Friday, October 16, 2020

Gaylor Lakes

Gaylor Lakes and the High Sierra
4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The relatively easy hike to the alpine setting of Gaylor Lakes is an overlooked gem in California's Yosemite National Parks and a relaxing and enjoyable way to visit some of the park's most spectacular High Sierra scenery with no crowds and just a mild workout. In two miles, this alpine trail visits two beautiful lakes set beneath grey granite and red metamorphic rock peaks, wandering through meadows with views of the Cathedral Range and Dana Meadows. Most visitors to the park ignore the hike to Gaylor Lakes; even those that venture out on Tioga Road often stick by the better-known destinations around Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake. Don't make the mistake they do and you'll discover a breathtaking scenery on a short trail that epitomizes the allure of the High Sierra.

While this hike is probably the easiest way to see the lakes and meadows characteristic of the High Sierra in Yosemite National Park, it is still quite steep in parts (hence the moderate difficulty rating) and can be challenging for visitors coming from lower elevations as the trailhead is already at nearly 10000 feet. Be sure to watch for signs of altitude sickness and descend to lower elevations if you feel headache or nausea. Additionally, check the weather before coming: with the exception of the early ascent through the forest, this hike is largely through open, exposed alpine terrain, making it quite dangerous in a thunderstorm.

I hiked Gaylor Lakes with Anna during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The trailhead is at Tioga Pass, on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park; from Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 48 miles to a parking lot on the left side of the road just before the entrance station at Tioga Pass. The parking lot is small, but there were still parking spots left on a summer weekend afternoon: this spot is far less popular than the more crowded trails of Yosemite Valley or even Tuolumne Meadows.

From the trailhead, we took the single-track trail heading into the forest to the west. The ascent started immediately, the trail tackling the hill directly with a moderately steep grade. The forest was fairly thin, with small trees and frequent small clearings dotted with wildflowers and providing peeks of Mount Dana, the massive reddish-brown pyramid of metamorphic rock across Tioga Pass.

Meadows and Mount Dana on the Gaylor Lakes Trail
After 0.3 miles, the trail steepened as it entered a larger meadow that provided the hike's first views of Mount Dana, Mount Gibbs, and the Kuna Crest rising above Dana Meadows. As the trail ascended steeply through the meadow, it veered off to the right (north) to begin the most difficult part of the hike. 

Meadows and views of Mount Gibbs along the Gaylor Lakes Trail
As the trail reentered the forest, it cut a series of short and fairly steep switchbacks in rocky terrain and quickly ascended 200 feet, sometimes using granite stairs. Soon, the trail emerged into the alpine tundra, coming out into a landscape of barren rock and grasses. Here, the trail leveled out a bit as it completed a 600-foot ascent in the first 0.6 miles to reach a saddle. Wide views opened up here: the ponds and meadows of Tioga Pass were spread out below us and the high summits of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs towered across the pass. This was a particularly nice spot for me to appreciate the route up Mount Dana, which I had just hiked the day before. Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest provided a granite counterpoint to the south while to the north Tioga Peak joined in with the incongruous brown-red metamorphic rock that is characteristic of this part of the otherwise granite-dominated Sierra Nevada. While hiking across the saddle, we also experienced this granite-metamorphic rock transition beneath our feet as we hiked onto the red metamorphic rock; Gaylor Peak, to our north, was composed of this red rock while the ridge to our south was still grey granite.

Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs rise above Tioga Pass
On the other side of the saddle, we had our first views of the windswept alpine landscape of the Gaylor Lakes Basin. Middle Gaylor Lake filled the basin at the foot of the ridge we were descending, while False White Mountain's granite cliffs rose behind the lake to the north. The trail dropped steeply down to the lakeshore, descending 200 feet in a fifth of a mile. At the lake, unmarked trails branched to the south (left) and north (right) along the lakeshore. We followed the trail to the right, which took us along the north shore of Middle Gaylor Lake.

The lake was set amidst a rocky, almost barren alpine landscape. Grasses and flowers lining the lakeshore and scattered pines provided some color; otherwise, looking out into the lake, we saw just granite, sky, clouds, and their clear reflections. The distant peaks of the Cathedral Range just barely rose above the surface of this lake, which- at nearly 10,400 feet above sea level- is nearly as high in elevation as the summits of Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman, which we spotted in the distance.

