I don’t normally do point-to-point backpacking trips due to the logistics involved with shuttling vehicles to trailheads and picking them up afterwards, but this is one hike where I’m glad that I did. I’ve hiked into Green Lake and up the chain of lakes from Virginia Lakes before as separate out-and-backs, but joining the two trailheads as a point-to-point trip allowed us to get deeper into the backcountry and see more of the Hoover Wilderness than we would have otherwise. Starting at the Virginia Lakes trailhead, we passed 12 named lakes and a few nameless tarns and ponds along our journey to the Green Creek trailhead, each body of water exhibiting its own unique character.
Another thing that made this trip exciting, is that I was taking a friend that was new to backpacking. He just bought his gear and was ready to break it in. This particular hike was selected, because it was somewhat challenging but not discouragingly so. Also, the stunning scenery of the high jagged peaks and mountain lakes would provide a true Sierra backcountry experience. I get a kick out of introducing people to new outdoor activities and seeing them really get into it.
We chose to start the hike at the Virginia Lakes trailhead, since at 9,800 ft, it’s 1,800 feet higher in elevation than the Green Creek trailhead at 8,000 ft. The high point of the hike is the pass near Black Mountain at 11,126 ft, and it’s encountered in the first few hours of the trip. From this high point, it’s all downhill with the exception of the short 0.3 mile, 181 foot climb up to Summit Lake.
The shuttle logistics really aren’t all that bad for this hike. Overnight wilderness permits can be obtained at the Bridgeport Ranger Station. The cutoff to the Green Creek trailhead is just under 4 miles south of the ranger station. The turnoff to this well graded dirt road is signed, but you’ll want to consult your map after this to keep you on track as there are many dirt roads in the area. After leaving a vehicle at the Green Lake trailhead, you need to drive back down the canyon a ways, then take the dirt road over to the Virginia Lakes trailhead. It’s a pretty drive around the base of Dunderberg Peak, and there’s no need to drive all the way back down to the highway. The road is decent for 2 wheel drives, and there are no parking fees at either trailhead.
The trailhead parking area is a busy spot with all the activity at the fishing resort. Once out on the trail, though, the crowd immediately thins out. We only saw a few hikers and backpackers on our way up the canyon. The scenery starts immediately, and you enter the Hoover Wilderness just a short ways up the trail. Just past the wilderness boundary is Blue Lake, then Cooney Lake, then Frog Lakes, with only a short distance and elevation gain between them.
Once past Frog Lakes, we started up the mountain pass. I had only previously done this climb with a day pack, and was relieved that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be with the overnight backpack thanks to the switchbacks. Thankfully, the wind was in our favor, and the smoke from the California fires didn’t ruin the view. Only Mono Lake far below was obscured in the haze.
Once on top of the 11,100 foot pass we got that on-top-of-the-world feeling with views of where we’d been, and where we were headed. As high as we felt, though, we were surrounded by peaks that were still over a thousand feet above us. We took a little side trip over to a desolate tarn, and were surprised to still see water in the little basin. Summit Lake, our destination for the day, was visible to the northwest. I was excited leaving the tarn to hike towards the lake, because I had never been past this point. It felt like the adventure was just beginning for me.
In an earlier write up of hiking to this pass, I had called it Summit Pass for lack of a better description. I have since learned that this is incorrect, as the true Summit Pass is at the west end of Summit Lake at the border of Yosemite. Virginia Pass would also be inaccurate, since there is one by this name nearby as well. The trail is well traveled here, so I’m surprised it doesn’t have an official name.
The trail leading down the other side of the pass takes many switchbacks through the talus as it descends the steep mountainside. We didn’t fully appreciate what we were hiking until we got to the bottom and looked back up to see the big picture. “How did we get down here? There’s nothing but cliffs up there!”
Down the pass we hit some nice meadows with spring-fed creeks still flowing, followed by steep switchbacks that took us to the canyon bottom. In addition to Summit Lake, we could now see Hoover Lakes and the route we’d be hiking the next day. The colors in the canyon are breathtaking: alternating blacks, reds, and grays in the rocks, blues from the lakes and sky, and green from the trees and bushes.
We arrived at the intersection. A left turn to Summit Lake or a right turn to Hoover Lakes. We went left and soon arrived at the bottom of the canyon where we had a fun stream crossing. From here, the trail is short but steep up to Summit Lake.
We were very happy to reach Summit Lake, our legs tired from the trek over the pass. We weren’t sure where we’d camp, so we started looking. One person had camped just a few feet off the trail, something they agreed NOT to do when they signed for their wilderness permit. With their gear all laid out, it was like hiking through someone’s living room. We saw another person camped in a good spot up a ways from the lake. With not too many options in the immediate vicinity, we decided to go all the way to the west side of the lake.
