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.

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