Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Saddlebag – June 2013

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“Where do you want to spend the night?” I asked the Lady. We were again driving south on 395.
“Can we make it as far as Saddlebag tonight?”
“Yes, we probably can but we will pull in after dark. Want to do that?”
She thought on this for a while as we exited the West Walker River Canyon, passed the Sonora Pass intersection, and rounded the corner to the east. The sky ahead was dark with thunderstorm.
“Well, that answers that.” She said. “Let’s run into our spot up the Little Walker before we get wet.”

With the setting sun to the west coming in under and through the storm growing overhead, the color and light was remarkable.

The Lady popped the top and got our set up done. “You stay outside with the camera.” She understood. Lightning approached. Thunder echoed around the peaks. Virga descended from the clouds around us and quickly turned to a steady pounding rain on our roof. Once again, we were beginning an adventure.

What was the making of this trip? After two weekends tied up with work, we wanted to get away, a quick trip to someplace new to explore. The Sierra is our back yard but we have spent more time in the Rocky Mountains, avoiding the more populated mountains close to home. With the flexibility and ease of finding a spot our camper rig provides, we have started quick weekend trips to nearby havens we have wanted to explore. The high basin in the Hoover Wilderness between Lundy Canyon and Saddlebag Reservoir was an easy choice for this weekend.

It is the Lady’s summer break from teaching. “Want to leave this evening?” I asked. “Or should we leave early Friday morning?” I was starting work and the Lady was heading down the hill – meeting friends, yoga classes, swimming laps. Mid day I backed the truck out of the garage in preparation for loading up. I came up from my shop late afternoon. I found the blue water cube full by the outside faucet. The chairs were at the back of the camper next to our backpacks. “I’ve been busy!” The Lady said as she smiled. Her eyes were bright. “So you want to leave this evening? Are you buying me dinner at Walker Burger?” I asked. “Let’s go!” And she was in the truck.

It was hot in the Antelope Valley. A large Marine helicopter was doing wide circles waiting for an opening in the storm to the south so it could reach MWTC at Pickel Meadows. The garden setting at Walker Burger was relaxing as we enjoyed a simple dinner. The Lady ordered our after dinner soft serve ice cream. She took a bathroom break as I got our cones. I was standing as two young women got out of their car. I heard one of them mention ice cream, most likely from seeing me.
“It looks like summertime, doesn’t it?” I said as they approached.
“Yes it does!” one said. The other smiled.
“Are you from Nevada?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Your shirt.”
“Oh, makes sense.” I was wearing my Friends of Nevada Wilderness t-shirt.
The woman continued, “I was asking, wondering if you know where Gardnerville is?”
“Gardnerville is just north on 395 about 30 minutes from here. You must have come up from the south.”
“Yes we did and there’s no cell service so the GPS in my phone doesn’t work so we don’t know where we are.”
“Welcome to the rural west and mountains.” I said with a smile.
The Lady returned and got her chocolate dipped vanilla cone from me and commented on my good taste in having a pleasant conversation with two such pretty girls. We discussed the conversation because we had taught an outdoor land navigation course the previous weekend. We have discovered, with the advent of remarkable technology, that people are becoming totally reliant on devises. Simple foundation skills are lost. In our instruction we cover a lot of first hand experiences on why we do not trust our lives to something that runs on batteries.
“I bet they don’t have a road map with them,” the Lady said.

We arrived at Saddlebag Campground around 9 am the next morning. This is a heavily used recreation area off of highway 120 just to the east of Yosemite’s Tioga Pass. Camping is restricted to campgrounds to manage the impacts from high use. As soon as we could, our packs were on and we knocked out the distance around the reservoir and entered the Wilderness and the basin.

What I call the basin is actually a number of small high basins that hold several small alpine lakes.

The area is geologically interesting because it is right in the contact zone between remnant metamorphic rocks and the classic Sierra Nevada granodiorite. Steelhead Lake sits right in the contact between the older red metamorphic to the east and the granodiorite to the west.

Water flows into Steelhead from a higher basin to the west holding Cascade Lake and several tarns.

Classic North Peak soars above on the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

The intrusive granodiorite must have cooled slowly here as it contains beautiful large feldspar crystals. 

These high lakes hold small brook trout, imports from the eastern United States. I rigged up my fly rod and presented a well dressed #18 elk hair caddis. With the crystal clear water, a gentle presentation was key. Many were so small they would grab the fly without getting hooked. It was time to search out different water.

Steelhead Lake’s water flows down to Shamrock Lake and then into Helen Lake. Several small tarns on the metamorphic rock also drain down into Shamrock.

Shamrock Lake and Lundy Canyon beyond.

As you can tell, clouds were building early in the day. Thunderstorms were coming. We had stepped off trail to reach Shamrock Lake and continued cross country to the top of the central hump in this large area. Small tarns were in small depressions even this high.

Our landmark out was Mount Dana, a classic peak visible across Saddlebag Reservoir.

