Highway 395 and the East Side
This is the back door to the Sierra. A highway that connects all the rest, but on the steep and dramatic east side of the Sierra. And there are more trailheads than you can count. Here are some of our favorite hikes in this area, listed from North to South by the Highways that cross over the crest:
South of Highway 108:
Leavitt Meadows and the West Walker River: This is one great area--now part of the Hoover Wilderness as of 2010 and just amazing scenery. Plus, the permits are available on a self-serve basis at the trailhead! We worked our way up the West Walker River trail, then forded the river (in early July of 2010 this was no laughing matter!) and climbed up to Fremont Lake. From there we went through Walker Meadows and then camped at Cinko Lake.
It won't have this much snow when you get here---we were the first people into the lake this year--and that was over 4th of July weekend.
And then past Cinko Lake, along the Pacific Crest Trail to Cascade Creek...down the creek to the West Walker again, and up into Long Canyon. ( If you wanted, you could also take the PCT up to Harriet Lake and beyond. over Dorothy Lake Pass into Yosemite.) The photo at right is lovely Stella Lake, on the way to Dorothy Lake Pass. 35+ miles. Photo Log
Long Canyon is a very tough, steep climb for the first mile or so...but there are both views and waterfalls...and then it opens up into a stunning meadow, shown at left. At little later in the year, we would have continued on to Bear Trap Lake...but it was too snowy for us. And on the way out, we also stopped at Roosevelt Lake and took the scenic (and mountainous) route back through Secret Lake. All good places to camp...but these lower lakes will certainly have more people than the high country. Here's the blog entry: West Walker River Trip Report
The next trailhead south is Buckeye Creek. We've taken this trail twice early in the season, over 4th of July weekend. The first time we were stopped by high water at the ford, four miles in. But the second trip, during the extremely dry 2021, was a piece of cake. First trip Photos are here. Here's the full trip report: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/4thofjulyadventure. And the second trip report is here: www.backpackthesierra.com/post/thunder-and-lightning-and-more-oh-my. And that photo log is here.
Twin Lakes to Benson Lake and Matterhorn Canyon is a longer hike--we took seven days to finish the 50 miles. And it leaves from Twin Lakes Road off Highway 395. This one has it all: stunning vistas, wonderful fishing, great lakes, and just a little too much traffic to be on our all time favorite list. But you owe it to yourself once in this life to walk up Matterhorn Canyon towards the Sawtooth Range...seen in the photo below right, or stumble down wide-open Kerrick Canyon, trying to turn your head as you walk to take it all in. And when you add in the wonderful fishing in Smedberg Lake for rainbows, and Matterhorn Canyon for brookies...well, it's a great trip. That's Robinson Lake above. Photo Log
Remember that the first seven miles up out of Twin Lakes to Peeler or Crown Lake (depending on which direction you take the loop) is a brutal 2500 foot climb. And after that we think the two toughest climbs are from Crown Lake to Mule Pass, and from Benson Lake to Seavey Pass. Both of those are downhill if you do the loop counterclockwise...which is why most people do it that way. Wonderful places here. It's a fifty mile loop, which explains all the groups of boy and girl scouts earning their merit badges here. Here's the blog trip log: Matterhorn Canyon and Benson Lake loop--a trip report
Virginia Canyon: here's one that will really get you some solitude. the trail starts at Virginia Lakes trailhead off I-395, north of the Tioga Pass Road between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. (You can also access this area through Green Lakes--an easier but somewhat less scenic route, or Virginia Pass, which isn't really a trail, it's a route marked by a few cairns.) Photos Here
The first pass is over 11,000 feet, and you then drop down past Summit Lake into Virginia Canyon. Here is where the volcanic geology of the east side of the Sierra gives way to the more traditional granite of the south and west--and the contrast can be striking. Photo Log
Once in the canyon, you can hike down to the PCT and McCabe Lakes (or even Glen Aulin and Tuolumne Meadows) or up the canyon to a remote series of lakes and peaks that completely bowled us over.
This is a tough trail---the hike over Virginia Lakes Pass is no cakewalk, and unless you can leave a second car at Green Lakes, you will need to hike it twice. We did. And we thought this area was well worth the effort. One of our favorite hikes in Yosemite.
Walker Lake and Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass: This one leaves south of Highway 120 and
Mono Lake. It's the old trail that the Paiute and Mono Indians used to get up and over the crest from Mono Lake into Yosemite Valley. And it is unrelenting steep. But it is also short, and has wonderful views.
