Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Bennettville and Shell Lake

Mount Conness rising above Shell Lake
2.2 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required to access from Lee Vining

The ghost town of Bennettville and alpine Shell Lake are two surprisingly overlooked destinations just a short drive from Tioga Pass outside Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada. Technically in Inyo National Forest, this short and easy hike visits some spectacular alpine scenery and is a worthy leg-stretcher for those driving Tioga Road. The combination of history and dramatic alpine scenery make this a particularly worthwhile short hike.

While there is technically no fee to park at the trailhead, many hikers will arrive via Tioga Road from Yosemite National Park and thus will have to pay the Yosemite entrance fee. The only way to avoid paying the fee is to approach on Highway 120 from Lee Vining and not entering Yosemite National Park.

I hiked to Bennettville and Shell Lake during a July visit to Tioga Pass after a year of record-breaking snow. The trailhead is just off of Highway 120, about 2 miles east from the Tioga Pass entrance of Yosemite National Park and 10 miles west of the junction of Tioga Road and US 395 in Lee Vining. From Lee Vining, follow Highway 120 west and uphill for ten miles, turning left onto Saddlebag Lake Road just after passing Ellery Lake. Cross Lee Vining Creek on Saddlebag Road and then immediately pull over to the parking area on the left side of the road when you come to the fork for Junction Campground. There is no day use parking inside the campground itself; the parking lot just outside the campground can accommodate around 10 cars. There's no restroom at the trailhead but pit toilets can be found with a short walk into Junction Campground.

To start the hike from the parking area, I followed the road into Junction Campground across a bridge over Lee Vining Creek. There were beautiful views to the south from this bridge of the alpine meadows at Junction Campground and of snow-capped Mount Dana, the highest peak in the Tioga Pass area.

Mount Dana rising above Lee Vining Creek
Immediately after crossing the bridge into Junction Campground, I took the trail that branched off to the right of the road and followed Lee Vining Creek: a sign at the start of the trail read "Bennettville Loop." I started following this trail, which initially followed the lush, forested banks of Lee Vining Creek with a peek of pointy North Peak in the distance.

North Peak and Lee Vining Creek
About 50 meters along the creek, the trail turned to the left and climbed very briefly, leaving the creek behind and traversing a forested slope above Junction Campground; the campsites in the campground were visible directly below. After continuing to travel further through the forest, the trail came to Mine Creek at 0.3 miles. 

For the next 0.4 miles, the trail followed Mine Creek, alternating between short ascents and stretches of flat trail. During my visit, snowmelt was near peak and Mine Creek was a riotous cascade that plunged through the rocky gorge next to the trail. Views of snowy peaks rising ahead of the trail and Mount Dana's great pyramidal peak to the south made this gentle ascent quite enjoyable. The views of the snowy Sierra crest just to the west were also lovely, with many waterfalls plunging down the mountainsides, fed by the summer snowmelt.

Cascading Mine Creek

Waterfalls coming off the Sierra Crest
At just under 0.8 miles, the trail reached Bennettville, one of the two main destinations of this hike. Two cabins stood at the site of this former town; it's not so much a ghost town as simply a former townsite, as most of the buildings are long gone. Mount Dana's snow-cloaked summit rose impressively across the valley.

Today, these two restored cabins and a handful of abandoned mining equipment scattered across the nearby landscape are the primary reminders of the town of Bennettville. This ghost town was once a High Sierra mining district known as Tioga that prompted the construction of Tioga Road from the Big Oak Flat area as a route for delivering mining equipment; a town popped up in these alpine environs but the mines never truly struck it rich and were eventually abandoned. However, the road over the Sierra crest remained and became today's cross-Sierra Highway 120. 

