One of the truly memorable nights of our backpacking summer was up at Return Lake above Virginia Canyon. It's a few miles off the trail, but it's also pretty easy to find if you are in the area and have a decent map. But because it's off the trail, you won't run into many people there.
What we did run into was a wonderful place.
Perched underneath Virginia Peak, Return Lake sits in a small bowl. There were fish to be seen (and a few to be caught) but it was the scenery and the wild nature of the area that really got our attention.
It was a cool, blustery August afternoon when we arrived, with a few whitecaps on the lake. We were charmed by the view, by the solitude, and by the wild mint that was growing everywhere---adding its scent to our footsteps around camp.
And that wind didn't die down--we ended up getting in our tent about 8 o'clock in the evening--not before we had watched the shadow of Virginia Peak creep up the face of the peak across the canyon during the sunset.
In the middle of the night, we were awoken by the scream of a fox (or was it a mountain lion? --apparently they can be very similar) that came from quite nearby. In the morning, the Clark's Nutcrackers were noisy at dawn, calling to each other from the tops of the trees, whacking away at the pine cones above our head.
We took our time packing up. It was too nice a place to hurry. From there we hiked up the saddle to Soldier Lake, where the views were even more astonishing, and then returned to pick up our packs and begin the long hike towards the trailhead and home.
We've never sure exactly how to describe what we are looking for on our trips to the Sierra, but we certainly found it at Return Lake.