Park City residents and visitors are blessed to be so close to the majestic Uinta Mountains. With legendary peaks rising as high as 13,500 feet, hundreds of miles of streams and creeks loaded with trout and more than 500 spectacular alpine lakes make the High Uintas something to behold. There are miles and miles of trails, from short well-marked paths that take you to popular fishing spots and campgrounds to the most lung-busting, elevation gaining high altitude treks. There is really something for everyone when hiking in the Uintas and this time of year is when the entire area is accessible, as snow can blanket high trails from late September into July.
Where to Start & What To Bring
Simply drive up the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, otherwise known as SR 150, to access countless hiking trails in the Uinta Mountains. Choose your destination from one of the many guidebooks available at White Pine Touring. And don’t forget to stop along the way and pick up a recreational use pass for your vehicle. Three-day passes are $6, with revenue used to supplement Federal funding for the Mirror Lake area. A backpack with water, snacks and sunscreen are all you need for a day hike, along with comfortable clothing and sturdy shoes. A light rain jacket or windbreaker is also invaluable, as the weather can be a bit unpredictable in the High Uintas.
The Hike to Amethyst Lake – How To Find It
Last week, I made a punch for Amethyst Lake, one of the most beautiful emerald green, high alpine glacial lakes in the area. If you plan to make it out and back the same day, leave early as the hike is rigorous and long, just under 13 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of nearly 2,000 feet. Most people choose to make an overnight trip and camp in the lovely meadows below the lake, or near one of the smaller lakes accessed within the last mile or so of the hike. The guidebooks will tell you it takes eight hours, but I made it in under six hours with a leisurely lunch stop. I will also tell you my fitness is at peak, I am well acclimated to high altitude, and I did run some of the way. Just sayin’.
As for the trail, it is well marked and easy to find. Turn off Mirror Lake Byway at mile 45.9 onto Christmas Meadows Road. Then follow the dirt road four miles to the Christmas Meadows Campground. Just past this area you will see the parking lot for the trailhead, and access to the Stillwater Trail, with an elevation of 8790 feet. Follow the fairly level section of the trail for about 2.5 miles, where you will reach a fork. It’s easy to miss the little sign in the tree at the junction (see photo below), so pay attention.
Amethyst Lake – The Hike Itself
This is where the going gets rough. Take a left and start the climb. You’ll soon come upon a section that gains 600 feet of altitude in just about half a mile, and the terrain here is rocky and steep. The trail meanders alongside Ostler Creek, with stunning views of its crystal clear water cascading over rocks and ledges that distract you from the challenge of this single tough section of the hike. Once you reach the top of this pitch, the hike is moderate, and the trail snakes in and out of a beautiful pine forest, offering periodic views of the magnificent Ostler and LaMotte peaks. After a while, you will reach a beautiful large meadow, a great place to stop and eat some lunch and scout the rocky ledges for mountain goats. I was lucky enough to spot one of these elusive creatures, a moving white speck high up on the stone above the meadow, providing visual entertainment to go with my turkey and swiss sandwich.
After the meadow, it’s about another mile to Amethyst Lake, and the trail can be tricky to see. Forge ahead and you’ll soon see a small creek and a little further on, you will reach a small, unnamed lake. Proceed up the trail, cross the stream and continue through the rocks. With Mt. Ostler on your right at 10,740 feet you will arrive at the gorgeous 42.5 acre Amethyst Lake. Stop for some photos at the lake, with the rocky 12,000 feet high Ostler LaMotte Ridge boxing you in on three sides, Take a moment to enjoy the views before you head back down the trail. Reward yourself with a nice leisurely pace down, and maybe a cold brew when you get back to civilization.
Val Geist, Former Professional Mountain Bike Racer