The name Tioga- which today is so thoroughly associated with the pass connecting the Tuolumne River watershed to the Lee Vining Creek watershed- is actually named for the Tioga River and associated counties in the Allegheny Plateau area of north central Pennsylvania and upstate New York; the name itself is borrowed from the languages of the tribes that lived in the area. Emigrants from the region who headed west during the Gold Rush years brought the Tioga name to the Sierra Nevada. I was always curious while growing up at the connection between the two names, as I both loved hiking in California and also would frequently drive by Tioga Counties in Pennsylvania and New York on my way from Virginia to Rochester in upstate New York; it was surprising to find out that the two places did share a common name origin. 

Restored Bennettsville cabins and Mount Dana
I explored the two cabins, which were both open to the public; these cabins had clearly been restored to some degree, compared to similar wooden structures at Bodie. The larger of the cabins was two stories, although the insides of both structures were empty.

Leaving Bennettville, I followed the trail gently uphill another fifth of a mile to reach Shell Lake. The trail paralleled Mine Creek closely and began to emerge from the forest as it approached Shell Lake. Glorious alpine views of Mount Conness to the north and Mount Dana to the south opened up and soon I spotted Shell Lake itself.

Mount Conness rising above Shell Lake and Mine Creek
Wildflowers, including alpine laurel and heather, were blooming near the lake, a welcome sign that summer had arrived in the High Sierra.

Alpine laurel
At 1.1 miles, the trail reached the shore of Shell Lake, following the eastern shore of the lake. I ended my hike at a small peninsula at the midpoint of the narrow lake, with views of Mount Conness rising above the lake to one side and Mount Dana rising to the other end. Dana and Conness are among Yosemite's most spectacular and notable peaks: Dana is the park's second highest peak (after Mount Lyell) while Conness is the highest peak north of Tioga Pass in the Sierra Nevada. The views of the lake were idyllic on both sides, with the mountains rising above calm waters encircled by a shoreline of lush vegetation broken by areas of rock.

Shell Lake and Mount Dana
The trail continues a half mile past Shell Lake to Fantail Lake, which lies in the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area. I did this hike while recovering from a foot injury, so Shell Lake was enough adventure for me for the day; for those willing to go further, there should be minimal additional elevation gain on the trail to Fantail Lake. The Hall Natural Area is a special designation that sets aside the landscape around Mount Conness on the eastern side of the Sierra Crest as a research area for longitudinal studies.

To return to my car, I retraced my steps back past Bennettville. Overall, I was surprised by this hike's combination of excellent scenery and easy hiking; in fact, I found it far more scenic than the alpine lake hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area within Yosemite, while having far fewer hikers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Parker Lake

Parker Lake
3.6 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Good dirt road to trailhead, no fee required

The short and easy hike to Parker Lake, just a brief drive away from Lee Vining or June Lake in California's Eastern Sierra Nevada, manages to still span diverse landscapes, traveling from sagebrush desert to an aspen-lined subalpine lake at the foot of massive, snowy peaks in under two miles. Parker Lake is a pretty destination but the journey is just as noteworthy; the hike is especially nice in fall, when the aspen groves along the trail become golden. The area around Lee Vining in the Eastern Sierra has a ton of hikes; while the hike to Parker Lake is certainly nice and worthwhile, I would rank it behind hikes to High Sierra destinations near Tioga Pass or Mammoth Lakes. I would recommend this hike primarily in fall, or to hikers looking for comprehensive coverage of the area's many lakes. The hike lies within Inyo National Forest, with the lake itself within the boundaries of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

I hiked to Parker Lake on a mid-October day to see the fall colors. Parker Lake is best enjoyed slightly earlier during the fall color period, generally peaking in the first two weeks of October; its fairly exposed position means that high winds are more likely to strip the leaves of its aspens earlier than in more protected valleys along the June Lake Loop nearby. 

