California's great lakes

Special to the Sun-StarJuly 15, 2013 

Virginia Lakes is one of the best destinations in the Sierra. Located on the eastern slope at 9,770 feet, the canyon offers fishing, hiking, horseback riding, lakeside camping and a rustic lodge with cabins and dining.

To find Virginia Lakes, head east across the Sierra on Highway 120 through Yosemite. When you reach U.S. 395, head north through the small town of Lee Vining (your last stop for anything important you might have forgotten), and watch for the Virginia Lakes sign after the highway climbs out of the Mono Lake Basin (about 12 miles north of Lee Vining).

It's six miles from the turnoff to the lakes. The first five miles are paved. The road ends at Big Virginia Lake. This lake offers ample parking, picnic tables, and a restroom. It's also the starting point for hiking to several of the other lakes. Virginia Lakes Resort is located at Little Virginia Lake, less than a mile before the end of the road. The resort offers delicious hot meals and cabin rentals. The cabins are rustic, but comfortable. On a recent camping trip I stopped at the resort for a BLT with thick, perfectly cooked bacon. The dining area is decorated with an impressive collection of photos taken from the tall peaks surrounding the lakes basin.

Across the road from the resort is Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest's Trumbull Lake Campground. This is one of the best campgrounds in the state. You can fish the lake or set out on a hike without having to drive to a trailhead. There are 45 well-spaced sites, 24 of which can be reserved at www.recreation.gov. Standard sites are $17 to $34 per night.

Big Virginia, Little Virginia, and Trumbull are regularly stocked with rainbow trout by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The other lakes in the basin were stocked years ago and now have self-sustaining populations of rainbow, brook, and brown trout. The easiest to reach is Red Lake. From the parking area at Big Virginia, head southwest along the lakeshore. You'll be at the lake in less than half a mile. The upper lakes are located along a trail that ultimately crosses into Yosemite about six miles west of Virginia Lakes Resort and Trumbull Lake Campground. The trail is easy to find from the campground and the pack station, but isn't clearly signed from the parking area at Big Virginia Lake. We found it by walking to the entrance sign and picking up an unmarked path that headed north of the road. We followed it without much trouble to Blue Lake. Along the way there's a junction with the main trail from the campground a use trail that goes back to the northern shore of Big Virginia. Just remember that the higher lakes are northwest of Big Virginia and head that direction. On a weekend you'll likely see other hikers who can point you in the right direction if you aren't sure.

Blue Lake is a fairly easy destination of just less than a mile, despite the thin air. We caught several small brook and rainbow trout on lures. The trail makes a fairly steep climb up to Cooney Lake, and then continues on to Frog Lakes — just a mile further, but a steep climb in the thin air. The trail continues to climb about three additional miles until it crosses a high pass, descends to large Summit Lake, and enters Yosemite. The Virginia Lakes are located in a beautiful basin, just below the tree line. The peaks are jagged and tall and they tower over the lakes. Dogs are welcome on the trails throughout the basin and in the campground. This is active bear country, so bear boxes are provided in each campsite. Due to the high elevation of the area, the weather can change quickly. Summer thundershowers and wind are common. You should always carry a windbreaker and a poncho in order to be prepared.

You can also enjoy the trails on a day ride or an overnight pack trip with the Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit. For more information, go to www.virginialakes.com or call (760) 937-0326.

Virginia Lakes is one of my absolute top recommendations to enjoy a relaxing Sierra vacation with a wide range of recreational opportunities. It's the kind of place where you can set up camp or check into a cabin and have a great time without having to go anywhere else for several days.

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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