Hiking along Summit Lake is pleasant, with little elevation change. Our tired legs were thankful. At the west end of the lake we crossed the border of the Hoover Wilderness and entered Yosemite National Park. Although it’s just an imaginary line on the ground, it was still an exciting moment. A trail sign marked the real Summit Pass at 10,250 feet. According to the sign, Tuolumne Meadows is just under 20 miles from here.
There are a few possible campsites on the west side of the lake, and we found a great one on the ridge above the lake. I thought this location might be like camping in a wind tunnel, but the trees did a good job as a wind break. Not only did we have the best view of Summit Lake from this location, we could also look down into Yosemite through the trees. The jagged 12,001 ft Virginia Peak, that looked so far away earlier in the day, was now rising right above us.
It felt good to get the packs off and setup camp. I brought my REI Half Dome 2 tent, minus the “tent” portion. With no bugs this late in the year, I was able to use just the footprint, poles, and rain fly, saving a couple pounds in the pack. This minimal configuration is more spacious, has less zippers to deal with, and still provides plenty of wind break. I was also able to easily check out the moon when it came up (albeit through blurry tired eyes) by simply peeking under the rain fly. My friend was excited to try out all his new gear as well.
While we waited for darkness, we enjoyed the changing colors on the mountains. Dunderberg Peak is already quite red, but the alpenglow really lit it up. The colorful sunset clouds reflected on the lake, giving the place a whole new look from when we arrived just a few hours earlier. There was talk of star gazing, but the chilly air and tired bodies coaxed us into our tents pretty early.
We climbed out of the tents about 06:50. The sun hadn’t made it over the mountains yet, and it was easily the coldest part of our trip. Even with my jacket, hat, and gloves, I still shivered a bit as I got my stove going to make coffee. Not long after 07:00, the sun finally came up and lit up our camp. Instant warmth filled our bodies, and it wasn’t long before we were shedding layers. The morning sun also gave us the best view yet into Yosemite. It was very interesting to see the dark metamorphic rocks of the Hoover Wilderness suddenly give way to granite right across the Yosemite border.
After breakfast we were eager to get hiking. Although it would be downhill all day, we had some miles to cover and still needed extra time to retrieve the vehicle at the Virginia Lakes trailhead. It was a beautiful sunny morning in the mountains, and we were treated to an all new view in yet another type of light as we hiked back around Summit Lake, leaving Yosemite behind.
We hiked back down to the trail intersection we had passed the day before, this time heading down to Hoover Lakes. The trail takes you down to the west side of the upper Hoover Lake, crosses between the two, then along the east side of the lower lake. You get to explore the lakes without even leaving the trail.
When you’re out in the wilderness, it’s always a treat when you get the opportunity to forage for some of your own food. Below Hoover Lakes, in a section where the trail comes close to the creek, we found some bushes loaded with mountain gooseberries. It made the perfect place for a break as we loaded up on the sweet juicy fruit.
Next in the tour of lakes is Gilman Lake. The trail stays fairly high along the west side of the lake with good views of the basin below. Although the trail doesn’t go to the lake, we saw a couple use trails that appeared to head down to the water. Not wanting to have to climb back up the hill, we continued on.
Not far from Gilman Lake we reached Nutter Lake. It was the smallest of the lakes we’d see that day, but also one of the most colorful with a red and green border.
We started to joke that we had already seen far too many lakes this day, when just down the trail we came to East Lake, the biggest lake of the hike. Instead of just hiking on by, we took the time to stop and take in the views along the lake. Once, we stood on a high granite shelf above the shoreline, and watched a distant waterfall cascade down to the lake. It was a moment you wish you could take along with you. There looked to be ample camping spots around the lake. I took note of a few, because I will definitely come back to East Lake someday.
From East Lake, the trail loses quite a bit of elevation in a short distance to get down to Green Lake. Soon we were down to a section of trail we had explored a few years ago when we backpacked into Green Lake. It was along this stretch of trail that we encountered a couple hiking out that we had met the day before at the ranger station. We were surprised, because they were due to stay for 3 to 4 nights. Apparently it was too windy and they were having difficulty navigating the area. They were frustrated and done. It seemed really strange, since we were having the time of our lives. We wished them good luck and hiked on.
We reached the east shore of Green Lake, and decided to have lunch before making the final hike down the canyon to the trailhead. We found a good spot near the outlet, then took a leisurely break while we enjoyed the view of the lake and Glines Canyon above. I was also surprised how high the water was compared to our visit in 2012. The rocks we walked out to then were now islands.
Recharged from lunch, we made good time down the canyon. Continuing to drop elevation, we hiked through the Aspens along Green Creek. Soon the sagebrush appeared, hinting of the desert to come below. When we finally hit the dirt road near the trailhead, I thought of the diverse terrain and scenery we had seen. It had truly been a great adventure for just going out overnight! I highly recommend this route, as it packs a lot into a shorter hike.