Monday, September 3, 2012

20 Lakes Basin; Inyo National Forest


Looking north across Saddlebag Lake
Just beyond the eastern boundary of Yosemite lies the Inyo National Forest and Ansel Adams Wilderness. These are some areas that I have really wanted to explore a great deal more than I have. I always have such great experiences within the national park that it’s very hard for me to pass up. Longtime Yosemite devotees often talk about the “Spirit of Yosemite” that just has a way of calling you back. I can attest that I often get a sense of this calling myself. It’s a strange ethereal kind of longing to get back there. On this trip however, I originally had planned to spend more time in the Lundy Canyon area checking out likely habitats of bighorn sheep. I wound up changing those plans with the weather I was getting the first few days playing a role in that decision. But I did make sure my schedule included a day in 20 Lakes Basin.

South end of Saddlebag Lake
Like the previous day on my trip to Mt Dana, I got a beautiful clear day with mild sunshine; nearly perfect conditions. The trailhead I was using is at Saddlebag Lake within the Inyo National Forest just beyond Yosemite’s boundaries. You get there by heading east on highway 120 a few miles past the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. There is a turnoff to the left (if heading east) which quickly turns into a rather rough dirt road. The road is actually fairly smooth, but it is strewn with potentially sharp rocks. You might not want to try it on conventional street tires as you could easily get a puncture. You don’t need all-wheel drive unless its muddy, but you are much better off with at least crossover style all-terrain tires. After driving the dusty, bumpy, road for about 4.5 miles you arrive at Saddlebag Lake where there is ample trailhead parking near the campground at roughly 10,000 feet. Saddlebag Lake Resort is there too which has a boat dock and a little store/snack bar. If you stop in at the store you can get a free map of the trail system in the 20 Lakes Basin. This little hand drawn printed map is primitive, but it actually does a good job of showing all the trails, including various side trails. I did not find any other map that showed any but the main trails. There are some interesting side trips you can make while hiking the area. I would have liked to have at least a couple of days to spend here. The resort is popular with anglers, and incidentally, the homemade blueberry pie is fantastic after a hike, but wait; I am getting way ahead of myself. One other option is to purchase a round trip ticket for the water taxi to the north end of Saddlebag Lake and begin the five mile 20 Lakes loop from there. I didn’t do that, and was glad I didn’t because my return hike along the east side of Saddlebag Lake was really great, but again I am getting way ahead of myself.

Resort and dam at the south end of Saddlebag Lake

Not wanting to wimp out on the water taxi, I began hiking along the west side of Saddlebag Lake. You cross over a dam and find the trail which heads out along the very rocky slope of a mountain, basically like a huge talus. The trail is composed primarily of rock and there is absolutely no tree cover. This seemed okay for in the morning, but would probably be very hot in the afternoon with all that rock storing and reflecting the heat up into your face. The trail follows a ledge about 50 feet above the waters of the lake, which would make filtering water very difficult from this side. But its only about a mile and a half to reach the north end of the lake where there is a junction. You can wade across a creek to the main loop trail, or there is an interesting side trip along Greenstone Lake and up to Conness Lakes. I decided to take the side trip because I was interested to see if I could get a view of the Conness glacier.

Greenstone Lake
This trail follows a beautiful gently cascading watercourse flowing down into Greenstone Lake. The area was still green with moist soft grasses and mossy rocks, and I was finding lingering Sierra wild flowers. I followed the trail up alongside the water’s course and alongside a small waterfall. Looking for the cairns I found the trail heading across a rocky slope and up into a granite plateau where the first of the turquoise colored lakes lie. Looking up you can see the crest that includes Mt Conness with lots of lingering snow packed into the crevasses. The area looks pristine and starkly beautiful. I could not spot the peak of Conness or the glacier, but the diversion is well worth it anyway.

