The Uinta Mountains in northern Utah include some of the most rugged terrain in the state. With many peaks topping 13,000 feet, and one of the largest contiguous areas above timberline in the lower 48 states, this is a land of extremes. The Uintas are also the highest east-west range in the contiguous U.S.
Naturalist Basin, a broad valley full of dense forests, alpine meadows, and numerous lakes in the western Uintas, is an attractive summer hiking destination. A day hike into Naturalist Basin is rewarding, but the size of the area and its variety of great campsites invite visitors to stay a few days to explore. While fairly popular, the basin’s wide expanse of varied terrain and many lakes make it possible to find solitude most of the time. Loop hikes of 12 to more than 20 miles are possible, so planning to spend three to five days here will be ideal for most experienced hikers. You can also add extensions along the Highline Trail, or take a half a day to climb Mount Agassiz from Blue Lake. Located just north, Spread Eagle Peak (12,540 feet) can also be reached from Naturalist Basin by a scrambling route up the southwest ridge.
Naturalist Basin is surrounded on three sides by high peaks and rugged, rocky ridgelines. The most prominent nearby peak, Mount Agassiz (12,428 feet) sits to the northwest of the basin. The mountain is named for Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss-American naturalist, and most of the lakes you’ll find in Naturalist Basin are named after his students at Harvard and Cornell. Many of these students also became well-known naturalists and scientists, including Joseph LeConte, David Star Jordan, Nathaniel Shaler, Alpheus Packard, Addison Emory Verrill, and Charles Walcott.
To reach Naturalist Basin, the most direct route begins at the Highline Trailhead. From the south end of the parking area the trail descends to the south to a junction with the trail to Mirror Lake at about three-quarters of a mile. Stay left to continue on the Highline Trail heading southeast. The trail passes Scudder Lake about 2 miles from the trailhead, then arrives at a trail junction in another mile. A spur trail to the south leads to Wilder Lake, Wyman Lake, and Packard Lake. Stay on the Highline Trail for another 1.2 miles, reaching an intersection with the trail to Naturalist Basin. The Highline Trail continues to the right; stay left and north to reach Naturalist Basin.
Follow the trail northeast as it ascends gradually through a dense forest of Engelmann spruce, much of it showing the effects of bark beetles that have killed many trees throughout the Uintas in recent years. Lack of regular fires and insufficiently cold winters have allowed the beetle populations to soar. Woodpeckers, one of the species that benefits from the abundance of standing dead trees, are abundant in these woods. Along this stretch you might easily miss Verrill Lake, a small lake hidden in the trees just north of the trail.
You’ll reach the next trail intersection at an open meadow where rugged quartzite cliffs appear to the north and a stream flows south from the meadow. This is the edge of Naturalist Basin. Cross the stream and continue northeast to reach Jordan Lake (10,625 feet) in another mile. This lake is a popular fishing spot, as is Morat Lakes (10,757 feet), located in the other direction about a mile northwest of the junction. The trail to Jordan Lake passes a spur (right, east) to Evermann Lake (10,520 feet).
From Jordan Lake a faint trail continues to the upper end of the basin where you’ll find more lakes, more rugged and open alpine terrain, and fewer other hikers. The trail ascends the rocky slope to the east of Jordan Lake to Shaler Lake (10,920 feet). The route curves northwest to Faxon Lake (10,946 feet), then continues east, passing LeConte Lake (10,925 feet), Walcott Lake, and Blue Lake (10,945 feet). Blue Lake is the easiest starting point for a side trip up to Mount Agassiz. The trail then descends from Blue Lake, passing Morat Lakes and returning to the trail junction at the open meadow.
Naturalist Basin is most popular as a summer and fall hiking destination. Early spring visitors may encounter unconsolidated snow and muddy campsites. Later in the fall the crowds thin, but be sure to bring plenty of layers; most of the basin is above 10,000 feet, so the nights can be quite chilly. Whichever of the many trails, peaks, or lakes you explore, Naturalist Basin has something for everyone.