Hanging with Sean’s Elk Party in the Uinta’s Grandaddy Basin

I had barely turned 18 when I made the decision to leave my small, Montana town of 4,000 people and pursue an education in Salt Lake City, which has a metro population of 1,000,000.  It was a time in my life that I was unsure of who I was becoming or where my life was headed.  A particular quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “life is a journey, not a destination” caught my attention.  I found comfort in this idea and it reassured me that my time spent in Salt Lake would be a life changing learning experience, regardless of me accomplishing my intended goals of completing a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.

This weekend’s adventure was a perfect example of Emerson’s idea.  We spent three days backpacking through Grandaddy Basin in the Uintas, some of the most beautiful country in America, with glistening alpine lakes and towering fir.  Despite its serene beauty, what was more rewarding was the journey itself and more specifically the people encountered.

The Where:  Grandaddy Basin, Uintas, Utah.  90 miles east of Salt Lake City.

The Scoop: The three days off over Labor Day weekend provided us with a perfect opportunity to travel a little farther than our typical weekend excursion.  We fell in love with the alpine lakes of the Uintas last Fall while backpacking Naturalist Basin and decided our three day weekend would be best spent backpacking Grandaddy Basin, just south of Naturalist Basin.  We had considered spending our time in Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Tetons, but concluded the parks would be swarming with tourists on the holiday weekend and hoped the Uintas would be a little less crowded.  

After sleeping in Saturday morning and a two hour drive along the ever-winding Highway 35 we finally reached Grandview Trailhead at 1030.  The weather forecast had predicted thunder and lightening storms, rain, and nearly freezing temperatures in the high Uintas over Labor Day weekend.  Most backpackers would be disappointed with this weather; however, we were excited in the idea that it might discourage other hikers from venturing out, leaving the basin all to ourselves.  Sure enough, there were monstrous black storm clouds and high winds at the trailhead.  Despite the intimidating weather, the parking lot was packed!  Horse trailers, pickups, and SUVS lined the gravel lot, leaving only two open parking spaces.  What a bust, we thought, crappy weather AND gobs of backpackers.  

At Grandview Trailhead, photo credit to Mike

While adjusting our packs and lacing our boots, a Forest Service ranger approached us.  Great, we thought, what rules had we broke before even starting our hike.  The ranger asked us if we knew about the weather and if we had the appropriate gear.  Through small talk, we quickly realized the ranger wasn’t there to issue a citation, but rather provide us with information and make sure we were safe.  The ranger, whose name we learned was Mike, had spent the entire week camped at the trailhead giving out hiking information.  He took the time to point out the best camping spots on the map and where to find wild blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and whortleberries.  Neither of us knew what a whortleberry was, so Mike scrambled up a bank and picked us a few of the small, red berries for us to sample.  They were delicious.  He later noticed us trying to set up the camera for a trailhead “selfie”.  Shaking his head laughing, he said that it was his job to take those pictures.  He snapped a picture of us at the trailhead and sent us on our way.

On the east bank of Betsy Lake, trying to stay dry
On the east bank of Betsy Lake, trying to stay dry

Not ten minutes into our hike it began hailing. Pea sized hail stones combined with high winds stung our exposed faces and hands.  We quickly put on our rain jackets and covered our backpacks with our brand new waterproof backpack covers and continued hiking.  As inconvenient as the weather was, we found humor in it.  We have never, ever been backpacking together without rain or snow.  Soon enough we found ourselves at Grandaddy Lake, the first of many lakes within the basin.  As much as we wanted to set up camp to get out of the weather, we decided to push on to avoid the many campers around the lake.  We continued hiking for about another mile and found ourselves on the north side of Betsy Lake, a long, narrow lake lined with pine and fir.  As beautiful as the lake was we wanted to hike a little further to Mohawk Lake, which we hoped would have minimal campers.  We hiked for about a quarter mile and found ourselves looking at a swampy pond.  This lake was nothing compared to Betsy, so we turned around and set up camp on the north bank of Betsy Lake.  Later at camp while looking at a map, we realized we hadn’t actually reached Mohawk Lake earlier, but a small pond instead.  How embarrassing.  We vowed to visit the real Mohawk Lake first thing in the morning.  