Cathedral Range and Mount Hoffman rising above Middle Gaylor Lake
Middle Gaylor Lake
We had beautiful views every step of the way along the north shore of Middle Gaylor Lake until we reached the inlet, a mile from the trailhead. The creek that drains Upper Gaylor Lake and feeds Middle Gaylor Lake had dried up at this point in the season during this dry summer, so we were able to easily cross the inlet. Here, the trail turned north, following the creek gradually uphill through alpine meadows towards Upper Gaylor Lake.

Cathedral Range over Middle Gaylor Lake
The next half mile was one of the most enjoyable and scenic parts of the hike, as we ascended along this dry creek through the meadows. Although the creek had dried, some final alpine wildflowers were still blooming, with many pockets of purple gentian lighting up the meadows near the streambed. Although we saw few other visitors on the trail, whistling marmots kept us company.

Gentian in the meadows
Marmot in the meadows
Looking back, the views from the trail became increasingly more beautiful. The boulder-strewn meadows of the Gaylor Lake Basin served as the foreground to a growing panorama of Sierra peaks: Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Mount Hoffman were joined by Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks and the darker rock of Parsons and Simmons Peak. The granite summit of Mammoth Peak also rose above the ridgeline of nearby Gaylor Peak.

Middle Gaylor Lake
As we walked through the meadows, our hike was briefly interrupted by a spell of rain and thunder. The weather forecast had been less than perfect that day, but we had hoped to squeeze in the hike in late day after inclement weather had seemingly dissipated after an earlier thunderstorm. But in the early evening hours, a second thunderstorm rolled in, delivering 20 minutes of rain, hail, and a few peals of faraway thunder as we took a brief break under an umbrella. 

As the weather let up and the sun returned, we arrived at Upper Gaylor Lake, 1.5 miles from the trailhead. The lake was set in a desolate alpine basin at the foot of Gaylor Peak. The trail- fading out more and more as we went along- followed the western shore of the lake, crossing a few short sections of talus with some less even footing. On the north side of the lake, the trail appeared to head uphill on the left side of the inlet and then fade into the bushes: instead, look to cross the inlet just above the lakeshore and then pick up a trail leading uphill along the right (east) side of the inlet stream. There was still a little bit of water flowing here during our mid-August visit.

Upper Gaylor Lake
The final stretch of the hike ascended 200 feet over 0.3 miles from the lakeshore to reach the ruins of the High Sierra Mine. As I ascended, the best views of the hike unfolded behind me. Finally, arriving at the mine, I saw a magnificent panorama unfurled to the south: Gaylor Peak rising over Upper and Middle Gaylor Lakes with the granite peaks of the Kuna Crest in the distance and the glacier-covered slopes of Mount Maclure rising beyond that. The Cathedral Range stretched along the horizon to the west. Mount Dana rose to the east, its rounded visage from westerly views now giving way to its sharp profile when viewed from the north. 

The High Sierra Mine (or Great Sierra Mine) is an abandoned mining site at the end of the hike. The trail first comes to an old miner's cabin before continuing farther to a few more structures associated with the mine, at which point the trail dies out. This was the site of the Sheepherder Lode, a vein of silver that attracted a mining company in the late 19th century to build a town above Upper Gaylor Lake and drive mining shafts into the mountain here. The promise of silver never panned out and most traces of a town once built at 10,800 feet are now gone.

Gaylor Lakes and the High Sierra Mine
Mount Dana
After enjoying the views here, we returned to the trailhead, reveling in the beautiful high country that we reached so easily on this short and relatively uncrowded hike. As we climbed over the saddle between Middle Gaylor Lake and Tioga Pass at sunset, we saw spectacular alpenglow painting the high slopes of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs. After completing our hike, we descended to Lee Vining and dined at Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil gas station- an eastern Sierra favorite of mine for 14 years now.

Sunset on Mounts Dana and Gibbs
The High Sierra is known for its spectacular alpine scenery, but its also known for being relatively difficult to access. This hike delivers all the goods of a High Sierra lake basin but with minimal effort from an easily accessible trailhead- and best of all, we only had to share these beautiful views with a handful of other hikers. I highly recommend this hike.

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