Saturday, August 4, 2012

Return to Young Lakes

View to the Sierra Crest
I remember in July 2009 when I woke up in my campsite at Toulumne Meadows. It was 6:00 AM and I was wrapped up inside of two sleeping bags inside my tent to keep warm. It was early July and it was 29 degrees outside, and the top of my tent was covered with frost. Instead of rolling out early like I usually do on hike days, I just lied there letting myself drift back off to sleep to await some warmth from the rising sun. I wound up getting off to a slow start that morning, but actually the conditions were perfect for a hike to Young Lakes. The weather was clear and the high peaks were still mostly snow covered. The upper Toulumne and its many tributaries were flowing strong, and the meadows were green and vibrant.

View to the Cathedral Crest from the lower trail
This year during my sierra trip, I was planning to head back there, but the conditions were not quite as perfect. California is back in drought. Plus the weather on this day was predicted to be scattered clouds and possible showers. I remembered that on that hike back in 2009, I did not take time to explore the entire lake system. I was having such a great time enjoying the sights that I basically hung around at the lower lake, filtered some water, ate some food, and after noticing the passing time, headed out to find the eastern end of the loop trail down to Dog Lake, returning to my camp. On this hike however, I really wanted to be sure to check out the 2 other lakes lying in the secluded alcove at the base of that rocky crest anchored by Ragged Peak to the southwest and White Mountain to the northeast.

The trail that forms the western loop is accessible from the same trail that goes to Glen Aulin HSC, but don’t get fooled by the “social” cairns that you find on the way. I learned from my last trip that these were placed there by horse riders to mark the way to a view point of some kind that is not worth the effort considering the views you will get on the Young Lakes hike. The actual junction to Young Lakes is marked with a sign as is usual for hiking trails within Yosemite. Not that it’s easy to forget that there are stables nearby. The lower trail intermittently stinks of horse urine and road apples, and sand has been placed in some areas because it’s easier for horses. Once you hit the real junction you start climbing and leave the horse evidence behind. This western loop trail can actually be skipped because the eastern loop is so much better you could make it an out-n-back. This part of the trail is unremarkable because there is just enough stunted tree cover to effectively block all but a few view opportunities, while not effectively creating shade. But I was glad I came this way. With the skies being mostly cloudy, shade was not an issue. The character lines of the granite infused terrain are interesting to study as they show the signs of the extremes of seasonal change. I also spotted some nice mariposa lilies that were not showing on the other side. My track log begins from my campsite, but it shows the trail climbing slowly but steadily for 5.3 miles to the junction to Young Lakes at 9,859 feet. The margin of error for my GPS should be quite small. I had rapidly moving clouds all day with intermittent, brief, light, rain showers, with a few patches of attenuated sunshine. This was the pattern all day.

View across the lower lake; Ragged Peak anchors the rocky crest
After taking the junction you are back into much thicker stands of trees and the area is much more moist and green. As you get close to the lake you enjoy great views of the summit of appropriately named Ragged Peak, and you get intermittent glimpses toward Mt Conness and Sheep Peak to the north. The lower lake is at about 9,905 feet. The high rocky crest looming above is the primary source of the lake as this area forms a natural bowl effect for snowmelt runoff. It is striking and beautiful, and of course the water is crystal clear and plenty suitable for filtering, and it tastes great. Following the trail around the west side of the lake will lead to the unsigned trail that will take you up to the other source of the lower lake; the middle lake, which flows slowly downward by way of a rocky, gently cascading creek.

Close up of Mt Lyell glacier
After a short climb through a lush forest you reach the pretty little middle lake at about 9,993 feet. As you pass by you can begin to hear the rushing creek that is the other source of this lake. Hiking onward, and climbing higher into the rocks, the trail becomes more obscure. Before long the trail becomes what is basically a rocky staircase up a lush waterfall. This section of trail is not maintained to the same kind of standards that park trails usually are. You need to make your way through some overgrowth and carefully climb up some rocks alongside the cascade. It might be difficult early in the season when the water levels are higher. You reach the little plateau that holds the upper lake at about 10,226 feet. As you break out into the rock strewn plateau, the trail has all but disappeared. Making your way over to the upper lake you can notice the rocky area to the north which is the backpacking camp area. There were a few camps setup there as backpackers with permits are allowed to do. This area has no facilities of any kind, and seems quite pristine even though it obviously gets many visitors. I’m not sure what kind of off-trail day hikes you could find if you were camping here, but the possibilities look inviting. My photos of this area are not going to come close to showing the beauty. The weather was not facilitating very good photography, and I was also concerned about battery life in my camera. I took a few photos and combined them with photos from my last trip on flickr.

Looking south across the upper lake

I was looking forward to my route back on the eastern loop trail. After descending back to the lower lake, and back to the junction, the eastern loop them climbs back to about 10,036 feet where you break out onto a stunning high meadow area. When the conditions are right, the meadow is brilliant green and flowering. The whole area is studded with smooth granite rocks, and the view to the Sierra crest to the south is breathtaking. The panorama shot that I use for the title banner on my blog was taken from this meadow on my trip here back in 2009. Even with 100% exposure, I was not in a hurry to reach the tree line at all. I could have probably spent the whole day just hanging out around here. The conditions on this hike were not quite as good, but my photoset on flickr is now a combined set including some my shots from this trip. I also created a trip report at Every Trail and uploaded the track log. This is a fantastic day hike, and with a proper permit, is a great camping spot for a short backpack.

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