If solitude is what you seek, look no further than Milk Lake. Located deep in the High Uintas Wilderness, this little gem is far off the beaten path for most backcountry travelers.
The hike to Milk Lake requires multiple days to complete and is only suitable for adults in excellent physical condition with above average backcountry navigation skills. This hike is not recommended for children.
The best trailhead for accessing Milk Lake is the Swift Creek Trailhead (40.601291,-110.347587) located near the confluence of Yellowstone Creek and Swift Creek, approximately 30 miles north of Duchesne, Utah. Access is on a combination of paved and gravel roads and should be passable to most passenger vehicles under normal conditions.
- From Duchesne, take SR 87 north for approximately 15.6 miles to the signed turnoff to Moon Lake at 21000 West.
- Follow 21000 West towards Moon Lake for approximately 8 miles before turning right onto a dirt road.
- This short road crosses the Lake Fork River and connects to the Yellowstone Road on the other side. Turn left onto the Yellowstone Road and continue approximately 11.2 miles to the Swift Creek Campground and Trailhead.
There are pit toilets and a campground at the trailhead. There is also primitive camping in the vicinity.
The easiest route to Milk Lake is to hike directly up the Yellowstone Creek trail. This route is about 14 miles long one way. The Swift Creek route is a bit shorter but is more strenuous as it climbs steeply to the top of Bluebell Pass at over 11,600 feet.
The ideal path is to make a loop combining both routes. We recommend traveling counter-clockwise by ascending Swift Creek and descending Yellowstone Creeek, due to navigational difficulties near Bluebell Pass; however, if you need a night to acclimate to the altitude before the strenuous climb, going clockwise might be a better option. Combining both routes into a loop adds up to about 28 miles, not accounting for side trips.
For either route, the trail starts at the same place. Follow the trail east out of the Swift Creek Trailhead for about 0.25 mile to a well-constructed bridge over Swift Creek. On the other side, the trail splits left for Yellowstone Creek or right for Swift Creek.
Yellowstone Creek Route
The route along Yellowstone Creek is easier but far less interesting than Swift Creek. The majority of the trail is in thick forest along the edge of the Yellowstone Creek Gorge. The map would lead you to believe that the river is accessible for most of the route, but this is not the case. The trail is typically 100 feet or more above the river, leaving the water totally inaccessible from the trail. Depending on recent conditions, there are only a couple of small streams running across the trail, so you may go for miles without any access to water. Plan accordingly for yourself and any pets or animals you may be traveling with.
After about 12 miles of walking through the trees, at approximately 40.712459,-110.424271, the signed junction for Milk Lake appears on the right, and the trail begins to climb steeply through a set of switchbacks. Pay close attention as you approach the Milk Lake area as the trail can be hard to follow as it crosses in and out of high meadows. About 2 miles beyond the junction from the Yellowstone Creek Trail, you will arrive at the final turnoff to Milk Lake, which is now just 1/8 of a mile away.
Swift Creek Route
The Swift Creek route starts at the same trailhead but follows the Swift Creek trail up to the Farmers Lake area before crossing Bluebell Pass. The trail up Swift Creek can be quite steep and strenuous but is much more interesting than the Yellowstone Creek trail. There are several river crossings that may be hazardous, especially early in the year during high runoff. There are a multitude of lakes in the Swift Creek drainage worthy of exploration, making this area a much better mid-way camp than anything along the Yellowstone Creek Trail.
Aside from the possible high water crossings, the crux of the Swift Creek route is crossing Bluebell Pass at 11,630 feet (40.708897,-110.392084). Other than being steep and rocky, the trail up the east side of Bluebell Pass is not particularly difficult. The real difficulty is navigating the west side of the pass. The trail completely disappears, and several cliff bands stand in the way between the top of the pass and the meadows below. You’ll need excellent navigation skills here. Once in the meadows, the trail is identifiable by a few large cairns as it passes below the slope at the foot of the mountain. If you have trouble finding the trail, navigate to the west shore of Milk Lake, and you should find it. There is a signed junction about 1/8 mile west of the lake.
Good campsites can be found in the trees along the north shore of Milk Lake.
Depending on recent conditions, the lake may be full or have a large "bath tub" ring. The water level can fluctuate dramatically due to the old dam on the west end of the lake. Regardless, expect fair-to-good fishing for nice sized brook trout.
Rules and Regulations
- Most of this hike is within the boundaries of the High Uintas Wilderness.
- No motor vehicles or bicycles.
- Campsites must be at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, and other occupied campsites.
- Group size must not exceed 14 people and 15 head of stock.
- Pack out what you pack in.
- Only human waste can be buried. Bury it in a 6” deep cat hole.
- Campfires are allowed in most areas but are restricted within ¼ mile of many lakes, including all lakes in the upper Swift Creek drainage. Seasonal restrictions may also be in place. Before heading out, check with the US Forest Service for the most up to date rules and regulations.
- Avoid crossing high, exposed areas, such as Bluebell Pass, if weather is threatening. Afternoon thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence in the summertime and can roll in with little notice. Plan to travel early in the day and allow extra time to wait out storms as necessary. Lightning is the number one weather-related killer in the state of Utah and should be taken seriously.
- This hike requires multiple days to complete and is only suitable for adults in excellent physical condition with above average backcountry navigation skills. This hike is not recommended for children.