Four Lakes Basin Backpacking Hike

Overview: A popular backpack to alpine lakes in the western Uinta Mountains. There are beautiful views of the western Uintas, including the upper Duchesne River and Rock Creek country. 

Start: Highline Trail Trailhead.

Distance: 16 miles out and back.

Difficulty: Moderate.

Trail surface: Rocky forest trail.

Seasons: Summer through early fall.

Land status: Wilderness area.

Nearest town: Kamas.

Fees and permits: A Mirror Lake Area Recreation Pass is required for trailhead parking: $3.00 per day, $6.00 per week, $25.00 per year. Golden Eagle/Age/Access Passports are accepted. Passes are available at Forest Service offices in Kamas and Evanston, Wyoming, the Bear River Station and Beaver Creek Station, several self-issue stations in the national forest, and several local vendors in Kamas and Evanston. Voluntary trailhead registration is strongly encouraged.

Maps: USGS Hayden Peak quad; Northeastern Utah Multipurpose Map; National Geographic Trails Illustrated High Uintas Wilderness Map; Ashley National Forest Map.

Trail contacts: Ashley National Forest; Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Finding the trailhead: Take Highway 150 (Mirror Lake Highway) east from Kamas into the Uinta Mountains. About 2.5 miles past Mirror Lake and just after passing from Duchesne County into Summit County, turn right (east) into the Highline Trail parking lot. Expect to find the large lot filled, especially at the height of the hiking season. DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 54 B3. 

Trailhead GPS: 40.723499, -110.864449

The Hike

Although not as remote and quiet as some other Uinta Mountains hikes, this trip is considered a basic west-side approach to the interior High Uintas Wilderness. You get there quickly, too—just off Highway 150 north of Mirror Lake. Once on the trail, you’re soon in roadless country.

This route is also the most popular access to the Highline Trail, which courses across the great backbone of the east–west Uinta Mountains. At first you will see many hikers, some out for a stroll to Scudder Lake. Then there are the more serious hiker-anglers who find solitude and fast fishing off the main trail at Wilder, Wyman, and Packard Lakes, about 3.5 miles in. Most of the traffic, however, is to the many lakes in Naturalist Basin, located to the north of the Highline Trail in the shadow of Mount Agassiz (12,428 feet) and Spread Eagle Peak (12,540 feet). Farther east along the Highline Trail is grayling-filled Carolyn Lake, then the invitingly cold water of Pigeon Milk Spring, followed by Rocky Sea Pass and access to the upper Rock Creek drainage to the north, but you will head south past Olga Lake to Four Lakes Basin.

From the trailhead just east of Hayden Pass (10,347 feet), the trail descends 2 miles to a point just east of Scudder Lake, a popular destination for day hikers. A mile beyond, a trail heads right (south) to Wilder, Wyman, and Packard Lakes. Continue straight (east) here, mostly contouring on the gently undulating trail below Mount Agassiz.

The steep trail to Naturalist Basin heads left (north) as you pass around the rocky spur south of Agassiz. The basin and its lakes make a nice side excursion, but be prepared to see many other hikers.

In 1.5 miles the trail heading south to Pinto and Governor Dern Lakes and Grandaddy Basin exits to the right (south). The Highline Trail continues eastward, beginning to climb after this junction. The trail ascends about 600 feet in slightly more than a mile — the only real climb you have into Four Lakes Basin.

About a quarter mile before the rocky ridge to the east, the trail south to Four Lakes Basin exits to the right. However, you should hike an additional few hundred yards east toward Rocky Sea Pass to Pigeon Milk Spring. The water is cold and delicious here, and many hikers go a bit out of their way to fill their water bottles. Pigeon Milk was named for the sometimes slightly discolored glacial “milk” flowing here. As with any natural source, water quality is highly changeable, and the water at Pigeon Milk may not always be safe to drink.

Heading south and then east for 1.2 miles, you wind around the rockslides protecting Four Lakes Basin. Your first glimpse of the basin is of Jean and Dean Lakes, visible from the 10,900-foot ridge to the west. Dale and Daynes Lakes are a bit lower to the southeast. 

Swampy meadows, almost the type you would expect to see dinosaurs rise from, grace the scenery throughout this region. These meadows are found so consistently that they seem almost deliberately spaced for variety. Some of the lakes, including those back toward the trailhead, are often eerily forged with cold morning mist.

Nearly all the lakes offer fine fly fishing due to open meadow shorelines and cooperative, while not large, trout. The west end of Dean Lake along the open cliffs is an especially productive site for catching hungry cutthroats.

You may want to make this hike before branching out into the remainder of the Uintas. It is the doorstep to almost all the trails on the west side of these unique and scenic mountains.

Miles and Directions

0.0       Start at the Highline Trail Trailhead.

2.0       Reach Scudder Lake.

3.0       Junction with the trail to Wilder, Wyman, and Packard Lakes. Continue straight (east).

4.0       Junction with the trail to Naturalist Basin. Continue straight (east).

5.5       Junction with the trail to Pinto and Governor Dern Lakes and Grandaddy Basin. Continue straight (east).

6.8       Junction with the trail to Four Lakes Basin. Turn right (south).

8.0       Arrive in Four Lakes Basin.

16.0     Retrace your steps to arrive back at the trailhead.