The trailhead is the Walker Lake trailhead off the June Lake Loop Road, and permits come from the Mono Lake Visitors Center. You park on top of a ridge to the south of Walker Lake, and then drop down into the canyon. The rest of the climb is a series of steep switchbacks up steep canyon walls, with an occasion respite where you can catch your breath. Photo Log
At the top, you pass Lower and then Upper Sardine Lake, and then find yourself on the border with Yosemite National Park at Mono Pass. (No camping in this part of the park, so you have to camp before, or after you get over Parker Pass.) There are nice old mining structures here, beautiful views, and lots of little brook trout in the lakes. A good short trip when you have a free weekend, and want to do something really nice.
Gibbs Lake and Kidney Lake: Starting at a trailhead that's just a couple of miles south of Tioga Pass, this trail takes you up to Gibbs Lake, and then gives you access to Kidney Lake, 1000 feet higher. The last mile of Horse Meadow Road to the trailhead was too rough for us and our Subaru, so we just parked and walked up to the trailhead. And the first mile after the trailhead is brutally steep and not very scenic. But from there on, it's a lovely hike up beside a burbling brook.
Gibbs Lake itself is lovely, and has some rainbow and golden trout in it. And the day-hike up to Kidney Lake is quite an adventure. The use trail begins at the far west end of Gibbs Lake, and goes up steeply to the first plateau. The cross the creek and meadow to go up the north side of the creek all the way to Kidney Lake. The trip report is here.
Thousand Island Lake and the John Muir Trail South: this is the very best part of the JMT, and you can reach via different trailheads. We've hiked up Rush Creek, in the June Lake area of Highway 395, and then explored all of the stunning vistas of the highest peaks in the Northern Sierra Banner, Ritter, and the Minarets.
Don't overlook the smaller lakes in this region. We love Ruby, Emerald, and Altha Lakes, and we will go back again to visit and get to know some of the others. Our trip was 36 miles in five days, and left Rush Creek to go up to Waugh Lake, then up to the JMT. We turned south to go to Garnet Lake, then down the use trail (very steep!) and up to Altha Lake for night two. Night three was over the ridge and up Shadow Creek Canyon to Ediza Lake--where we also found lots of people. Photo Log
Day four took us down into the canyon of the San Joaquin River, and then up to Agnew Pass and the small but charming Clark Lakes. And the last day went up over the pass to Spooky Meadow (there is supposed to be a ghost there!) and then down down down the canyon all the way to Rush Creek Trailhead again. Here is the trip report: thousandislandlakeandmore But there is no need to follow our route, just about anything works in this area--and everywhere you will see those peaks looming over you!
McGee Creek: This one is harder than it looks. There is a decent campground on McGee Creek off 395, and from there the trail leads up the canyon for five steady miles of climbing. All well and good, as the views are great along this stretch, although the trail is exposed if you hit it on a sunny day. But the last two miles up to Big McGee Lake are steep, rough, and just plain hard work. Is that a reason not to go? Absolutely not. But we did it right after recovering from COVID, and it was almost more than we could manage. Still, the lake itself is gorgeous, and from the lake you are only five miles from Tully Lake and the other side of the Sierra Crest--which we will visit some day when we are feeling a bit stronger... Here's a link to the trip log, which includes a link even more photos.
Mosquito Flat over Mono Pass to Pioneer Basin and Fourth Recess: This is not the same Mono Pass as above...this one is between Mammoth and Bishop, and includes a trailhead to Little Lakes Valley as well. It's a good steep climb over Mono Pass (12,000+ feet) but the trailhead lets you start around 10,000, so it's not too bad. The pass itself is not the highlight--it's the area beyond, where you can really see some wonderful country. We camped at Fourth Recess Lake and were enchanted with the 800 foot cascade that feeds it. And we explored Pioneer Basin (named for the business moguls of early California: Huntington, Crocker, Stanford and Hopkins). The Basin is like a huge garden with lovely ponds in all directions, and small trees among the rocks. But beware: in inclement weather this area is very exposed, and you are better off camping lower down in the canyon. Photo Log
The canyon, by the way, connects down to Lake Thomas Edison where we took another trip up beyond Second Recess...and loved it as well.
Little Lakes Valley: Leaving from the same trailhead as above, you can follow this trail for four miles up towards Morgan Pass, hiking past more lakes than you can count. Each one has a slightly different combination of fish in it, and the area gets a lot of day hike traffic for that reason alone.
