High Uintas // Amethyst Lake and Middle Basin

Moonrise

Who: Just me!
What: Backpacking
When: 7/15/16-7/17/16
Where: High Uintas Wilderness
Mileage: 27 miles
Elevation gain/loss: +4,100ft/-4,100ft
More photos: here

I visited Park City Mathematics Institute (Princeton’s temporary IAS outpost in Utah) for three weeks in 2016 and took advantage of the weekends of my visit as an opportunity to explore the local mountains. I took two short trips, a 20 hour overnighter to Silver Glance in the Wasatch and this two nighter to Amethyst Basin and Middle Basin in the High Uintas Wilderness. I thought about doing a section of the Highline Trail, but I couldn’t make the logistics work with my limited days and transportation. Amethyst and Middle Basins provided beautiful alpine lakes and sculpted mountains, but I was a bit disappointed by the beetle-decimated forest, plethora of people, and more ‘skeeters than I’d ever encountered. Still, the beauty of the region was sublime, and it was glorious to see cliffs and ridges carved of rock other than the granite I’m so used to in the Sierra.

Day 1
Christmas Meadows Trailhead to Amethyst Lake
6 miles, +2,000ft/-50ft

I cut out from the meetings at noon on this Friday, so I missed an hour of our meeting, but I figured I’d paid my fair share of presence when others had skipped out for other commitments or interests, so I could be forgiven this. I thought it’d be a pretty easy and quick drive from Midway to the Christmas Meadows trailhead, but I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way (I blame Carly Rae Jepsen) and by the time I realized it, the shortest way to my destination was through goddamn Wyoming. I got to visit Wyoming I guess? I stopped at a gas station at some random town and there was a dire forecast of snow, but it seemed like that was for north and I was heading south, so I grabbed a bag of Bugles and set off again.

After passing some bales of hay artfully arranged as Minions, I finally made it to the trailhead around 3pm. Permits and registration for this trail aren’t subject to a quota, which is both a blessing and a curse. I signed in the register and set off on the trail.

Christmas Meadows Trailhead

The first bit of trail is pleasant enough, passing through forest and meadows. There is a beetle infestation in the Rockies and this area hasn’t managed to avoid the damage. The prevalence of dead trees definitely hindered my enjoyment of the forest :(

USFS trail bridge

After about three miles, the trail to Amethyst Basin and Amethyst Lake splits off to the left (east) from the main trail. Apparently this is a junction that a lot of people miss though I have no idea how that’s possible given the Goliath-sized cairn and clear sign nailed to a nearby tree in the direct line of sight. If you’re passing through here and you hit a creek crossing, you’ve missed this obvious junction, and actually you should probably just turn right around and head back to your car since you are probably too high to be hiking right now, buddy. Just have a rest over there for a bit and then head back the way you came—it’s real nice back in Christmas Meadows.

Junction to Amethyst Lake

I turned left, of course, since my destination was Amethyst Lake. From here, the trail starts climbing basically straight up, gaining 800 feet in less than a mile. Once again, my mind drifted to the Sierra Club projects that built those sweet switchbacks all over my beloved Range of Light. I guess Joseph Smith’s route to heaven is short and painful. After that ridiculously steep and unnecessarily trying ascent, the trail flattens out and opens up to a meadow before diving into the forest for one more short section.

Amethyst Lake trail

There were lots of lovely wildflowers and the trail was quite pleasant overall.

Paintbrush

Mountain Bluebells

Amethyst Lake trail

Amethyst Meadows

When I arrived at Amethyst Meadow, a few hundred feet below the lake, I encountered a family with six horses. I waited for mom to wrangle the herd over to the grass away from the trail so that I wouldn’t have to jump from a log crossing directly into the kick-zone of a dappled dunn. O_o

Horses!

Anyway there were more cool flowers, like this elephant head.

Elephant Head

After a bit more moderate climbing, the trail bends around to the left (north) and opens up enough to see the gorgeous cliffs surrounding the basin.

Meadows near Amethyst Lake

Meadows near Amethyst Lake

Meadows near Amethyst Lake

Meadows near Amethyst Lake

I could feel the lake before I could see it, and I happened upon several groups of campers already set up as I neared the lake. Some already had their fires going. It was about 6pm, so I figured I should try to find myself a spot to set up camp. I ended up finding a quite cozy spot close to the lake with a great view of the surrounding cliffs.

Camp at Amethyst Lake

Amethyst Lake

I set up camp and then took off to explore a bit. I wanted to get some water and see if I could find any nice places to take pictures. I ended up mostly getting eaten by mosquitos.

Amethyst Lake

Like HOLY HELL man, look at this swarm. You know that if they are showing up in photos that it must have been awful.

One MILLION mosquitos

Seriously, I have never encountered swarms as nasty as this. At least I had brought my bug liner for my tent, so after making dinner I just huddled in my tent and crashed as soon as the sun went down.

Day 2
Amethyst Lake to Ryder Lake and Middle Basin
11mi, +1,950ft/-1,800ft

In the morning, there was a breeze that made the glacial-green lake water choppy. I wandered around camp, heading here and there within about a half mile of my tent, trying to see what I could see in this basin. I was a little disappointed in my ability to capture the majesty of it—the basin is a bit small and steep, so it’s difficult to really faithfully recreate the feeling of the walls surrounding you on all sides. I guess you’ll just have to go and check it out yourself ;)

Camp at Amethyst Lake

Camp at Amethyst Lake

Camp at Amethyst Lake

Amethyst Lake

Amethyst Basin

Amethyst Basin

Amethyst Basin

The basin was really beautiful, though, and I definitely recommend it as a trip. I’d say it’s best to try to go midweek if you are seeking solitude, and you probably want to wait until August if you don’t want to get eaten alive by ‘skeeters. But then you might miss out on some wildflowers, so… your call.

