In September we were looking for a quick weekend overnighter, not too far from home. I had never hiked above Virginia Lakes in the Hoover Wilderness. The maps and photos showed several lakes, jagged mountains in a variety of colors, and an 11,100 foot pass that promised spectacular views. All this without a lot of hiking. For this hike, my dad would be joining my son and I (and our dogs of course) for our first ever father, son, and son hike. I hadn’t backpacked with my dad since I was just a little older than my son is now, so this was a pretty special occasion. We left Carson City early in the morning on a Saturday, and stopped at the Bridgeport Ranger Station to pick up our overnight wilderness permits before arriving at the trailhead.
The trailhead for this hike is at the very end of the Virginia Lakes Road which leaves HWY 395 to the west at Conway Summit just north of Mono Lake. Virginia Lakes Road is paved until almost the very end, then turns into a well graded dirt road near the trailhead at Big Virginia Lake. There is ample parking and a restroom here. The trail leaves from the end of the parking lot behind the restrooms.
The trailhead was really busy this time of year, but most of the people were down at the lake fishing. The fishing looked to have been excellent. One guy was returning to his car with a trout that was at least as long as my forearm! After leaving the trailhead though, the crowds thinned out, and we only saw a few anglers and day hikers heading up the trail for the upper lakes.
This hike starts at over 9,800 feet elevation, so you’re into the rugged mountains from the very start of the hike. Soon after leaving Virginia Lakes, you enter the Hoover Wilderness, and arrive at Blue Lake at 9,886 feet. There is no camping at Blue Lake due to its proximity to the trailhead, but not to worry, as there are plenty of places further up the canyon. Although there was evidence of fire rings in the canyon, fires are not permitted here above 9,000 feet.
We hiked around the north side of Blue Lake, and then climbed above it to the west. In the woods above the lake is an old miner’s cabin making its last stand. It looks small and cozy, and probably slept one short prospector. There are remains of old furniture inside, and even a few old items still sit on a table. It’s severely leaning right now, and many logs are propped up on one side to keep it from falling down.
Just past the cabin is Cooney Lake at 10,240 feet, bordered by big boulders. A few anglers were casting from the shores, and we could see the pass now further up the canyon.
Climbing around the north side of Cooney Lake, we soon came to Frog Lakes at around 10,370 feet. There are three Frog Lakes, but they are smaller than the previous lakes. As we hiked around the upper lake, the largest of the three, we spotted potential campsites above the south shore.
We hiked around the west side of the lake through a meadow and over the lake inlet. Frog Lake really lived up to its name. The grass was hopping with little frogs, and there were so many that we had to walk slow and careful so we didn’t step on them.
We found an existing campsite on the southeast side of the lake, far enough away from the water, with a good tent area, and nice pile of flat rocks with log chairs for a kitchen. There is no shortage of suitable sites on this side of the lake. Those looking for more privacy can climb up a bit higher.
Setting up camp early gave us the luxury of getting a head start on dinner, a big pot of vegetable noodle soup. After cleaning up, we still had plenty of time to explore the area. Just to the east of camp we had good views of Cooney Lake below. Later my dad and I went off to filter some water near the outlet of the lake. A couple bottles into the process, we heard a pack of coyotes howling back in the direction of camp. It was so loud that it could’ve been in camp, so my dad went back to check on things while the dogs and I continued our chore. It turned out the coyotes weren’t in camp, but my son was worried that maybe our dogs had gotten loose and were being attacked just up the hill from him. My guess is that they were hunting the small rodents that have made numerous holes all over the hill above.
We wound down pretty early that night. My dad brought along a bivy sack to sleep in, and my son, the dogs, and I shared our 3-man tent. We had a little extra room just in case my dad changed his mind. I stayed up until near dark, sipping some wine and trying to capture photos of the alpenglow on Dunderberg Peak. It was a peaceful evening with barely any breeze, and no bugs. And if you don’t have bugs to contend with, you can almost say that everything is perfect.
It was a pretty comfortable night until late morning. I was glad to see the sky getting brighter through the tent walls, and I couldn’t wait until the sun hit the tent. It was pretty chilly, and I was really starting to doubt the 20 degree rating on my sleeping bag. Either it’s not really rated for 20 degrees, or the ratings don’t actually mean you’ll be comfortable at this temperature. Perhaps it just means you won’t freeze to death.
None of us waited for the sun to hit our campsite before getting up. Tall trees were preventing a timely warming. Instead we bundled up, and made some hot coffee and tea. Finally we had some patches of sun to sit in by the time we started on breakfast.
The plan for the day was to hike to the pass above without the big packs. We cleaned up camp and packed most of our stuff away. Before heading out though, we explored further up the hillside above camp. My dad found some old mines, and this explained the purpose of some of the old scraps of metal we had found around camp. Some of the shafts were still pretty deep, and we even found the remains of what might have been a small stone cabin.
We were finally ready to make our climb to the pass. There doesn’t seem to be an official name for the pass, and I could find nothing on the map. On the other side of the pass is Summit Lake, but Summit Pass is on the other side of it. We returned to the trail on the north side of the lake and followed it up to the west. Soon we came to the upper lake with no name. It appears to be a permanent lake, but its shallowness gives it a emerald color.
After leaving the lake, the trail switchbacks up a steep slope of talus. Elevation is gained quickly, and amazing views of the canyon below open up. Directly to the south are some black jagged peaks, and they still had snow patches from last winter at their base.
Up on top of the pass, the jagged peaks to the west come into view. The 12,000 foot peaks of Virginia Peak and and Whorl Mountain in Yosemite National Park look impossibly steep. Just a little bit further and Summit Lake in the valley below becomes visible. You feel like you’re on top of the world.
We hiked over to a spot where we could look down into valley below, and found a good lunch spot out of the wind. From our vantage point we could see Summit Lake, Hoover Lakes, Gilman Lake, and East Lake. Way off in the distance we could see Bridgeport Reservoir.
We explored the pass more before descending back to camp. We found the couple of little lakes on the map just south of the summit, but there was very little water left in them. As high up as we felt, there were still nearby mountaintops a thousand feet above our location.
After a smooth descent back to camp, we finished taking down the tent and loading up the packs. We stopped at Cooney Lake for an intended swim. As we got to the lake though, the wind was blowing really hard. My son was in his bathing suit ready to go, but eventually gave up hopes of a plunge. The water probably wouldn’t have been too bad, but the windchill getting out would’ve been brutally cold. He made a wise decision I think.
Between Cooney Lake and Blue Lake, there is a canyon below Dunderberg Peak. Sitting up in a little basin is Moat Lake, out of view from the trail below. Climbing up to the lake would make a nice little side trip.
We returned to the trailhead in great spirits , feeling like we had hiked just the right amount of miles for this trip. It was enough of a hike to feel like you did something, but short enough to enjoy some downtime resting and enjoying the scenery. The fall colors of the bushes and trees really complimented the black and red mountains, and made it a unique time to visit. We’ll definitely be back for another trip into this area.
More photos of this hike can be found on Flickr here.
Tip: Free wilderness permits for overnight trips, and good maps can be found at the ranger station in Bridgeport, CA.