One of the Conness Lakes
Finding my way back to the main trail I began hiking the west side of the 20 Lakes loop trail, which is a 5 mile loop from the boat dock at the north end of the lake. Most of the terrain is rocky and barren, but I would characterize it as typical sub-alpine, having only a few stunted growth and heavily weathered trees. When you reach Steelhead Lake there is another side trail that climbs up beyond 11,000 feet to Secret Lake, and on to Upper Macabe Lake. I skipped this trail wanting to have time to descend into Lundy Canyon, but I really want to check out this trail some other time. Hiking along Steelhead Lake you can enjoy views to 12,242 foot North Peak and Sheppard Crest with its rocky soil having an intriguing coloration change along a natural delineation point of some kind. At the north end of Steelhead there is another side trail to an abandoned tungsten mine.

Hiking on past Excelsior Lake to Shamrock Lake I found more wildflowers, more stimulating views, interesting geology, and the trail transitions back to a rock talus at the base of a knarly rocky peak that is at the end point of Sheppard Crest. You need to find the cairns to be on the best route, but the trail is not hard to discern. After reaching the other side of the talus, the trail heads into some downhill switchbacks marked with cairns and across a flat over to Helen Lake. Near the trail junction to Lundy Canyon I found some really nice Colville's Columbine in three different color variations. It was interesting that all three color variations occurred within very close proximity to each other. The conditions were very rocky resembling the slopes of Mt Dana. Some were creamy white, some were a combination of a brilliant reddish pink with pale yellowish white, and others were solid (true) yellow.

Steelhead Lake
As I arrived at the other side of Helen Lake, I took the Lundy Canyon junction, but did not descend very far. I wanted to study the slopes for any signs of bighorn, and get a photo down the canyon and waterfall. It’s a great view, and I intend to hike the trails in Lundy from the bottom up some time in the future. After finding my way back to the 20 lakes loop, the trail leaves Helen Lake by climbing up a rock chasm with huge peaks looming above. Not surprisingly, I found wildflowers such as seep monkey flower, as this chasm also has a hidden watercourse beneath the rocks. I hiked on past Odell Lake and Hummingbird Lake waving to the anglers below. On the way back to Saddlebag more dramatic views of the weathered terrain and high granite peaks are available. After passing Hummingbird Lake, I also caught a glimpse of Mt Dana.

As you arrive again at the north end of Saddlebag you can make your way to the water taxi if you have a ticket. On the other hand, if you are possessed of a hiker’s spirit, you wouldn’t want to waste your time cruising on some pontoon boat, even though I’m sure the scenery is pretty good as you sit and enjoy the breeze. But that option is available if you want it. Instead I had planned on hiking the east side of Saddlebag Lake, and was glad I did. At one point I had hiked down a gravely slope to the edge of the lake in order to use my filter to replenish my water supply. After pumping my drink bottle full I happened to notice the distinctive leaf structure of Mountain Jewel flower near some rocks. At closer inspection I found it was pink Mountain Jewel flower, and looking around some more I realized it was all around. I was sitting in a mass of it. After hitting the trail again, I was really amazed at the views I was getting. The hike around this side of the lake is like a night ‘n’ day difference compared to the other side, which is mostly barren with uninspiring sights. I found a place where water cascades down from the Sierra Crest above into the lake, and the whole course is lined with six foot high stems of brilliant blue Larkspur. I also saw some nice fireweed and a few other flowers, and enjoyed the intermittent fragrant tree cover, and excellent sights. I also saw a bald eagle that had glided down from somewhere above on the Sierra Crest to swoop over the lake, obviously looking for some seafood (lakefood?). I didn’t get a very good picture, but it was unmistakable.

Overall I had an amazing day. I stopped in at the snack bar at the resort on the way back to my car, and could not resist some homemade blueberry pie with an ice tea. The pie is killer, and blows away the softies you can get at the Toulumne Meadows grill. It’s rare that you would get such an opportunity after hiking what is essentially a wilderness area.

Click here to view my photoset on flickr
Click here to see the track log at Every Trail