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.

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