Location: Uintas, UT
Distance: 14.3 mi
Elevation Gain: 2125 ft
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Season: July - Sept

Backpacking Naturalist Basin

Commonly thought of as one of the crown jewels of the Uintas, Naturalist Basin is a fantastic overnight backpacking destination. Following the route we've described, you will see nine different lakes, one waterfall, and plenty of expansive views. It doesn't come without a price though. Because of its popularity, this trip is more suited to someone looking for great views rather than to one seeking solitude. Still, once you actually get to the basin (past Jordan Lake), you can feel pretty isolated while you soak in all of those epic views.

The Trailhead

Start at the Hayden Pass trailhead located about 3 driving miles from Mirror Lake off of Mirror Lake Highway (Highway 150). The route is an out-and-back so this trailhead will serve as the start and end to your trip.

Start of the trailhead
Start of the trailhead

Below Tree Line

The first 6.4 miles of this route are below tree line and can get pretty crowded near the beginning so be patient. Starting at the Hayden pass trailhead, you will descend gradually for 1.2 miles. 1.7 miles into the trail you will come upon the Scudder Lake Trail junction. The main trail (Highline Trail) goes right past the lake (and is visible from it), but take the side trail if you want a closer look of the lake. From this junction on will be gradually uphill until you get to the basin shelf.

The trail actually descends at the start
The trail actually descends at the start
Heading toward a dry lake
Heading toward a dry lake
Crossing a log just for the hell of it
Crossing a log just for the hell of it

Bottom of the Basin

At 5 miles, you will reach another junction that forms a loop. Heading west will take you toward Morat Lakes, while heading east will lead you to Jordan Lake. I believe the better option is to head toward Jordan Lake for a few reasons:

Erminia at a creek near the junction
Erminia at a creek near the junction
On the way to Jordan Lake!
On the way to Jordan Lake!
And there is Jordan Lake!
And there is Jordan Lake!

Once you get to the eastern edge of Jordan Lake, you will start the 240 ft ascent to the shelf of Naturalist Basin. This is the toughest part of the hike but is definitely doable for fit hikers.

On the Basin Shelf

At the top of the shelf, the trail will grow more and more faint until it eventually disappears altogether. However, because you are above tree line now, navigation shouldn't be too much of an issue. In addition, because this part is all off-trail, you will encounter noticeably fewer people. Even though it adds some distance, I strongly recommend heading northeast toward Shaler Lake. This tucked away lake feels very isolated and offers fantastic camping spots with views of the valley below to the south and Spread Eagle Peak to the north.

Climbing to the top of the shelf
Climbing to the top of the shelf
Reaching Shaler Lake
Reaching Shaler Lake
Shaler Lake is home to some expansive terrain and dramatic skies
Shaler Lake is home to some expansive terrain and dramatic skies
Hell yeah!
Hell yeah!
Sunset at Shaler Lake
Sunset at Shaler Lake
Clearish skies give way to amazing stars
Clearish skies give way to amazing stars
Dwarfed by stars
Dwarfed by stars
With a view of Shaler Lake
With a view of Shaler Lake

A short walk northwest from here will connect you to the long Faxon Lake. West of this lake are LeConte Lake (also great camping) and, finally, Blue Lake. Blue Lake is dwarfed by the 12,428 ft Mount Agassiz Peak. Ironically, Blue Lake is actually not the most blue lake on this hike. As you head south from Blue Lake, you will be brought to a gorgeous view of the bluer Morat Lakes. You will also see a cascading waterfall here that adds to the dramatic views.

Passing LeConte Lake
Passing LeConte Lake
Blue Lake looking not so blue
Blue Lake looking not so blue
Pond near Blue Lake
Pond near Blue Lake
View of Morat Lakes
View of Morat Lakes
With a waterfall for good measure
With a waterfall for good measure

Descend the rocky and steep trail down to the Morat Lakes. Following the trail further will take you to the loop junction again. Return 5.1 miles the way you came.

Conclusion

Despite the crowds at the beginning of the trail, Naturalist Basin shelf feels surprisingly isolated. I really enjoyed spending time on the shelf and exploring all the different lakes up there. If you are looking for a quick and scenic overnighter, backpacking Naturalist Basin offers a great adventure.

Conservation:

Permit:

Ah yeah, no permit is needed on this trip!

Logistics:

Be sure to bring:

  • Rain jacket and warm clothing. The Uintas are known for having moody weather. On our last morning of this trip (in August), we woke up to cold pouring rain, had clear sunny skies during our hike out, and experienced rain again as we were leaving the parking lot.
  • Bug spray. The Uintas are home to a lot of mosquitoes.

Hazards Include:

  • Thunderstorms, lightning, sudden changes in weather. Don't be surprised to have totally different weather in the afternoon / evening from the morning.

Season:

With snow commonly lingering into end of June, shoot for July - September for the best weather in the Uintas.

Current Conditions:

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Hi, I'm Nick - a backpacker living in Salt Lake City, UT who happily spends way too much time scouring Google Maps in search of the best backpacking adventures. I share my experiences of these trips with you via guides and trip reports that are filled with information I wish I'd known ahead of time. If you would like to see these continue, you can help support the site by sharing this page through the social links below. It makes a big difference, and I really appreciate it.