Raindrops were already falling. The hike back to camp was going to be wet.

We did get wet. The Lady discovered her pack rainfly did not make the season change from her winter ski pack to her summer pack. Her emergency space blanket did the job, but I suspect a new one that is always in her pack is in the very near future. The heaviest part of the storm hit just as we reached the campground, complete with heavy rain and hail. It cleared as we enjoyed dinner. The evening came.  I noticed through the trees that last light was on Mount Dana. I wanted to find an unobstructed view. The Lady said, “Follow me.” She had already found a high, secluded open area easily accessed from our campsite.

I should tell you about “Big Park”. On all our countless backpack trips it is our habit, after dinner, to find a high spot with a view. We sit quietly; watch the light and the movement of animals. We call it “going to Big Park”. We have watched wapiti in the Rockies, mountain goats in Idaho, moose in Breakneck Meadow in Montana, and mule deer ski in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon. We do the same with our camper trips. The spot the Lady found was perfect for Big Park and the evening unfolded before us.

We were back for first light.

Today we had further explorations ahead for us.

Our first stop was Odell Lake.

In the still quiet morning the surface was clear and the trout extremely skittish. I could not positively identify the species, but I’d guess rainbows. There were small trout but I also saw larger trout cruising. I fished nymphs deep and did not connect.

We moved on to Helen Lake.

Helen Lake had many brook trout. I had no luck with my small caddis dry until I lengthened my tippet to five feet. I was then catching brookies with abandon but all were small. We moved up the trail to Shamrock Lake and then to Steelhead Lake. The creek between Shamrock and Helen was delightful.

We were now on the opposite side of Shamrock from our travels the day before.

We took an off trail break beside the falls that drop into Steelhead. The main trail was teaming with Saturday hikers, most taking the shuttle boat across the reservoir. Our last stop was Greenstone Lake. It is fairly shallow and many cruising trout were visible. I connected with many small brook trout with a #18 parachute black ant and my long fine tippet. I did spot two larger cruising trout with deep red sides. One could have gone 16”. The shoreline along Greenstone was nice to explore. The creek flowing in dropped down from the Conness Lakes above in a series of falls.

Clouds were building to the east of Tioga Crest. It did not look like it would reach us on our hike out around the reservoir.

We sat in camp after dinner with an evening cup of coffee, relaxed and happy. Thunder came from the storm boiling to the east of Tioga Crest. We wondered if it would spill over the ridge and take us on also. We wandered over to our rocky Big Park.

Mountain Jewelflower with its tiny flowers and long seed pods.

Cushion Buckwheat’s flowers haven’t quite opened.

Mount Dana in evening light

The storm was dissipating as it moved over Tioga Crest.

The views and light this evening were spectacular.

Morning light on Shepherds Crest

We packed up early Sunday morning and headed over to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.

With the wide Tuolumne River meandering through, and granite spires and domes surrounding it, this is one of the most beautiful alpine meadows in the world. Our early start paid off and the parking areas and trails were quiet. We roamed at will.

This was an incredible way to spend a Sunday morning.

Bill Sunderland mentions fishing the Tuolumne River in his book so we were on the lookout for feeding trout. A 20 inch rainbow told me that a return trip dedicated to fly fishing is in order.

We slowly wandered back down Lee Vining Canyon and intersected with 395 and headed home convinced that there are indeed wonderful treasures in our backyard.

A few notes about the Saddlebag Reservoir area. The campground is small with only 20 spaces. This is very nice. We got there early enough to have a nice selection of sites available. Although much fuller when we returned from our hike, it did not fill Friday evening until around 8:30 pm. Bob is the campground host, working for the concessionaire - Inyo Recreation. Bob is pleasant but rambunctious and talkative. He is on top of things. No need to find a fee envelope and an iron ranger to slip it into. He is right there as soon as someone stops in a site. Paperwork is done in short order and he has your money. The sites are very well kept and the vault toilets clean.  Other campers were quiet and well behaved and friendly. Only a couple of times did we see wandering, unattended dogs. There is a small resort and boat launch at the reservoir, impounded by Southern California Edison. The parking lot was full both days. The majority of day use is bankside fishing. There were only a couple of small trolling boats on the water. The trailhead parking was also full. Most make use of the boat shuttle across the reservoir run by the resort. A little dark brown schnauzer type dog wanders about the resort area; a pleasant dog, master of his domain. One older gentleman associated with the resort told us that "Shadow" was the best dog in the world. One young man who worked for the resort offered to sell Shadow to us a couple of times for only ten dollars.


  1. Hey Ski, those first sunset photos are incredible. Must have been something to see. Looks like a great ramble from lake to lake. Thanks.

  2. Once again such a great trip.This is a place I have to look into.

  3. We are heading up to Tioga Pass tomorrow -- if we are lucky, we will see half as much as you did. Well done, and thanks for the wonderful pictures.

  4. Awesome. Great photos, especially those evening colors! Love seeing the alpine views, too.