Not having backpacked since my teenage years in the 1980s, the whole thing had become sort of a mystery. An activity only for the experienced, and for those with the proper gear. Our family has been talking about backpacking for a couple years now, slowly collecting the required equipment, but never really fully committing. After buying a few more items and doing some more research though, we were finally ready to do it, mentally prepared or not. We packed all our gear, harnessed up our two little dogs, and headed for the high country.
Probably the most helpful thing to get ready for our first trip was a Backpacking Checklist, like the one we found over on backpacking-guide.com. The checklist sort of demystified the whole thing, knowing that if we had these items, we’d probably be ready for most anything. This wasn’t going to be so difficult after all..
We picked the 20 Lakes Basin in the Hoover Wilderness for our first trip. The trailhead is at Saddlebag Lake, just off Tioga Pass road, at 10,066 ft elevation. The loop through the basin is 8.3 miles, with an elevation gain of 310 feet. Additionally, a water taxi operates at Saddlebag Lake, giving the option of cutting off a couple miles in one direction if needed. It looked like a great place to get into the backcountry without walking several miles.
There is no fee, waiting list, or quota to enter the 20 Lakes Basin, but to stay overnight, you need a Wilderness Permit. To get our permit, we stopped at the Mono Lake Visitor’s Center, just north of Lee Vining on the shore of Mono Lake. It’s a beautiful facility with many exhibits, restrooms, an observation deck, and many helpful staff members. In addition to issuing us a permit, the ranger gave us some helpful information about the area we’d be hiking.
To get to the trailhead, we drove through Lee Vining, and then up Tioga Pass Road (HWY 120). Before the Yosemite Park entrance, and just after Ellery Lake, is Saddlebag Lake Road. It’s narrow and transitions between graded dirt and pavement, but suitable for low clearance vehicles. We parked near the lake in the backpackers parking lot just before the Saddlebag Lake campground and resort. There is no fee to park, and there are bathrooms and trashcans here. It’s best to unload your car of food trash in bear country.
We contemplated taking the water taxi across the lake, but since the next boat wasn’t due for another half hour, we decided to hike instead. We crossed below the dam, and took the trail along the west side of Saddlebag Lake. The trail on this side of the lake took us through many rocks. It would be easy to hike through the rocks with a day pack on, but took more balance with our heavy backpacks. I hear that the trail on the east side of the lake is a bit smoother, but also a little longer at just over 2 miles. We were happy to hike though, as the views of Saddlebag Lake were very pretty. Even though it was August, there were still a few snow banks to cross along the way. As we neared the far end of the lake, the epic scenery that awaited us began to unfold.
At the north shore of Saddlebag Lake we climbed the ridge towards Greenstone Lake. As the small blue-green lake came into view with the rocky North Peak towering above it, it felt like we were stepping onto the set of a fantasy movie. Could we really be in this extraordinary place after just a couple miles of hiking? It felt unreal.
It was also about this time that the breeze died down, and the mosquitoes arrived. Once in the basin, it’s hard to walk in any direction without quickly running into a lake, creek, pond, or puddle. Plenty of water everywhere for mosquitoes to reproduce. Thanks to our checklist, we had our DEET with us.
We left Greenstone lake on the east side, and made our way up the trail to Wasco Lake. Some of these lakes are barely big enough to be called a lake, but their crystal clear clarity is sure deserving of the title. Some of the creeks and lakes were so clear that it really just looked like a glass covering.
As we climbed the corridor to Steelhead Lake, my son suggested that we start finding a place to camp. He was tired. Fortunately, I had read that some of the best camping was around Cascade and Steelhead Lakes, just ahead of us now. When we arrived at Steelhead Lake, we could see that there was still much snow surrounding Cascade Lake above us. What looked to be good camping areas on the map would not be accessible. We hiked along the east shore of Steelhead Lake, and I spotted a small trail climbing up into the rocks. I took off my pack and went up to investigate. At the top I found a small clearing in the rocks, with a reasonably level and smooth patch of ground just big enough to pitch a tent. There were great views in all directions. Steelhead Lake and North peak to the west, a small pond and the rest of the basin to the east, and even a few nearby snow banks.
