Outside of Utah, the Uinta Mountains are not well known. This mighty range that contains all of Utah’s 17 to 20 13ers, its largest wilderness area, is a place for solitude and high-alpine adventure.
There are few mountain ranges that can compete with the backcountry opportunities that the Uintas present. With the average peak around 12,000 feet, the Uintas have abundant above-tree-line terrain, the second most of any mountain range in the Lower 48. Thousands of lakes dot this alpine wilderness, as well as countless streams and meadows. Simply put, the Uinta Mountains are a haven for backpackers and serious backcountry enthusiasts.
The Red Castle Lakes area is arguably the most picturesque area in the Uintas. This area is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the Uintas due to the relatively mellow approach and stunning scenery. While most people backpack into this area to fish and enjoy the scenery, the Red Castle Lakes are also perfectly positioned to summit some of Utah’s 13ers, which is a peak-bagging trend that is slowly gaining popularity. Wilson Peak (13,070 feet) and Mount Powell (13,159 feet) are within reach of the lake, as well as Smiths Fork Pass, Garfield Basin, and Oweep Basin, creating tremendous opportunities for multi-day loop hikes.
To reach the Red Castle Lakes, drive to the China Meadows Trailhead and begin the long, mellow hike. The one-way distance to Lower Red Castle Lake is just under 10 miles with around 2,000 feet of climbing spread out over the 10 miles. The approach can be monotonous at times, but it features some incredible meadow and river scenery. Broadbent Meadow is massive and contains beautiful views of the Smiths Fork River. If you have time and a fly rod, this would be an excellent place to take a break and fish.
Once you get a glimpse of Red Castle Peak, the scenery and excitement will be able to take you to the lake. The views during the last few miles are simply surreal. Most people will camp at Lower Red Castle Lake, but if you have the time and energy, Red Castle Lake is about 2 miles and 500 feet above the lower lake, and it offers rugged views and above-tree-line camping.
From Red Castle Lake, summiting Wilson Peak is a real possibility and something that should be considered for the fit and adventurous. Ascend the scree and tundra to the obvious pass and then head up the ridge toward Wilson. There will be cliff bands that make the going slow and tedious and will push the hiker south toward Oweep and Garfield basins. The view from the summit of Wilson Peak is truly unique and awe-inspiring. From the summit, one can see almost all of Utah’s 13ers as well as the vast majority of the 460,000-acre High Uinta Wilderness. To summit Wilson Peak from China Meadows is 30 miles round trip and will take most people three days.
Whether it be fishing the high-alpine lakes, enjoying the scenery, or bagging some of Utah’s tallest peaks, the Red Caste Lakes area is a must-visit for backcountry enthusiasts.