Our campsite, complete with tarp, log, and kitchen area

Our campsite was located about 400 feet from the north bank of Betsy Lake on a flat piece of ground, protected by tall pine.  The perfect campsite with a beautiful view.  The hail had let up, and we took advantage of the break in weather by setting up a tarp in the trees to act as an extra barrier to our delicate, ultralight tent and provide an area out of the elements to cook and change clothes.  After setting up the campsite we ate our favorite turkey and cheddar sandwiches and read books in the tent to avoid the cold weather.  After a much needed nap we cooked dinner (Backpackers Pantry Pad Thai, another hiking favorite) and shared a to-go size box of wine before bed.  I realize saying “sharing a box of wine” makes us sound like complete alcoholics.  The liquor store sells juice box sized wine containers (about 3 glasses of wine) perfect for backpacking!  We had some of the worst sleep we’ve experienced backpacking that night.  Between temperatures in the low thirties, wind blowing through the tent, and the tarp crinkling in the wind, sleep was nearly impossible.

Running into Bridgett
Running into Bridgett

We were happy to get out of the tent when the sun rose the next morning and stretch in its warmth.  We made a quick breakfast of oatmeal and tea/coffee and started our goal of hiking around the entire basin and seeing each lake.  As promised, we hiked to Mohawk Lake first.  The real Mohawk Lake was much more spectacular than the swampy pond we had mistaken it for the previous day.  Not only was the lake much larger, but it even had sandy beaches!  Next we headed north to Fish Hatchery Lake.  Along the trail we came up behind two backpackers, who were walking slower than us due their heavy packs.  As they stepped to the side to let us pass I couldn’t help but notice the girl looked familiar, I assumed she must be someone I knew from Facebook or some sort of social media but never met in person and kept walking.  As Ali passed the backpackers she did a double take but kept walking.  Two steps later, Ali stopped, turned around and asked Bridgett?!  The hiker asked Ali!?  Sure enough, this familiar looking backpacker was Bridgett, Ali’s friend from middle school.  Bridgett was also spending the long weekend backpacking through Grandaddy Basin with her boyfriend Matt.  We were all excited to run into someone we knew on the trail.  We hiked with Bridgett and Matt for a few miles and caught up on jobs, school, and life events.  They decided to set up camp near Pine Island Lake.  We said our goodbyes and kept hiking, still excited by the fact of running into a friend.  We hiked north for another two miles before discovering Governor Dern Lake where we had lunch.  Next we started hiking south around the loop and found Rainbow Lake and Lost Lake.  Every lake was just as beautiful as the next and we were appreciative that the weather was sunny with temperatures in the high fifties.  After hiking the entire Grandaddy basin, a total of 8.5 miles we found ourselves back at camp where we made Ramen for a snack and read our books on the lake shore.  

