Naturalist Basin
(High Uintas Wilderness Area)

excerpts from the book
Utah's Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day

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Distance: 17.6 miles (round trip)

Walking time:
     day 1: 5 hours
     day 2: 5 3/4 hours

Elevations: 1,370 ft. gain/loss
     Highline Trailhead (start): 10,350 ft.      
     Jordan Lake: 10,630 ft.
     Faxon Lake: 10,980 ft.

Trail: Naturalist Basin is a very popular destination, and the trails to the lower part of the basin are well maintained. A small portion of this hike, however, is in the upper part of the basin where there are no trails. The upper basin is all above timber line and the route is easy, but you should carry a compass.

Season: Midsummer to mid-fall. Because of its high elevation, Naturalist Basin is usually covered with snow from mid-November until July. For current conditions call the Kamas Ranger District, Wasatch-Cache National Forest, at (435) 783-4338.

Vicinity: The High Uintas Wilderness Area

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     The High Uintas are famous for their gorgeous alpine basins, but none of them can beat the memorable scenery of Naturalist Basin. In my opinion, this small collection of lakes and meadows, nestled together against the southern slopes of Mount Agassiz and Spread Eagle Peak, is the crown jewel of the High Uintas Wilderness Area. Unfortunately, Naturalist Basin is also one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the High Uintas, so if you are looking for solitude you had better choose another hike. But most hikers tend to congregate around Jordan Lake and the Morat Lakes, where the best fishing can be found, so if you are willing to camp elsewhere it is still possible to enjoy a measure of privacy.
     Few hikers venture onto the upper plateau of Naturalist Basin, where 2.5 miles of this hike are located. Five icy lakes cling tenaciously to the talus slopes in the top of the basin, just below the 11,000-foot contour line and just above timberline. Hiking across the stark, sparsely vegetated terrain that separates the small lakes can be an almost otherworldly experience. It is an environment where most life ceases to exist during the wintertime, but during the two or three months of summer a few dormant species suddenly burst forth to quickly mature and reproduce before the arctic cold again forces them into submission. By the end of July, after most of the snow has melted, the thin, rocky soil is usually covered with a colorful carpet of tiny blossoms as the hardy plants begin another cycle of their precarious existence.

Day 1
     From the Highline Trailhead the trail meanders gradually downhill through a forest of Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine. At the higher elevations the forest is almost entirely spruce, but more and more lodgepole pine begin to appear as elevation is lost. After walking for an hour you will see your first lake, Scudder Lake, glinting through the trees. This lake is popular with day hikers, although it is too shallow for good fishing. It can be accessed over a short spur that branches off to the right of the main trail.
     From Scudder Lake it is another half hour walk to the Packard Lake Trail junction. Once you reach this junction you are only 2.2 miles from Naturalist Basin, so unless you got off to a late start you will probably want to take a short side trip to see Wilder, Wyman, and Packard Lakes. They are all on the 1.4-mile-long Packard Lake Trail. There is also a nice view of the Uintas near the end of the trail. Packard Lake is situated only a hundred yards north of the rim of a 600-foot-deep canyon, in the bottom of which runs the East Fork of the Duchesne River.
     Back on the Highline Trail, 1.2 miles beyond the Packard Lake Trail, you will see a sign directing you to Naturalist Basin. Turn left here and proceed north. The path climbs very gradually for about a mile before emerging from the trees on the edge of a wide green meadow with the picturesque cliffs of the Uinta Crest behind it. From the scene in front of you, it should be immediately obvious that you are entering into a very special place.
     As you enter Naturalist Basin turn right, across the stream, and start looking for a camp site. If you want to camp by a lake you can try Jordan Lake, about 0.9 miles from the entrance. Jordan is the largest lake, but it is also the most popular. If there are no spaces available at Jordan, or if you want more privacy, then Everman Lake is your best bet. Everman is a beautiful place to camp only 0.7 miles from the entrance, but it is slightly off the main trail and many people don’t even know of its existence. Proceed eastward from the entrance of the basin, along the edge of the meadow, for about 0.5 mile until you reach a point where the trail crosses a small drainage, turns north, and starts climbing. Leave the main trail here and continue east along the drainage. You will run into Everman Lake within 0.2 mile.