Wildflowers in Amethyst Basin

I headed back down the insanely steep trail to the obvious-except-to-the-oblivious junction and this time instead of heading back to the trailhead (right) I turned up the next canyon (left) to head towards Middle Basin. The very first thing that happens is you have to cross the Ostler Fork, which is the rushing cascading creek I’d been hiking down on my way out from Amethyst Lake. There are lots of logs and it’s totally fine, or at least it was when I was there.

Then there’s lots of hiking in the woods. It’s like whatever. Trees ‘n stuff. A lot of the trees were eaten by beetles. But some weren’t. Here are some that weren’t.

Trail to Middle Basin

Trail to Middle Basin

The trail climbs higher and higher, and it is kinda boring. Sorry. I’m a big views above tree line girl, so whenever I have to hike in the forest, I’m pretty bored, unless it just happens to be exceptionally gorgeous, like let’s say full of Jeffrey Pines. After a few miles slog, including some annoying mud and some (less now) surprisingly steep portions, the trail opened up to a magical meadow of paintbrush and distant hills. I was just smitten. I mean, come on, look at this shit.

Gorgeous meadows in Middle Basin

Gorgeous meadows in Middle Basin

Gorgeous meadows in Middle Basin

Gorgeous meadows in Middle Basin

I hiked a bit farther along the trail until I reached Ryder Lake. I knew I didn’t want to camp here (too many people), but I wanted to have a li’l look-see before traipsing off on my own. It was quite nice indeed. I saw a few groups camped around the east shore.

Ryder Lake

I thought I’d want to camp higher up on the plateau above Ryder, so I climbed up on the northeast side. Almost immediately I ran into another person’s camp. There was a husky dog (!) and a dude in some sunglasses and a bucket hat. Trying to be polite, I greeted the dude. We started chatting and slowly, after about five minutes, I finally realized that this dude was someone from my group at the conference. What. The. Heck. I was totally thrown off by the dog, because like dude who comes to a conference with a dog and then takes it hiking on exactly the same trail I went on? Well, apparently some of my colleagues. After the requisite WTFs and OMGs, we hung out and chatted a bit, they gave me some bourbon (thaaaaank you!), but they wanted to keep to themselves at their own boy-camp (and honestly I was happy to move on, since I came out seeking solitude, not more professional chat!), so I headed farther up the plateau until I found myself an amazing spot on a cliff edge overlooking the valley I’d climbed up that day.

Camp on a ledge above Middle Basin

Panorama from near camp

I fought the mosquitos for my dinner and then took a few photos of the glorious moon over the alpenglow before crashing around 9pm.

Camp on a ledge above Middle Basin

Area around camp

Sunset in Middle Basin

Moonrise

Day 3
Middle Basin to Christmas Meadows
10mi, +0ft/-2,100ft

The next morning I woke early to try to take more alpenglow photos. You know I’m all about that life. I had some medium success before my camera battery died.

Sunrise

Mt Aggasiz

I decided to head up to McPheters Lake to see if I could take a swim. Since my camera battery died (oops), I have are a couple iPhone photos. McPheters Lake was absolutely stunning, though, and I think it would be an amazing spot to camp.

McPheters Lake

McPheters Lake

I took a swim, washed myself and my britches, sunbathed, and managed to re-clothe myself just in time to be greeted by a lone fisherman’s dogs, who were more interested in the splashes in the water than my still-exposed midriff.

Around this time I spotted a group of three guys and a dog a couple hundred yards down the lake from me. It was my colleagues! I watched one of them (you know who you are) hoot and holler and swim straight across the lake to the opposite shore.

I was feeling myself (read: antisocial mathematician), so I headed back to my camp and then had a bit of a decision to make for my route back. I’d wandered about a mile east along the ridge, so I had two options for return: either go back the way I came (about a mile along the ridge to Ryder Lake, then down along the trail) or to see if I could make my way down the cliff ledge below me to the meadow. I chose the latter, which in the beginning seemed like a great idea. I wandered back and forth along a couple of meadow-slabs in the cliffside before coming to a place where the route narrowed. I could see my destination below and it didn’t seem too far, so I descended through a narrow chute that was clogged with trees. I was definitely following some sort of deer trail at first, but it soon disappeared into a tangle of fallen trees. I climbed over tree after tree, cursing my decision not to backtrack and take the easy route, and after about half an hour of this I found myself at a stream crossing. A bit of poking around lead me to a reasonable spot to cross and once on the other side, I climbed a small hill and saw the main trail.

From there I was home free! Hiking out took a thousand times forever, though, and I was constantly thinking ok now I must be close yet, mustn’t I? Holy hell. The trail in and out is not so pretty, so make sure you’re prepared with lovely people to talk to or lovely thoughts to think, or else you’ll end up like me seeing eyes in the trees and questioning your sanity.

I passed like ten different groups of day hikers on my way out. The call of the salad is real.

Want to do this trip yourself? You don’t need a permit. You might want the USGS Christmas Meadows and Hayden Peak quads. Drive to the Christmas Meadows trailhead and have a great time!

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