We setup camp, explored a little, and then began to cook dinner. The breeze continued to die down, and the mosquitoes came on stronger. We hadn’t put the fly on the tent yet, and the tent has generous panels of mesh. Thankfully we were able to peacefully eat our dinner in the tent with unobstructed views of the beautiful scenery in all directions. We opted for the convenience of freeze-dried meals from Backpackers Pantry that we picked up at REI in Reno. Simply boil some water, pour it right into the bag, wait a bit, then eat! We enjoyed a spicy combination of Katmandu Curry and Pad Thai. Each of the meals was a serving for two, and the three of us were pretty full after sharing both.
We didn’t have a water filter for this trip, so we just used water treatment and neutralizing tablets from Potable Aqua. The water up there was so cold and clean, that this process worked out pretty well. Using the iodine treatment pills alone leaves the water tasting a little funky, but the neutralizing tablets clean the water back up. You certainly didn’t have to worry about going thirsty in this area!
As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to get all the food into the Bear Vault for the night. Although it is quite common to use a bear bag slung over a tree branch, there was hardly a tree taller than me in the whole area. Most of the trees are pretty dwarfed over 10,000 ft, so I was thankful to have the canister! We went through the packs, found anything with a scent, and put it in the Bear Vault. I hiked the canister over to the next ridge and stashed it away, confident that we had gotten everything. Once back in the tent, and snug in the sleeping bags, we found a chocolate bar under someone’s sleeping bag! Back into my clothes and down the hill to the canister. It was fully dark by now though, and the number of visible stars was astounding. I called my son out of the tent to see, and he got to see the cloudy haze of the Milky Way for the first time!
It didn’t get too chilly until early the next morning. I put on my fleece jacket and hat, and stayed plenty cozy until it was time to get up. We decided to stay in the tent until the sun hit us directly, and I hoped that we’d have a break in the mosquitoes until it warmed up. As soon as the sun hit us the tent warmed up instantly, and the mosquitoes were all over the tent waiting for us to come out. There were a hundred or more at times! Another peaceful breakfast was eaten inside the tent.
We hoped that the breeze would come up and drive the mosquitoes away, but it stayed calm and they just got thicker. We finally decided to cover up head to toe, and work on breaking down camp. Even though we were covered with clothing and a layer of mosquito spray, they continued to be annoying, buzzing around our faces while we were trying to load up our packs. Only the amazing scenery surrounding us made the bugs tolerable, otherwise we may have gone mad!
The hiking plan for the day was to finish off the loop, and take the water taxi back across Saddlebag Lake. I told the family that according to the map, it looked like an easy day of hiking. They believed me.
The next lake on the list to visit was Shamrock Lake, but the trail didn’t look to friendly. It was a bit of a scramble to cross the nearby creek, get up some boulders, and find the trail. I thought I knew an easier route, and led the family around some smaller ponds and small hills. In the end we had walked in a big circle, and were stopped by cliffs and high water. There was no good route through. We ended up backtracking to the official trail, wasting about 45 minutes of energy. The official trail turned out to be not too bad at all. I took the packs up the climb one by one, and at the top, the trail became friendly again. Lesson learned. Follow the signs and the map!
With its islands, Shamrock Lake looked like a place that deserved further exploring. We decided to keep moving though, wanting to save some energy. Over the next ridge the trail ended in a cliff and a big snow bank with no obvious direction that the trail would go. I had a feeling the trail continued to the south, but Kristy said, “Whatever your instincts are, it’s probably the opposite.” The extra hiking from the morning was still fresh in her mind I guess! I looked for options in the other direction and found the most likely route. I spotted the trail down below, but didn’t see an easy way to get down there. Nothing but steep snow and cliffs. About the only clues were some dirty footprints in the snow leading down the side of the hill.