Day 2
     Before leaving this beautiful spot be sure to visit the lakes in the upper part of the basin. The 4.6 mile tour around the basin’s 8 major lakes takes only 21/2 hours, and since it is a loop you can leave your backpack in camp. The route is easy, but there is no trail so you should have a compass.
     Continue on the trail along the southern side of Jordan Lake until the trail disappears at the eastern end of the lake. From there you will have to do some minor scrambling to get to the top of the plateau above the lake. After you have gained about 200 feet in elevation the terrain levels off and the walking is easy. If you walk along a bearing 25 degrees east of magnetic north (slightly east of Spread Eagle Peak), for about fifteen minutes you will run right into Shaler Lake. There are very few trees at this elevation and your view is relatively unobstructed, so you can’t miss the lake.
     Next, Faxon Lake is almost due west of magnetic north from Shaler Lake, just to the left of a saddle on the ridge between Spread Eagle Peak and Mount Agassiz. It is only 0.3 mile away, so you should be there in ten minutes. From Faxon it is easy to find LeConte, Walcott, and Blue Lakes. They are all situated at about the same elevation along a line at the base of the Uinta crest, so just follow the base of the ridge in an easterly direction towards Mount Agassiz and you will run into them in succession. Again, they are all less than 0.3 mile apart, so you don’t have to walk long.
     There are at least some fish in all of the upper lakes of Naturalist Basin, with the possible exception of Walcott Lake. There isn’t much to eat in these high lakes, however, so they cannot sustain a very large population of fish. It never ceases to amaze me how much difference a few hundred feet at these altitudes can make to an ecosystem. The difference in elevation between the upper and lower parts of Naturalist Basin is only 350 feet, yet their ecologies are worlds apart.
     From the south side of Blue Lake a primitive trail leads down to the twin Morat Lakes. The trail is vague at first, but soon becomes more distinct as it begins to descend into the lower basin. As you make the short descent you will be treated to a nice view of the two Morat Lakes, with the wide expanse of the Uintas below them. Thank goodness this magnificent land is now protected as a wilderness area. From Morat Lakes a good trail will take you the remaining 0.6 mile back to the bottom of the lower meadow, and from their you can easily retrieve your backpack for the walk back to the Highline Trailhead.

Four Lakes Basin
     For those who want to get farther away from civilization than Naturalist Basin and still enjoy the serenity of a beautiful basin on the south slopes of the Uinta crest, Four Lakes Basin provides a good alternative. The fishing is also excellent there-especially in Jean and Dean Lakes.
     To get to the Four Lakes Basin continue eastward on the Highline Trail for 2.8 miles beyond the junction with Naturalist Basin Trail. There you will come to another junction with the trail to Four Lakes Basin departing on the right. Turn south here, and after another 1.2 miles you will arrive at Jean Lake, the first of the basin’s four lakes. The total distance to Jean Lake from Naturalist Basin is 5.0 miles, one way, or from the Highline Trailhead it is 8.1 miles. The route is clearly marked with Forest Service signs.
     The best camp sites are at Dean Lake, immediately northeast of Jean at the base of the Uinta Crest. There is no proper trail to Dean Lake but it is easy to get to. Just walk along the southern shore of Jean for about 0.3 mile, and a few hundred feet beyond the eastern end of the lake you will come to Dean Lake. Both lakes are situated against the southern base of the Uinta Crest, about 1.5 miles south of the Rocky Sea Pass. The water is deeper along the north shore of the lakes; hence the chances of hooking a larger fish are better, but the fishing is also good on the more easily accessible south shore.
     If you feel like exploring, there is an old airplane crash a short way up the slope from the eastern end of Dean Lake. The unfortunate pilot was only about 500 feet too low to clear the ridge when he crashed. The other two lakes, Dale and Daynes, are another 0.5 miles south of Jean Lake on the east side of the main trail. There are a number of good camp sites around these two lakes as well, but they aren’t quite as scenic as Jean and Dean.

 

The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

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If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Naturalist Basin area, we recommend:
High Uintas Wilderness (Trails Illustrated, map #711)

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