During dinner that night we had several visitors wander through our camp.  The first were two young, male backpackers carrying full size shovels.  Ali and I looked at each other with concern.  We had never had other hikers approach us at our camp, and certainly not ones carrying shovels.  What were they doing with the shovels? The worst of thoughts filled my mind.  Were they going to hit us over the head and bury our bodies where no one would ever find them?  As the men approached we noticed the Forest Service logos on their hats and shirts.  I felt a wave of relief.  The two rangers were checking in on neighboring campsites and using the shovels to put out any fires that were too close to the water.  They were surprised that we were two female backpackers and were eager to offer us help with camp and supplies.  “We’re camped just over the hill if you need anything”, they called out as they were leaving.  
Not twenty minutes later, three different men carrying fishing poles and beer cans entered our camp.  “Are you girls any good at fishin’”, one of the men asked.  We explained we were only backpacking and not any good at fishing.  We spent the next few minutes discussing the weather, the horses they rode in on, and our campsites.  As the men wandered back to their campsite, they yelled out “come over for a beer later!”  We thanked them for the invite but explained we would be going to bed early.  We got into our tent and finished our remaining wine.  We sat in the tent staring at eachother blankly.  Our blank stares quickly turned into grins.  Our buzzed minds were both thinking the same thing.  We were out of wine and the fishermen had beer and a warm fire.  Screw it, we said, they seem harmless enough.  So we scrambled out of tent and made our way through the thick forest in hopes of finding their camp.  Sure enough, about a quarter mile through the woods near an opening to a meadow we saw their fire blazing and their tents standing near it.  As we approached the camp we realized there weren’t just the three men we had met earlier but nine scruffy men sitting on logs around the fire.  What had we gotten ourselves into.  This was definitely a mistake.  We were close enough to their camp where we couldn’t turn around, they had already seen us.  As we neared the fire, every man jumped up with his hand outstretched and happily shook our hands introducing himself.  I’m Sean, it’s nice of you ladies to join us…I’m Brady, nice to meet you….I’m Shelby…we were flooded with countless names and greetings.  After shaking every single hand, bottles of Pendleton Whiskey and Crown Royal were thrown into our laps.  Ali and I looked at each other, and with the same screw it attitude that got us into this mess, we each took a pull of whiskey straight from the bottle.

Us with Sean's Elk Party
Us with Sean’s Elk Party

 Almost as if proving ourselves or a right of passage the men cheered and laughed.  The party was officially started. We later learned that half of the men were from Dallas, Texas and were in Utah to hunt elk with the leader of the group, Sean.  Most of the men worked in construction or some sort of trade, creating the cliche rough around the edges image.  Never have I been surrounded by a group of more hilarious and kind men.  Story after story was shared around the fire and each one left the group dying with laughter and Ali and I in tears from laughing so hard.  One of the hunters, a portly man, shared that he was impressed that Ali and I had managed to backpack so many miles in.  He said, “I tried hiking in, hell I was keeping up with the horses for a minute, till next thing I knew, my legs were cramping up and I was laying on the ground in the middle of the trail with my feet sticking straight up in the air.  Next thing I know some fit hiker comes blazing up the trail, with a kid on his back!  A kid on his back!  And I’m laying there yelling ‘take me next!”.  It was stories like this that left basin echoing with our laughter.  After a few Bud Lights Ali and I were ready to check out the supposed horses their rode in on.  Sure enough, in the meadow were thirteen horses tied to a long rope.  The men joked that we could pet each horse if we wanted to.  Gladly, we took them up on their offer and petted each horse like silly girls.  Between the beers and my cockiness I accepted a challenge to ride a horse bareback.  

Riding bareback like a true Montanan
Riding bareback like a true Montanan

“I’m from Montana, I claimed, “its in my blood!”  I got a running start through the meadow and with all my might jumped onto the horse.  To my surprise, I had made it safely onto the horse.  I grabbed the mane and proceeded to trot around the open meadow in the darkness.  Soon enough, the excitement of riding bareback wore off and we returned to their camp to warm up around the fire and snack on Oreos.  Although we were having the best of times sharing stories and laughing we all decided it was time for everyone to get to bed because of the early morning awaiting each of us.  Two of the men offered to walk us back to our camp.  It was dark and we were unfamiliar with the woods, so we took them up on their offer.  

