Two hikes in a row (Dragon's Spine was the previous day), and I've lost the trail twice! This time, I even saw the sign pointing to the right trail, but it couldn't possibly have been right, so I went the other way. It's all part of the character-building for our son. If he can see his parents walking in circles, but still persevere in finding the right trail and finishing the hike...and more importantly, doing it fast enough to make the last boat out of the wilderness...then there must be a lesson there somewhere. Maybe something like "their generation is just nuts", or hopefully something more positive, but time will tell.
Saddlebag Lake is a resort that really seems to be genuine and family-owned. I really have no idea about the ownership, but the overall feel is one of a family operation where the dad or uncle works the bar-be-que churning out delicious tri-tip steak sandwiches, hamburgers, and hot dogs for the guests, a daughter/cousin/neice/family friend works the register ringing up ferry fares and lunch, and a team of sons/nephews/friends runs the pontoon boat that takes hikers and backpackers across the lake to enjoy the beautiful Twenty Lakes Basin a couple hours sooner than without the ferry. It's probably all part of the fantasy I've built in my mind around the delicious Apple Crumble Pie we had after today's hike, but you never know!
Things started out great. We headed up US-395 towards Yosemite for the first time. We wanted to see if it was as "crazy-busy" as we had heard for the Labor Day Holiday weekend. We were not disappointed. There were cars going in circles, lines at the bathrooms in gas stations, and the parking lots at Saddlebag Lake were full. We slipped into a parallel space between two pine trees, and sauntered down to the lake secure in the knowledge that no matter how crowded it was, we could come back next week and the parking lot would be empty. Our luck continued, as we walked up to the Saddlebag Lake Resort to find the smell of bar-be-que and a ticket for the ferry available with only a half-hour wait - just time enough to gobble up a tri-tip steak sandwich and a couple slices of watermelon!
The Twenty Lakes Basin trail is a 5 mile loop that seems to always be weaving around a lake or creek. It is a rocky trail, and with the enormous snows this winter, even in early September, snow is still a factor! The walk began harmlessly enough. Look at the levels of the lakes in the picture below. The little, unnamed lake sits a story or so above Greenstone Lake, which sits quite a number of feet above Saddlebag Lake. The trail is full of these types of stepping-stone vistas with little waterfalls and steep creeks linking lake after lake.
If we had checked the map at this point, we would have realized that we were taking the trail clockwise. Unfortunately, we thought we were taking the trail counter-clockwise. We were having a great time, the hike was fantastic, and ignorance is bliss!
About a mile or two into the trail, we see a sign that says "Lake Helen", with an arrow pointing the opposite direction than we would have expected. In a moment of hubris, we munch our beef jerky and decide the sign must be wrong, since it would mean that we have to climb up a steep, rocky hillside. We jump the creek and take the soft, wildflower-lined trail that is not so steep. We are rewarded with spectacular lake views.
Unfortunately, we have taken an off-shot of the main trail that leads to the old Tungsten Mine (which we didn't see), and end up circumnavigating Cascade Lake before rejoining the main trail - about 1.5 miles and an hour later. All of the sudden, the four hours we had allowed for this nice loop hike and return on the 5:45pm ferry had turned from a lazy day into a race against time. Our son began lecturing us on the various facts he had picked up from watching a couple seasons of Survivorman, Dual Survival, Man vs Wild, and Man, Woman, Wild. In no time, he had convinced us we would be spending the night on a rocky slope in a snow cave, trying to beat fire out of rocks and wet twigs, and eating raw lake trout while fighting off bears.
Fortunately, we found the main trail and the sign we had ignored earlier, and this time, we followed the arrow and scrambled up the hill double-time to make sure we didn't miss our ferry out of the basin.
The key word in all of this is "basin". Even I can't get lost when you drop me in a bowl surrounded by 12,000 foot peaks. Eventually, you must walk in a circle, or climb a really steep hill. As long as you refuse to climb the hill, you will come back to where you started!
We jumped the creek between Excelsior Lake and Shamrock Lake, and started on the part of the map designated as the "small trail" (versus the "main trail").
The trail got steep and rocky, and we were, of course, in a hurry due to the time lost wandering around Cascade Lake, thinking we needed to waste time or we'd be way too early for the ferry.
We made up the lost time, and then slowed down a bit to appreciate the incredible trail and view. Rocks, lakes, and wildflowers everywhere!
With about half of the hike traversed, and about an 1 1/2 hours left before our scheduled departure, we're doing OK but don't have a lot of margin for delay as we're traveling at the speed of a 9 year old boy - sometimes very fast, sometimes very slow. We then hit the "snow trail". There was so much snow this year that snow drifts are everywhere. When the staff of Saddlebag Lake arrived in early July to open the resort, they found three feet of snow and ice still covering the lake! The lifts at Mammoth Mountain ran until July 4th. It was a truly prodigious winter! We hit this section of trail feeling a bit behind schedule.
Look at the path above. It was a wild slide down the side of a snow drift! In more than a few places, the trail was completely lost, and we were left guessing which rock slide we should scramble down in order to rejoin the "small trail" as it emerged from under the next snow drift.
Soon enough, we had left the tricky bits of the trail behind, and were left scrambling across rocky scree around Lake Helen. Fortunately, we'd made up lost ground thanks to the yeoman's effort on the part of our son to stretch his stride. It was time for a break on a sun-warmed rock.
The wife/mother is by this time so sick of hearing how fun it would be to survive the night in the wilderness and all of the gory details of shelter-building and fire-starting and hillbilly hand-fishing that she is beginning to fade from view. Unfortunately, she has no hope of escape as the trail once more becomes steep and hard to pick out.
With a last effort that would make any Scout leader proud, they push through the final stretch of trail past Odell Lake, and it's smooth sailing down the hill to the boat dock and ferry pick-up with almost 45 minutes to spare and 6+ miles (including the detour around Cascade Lake) under our belts.
We make a fast exit through the Tioga Pass and back to peaceful Mammoth Lakes, relatively crowd-free after the bustle of Yosemite!