsites on its north and northwest corners, plus one just below the dam (not shown on the USGS map).The largest site could accommodate one party with up to three small tents. The inlet meadow on the southwest corner of the lake is wet and muddy.
Sand Lake contains small grayling and has poor fly fishing due to the steep, timbered, debris-ridden shoreline. Round Lake certainly is more productive and attractive for anglers.
Fish Lake is due south of Sand Lake, another 0.5 mile on an easy trail. The trail meets Fish Lake at a long, narrow arm extending northeast from the main lake body. Although not shown on the USGS map, Fish Lake has a rock dam at the extreme northeast end of the arm.
The plant community around Fish Lake is similar to that around Round and Sand Lakes, and you are still below timberline. The lake has many good shoreline campsites, particularly on its long arm. It contains mostly brook trout and grayling and often has good fly fishing. The outlet stream looks as if it could hold some nice trout as well.
Miles and Directions
0.0 Start at the Dry Fork Trailhead.
0.25 Cross Dry Fork Creek. Hike east on the north side of the creek.
1.5 Cross Dry Fork Creek again. Head south, then bear left (east).
3.5 Reach Round Lake. Continue southeast.
4.0 Reach Sand Lake. Continue south.
4.5 Arrive at Fish Lake.
9.0 Arrive back at the trailhead.