Parker Lake is a long drive from any major metro area; the San Francisco Bay Area is about a five hour drive to the west and Los Angeles is a similar drive to the south. However, it is quite close to both Lee Vining and June Lake, two popular tourist towns in Mono County. From the junction of US 395 and Highway 120 in Lee Vining, I reached the trailhead by following US 395 south for 4.5 miles and then turning right onto the June Lake Loop. After just a mile of driving along the June Lake Loop, I made a slight right onto the gravel road heading towards the Parker Lake trailhead. I then followed the good gravel road uphill for about two miles to a junction, where I took the left fork to drive the final half mile to the roundabout that marked the trailhead for the hike. There is room for about 10-12 cars to park at the trailhead; no restrooms are available.

The trailhead was in the middle of the sagebrush desert landscape that is characteristic of the Mono Basin and much of the Great Basin Desert, with no hint of the subalpine splendor that would come later in the hike; in fact, as the trailhead lay in a small gulch, hemmed in by the moraines of the former Parker Glacier on each side, the Sierra Nevada were not even visible! Leaving the parking area, I followed the trail along a steady uphill. The first quarter mile of the trail was the most sustained ascent of the entire hike; I gained about 200 feet on my through the sagebrush to a low saddle. Excellent views were had every time I looked back, with Mono Lake's eerie blue waters surrounding the volcanic islands of Paoha and Negit and the Bodie Hills in the distance draped in morning sunlight. Further to the south rose the Mono Craters, a noteworthy collection of volcanic domes that extend from Mono Lake towards the Long Valley Caldera around Mammoth Lakes.

Paoha and Negit in the center of Mono Lake

Mono Craters
At a quarter mile from the trailhead, I came to a saddle and the boundary of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Here, the scenery changed very suddenly: massive Parker Peak, adorned with a smattering of fresh snow, rose in front of the trail, and the nearby gulch of Parker Creek was filled with conifers and aspens, a stark difference from the dry sagebrush.

Parker Peak and the Ansel Adams Wilderness boundary
The trail continued to ascend as I left the saddle, climbing along the south side of the gulch of Parker Creek. There were views to the north along the Sierra Nevada here, with Mount Gibbs taking up much of the horizon; I saw my first glimpses of fall aspen color along this hike in the gulch below. The ascent wrapped up at 0.45 miles from the trailhead, when the trail completed an ascent up a terminal moraine of the former Parker Glacier and came into a wide, flat valley sandwiched between the lateral moraines at the foot of Parker Peak. The hike stayed fairly flat over the next fifth of a mile as it crossed the grasslands in this valley and then entered a sparse forest of conifers and brightly-colored aspens.

Parker Peak and fall aspens
The trail entered a gentle climb at two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead that brought me up into another flatter stretch; this would be the final substantial climb of the hike and the trail stayed flat for its final mile to the lake.

Aspens were plentiful along the trail here. By mid-October, a good number of them had already shed their golden leaves for the winter, although a good handful were still sporting their spectacular fall foliage. 

Aspen color on the trail to Parker Lake

Aspen color
As I traveled further up the valley, the trail began to follow Parker Creek, the outlet stream from Parker Lake. The stream was wide and shallow at this late point in the season and burbled gently over its rocky streambed on its way down to Mono Lake.

Parker Creek
The trail ended at 1.8 miles from the trailhead, when I came to the shores of Parker Lake. Parker Peak's magnificient cliffs towered above the lake, while more aspens glowing in the autumn sun stood on the lake's opposite shore. Despite the early hour of my hike, there were already a handful of other hikers at the lake, taking in the beauty of the lake and its complex interplay of light and shadow.

