BLAUERT: Finding a good hike in the high Sierra

October 29, 2013 

— Some of the Sierra's most accessible alpine lakes are adjacent to Highway 120 along the eastern edge of Yosemite. Last week, I wrote about the Lundy Canyon approach to the Twenty Lakes Basin. From Lundy Canyon, it is a challenging and dangerous, but rewarding, hike. From Saddlebag Lake, it's much easier — especially if you take the boat taxi across (reopening summer 2014).

Gaylor Lakes and Grant Lakes are also relatively easy to get to. A 1-mile trail that starts at Yosemite's Tioga Pass entrance station climbs 500 feet up a steep ridge to Middle Gaylor Lake. From there, hikers can explore nearby Upper Gaylor Lake and the two Grant Lakes. Getting to the top of the 10,400-foot ridge is the hard part, though most people in decent physical shape can make it if they take it slowly. There's nothing wrong with taking a rest when you need it.

Once you're at the top, it's a relatively easy trek to the other lakes, if you have a map to find your way.

Another easily accessible alpine lake in this region is Gardisky. Named for the founder of Tioga Pass Resort, it's a windswept blue gem set in a barren rocky bowl below Tioga Peak. You get to Gardisky via a 1-mile trail from Saddlebag Lake Road, starting 1.3 miles north of Highway 120.

Merced Union High School District got an Assets grant to provide a wide range of after-school programs this year. One of the programs is the Environmental Science Academy.

I've been lucky to work with students in Golden Valley's ESA this year. For our first field trip, we wanted to get into the highest reaches of the Sierra. Early fall is usually the only part of the school year in which this is possible since snow closes the passes by November and they don't re-open until school is nearly done.

The government shutdown complicated our planning, putting Yosemite off-limits. Gardisky Lake turned out to be the solution. Located close to the park and the road, it was the perfect alternative for a high-country day hike.

We left Golden Valley just past 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12. Heading up through La Grange and Buck Meadows, students got to see the damage from the Rim Fire firsthand. Though stopping is prohibited along much of the route, the Rim of the World Vista east of Buck Meadows is a pretty good place to get a grasp on the magnitude of the destruction. Since my previous drive through the burned zone two weeks earlier, many changes could be seen already — especially the application of seed to some of the burned slopes along the road.

Though we couldn't stop within the park, students could glimpse the majesty of Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass as we passed. None of the nine students who participated had seen this part of the park before. Snow had fallen the previous week and was still on the ground at the higher elevations.

Just outside the park, we turned left on roughly graveled Saddlebag Lake Road. The trailhead to Gardisky Lake is clearly marked 1.3 miles after the turnoff. From that point, the trail heads straight uphill for 700 feet, at places following a small creek that cascades down the steep slope. The final stretch is more level, following the creek toward the outlet of the lake.

We enjoyed our lunches in the icy wind of the lake's basin. The students got a fishing demonstration with brook trout caught on lures and flies; they snapped photos, and threw snow at each other while marveling at the beauty around them.

Some walked around to the far side of the lake, where it is possible to see the lower parts of Highway 120.

Despite one case of altitude sickness, all 12 of us had a great time. Reflecting on her experiences, Der Lee did a great job summing what the students (and leaders) experienced: "I enjoyed hiking up the mountain and seeing the snow blowing off the top of the mountains. I was surprised by how hard the wind would be. The lake wasn't frozen, which was amazing. The water didn't feel as cold as the snow and that surprised me, too. I thought the water from the lake was supposed to be colder than the snow. Experiences like this help people to understand how the environment works and to appreciate it. You have to see things for yourself before you could actually have your own opinion about them."

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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