Two hours after Ali and I had fallen into a deep sleep I was suddenly awoken by a voice outside the tent.  “Are you girls awake?  Did you see where our friends went?”  I was still half asleep and completely confused as to why the men had returned.  As much as I had trusted the men earlier that night, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat scared by waking up to their voices outside the tent.  I explained the men had left right after walking us back to camp.  The voice revealed that the men still hadn’t returned to camp after two hours and they were afraid they were lost or hurt.  The men flashed a light around our camp in hopes of finding their friends then proceeded to search through the woods yelling out sporadic “whoooos”.  I found it strange that they kept yelling “whoooo” rather than the missing men’s names.  While listening to the men yell for the friends and watching their lights flash around the basin I became worried for the missing men. How could they have gotten lost?  What if they were hurt?  What if a bear or mountain lion had attacked them?  Surely they would be found with all of the yelling?  An hour later I could no longer hear the voices and drifted asleep.  The next morning I explained the whole fiasco to Ali, who had somehow managed to sleep through the entire thing.  While eating breakfast three of men came to our camp, fishing poles in hand.  I asked what had happened to their friends and if they were found.  The leader said, “We searched and searched all night long and were never able to find them.  They still haven’t made it back to camp, so we’re just going to go fishing until the Forest Service shows up to help look for them.”  We stared at them completely stunned.  How had they gone missing so easily?  Something was definitely wrong and the men were most likely hurt.  “Nah, I’m just messing with you girls!” said the leader, “those two dumbasses got lost and had to spend the night in the woods huddled up next each other around a little fire they built.  They wandered back into camp this morning when the sun came up.”  Relieved, we laughed with the group, but we still couldn’t figure out how they had got lost in that short quarter mile stretch of woods.  

gdrainbowWe finished packing up our camp and started our hike back to civilization.  On our way out we ran into the two Forest Service rangers we had met the day before carrying the shovels.  We waved to them at their camp and they yelled out “did you girls hear that yelling last night!?  It sounded like someone was lost?”  We explained the situation but the rangers still looked annoyed that someone had disturbed their sleep.  “We had reports of the yelling all the way from Mohawk Lake to Grandaddy Lake.  And what we couldn’t figure out was why they kept yelling ‘whoooo’, why not yell their names?”  We laughed and said you would have to the group of guys to understand.  After what felt like the longest miles of our lives, we finally made it back to the Jeep waiting for us.

gdgovGrandaddy Basin truly has some of the most spectacular scenery we have hiked.  The Uintas contain thousands of lakes amid dense forests.  Despite this beauty, the friendships made and human encounters were most memorable.  Emerson said it best ” life is a journey, not a destination”.  And the friends made along this journey are invaluable.  We will never forget the kindness shown by the Forest Service ranger, Mike, or the time he took picking whortleberries for us.  Running into Bridgett and Mike and sharing laughs was the highlight of our afternoon hike.  And lastly, the stories shared, riding bareback, and tears of laughter shed with Sean’s Elk Party will never be forgotten.

The Grub: After three days of backpacking we were ready for a burger and beer, as always.  Defa’s Cafe conveniently awaits hungry hikers and campers just five miles from Grandview trailhead.  The cafe is part of Defa’s Dude Ranch, which has cabins, RV parking, horseback riding, a saloon, and dancing.  The cafe itself is pretty rundown looking with creaky screen doors and uneven flooring, but the friendliness of its staff and delicious burgers are unbeatable.  We both ordered cheeseburgers, Ali’s with mashed potatoes (her favorite) and mine with fries.  Menu items consisted of burgers, sandwiches, and steaks, all with reasonable prices.  If we are ever in the area again we will be certain to stop at Defa’s for a burger.

The Red Tape:  No permits are needed to hike or camp in Grandaddy basin.  However, there are several camping and fire regulations.  Campsites are not permitted within 200 feet of trails, water, or other campsites.  Fires are not allowed within 1/4 mile of water.  The road leading up the the trailhead is a narrow and steep gravel road.  High clearance vehicles are recommended.  Lastly, expect crowds in July and August, especially over holiday weekends.  Crowds can be avoided by hiking further into the basin and camping at Governor Dern, Rainbow, or Lost Lakes.

The map we used to hike around the basin
The map we used to hike around the basin


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