West Fork Blacks Lake Backpacking Hike

Overview: An overnighter to the headwaters of the Blacks Fork River. There are lush alpine meadows, good fishing, and excellent opportunities to view wildlife. Golden eagles are a common sight. 

Start: The major ford of the West Fork Blacks Fork River, south of Lyman Lake.

Distance: 22 miles out and back.

Difficulty: Easy.

Trail surface: Jeep trail, forest trail.

Seasons: Late spring through fall (be prepared for snow in early spring).

Land status: National forest, wilderness area.

Nearest town: Kamas.

Fees and permits: A Mirror Lake Area Recreation Pass is required for trailhead parking. Eagle/Age/Access Passports are accepted. Passes are available at Forest Service offices in Kamas and Evanston, Wyoming, the Bear River Station and Beaver Creek Station, several self-issue stations in the national forest, and several local vendors in Kamas and Evanston.

Maps: USGS Lyman Lake, Elizabeth Mountain, Explorer Peak, and Red Knob quads; Northeastern Utah Multipurpose Map; National Geographic Trails Illustrated High Uintas Wilderness Map.

Trail contacts: Evanston Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Finding the trailhead: Take Highway 150 (Mirror Lake Highway) east from Kamas. Pass the Bear River Ranger Station on the right after about 45 miles. Two miles beyond, turn right onto North Slope Road. This graded, well-traveled route across the Uinta North Slope provides access to many of the drainages. Drive about 13 miles to Elizabeth Pass (10,235 feet), which divides the Bear River drainage of the Great Basin from the Blacks Fork drainage of the Green River. Cross Elizabeth Pass and drive another 5 miles, passing Fish Lake, to the Lyman Lake junction. Turn right here (south, then west) back along the river. Follow this rocky road (eroded in spots but usually passable for two-wheel-drive vehicles) about 4.5 miles to a major river crossing. Park here to begin the hike. DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 55 A4. 

Trailhead GPS: 40.927774, -110.619778

The Hike

The West Fork Blacks Fork River is a superb journey into the northwestern portion of the High Uintas Wilderness. This drainage is replete with moose, mule deer, elk, small mammals and raptors. The hike offers level traversing of lush meadowlands, a survey of rich wildlife habitat, and an ascent into the alpine lakes and ponds for which the Uintas are famous. This is the High Uintas at its finest.

The hike is gentle, about 11 miles (and about 1,600 feet of elevation gain) from the trailhead to Dead Horse Lake — a popular destination below the Uinta backbone. Plan to spend two to four days in the upper drainage in order to explore it fully. The upper meadows, the alpine potholes on the high western ledge and below Dead Horse Lake, and the lake itself offer the finest Uintas scenery.

The hike begins at about 9,300 feet and climbs slowly along a jeep trail for 4.5 miles to Buck Pasture at 9,700 feet. The trail begins on the east side of the river and then makes several crossings before passing the wilderness boundary and reaching the long meadow. Several pothole lakes lie to the west of Buck Pasture.

The trail follows the river’s course through a series of rich meadows and offers superb scenery of the high ridgelines paralleling the river. The ridgeline exceeds 11,000 feet to the east and west, with 12,557-foot Mount Beulah to the southwest of Buck Pasture and 12,108-foot Red Knob and 13,165-foot Tokewanna Peak to the southeast. Forests of lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and eventually spruce harbor deer, elk, pine martens, goshawks, and other interesting wildlife species. Moose are common and can be seen leaving the willows for the forest each evening. This drainage is also grazed by domestic sheep under an approved grazing permit. These sheep bands follow a regulated schedule, so hikers can find out where they are on a particular weekend and plan their visit accordingly. Grazing in the wilderness by domestic livestock is an allowed activity under the Wilderness Act.

Once you reach Buck Pasture, Dead Horse Lake is another 6.5 miles. Here the rugged Uinta spine looms to the south more than 1,000 feet above. Water abounds in the West Fork drainage, and campsites are readily available. Use of a stove when camping not only makes your presence less noticeable to future hikers, but also increases your chances of seeing moose near the river. 

Miles and Directions 

0.0       Start at the major ford of the West Fork Blacks Fork River, south of Lyman Lake.

4.5       Reach Buck Pasture.

11.0     Arrive at Dead Horse Lake.

22.0     Retrace your steps to arrive at the trailhead. 

Options: From Dead Horse Pass at just under 11,600 feet, high above its namesake lake, you can drop to the south into the head of Fall Creek (by way of Ledge and Phinney Lakes) and Rock Creek (by way of Lightning, Helen, Triangle, and Reconnaissance Lakes), thus exploring the very head of the South Slope drainage. Allow several more days to see this spectacular alpine country.

Another side trip is the route along the Highline Trail, out of the east side of the head basin, over to the East Fork Blacks Fork. This spectacular route passes between Red Knob and 13,219-foot Mount Lovenia. Allow an additional day for this trip.