Fall colors reflected in Parker Lake
I found this to be a very enjoyable hike with diverse landscapes; however, as I noted earlier, this hike is in an area of superlative scenery so despite its loveliness it isn't on the top of my list of recommendations. That said, with its combination of desert and subalpine scenery, easy access from Lee Vining, and the short and easy trail, you can't go wrong by choosing this hike, either.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Dana Lake

Mount Dana and the Dana Glacier rise above Dana Lake
5.5 miles loop, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, route-finding and rock scrambling required
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Although Glacier Canyon and its chain of lakes are just a stone's throw from the Tioga Pass entrance of California's Yosemite National Park, this area of Inyo National Forest receives fairly little attention despite its stunning alpine scenery, which encompasses not only deeply colorful Dana Lake and four smaller lakes but also tumbling waterfalls, meadows, stark plateaus, and the remnant of a once-mighty glacier, all under the shadow of Mount Dana's majestic pyramidal peak. The trail is tough: the ascent from Tioga Lake up to Glacier Canyon is punishingly steep and there's no formal trail that leads across the steep scree slopes of Glacier Canyon to Dana Lake, meaning that scrambling and route-finding skills are absolutely essential. While an ascent up the canyon to the lake and back is the most straightforward path to Dana Lake, a loop return via the trail up to Dana Plateau makes for a more rewarding day hike. This isn't a hike for novices, but experienced hikers looking for a quiet and beautiful alternative to the bustling trails in Yosemite will enjoy this rocky hike to Dana Lake.

The entirety of this hike is at high altitude, with the trailhead at about 9800 feet above sea level and Dana Lake itself at nearly 11200 feet above sea level. Be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness if you have not had time to acclimate prior to the hike.

While there is technically no fee to park at the trailhead, many hikers will arrive via Tioga Road from Yosemite National Park and thus will have to pay the Yosemite entrance fee. The only way to avoid paying the fee is to approach on Highway 120 from Lee Vining and not entering Yosemite National Park.

I hiked to Dana Lake during an early October visit to the Sierra Nevada, before Tioga Road closed for the year. The trailhead is deceptively simple to reach: it is simply a three-quarter mile drive east of Tioga Pass at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. Hikers coming from the Central Valley should follow Highway 120 through Yosemite and will reach the Tioga Lake Overlook, a pullout on the right side of the road, shortly after crossing Tioga Pass. Hikers approaching from Lee Vining will find the pullout on the left side of Highway 120 as the road climbs up alongside Tioga Lake, but before reaching Tioga Pass. The trailhead has a pit toilet and enough parking for at least 20 cars. The trailhead is typically accessible between June and October most years, although abnormal snow conditions can shorten that window.

From the trailhead, I followed the unmarked trail that led downhill right behind the pit toilet. This trail made a short but steep descent through the forest and quickly dropped to the shore of Tioga Lake. Less than a hundred meters from the trailhead, the trail came out into the open and there were clear views of Tioga Lake with broad and rocky Tioga Peak rising across the lake; a pointed ridge of Mount Dana rose in front of the trail. 

Tioga Lake at sunrise
Three hundred meters from the trailhead, I crossed the inlet stream to Tioga Lake. At this point, I came to a wooden sign pointing the way to Dana Lakes and Glacier Canyon; I followed the sign, which soon led me into the forest and the ascent up to Glacier Canyon. After crossing the creek that flows out from Glacier Canyon, I began the uphill climb, which generally followed the creek and steepened the further up that I went. The steep and direct trail here was made slightly better by the very pretty cascading creek, which was often decorated with nascent fall color in the forest understory.

Creek in Glacier Canyon
After 750 feet of elevation gain over three-quarters of a mile since leaving the shore of Tioga Lake, the trail finally flattened out for a brief breather as it came to the lowest of the meadows in Glacier Canyon. Late in the season, the meadow was golden in the morning light and the impressive wall of Mount Dana rose above the canyon, although the summit of Mount Dana was not visible.

Meadows in Glacier Canyon
At 1.25 miles, the trail flattened out as I entered a long and flat, meadow-filled valley. From the edge of this elevated valley, I had spectacular views to the north of Mount Conness and North Peak.