But you can find a few quiet spots in out of the way places, and this would make an ideal first backpacking trip for kids. You could stop pretty much anywhere you want and find a campsite, and kids and water entertain each other just fine. And it has the added advantage that if things really do go bad, you are only an hour or two from the car, no matter where you decide to camp.
Lamarck Lakes: From the North Lake trailhead West of Bishop, this trail climbs pleasantly
but insistently for the first mile up to the junction with the trail the Grass Lake (if you ever wanted to avoid a lake in mosquito season, this would be the lake!) But once past that junction it is steep, rocky and rough. The good news is that it is also short. It's less than a mile to the Lower Lamarck Lake, and only 1.6 miles to Upper Lamarck Lake.
We'd suggest camping at the lower lake, as the upper one has very few good sites. But from the upper lake you can take the trail up over Lamarck Col to Darwin Canyon and Kings Canyon National Park. That's an e-ticket ride, and it should be on everyone's list of hikes they want to do some day! Photos
Paiute Pass to Humphrey's Basin: This is another hike that should be on everyone's list,
and the good news is that if you choose to do it, you can connect to the Lamarck Col trail and make a loop. It's a nice trip to do if you have five or more days to enjoy it.
But Humphrey's Basin is also a wonderful place to set up a base camp and explore for days on end. Each of the lakes in this area seems to have trout, and most of them get very little fishing pressure. You can explore for a day or a week and always find something new. While the upper lakes like Goethe and Desolation are quite austere, the Golden Trout Lakes have more trees. And more people.
Still, this is a top-flight destination. It's only about 7 miles from the trailhead at 9,350 over Paiute Pass (at 11,440) and then back down into the basin to some decent campsites below 11,000 feet. And the hike itself passes through Loch Leven and Paiute Lake for added scenic pleasure. A really nice place to spend a few days. Photo Log
South Lake towards Bishop Pass: A spectacular hike out of South Lake takes you up past Long Lake, Spearhead Lake, Timberline Tarns,
Saddlerock Lake....and If you are ambitious, over Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin and beyond. Or you can explore the other lakes in this wonderful basin: Treasure Lakes, Chocolate Lakes (mmm!) Ruwau and Bull Lakes...lots of stuff to see and do here. And while the trails are often steep, the distances are also short. A few miles takes you from one end to the other. A lovely, lovely area. Photo Log
Lake Sabrina and Beyond: The first destination is Blue Lake--a lovely jewel that would be a great place to stop--except that there are so many more in the miles beyond it. That's only four miles in.
Then you can follow one fork of the trail up to Emerald Lakes (marshy and certainly buggy at times) to Dingleberry Lake. Campsites here are along the granite shelves on the South side of the lake--but there are also a couple of sites if you follow the use trail towards the outlet stream--the one that begins high above the lake when you first start to descend. These sites sit above the stream and below the lake.
Above Dingleberry, you can camp at Topsy Turvy--lots of talus, but a few sites below the trail to Sailor Lake on the granite, and then the canyon opens up for Sailor Lake, where there are tons of sites, and Hungry Packer Lake (stunningly beautiful) and Moonlight Lake only one or two sites in the very far northeast corner. Another fork off this trail goes to Midnight Lake---but we've not seen it.
Back on the trail out of Blue Lake, you can also take a trail up to Donkey Lake and Baboon Lakes. Warning: the trail to Baboon Lakes is not how it appears on the USGS topo or Tom Harrison maps. The current trail to Baboon Lakes leaves the trail to Donkey Lake just above Blue Lake...and not further on as it appears on those maps.
The easiest route to Baboon Lakes might be to find the small round pond just West of Donkey Lake. You can follow a series of cairns southwest up that ridge, over into the next chute, and at the top of that chute the cairns will lead you into the main chute that takes you up to Baboon Lakes. It's steep, but passable and clearly marked. This stream comes out of Baboon Lakes...and it's a lovely companion on the way to Donkey Lake.
(BTW, the other, signed trail to Baboon Lakes from near Blue Lake must take a very different route---but we've never seen it, even though we looked for that trail up at the lake itself. We assume that it stays west of the creek the whole way up...)
You can easily spend a few days up in this basin, camping at some lakes, day-hiking to others, for a wonderful adventure. Photo Log
Here's a trip log of our experiences: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/stunningsabrinabasin