The Eastern Side of the Sierras, especially anywhere around 9500 feet and above are quite a treat to explore and have a great feeling of desolation. The scenery ranges from stark, high peaks to, talus slopes, down into grassy meadows and of course those beautiful Sierra lakes. The Saddlebag Lake Loop is no exception, but it is exceptional in a very notable way – the trailhead is only a 10 minute drive up a graded dirt road off California Highway 120. This makes it a very do-able day hike, or a short overnighter and its proximity to Tioga Pass makes it an enticing proposition for visitors of the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite.
Destination: Saddlebag Lake
Trail Head: Saddlebag Lake Loop accessible near Saddlebag Lake Resort (10,200 ft elev)
Distance: 9 miles round trip (less 4 miles with boat ride), ~1300 ft gained/lost (~260 ft/mi avg)
Remoteness: Expect a few passing day hikers, possibly some company if camping around Cascade Lake
Motivation: A nice short dayhike (or overnight) with amazing Sierra views, great fishing too!
Notes: Bear canister required as of 2012 (Hoover Wilderness), Camping beyond Greenstone Lake only, mosquitos abound during the season
The Report from Our Trip :: Jul 11-13, 2013
Sandra D and I were supposed to be making a circumnavigation of Mt. Shasta during this time, but we had a conflict come up and had to scuttle that trip in order to get this backpacking trip in with the kids before school would resume. Yes, we took the kids. We knew this is the best chance for them and us to do something up high in the Sierras this year. The trail is overall pretty mellow, despite being between 10,000 and 10,500 feet. Originally we planned to spend two nights camped near Cascade Lake, however we decided to spend a night at White Wolf, car camping to acclimate a little to the elevation. This turned out to be a great idea; the kids really enjoyed exploring the campground and the campfire talk about Giant Sequoias with Ranger Jay. The next day we headed out to hit the trail.
The trailhead starts near the “resort”, it’s a cozy cafe and grill at the lake, but we chose to take the water taxi across to avoid walking the extra mile of the least extraordinary scenery. This was also a hit with the kids. Backpacking and boats… how can you go wrong? Once across the lake, we headed clockwise as planned to hike about 4½ miles, then camp near Cascade Lake. At first the going was fairly easy; we made good time past Hummingbird Lake (just out of sight from the trail) and O’Dell which is a nice lake, but it got a little tricky (with the youngins) coming down towards Lake Helen. Large, chunky talus slowed the kids down quite a bit. With some help balancing and navigating from us, we all made it around the lake and over the creek at its drainage. The other tricky area was on the way towards Shamrock Lake and required a bit of a vertical rock scramble. Again, parental assistance made this fairly straightforward going; without our direct help it would have been a little dangerous and difficult for them (bear in mind our kids are 5 and 7 years old at this time).
At the top of the rock scramble we met an older gentleman who was hiking the opposite direction. He seemed surprised to see children backpacking and warned us about a talus slope ahead, recommending we turn back. Talus schmallus! We thanked him and moved along. When we reached the talus slope quite a few marmots were milling around. None would hold still for a photo… varmints. Otherwise this was an easier stretch than around Helen. Shamrock is a very pretty lake with its many islands and meadow flanking the shoreline. We pressed on towards Steelhead Lake.
By this time it was getting late in the day and the kids legs were starting to tire. We decided to forego Cascade as it requires a slight double back, then a short uphill bit. We felt the kids had pushed hard enough for the day. I ran ahead and found a nice spot near Wasco Lake to make camp, which is what we did. It was a little over 4 miles on the day and the children were happy to relax in the tent.
Mosquitos were absent in the later part of the day which was a welcomed relief as they were fairly thick around the other lakes, however they were back by breakfast. We donned the headnets, broke down camp, and made the easy half mile (or so) walk back to the boat ramp just in time to shove off with the lunch time taxi. The kids were stoked to have completed their little adventure, which to them was a big deal. The sense of accomplishment was plain to see on their faces, and made even better by the “confused man” who said they should turn around but they “made it and did awesome for high fives” (to quote them). They’ve been talking a lot about hiking just since the trip, and want their own trekking poles now. Mission accomplished. Hike It. Like It.