View towards Mount Conness
The trail skirted the left side of the meadow in the valley and after about a hundred meters it turned left and began to head uphill through a talus slope. At this point, the established trail was heading for the Dana Plateau; to get to Dana Lake, I left the trail and continued traveling cross-country up the bottom of the valley. There was no established trail here and for the most part no clear social path, either; however, the path was fairly straightforward since I was just following the creek upstream.

At 1.7 miles, the flat meadows ended and I came to a talus slope at the treeline. The first of the Dana Lakes lay behind the talus slope. I scrambled up the loose rock and then trekked across an ensuing flat stretch of talus to reach the first of the Dana Lakes at about 2 miles into the hike.

Scrambling across a talus slope towards the first of the Dana Lakes
The first of the Dana Lakes (or Dana Lake No. 1) was small but had an absolutely stunning turquoise color: the color was more remniscent of glacier-fed lakes of the Northwest or the Rockies than of the more typically blue lakes of the Sierra Nevada. The color was indeed a result of glacial melt: the Dana Glacier lies above the main Dana Lake and melt from the glacier gives the Dana Lakes their unique and astonishing color.

Dana Lake No. 1
Dana Lake No. 1 was hemmed in on three sides by steep talus slopes. Reaching the other lakes required surmounting these slopes, which rose 250 feet above this first lake. At first glance, it was not too obvious what the easiest route would be; it was clear that no routes would necessarily be "easy" here. I chose to scramble up the slopes to the north of the lake, but in retrospect believe that this was a mistake: the upper stretches of this slope were quite treacherous and put me in a few positions with non-trivial exposure. It's likely that simply going up the slope at the far (east) end of the lake would've made the most sense and been easier, but as I did not follow that route, I can't vouch for it. I ended up having to do some Class 3 rock scrambling but I think it's likely that a Class 2 route exists up this talus. All I can say here is that the north wall felt like a bad choice once I was halfway up that scramble! 

Regardless, once atop this second talus slope, I headed east along a flat table of scree to reach Dana Lake No. 2 at 2.3 miles (mileages are estimates in the scramble portion as there is no set route). Dana Lake No. 2 was also quite small and shallow and had the same brilliant color of the first lake; additionally, Dana Lake No. 2 featured the first views of Mount Dana's great summit pyramid. Dana is the second highest peak in Yosemite National Park and it is the first 13000-foot peak of the Sierra Nevada when coming from the north. Dana's eastern face is extremely impressive but is typically not visible from any road-accessible area as the Dana Plateau blocks off views of the east face from the Mono Basin. This hike up Glacier Canyon to Dana Lake is a rare place to actually study this great rock face.

Mount Dana rises over the second of the Dana Lakes
I skirted the north side of Dana Lake No. 2 and then crossed a rocky isthmus between Dana Lake No. 2 and Dana Lake No. 3, which was very close by. I skipped over a closer look at Dana Lake No. 3 for the moment, instead climbing up the rocky moraine behind lakes no. 2 and 3 to head towards the main lake of the basin, referred to as Dana Lake No. 4 in some sources and alternatively just Dana Lake in others.

Once I was atop the spine of the moraine at 2.5 miles into the hike, Dana Lake came into view, nestled at the head of Glacier Canyon with Mount Dana's great east face towering above and the Dana Glacier cradled at the foot of Dana's cliffs. Dana Lake was much deeper than the previous lakes and thus had a much deeper blue color that almost appeared like a beautiful ink.

Mount Dana and Dana Glacier over Dana Lake
There were excellent views of the lake from the lakeshore already, but to get a clearer overview of the lake and the Dana Glacier, I chose to scramble up to a large boulder a hundred feet above the lake's northeast shore that had tremendous views of the lake itself, Mount Dana, and back out Glacier Canyon to Mount Conness.

