Naturalist Basin

Naturalist Basin Overlook

A hiker surveys lower Naturalist Basin from a quartzite cliff.

Oblique rays of golden light sliced like laser beams between thick columns of pine. The sharp illumination at our backs etched every woodland texture into fine detail. Bright specks of dust and fluff, along with the occasional winged insect, jigged and bobbed through liquid sunshine. With dusk rapidly approaching, my hiking party and I were churning up the trail in a head-to-head race against the dipping sun. Floating detritus swirled angrily in our wake before resuming its tranquil airborne processional.

We were making our way along the first segment of the Highline Trail of the Uinta Mountains towards Naturalist Basin, a high-elevation cluster of lakes oft praised for its alpine beauty. A friend had tipped me off, suggesting I visit during the Uintas’ torrential spring runoff. He said that the cliffs above and below Jordan, Blue, and Morat Lakes sprout magnificent waterfalls, which last throughout the first couple of weeks in June.

I had been trying to convince my suburbanite in-laws to accompany me on a backpacking trip for several months. Whether it was their busy schedules or their incertitude regarding my abilities, they had heretofore flouted my efforts at persuasion. Through sheer tenacity I finally wrangled a commitment out of them.

At the expense of missing out on some truly beautiful places, I sometimes tend to avoid the more crowded tracts of backcountry wilderness. The light grey patch hovering over Naturalist Basin on my map, labeled “heavy use” in the legend, had provided sufficient discouragement to keep me from visiting in the past. Now, however, it provided an easily accessible overnighter with the relations.

Lake after mirrored lake rose to our view as we trudged over grassy tussocks, bounded by red, thousand-foot walls. We climbed among countless waterfalls and brisk cascades garnished with wild phlox.

As we forged our way into a basin surrounded by monumental, eponymous peaks, I found myself considering the colorful history of the locale. Over the years, a variety of men and women have dashed themselves against these undulating peaks and basins. Like the waves of the sea, the outcome for most has been a disappointing one. Although visually stunning, the regions to the north and south are no fruited plain. A few people have managed to eke out an existence here, but only rarely have such attempts resulted in profit.

In one such surge of attention, a gaggle of nineteenth-century naturalists flocked westward on the newly minted Union Pacific Railroad, each hoping to be the first to make the “next big discovery” out West. Most hopped off the train near the bustling young town of Evanston, Wyoming with their gear, instruments, and guides in tow. They stumped off towards Fort Bridger, in Utah Territory, a launching point for their expeditions into Uinta Mountains rising immediately southward.

Each scientist and his entourage bustled into the Uinta Mountains in search of exploitable scientific resources: a currency which surfaced in the form of dinosaur bones, fossils, minerals, and other such fodder for scientific publications. Most of these scientists either directly or indirectly saw the Uintas as a potential springboard to fame and fortune. As such, they fought aggressively over territory and discoveries alike.

The most notable rivalry arose between a triumvirate of paleontologists: Marsh, Leidy, and Cope. Marsh and Cope, both men of significant means and connections, launched themselves after the prize with consuming zeal. Each employed threats, spies, and deception against the other in a clash that more closely resembled the Cold War than it did scientific exploration. Some of their tactics reportedly included dynamiting the remnants of an excavation, diverting a trainload of fossils, and “salting” digs to mislead each other.

Despite the heavy-handed wielding of money and influences, it was the less well known and less well-off Joseph Leidy, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, who claimed the prize by christening the one significant discovery to surface in the mountains—a rhinoceros-like Eocene beast named Uintatherium. Of course that wasn’t the end. Marsh and Leidy continued to make war with each other. Eventually they exhausted their respective fortunes. Cope had to sell off his collections while Marsh mortgaged his home. Leidy, put off by the fierce battling and posturing, more or less gracefully withdrew from his pursuit of paleontology.

I wondered if any of the naturalists had even passed through Naturalist Basin, their namesake. The Uintas provided ample room for the battling scientists to spread out, but these were city folk from the East Coast, not far-ranging and self-sufficient explorers. These mountains had turned back tougher and more ambitious men.

blue lake falls

Water spills across quartzite outcroppings below Blue Lake.

My two younger sisters-in-law whooped and hollered down the trail, their echoes bouncing back and forth among green clearings. I wondered how different we were from those previous visitors. Whatever reasons we may have for coming here, we’re the sole benefactors of our visit. We’ve simply traded one form of exploitation for another. I can ruminate all I want on matters of conservation, but it doesn’t really change anything.

At some point, Andrea and Julie’s exuberant voices faded into an upward- and outward-gazing quiet. I was expecting droves of visitors, but we hadn’t yet run into another soul. Trees and small lakes greeted us in quiet solemnity.

As darkness fell, we positioned our camp outside the borders of the basin, so we could legally skirt the “no fire” limitation within. Over the years, heavy visitation has stripped the basin of its deadwood, a necessary ingredient in both campfires and the natural ecology. Outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, environmentalists, and scientists; there’s no doubt that we’re all gradually stripping the wilderness, even if it’s simply by loving it to death.

The next day, lake after mirrored lake rose to our view as we trudged over grassy tussocks, bounded by red, thousand-foot walls on three sides. We climbed among countless waterfalls and brisk cascades garnished with wild phlox and other flowers. In the upper reaches of the basin, we exchanged pleasantries with a couple of other hiking parties: the first we had seen on our trip. In the midst of so much visual wealth, I found I didn’t mind sharing.

One Response to “Naturalist Basin

  • My dog and I love backpacking in the Uintas! We go almost every other weekend in the summer. I know exactly where this waterfall is – we camped above it at Blue Lake and summited Mt. Agassiz! We have been all over the Uintas – so much to explore! This year I have a list of about 10 places I want to visit in the Uintas alone.

    Alicia @

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