Crystal Clear Waters Combined With High Alpine Peaks That Will Stop You In Your Tracks
Sierra Rec Magazine Adventure Review – September 2017 – Visiting and Exploring 20 Lakes Basin was so much more than I had expected. Have you ever heard a review of a location and it just didn’t do it for you, so you decide to skip, only later to find out that it as way better than initially thought? Well, the 20 Lakes Basin off Tioga Pass in the Hoover Wilderness was just that to me and couple friends looking to explore the region for the first time this fall. The 20 Lakes Basin is now one of my most recommended destinations in the Eastern Sierra.
I have explored all over the Eastside of Yosemite, and typically I have one or possibly two singular destinations on my journeys that make my day trips fulfilling. So planning my trip into the 20 Lakes Basin was unique as I was aware that I would see several bodies of water and that my altitude during the hike was going to maintain that 10,000-foot area the entire day. I was shocked while exploring on various sites and google maps how many of the lakes didn’t seem to be photographed. After visiting I think that might be a way of hiding their favorite locations from too many visitors. The 20 Lakes Basin is a series of lakes connected by streams which flow off two different valleys on Tioga Pass area. The back Lakes flow into Lundy Canyon and the Front lakes flow into Saddlebag lake and eventually down the water system in Tioga Pass.
Arriving at Saddlebag Lake early in the morning assured us of decent parking, and as we drove up the mountain towards the lodge, I already had a feeling that I may have misjudged the area and for years now may have been driving by a unique recreation area which I will return visit often. The Scenic area was stunning. Saddlebag Lake its self is gorgeous blue water lake so clear that you can see the fish swimming along the dam and the shore for what seems like 20 feet of deep blue water. One in our party stayed here all day catching Trout in roughly 5 hours he caught eight very nice trout on this clear cool fall day.
There are two trails around Saddlebag Lake. The west side trail crosses the dam and will guide you along the west shore into Greenstone Lake at 10,150 feet. The east side trail will also get you back to Greenstone but is typically taken straight back to Odell adn Helen Lake before return route around the lakes counterclockwise. The Eastside route is typically referred to as the smoother route to follow. On this day, however, we took the Westside route with the morning sun warming the hillside that still had remnants of last weeks snow storms. The trail here is loose rock for most of the trail and requires you to pay attention to your steps, but is quick and relatively easy to traverse.
Greenstone Lake is approximately 1.5 miles back and sits at the base of Northpeak’s southeastern edge. This stunning lake is so clear and offers a great high Alpine Meadow surrounding the lake and a fantastic view of Northpeak at 12,256 ft, the Top of Mount Conness at 12,556 feet.
We followed the Southshore around to the Lee Vining creek coming down from Conness Lakes. The meadow is still full of wildflower colors this year and the snow was being enjoyed by backcountry skiers already back in the bowl to the south.
Lee Vining creek provides a trail up the ridge that helps you navigate to the backside of the 20 Lakes basin. You will need to cross the creek as the trail is on the north side of the creek and lake. After doing this trip I would personally always take this route as it seems much more natural and wild versus the Counterclockwise route which is very heavily traveled.
You will climb maybe 350 feet or so until you reach the another alpine meadow area. Then cross over a ridge of granite and grass on your way up to Casecade Lake. This segment the trail seems to vanish and re-appear, this might have been a little because it is easy to wander to bodies of water pooled up all around you. The natural terrain, however, is easy to follow and navigate. You never feel like you have to climb aggressively on the mountains it will climb a couple hundred feet then open up to other waterways.
Cascade Lake is the most hidden of the lakes as it is tucked kind of off path towards Northpeak and requires you to visually see the terrain and how it might bowl up on the horizon. To get here we traversed an open granite area following our instincts towards the base of the ridge.
The waters of Cascade Lake were deep and blue and made fro a great spot to rest and have a little snack to regain our energy. In total, we made it here in about 2 hours from the front of Saddle Bag Lake.
After a brief stop at Cascade Lake, we followed the water line on the Northside down to Potter, Towser and Steelhead Lake. All are connected in a chain of streams and falls. Just to the north of Towser and Steelhead Lake you will regain the trail.
Once you regain the trail the trail will split with one trail going up the hill towards Secret Lake and over to MaCabe lakes in Yosemite National Park. The lower taking you towards Shamrock, Excelsior, and Lake Helen. This was a little tricky to figure out and if coming from the other direction would have much easier to see.
Once down the hill the last series of Lakes seemed to be where we saw the most people and the water seemed to stop people in awe.
The trail follows the North Ridge with a series of up and down sections as you cross over to another lake. Lake Helen is the last Lake in the chain and is tucked back into a very rugged rocky region, the area almost looks volcanic, but might perhaps be a glacial deposit area. Most might feel seeing the lake was far enough but we encourage you to walk around the lake to the waterfall on the far Northside of the lake as this waterway gives way to Lundy Canyon.
Lundy Canyon is another fantastic Route int eh Hoover wilderness, at the end of the canyon there is a large waterfall, this Waterfall comes from Lake Helen and more adventurous and fit individuals may indeed take a shorter more strenuous hike up Lundy Canyon and then up to Lake Helen from down below.
Our return trip follows the same route back to Steelhead lake today as the snow prevents us from getting to Odell lake. The trail splits at Steelhead lake and becomes very wide and well-traveled back through the basin past Wasco, Hidden, and Z Lakes before landing at the base again next to Greenstone Lake.
All in all our trip took a little over 5 hours, but we felt like we kind of hurried along on the cool fall day. On return trips, I think I’ll plan fora longer visit and stay at a few lakes longer. In the summer I would definetely be taking a dip.
On our way out we saw several groups heading in for a backpacking adventure 2-3 day backpack trip would be perfect. There is great fishing back here if you bring a pole. Wilderness Permits are required for backpacking trips, and as always, pack out what you pack in! And always be wildlife aware.
Overall I highly recommend this adventure. I have lived in the region for 10 years, and I can’t believe I have not come back here. I’ll be back soon.
Sierra REC Magazine is dedicated to sharing the events, news and adventure opportunities that exist in The Sierra Mountains. From Lassen Volcanic National Park to the North down through the Central Sierra and the Lake Tahoe Basin through the rugged eastern slopes of the Mono County and Yosemite National park to the southern tips near Sequoia National Park and the PCT trail. We invite you to share stories, trips, and photos from your adventures in the Sierra. Please join us on Facebook, Twitter Google + and You-Tube or email us your events and photos at firstname.lastname@example.org #goexplore