About a year had passed since we backpacked the 20 Lakes Basin in 2011. What a difference a year makes. The Sierras received far less snow last winter. There wasn’t nearly as much standing water, and the grass had already started to turn brown. But probably the most notable change was the lack of mosquitoes. We did see a few here and there, but they didn’t seem all that hungry. Compare this to last year when mosquitoes put our tent under siege!
We began our return to the 20 Lakes Basin by leaving way too late from Carson City on a Sunday afternoon back in July. We’re still getting the hang of packing for overnight backpacking trips. Although you can only take what you can carry on your back, it’s still a bit of an art to make sure you remember everything, while at the same time, not over-packing and making your pack too heavy. Forgetting one little item can create hardship, but carrying a few too many pounds can create a huge burden. By the time we got to the Mono Lake Visitor Center to get our Hoover Wilderness permits, it was nearly 5 PM.
We still had enough time to hike to camp if we hurried, but thunderstorms were starting to rumble in the mountains above. We had to make a decision. Risk hiking in a thunderstorm at 10,000 feet, only to make camp just before dark? Or stay low for the night and get an early start in the morning? There wasn’t much to gain by sticking to the plan, and following the plan could certainly lead to problems. We decided to have dinner in Lee Vining instead, and look for a campground in the lower area of Tioga Pass.
We found a pizza place with an outside patio out of the wind. It was also right next to our car so our dogs could keep an eye on us and not get too upset. After dinner, we drove up Tioga Pass to the Lower Lee Vining Campground. The campground is clean enough, but it was busy and loud. One nearby neighbor had a noisy generator hooked up to his RV that competed with the sound of the rushing creek. The generator ran late into the night, and I tried to imagine what on earth it was powering. I finally settled on the idea that the RV occupant had to be inside an iron lung. Why else would they disturb the rest of the campground if it wasn’t absolutely necessary?
After waking the next morning, we were eager to leave the busy campground and get up to the solitude of the mountains. We had some breakfast, then made our way up the beautiful Tioga Pass road to the Saddle Bag Lake turnoff. The road to Saddlebag Lake is paved at times, but mostly well graded dirt. Just before reaching Saddlebag Lake Resort, there is a parking lot for backpackers. It was nearly empty this morning, a good sign that we’d have an easy time finding a great place to camp for the night. Also at the parking lot is drinking water, restrooms, and a trash can, making it convenient for any last minute needs before hitting the trail.
We began our hike by crossing below the dam, and then climbing up to the trail that goes along the west side of Saddlebag Lake. We had several snow crossings last year, but it was all easy hiking this time. We made good time around the lake compared to our last trip, thanks in part to our updated gear, lighter loads, and trekking poles. Soon we were at Greenstone Lake.
We had a nice break near Greenstone Lake, but the incoming dark clouds had us reluctant to stay too long. We crossed a log bridge across a creek, then connected to the trail that heads northwest to Steelhead Lake. This larger trail is actually an old roadbed to the Hess Mine, which operated as a tungsten mine until 1962.
It sprinkled at times as we climbed gently to the north. Just when we got worried it was really going to start raining, it stopped. In spite of the rain, we noticed that many of the smaller ponds and streams were dried up as we passed by Wasco Lake.
Once at the north end of Steelhead Lake, we found a nice place to setup camp above the lake’s outlet. The tent was surrounded by low trees on a couple sides, was not visible from the trail, had outstanding views, and had easy access to drinking water. Perfect.
Once we had camp all setup, it was time to do whatever we wanted to for the rest of the day. Kristy chose to relax at camp with the dogs, and the boy and I set out to explore the Hess Mine and nearby Cascade Lake.
We followed the mine road around the north side of Steelhead Lake. In the outlet creek we found the rusty remains of an old water valve. At the north end of the the lake shore were piles of waste rock and dirt, the main evidence that mining had once taken place here. It’s hard to picture a mining operation taking place in this remote and pristine section of wilderness!
We climbed up above Steelhead on the west side cliffs. There are a couple good campsites there with great views if you don’t mind the nearby cliffs. Continuing around the lake, we made our way over the huge granite slabs and boulders. All around this area are a litter of boulders deposited in strange locations. Sometimes the boulder doesn’t even match the type of rock it’s sitting on. I remember this was a mystery to me early on, until I figured out that the moving glaciers must have deposited them throughout the area as the ice melted.
Cascade Lake, right at the base of the magnificent North Peak (Elevation: 12,242 ft / 3,731 m), has a few good campsites here and there between the granite slabs. Last time we were here, I remember much of this area was still under snow. In addition to Cascade Lake, there are smaller connected ponds and a creek that eventually cascades down into Steelhead Lake via a beautiful waterfall.
We had been gone for quite a while, so the boy and I decided to head back to camp. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring closer to camp, doing camp chores, eating dinner, and finishing off the evening with a cup of wine. I took dozens of photos while the sun was going down, trying to catch the perfect shot.
We awoke the next morning to warm sun shining on the tent. As we were planning to get out of the tent, I could sense that we were not alone. I could sense an animal outside the tent, and I was pretty sure I heard something. In my mind I pictured a black bear sniffing around where we had spilled some broth. I cautiously opened the tent and peeked out. There it was. A big fat marmot. While brown and furry like a bear, it was only the size of a house cat. It scurried away before I could get the camera.
Instead of breaking camp and finishing the 20 Lakes Basin loop like we did last year, we decided to spend the morning relaxing and exploring. Later we would just hike back the way he had come in to save time. We crossed the creek out of camp, which eventually drains into Lundy Canyon and then into Mono Lake, and followed the trail to Shamrock Lake to the northeast. It’s a very short hike to Shamrock Lake, passing smaller ponds along the way.
Shamrock Lake is full of little islands, the type that are just off shore that just beg to be swam out too. It was still pretty chilly, and the water was cold just to wade into. None of us had the guts to try even the closest island. And if the boy won’t jump in, I know it’ll be way too cold for me. Instead we just explored the rocks along the shoreline, and warmed up in the sun on the grass bordering the water.
We could have easily spent another day in the mountains, but people were expecting us home. Regrettably, we had to pack up our camp and start hiking out. The scenery had an all new shiny look in the sun compared to the dark and mysterious scenery of the day before.
Once we hit the Hoover Wilderness border, we decided to give the east side of Saddlebag Lake a try. The terrain is easier, since it’s part of the old mine road, but the route is longer. There were some decent views, but I think we all agreed that we’ll stick to the rugged west side in the future.
We usually take pretty decent food with us on our backpacking trips, but as we drove down Tioga Pass, we were ready for some real food. Bodie Mike’s in Lee Vining has a patio, and they even agreed to let us bring our dogs up. Burgers, beer, and brownie sundaes never tasted so good!
The 20 Lakes Basin is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and I’m surprised it’s not more crowded. Perhaps being so close to Yosemite actually helps, the crowds being drawn across the park border to the world famous location. We tend to see a lot of day hikers and fisherman in this area, but the place seems to clear out as the sun goes down. There is still much to explore in this area for us. Ridges to climb, more lakes to find, maybe even bag a peak. We’ll definitely be back again in 2013.
The full photo set of this trip is over on Flickr.