Dana Lake
The Dana Glacier once filled the entire back of the basin at the head of Glacier Canyon and nearly reached down to Dana Lake when European American observers first documented the glacier in the late nineteenth century. It has since shrunk over 90 percent, with just a sliver of ice left at the base of Mount Dana itself. In the past few decades, it retreats further almost every summer, and the glacier is likely to disappear entirely in a matter of years, a victim of climate change. It is possible to continue scrambling southeast through the talus along Dana Lake until reaching the moraine at the toe of the glacier, but after so much scrambling to reach Dana Lake itself, I was in no mood for an extended hike across talus.

Dana Glacier above Dana Lake
After getting my fill of glacier and lake views, I retraced my steps down the moraine from Dana Lake to the isthmus between Dana Lakes No. 2 and 3. Here, I departed from the route that I had taken on the way up to complete a loop with the last two lakes and briefly visit the Dana Plateau. After crossing the isthmus, I followed the western shore of Dana Lake No. 3 scrambling along its rocky shoreline until I got to the northwestern corner of the lake.

Dana Lake No. 3
Dana Lakes No. 3 and No. 4 were sequential lakes in a shallow, rocky gully; once I passed the end of the third lake, I continued following the rocky gully for two hundred meters and reached Dana Lake No. 4 at just over 3 miles into my hike. Past Dana Lake No. 4, the gully opened up into a rocky shelf; I continued traveling down this relatively flat (though rocky) shelf until it ended at 3.3 miles.

At this point, the shelf merged into a steep talus slope that overlooked the flat meadows of Glacier Canyon that I had hiked through earlier in the day. The Dana Plateau rose above and to the right. Here, I had to cross scramble about a tenth of a mile across the steep talus slope, angling slightly upwards as I moved forward so that I ascended about 50 feet and reached the flat top of the Dana Plateau, at about 3.4 miles from the trailhead.

View back towards Mount Dana and the basin of Dana Glacier
Looking back from the rim of the Dana Plateau, I had a sweeping view down into Glacier Canyon. While I could no longer see any of the lakes, this viewpoint still allowed me to see the glacier at the base of Mount Dana.

I encountered the first trees that I had seen in hours on the plateau. I traveled north, heading in a direction perpendicular to the rim of the plateau. After passing through the trees, I came to a large and flat meadow, where I spotted the Dana Plateau Trail on the other side of the meadow. I crossed the meadow and finally rejoined a formal trail at 3.6 miles into my hike.

Trail across Dana Plateau
The Dana Plateau is a large and flat subpeak that is connected to the much higher Mount Dana; the trail heading towards the right led to the top of the plateau, while the trail to the left led back down to Glacier Canyon and the trailhead. While I've heard great things about the views of Mount Dana and Mono Lake from the Dana Plateau, I was short on time so I chose to head left and begin my return down to Glacier Canyon.

The trail stayed just briefly on the flat plateau before beginning its descent, dropping first gradually and then steeply down a rocky gulch. At the top of the descent, there was a unique view across the ridge of Gaylor Peak into the Yosemite National Park high country. I could see many of the peaks in the Tuolumne Meadows area, including Unicorn Peak in the Cathedral Range and Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak.

View across Tioga Pass towards Mount Hoffman and the Cathedral Range
The descent became quite steep as the trail plunged about 500 feet downhill from the Dana Plateau to reach the meadows at the bottom of Glacier Canyon. At the bottom of the hill, now just over 4 miles into my hike, I came to the point where I had left the Glacier Canyon Trail in the morning to get to Dana Lake No. 1, closing the loop. The final 1.4 miles brought me down along the stream back to Tioga Lake and then the trailhead.

The hike to Dana Lake is an excellent High Sierra outing that sees limited visitors despite being so close to Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park. I saw a handful of other hikers on my hike, almost all of them headed to Dana Plateau rather than the lakes. The necessity of some Class 2 to 3 rock scrambling and navigation skills means this hike is not for everyone. But those with the confidence and skills to tackle this hike will see some of the Sierra Nevada's most stunningly colored lakes and may have a chance to catch a once-great glacier before it takes its final bow.