Again we took off the packs and handed them down to each other as we climbed down the hill. The final snow bank had a 6 foot deep crevasse that needed to be crossed where it had melted away from the rocks. Not a big deal for us, but I was afraid we’d lose our two small dogs down them if we weren’t careful. We handed the dogs and packs across the gap, and then figured out what to do next. My son, free of his pack now, decided he was going to slide down the snow bank. It seemed safe enough, but I was worried he wouldn’t stop and land in the creek below. He touched down safely! Kristy grabbed his pack and slid down too. This turned out to be pretty fun and a good diversion from the hiking. Kristy climbed back up the snow and slid her pack down too. Charlie took a few more runs, but I opted to stay dry and hike my pack down. I was wearing cotton jeans, and didn’t want soggy pants for the rest of the hike.
Once people, dogs, and all the packs were back on the trail, we took a short break and refilled our water bottles in the creek. Lake Helen was just over the hill, and I had hoped for some easy hiking for a while. Just before we got to the lake though, there was another snow bank to cross. It wasn’t too steep, but it was pretty slick. A couple of us fell on our butts. Once at the Lake Helen, I looked across to the climb we’d be doing to get up to Lundy Pass. I remembered hearing it was a good climb, and this looked to be true. Especially since it was covered in snow! “Uh, family…see that over there? We need to climb up that…”. Always fun to be the group leader and break the news!
We got to the creek crossing at the north end of Lake Helen and there was a log bridge to get across. The challenging part though, was that we couldn’t see how to get down to the bridge. We looked around for the preferred path, but didn’t have much luck. Finally someone on the other side of the creek who had a better view than us told us the best way. The high water had hidden the trail, because the best way was just a couple of rocks poking out of the water at the bottom of a slippery climb. This was the best way for people, but not the packs and dogs. Once again we took the packs off, got a person down on the trail below, handed packs and dogs down, then regrouped. It was slow going, but the problem solving we had to do this day made the hike all the more interesting. I looked back up the mountain to where we began our day’s hike, and we really hadn’t gone that far yet. It sure felt like it though.
We made our way to the south side of Lake Helen, and started up the trail to Lundy Pass. Snow covered the bottom, and there was a tunnel underneath from the melting runoff. Had we not had packs on, we probably could have climbed up under the snow. You would’ve certainly fallen through in the thin middle up on top, so we stayed to the left as we climbed the snow. Luckily the snow was just melted enough for good traction with our boots. I had stepped on a similar snow bank in the early morning, and it was a sheet of ice. Once we were at the top, it was rewarding to look back at the lake and climb and think, “Wow, we just did that!”
We hiked on up and over the pass, not stopping at Odell or Hummingbird Lakes. We’d seen so much water all day, that it was fine to just enjoy them as we passed by. We didn’t have a watch with us either, and knew that the last water taxi left around 4:30 or 5:00. We could only guess as to what time it was.
Finally, we were back down to the north shore of Saddlebag Lake. The first water taxi was full, and the next one wasn’t due for another half hour. It was voted that we take our chances and see if there was room on the next boat. It was crazy to see how many people showed up for the first boat. Hikers and fisherman seemed to come out of nowhere! They must have had reservations and watches. I’m glad we didn’t make a reservation, because I would’ve had no idea how challenging the second day of hiking would be compared to the first.
We were just barely able to squeeze on to the next boat. Three people, three big packs, and two small dogs. Sitting around waiting for the boat made my legs really tired, and I was thankful as we zoomed back to Saddlebag Lake Resort, not missing the last miles of hiking one bit.
We returned to the car triumphant! We were beat, each of us had a few mosquito bites, but we were all proud that we had survived our first family backpacking trip in pretty good shape. We drove straight back to Carson City, only stopping once in Bridgeport for some chocolate dipped ice cream cones. We had a lot of fun and immediately began planning our next backpacking trip!
- The complete photo set of this trip is on Flickr HERE.
- Saddlebag Lake Resort: http://www.saddlebaglakeresort.com/amenities.html
- Map: http://www.verber.com/mark/outdoors/destinations/20lakes-map.pdf