Amethyst Basin Backpacking
Starting Elevation: 8,800
Elevation Gain: 1,600 to big meadows, 2,000 to Amethyst Lake
Distance: 5.4 miles to big meadows and ~6.5 to Amethyst Lake
Moving Time: 3:30 to big meadows
Date: July 25, 2021
When you do a search for “prettiest Uinta backpacking spots” Amethyst Basin always comes up among the top searches and for good reason. I have backpacked East Fork Smiths to Red Castle Lake and Henry’s Fork which are arguably the most stunning zones in the Uintas and Amethyst ranks right up there with the best. Amethyst Basin is often referred to as a photographer’s paradise due to the turquoise blue Amethyst Lake that resides at the base of the majestic Ostler Peak and to the lush meadows with streams running through it that attract an abundance of wildlife.
I rose early one morning and saw some deer drinking from the stream and as I ventured to the higher meadows above Ostler Lake, I saw several rather plump marmots scurrying off in the distance. And a trip wouldn’t be complete without a moose sighting and we didn’t think we would see one but with just a mile to go to the parking lot- we startled a moose that was just about 10 feet off the trail. The moose immediately started running and for split second we thought she was coming our way but she headed parallel to us and gave us all a big scare.
This was our 2nd annual father/son Uinta backpacking trip with the Krakovitz’s.
Last year we ventured to Island Lake for some cliff jumping and the boys (ages 13 and 17) managed the 4 mile hike in so we decided to challenge them with a 5.4 mile hike and 1,600 vertical gain this year. I was prepared for extensive complaining but the boys definitely matured over the last year and the nagging question of “how much farther” was rarely murmured. Or perhaps after last year’s trip they have come to enjoy and appreciate the process of reaching our destination. While sitting around the campsite telling juvenile adolescent boy stories, one of the kids said this was “so much more fun than watching TikTok”. That simple line made this backpacking trip worthwhile.
From Kamas drive 46 miles east on Mirror Lake Highway and look for Christmas Meadow road on your right (about .2 mile past the Stillwater campground exit). Christmas Meadows Road is a well-traveled dirt road that doesn’t require a high clearance vehicle. Take this road for about 3.5 miles and it terminates at the Christmas Meadows parking lot. Make sure you pay the permit fee ($6 fee for a 3 day pass) and leave it on your dashboard.
The Christmas Meadow & Stillwater trail share the same trailhead and the first 2.6 miles. Take this trail and head south. The first 2.6 miles are relatively flat and easy as the trail follows the Stillwater Fork stream. The trail was often muddy and wet despite the fact that the preceding winter was very historically dry. The trail is very well shaded and since you are starting at close to 9,000 ft- it is a cool hike. We completed the first two miles in 50 minutes and we only gained about 225 feet. At about 2.5 miles, you will see a “High Uintas Wilderness” sign which means you are getting close to the junction.
At 2.6 miles, you will come to a fork and you will see a sign for Kermsuh Lake, Ryder Lake and Amethyst Lake.
You take a left here and head towards Amethyst Lake. This is a good spot to take a rest because it is about to get steep. You will gain close to 800 ft over the next .7 of a mile. There is one upside to this section and it is that you parallel the Ostler Fork stream which offers some modest waterfalls.
After the steep section, you enter a flatter treed section and then the climbing begins again but it is not as steep. You soon come to your first meadow and you get a better sense of where you are going.
You then reenter the woods and with each turn you think you have reached the 2nd big meadows but you are disappointed for over a mile. And then you emerge from the forest and you are greeted to an awe inspiring meadow with meandering stream running through it and Ostler Peak looming in the background. At this point, you have traveled 5.4 miles and gained about 1,600 ft.
Once you reach the big meadow, you have several camping options. We elected to camp right in the meadows just off the trail. There are numerous pre-established camp sites with rock fire pits so walk around and find your new home. If you want more seclusion, you can hike about .3 of a mile to the west to reach Ostler Lake. There is no defined trail so once you cross the stream by the big meadow- head west (right) and you will climb about 200-300 ft. there was a great camp site on the south end of the lake that looked very inviting but our group didn’t want to hike anymore . If I had to do it again, I would have continued on the trail for another 500 yards past the meadow until you reach a small unnamed lake/pond (pictured at top of page). And if you are feeling very adventurous, you can another ~ mile and 350 ft up to Amethyst Lake. There are several campsites on the north side of the lake and it is less crowded but it is more exposed.
Amethyst Lake is certainly the crown jewel of the basin that bears. This mountain lake is nestled in a box canyon with 12,000 peaks surrounding it. The hike to the lake from the big meadows is about a mile and 350 in elevation gain. We circumambulated the lake going counterclockwise and there is a trial most of the way with the exception of the rock debris area. on the north side of the lake there are some small cliffs (about 5 feet) that we jumped off and let me tell you- the water is a little more than refreshing. Although we didn’t fish, this lake was popping with fish and you could see them right from the shore as the water is so clean and clear. Bring your rod!
Ostler Peak Summit
Since you are reading a post from SummitingWolf.com, you know that I am drawn to summits. Summiting Ostler Peak was gnawing at me the minute I laid my eyes on this prominent peak. For 36 hours I tried to convince the kids to climb this peak with me but the 3,000 foot ascent deterred them. I have summited Mt. Timpanogos with Paul so he would have been game if he hadn’t strained his shoulder in a mountain bike accident a few days earlier. As such, if I was going to summit this peak- I was going to have to do an early solo mission. To read more about this summit visit this post.