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Running to Red Castle Lakes - in ONE Day!

Red Castle Lakes is one of the most popular areas in the High Uintas Wilderness due to its remote beauty that not only attracts hikers, backpackers, and fishermen but also runners!

About

Reaching Red Castle Lakes has two different trails to choose from – the East Fork Smiths Fork via China Meadows (this blog post) OR the East Fork Blacks Fork trail via Bald Mountain. The first option is the most popular and follows the river all the way to its source. It is very well maintained but follows a marsh (meadow) for the first 8 miles. Because of its lower altitude and the way the valley sits, large sections of this trail cut through very wet and muddy sections.
Horses also use this route, so the trail gets in really rough shape especially after a rainstorm or on a heavy-use weekend. You will be hiking through trees the entire time which is great for shade, but not for views.
 
This particular route to Red Castle Lakes goes through part of a larger marsh so the mosquitoes in summer are some of the worst in the entire Uintas range. Elk, coyotes, deer, and moose love this area as well because of this – plenty to eat and drink! Dogs are allowed off-leash, but it is wise to always have a leash handy in case you come across wildlife.
The Bald Mountain route, on the other hand, is more strenuous. It begins at East Fork Blacks Fork (also known as the Cache Trailhead in some guides) and climbs over Bald Mountain before dropping down into the Red Castle Basin, gaining 2,959 ft. Both trails become within 1/4 mile of each other, yet the elevation gain and different starting points will ultimately force the hiker to choose a route.

The best time of year to hike/backpack in this area is late Summer through Fall. 

Directions

It’s easiest to use this link and have Google Maps guide you. From SLC it’s about a 3-hour drive.

Trail Info

Distance: 24 RT
Elevation gain: 1,900 ft
Time: 8 -10 hours, or minimum 1-night backpack
Dog friendly? Yes, off leash
Kid-friendly? Yes, ages 10+
Fees/Permits? There is a $5/day fee to park at the TH, no permit is required

FAQs

Where can I camp?

There are two campgrounds nearby. The one literally right at the TH is the “Trail Head Campground“. It’s $18/night but only first come, first serve, with 9 sites. In the high season (June – Sept.) it’s often difficult to get a spot here unless you come mid-week. You can also camp 3/4 mile away at the “China Meadows Campground“, which is reservable 6 months out here. Because I wanted to make sure we had a campsite, I reserved my spot 6 months to the day we would arrive. So for arrival on August 19, I made the reservation on February 19th. This campground only has 9 spots and they go quick so make sure to get your reservation several months in advance. It is also $18/night. The third option is to drive down a dirt road and camp at a spot that has already been used (do NOT create new campsites where ever you want), however, there won’t be any amenities (table, fire ring, port-a-potty, etc) and there’s no guarantee the roads will be in good shape or that you can easily find a spot in the high season.

When is the best time to hike this?

The best time of year to hike/backpack in this area is late Summer through Fall. Late August is my personal favorite because the mosquitos are mostly gone, kids are back to school so it’s much quieter with fewer people, and daytime temps are much cooler!

Do I need a 4×4 vehicle to reach the trailhead?

No, the road is well graded, however, there are many potholes. 4×4 is not required but a higher clearance car like an SUV will make the drive more enjoyable. Small cars will have to go quite slow due to some rocks, but it is doable.

 

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

I was so excited to start that I forgot to get a photo of the actual TH and parking lot! Thankfully the High Uintas sign was only about 10 minutes into the actual hike.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

It rained the entire previous night so the trail was quite mushy and wet. But, blue skies were starting to appear!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

At mile 1.5 cross the first bridge.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

One of my favorite sections – a long stretch of the Uintas boardwalk. These are so fun to run on! But be aware of nails sticking out, especially with kids and dogs.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

AT mile 3.5 you will see what looks to be a cattle fence, but the actual gate is missing.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Mile 4.5, the first trail split for Red Castle Lakes. Stay right.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

For this particular day, we used two ZOLEO’s – one for myself as usual, but then we borrowed another for my partner to have at camp so that we could communicate. There is zero cell service in the area so having some sort of satellite communicator is key. We were able to text each other all day so I could let him know how I was doing for my big run! The ZOLEO has a 200-hour battery life, so we both felt comfortable just leaving them turned on all day.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

One of the worst sections of the trail – about a 2 mile-long stretch of just a muddy, wet mess. It’s hard to tell in this photo, but there are very few rocks and logs to use to hop across without getting your shoes wet. I didn’t take many pictures during this section of the trail because I was trying not to fall into mud holes. Yuck!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Finally at mile 7.7 you will cross the next bridge and the trail greatly improves. This is where you will also be able to see Red Castle for the first time!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

The sun was still shining, and I was so happy to have a dry section of trail.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

You will then hike up 3-4 switchbacks. They are long, so they are not very steep.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

A creek crossing with Red Castle sticking out in the distance behind the trees. Almost there!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

But first, I had to stop and check out the waterfall!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

You will see this major trail split. Stay right and high! I took the lower trail on the way back and it was awful – wet, muddy, and tracked out bad from horses and sheep.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

It’s hard to get good pics when you are by yourself, but I make it work with rocks to prop up my GoPro on!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Continuing further the dark clouds started to arrive.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

I made it just past this pond when the rain decided to arrive.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Rain, rain, go away! Oh well, I’m still smiling because I get to be outside!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

One last little climb before reaching Red Castle Lakes.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Now this is when the rain really started to come down. I had planned on getting to Upper Red Castle Lake and even possibly the pass, but the weather had other plans for me.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

I really wanted to hit 13.1 miles (so I could reach my 26.2 marathon goal), but at mile 12 I called it. The clouds started to drop more into the basin, and I knew that the last 1.5 miles would be a boulder field. I didn’t feel safe hiking through slick rocks by myself. The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees and the wind really picked up. I was frustrated, but also, I was at least glad to make it this far.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

One last pic at Red Castle Lakes before heading out!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Of course, as soon as I got out of the upper basin the sun appeared! But, can you see how wet the trail was? It was basically a stream, and I had to do my best to rock hop to keep my feet dry. It didn’t work very well.

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Finally, on the way back out, I got a few good miles of running in (except for the nasty 2-mile mud section), and I was so happy! What a day!

My overall distance was 24.5 and it took me 8 hours 22 minutes. I wasn’t going for speed, pace, or a certain time. My goal was simply to run Red Castle in a day and not feel like crap afterward. Goal achieved!

Red Castle Lakes, uintas

Once back at camp, more rain arrived but I was rewarded with a beautiful rainbow!

 

Videos

Watch the run!

What did I carry?

 

Trail Map

My track via Gaia GPS – the best tracking app! Get your app here for a discount.

 

Recommended Gear

 

Recommended Route

Hiking to Red Castle Lakes via Bald Mountain

Hiking to Red Castle Lakes via Bald Mountain

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