BLAUERT: Backpacking to Ten Lakes in Yosemite can be daunting but thrilling

Ten Lakes in Yosemite can be daunting but thrilling

August 18, 2013 

— Ten Lakes is one of the better-known backpacking destinations in Yosemite. Despite its popularity, and the fact that it is closer to home than the lakes in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows, it can be a challenging destination — especially if you trek the whole U-shaped route from the Ten Lakes trailhead at Yosemite Creek to the end point at May Lake.

The reward is outstanding scenery — beautiful mountain lakes and surprisingly long views across northern Yosemite. Much of the challenge results from the trail's many ascents and descents. Last week, my dad and I made Ten Lakes the destination of our annual father-son backpacking trip.

The name "Ten Lakes" is sort of an approximation — there are seven bodies of water large enough to be called lakes, along with a few ponds. Two of the lakes are along the main trail while the others are along unmaintained side trails. The area's popularity means the lakes are relatively easy to find as long as you have a good map and are willing to do a bit of looking.

The shortest way to the lakes starts at the Ten Lakes trailhead (Highway 120, 20 miles east of Crane Flat) and climbs 2,000 feet over six miles to a summit with great views. A side trail to a viewpoint provides the best views of four of the largest lakes. The main trail descends into the lakes basin and all of the lakes are within 2 miles of the summit. Campsites are found at all of the lakes, though the ones closest to the trail get the most visitors. Water along the route is scarce this year, so plan to fill your bottles whenever you find clean water.

From the summit, another trail leads about a mile to the two Grant Lakes. After making the climb to the summit, it's a bit disheartening to descend a long way to the lakes, but it's worth it. We made our first camp at lower Grant Lake. We found only two other groups and the rainbow trout were actively hitting the surface in the evening.

It's easy to travel from Grant Lakes to Ten Lakes the second day. You could easily spend a couple of nights exploring and enjoying these lakes, but we were limited to two nights so we hiked over the ridge beyond the highest of the Ten Lakes and followed the trail down a long descent into the canyon of the South Fork of Cathedral Creek. There are some truly grand views from this trail, including many of northern Yosemite's greatest landmarks: the Sawtooth, Mt. Conness, the Matterhorn, and glimpses into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.

By the time you've arrived at the South Fork, you've traveled at least 10 miles, and probably quite a bit more if you went off-trail to any of the Ten Lakes. Established campsites were hard to find along the South Fork and the creek was nearly dry. Enough water to purify for drinking, cooking, and washing was found in some of the deeper spots, but it will diminish as the summer progresses. A couple of very small rainbow trout remained in some of these pools, but Ten Lakes is a far better fishing destination. With polarized sunglasses, you can actually see the rainbow and brook trout.

The trail follows the South Fork for about two miles and then begins a long climb around Tuolumne Peak with even more grand views — including peaks to the south. Eventually you can spot other landmarks: the Clark Range, Mt. Lyell and Clouds Rest. Fewer people hike this section of the trail because it is shorter to simply go back to Yosemite Creek, but the views are worth the effort.

The trail begins to descend on the far side of Tuolumne Peak. About seven miles beyond the point where you first reach the South Fork it forms a junction with trails that will take you back to the road at Murphy Creek (Tenaya Lake) in 3.3 miles, or to May Lake in 3.4 miles. The Murphy Creek route is easier, mostly a gradual descent past the shallow Polly Dome Lakes.

The May Lake route includes two significant climbs before arriving at the scenic lakeside May Lake High Sierra Camp. If you go this way, your trip will include 10 lakes — the two Grant Lakes, the seven Ten Lakes and May Lake. You will walk a minimum of 23 miles, but side trips will probably add a few more. Since you'll be starting and ending at different points, you'll need to park a vehicle at each end of the trail.

Ten Lakes is a popular destination for good reason — I was awed by the beauty of both the lakes and the surrounding mountains. Wilderness permits are required for overnight trips in Yosemite and can be obtained at" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or by calling (209) 372-0740.

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. Reach him at

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