Laurel Lake worth the hike

To John Muir, the Sierra Nevada was "The Range of Light." This year, it has become "The Range of Water." The waterfalls are better than ever. Creeks and rivers are running higher and faster than they have in years. Meadows are flooded and water plummets, splashes and drips down nearly every rock face.

On a few parts of the Tioga Pass Road the runoff is overloading the culverts and overflowing onto the road. Not enough to close the road, but enough to make careful driving necessary. This week's temperatures will continue to expedite the snowmelt, but many popular areas are still difficult to access.

Last weekend my buddy John and I backpacked to Laurel Lake on the northwestern edge of Yosemite. At 6,490 feet, this large pine-ringed lake is peaceful and just warm enough for a comfortable swim. It's a good destination for a year when snow lingers in the higher elevations.

The easiest access point is from Lake Eleanor. The road is paved as far as Cherry Lake, but becomes gravel and dirt as soon as you cross the dam. Follow signs for another three miles to a parking area just outside the park boundary. The final mile is rough and high clearance is recommended.

From the parking area you follow a service road down to the Lake Eleanor Dam and then start climbing to Miguel Meadow on a former road that was built as part of the construction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. You can also begin the hike at Hetch Hetchy, but this approach is steeper and less shady.

At Miguel Meadow, hikers headed for Laurel Lake normally turn left and follow the short route to the lake. If Frog Creek was bridged, it would be possible this year. Unfortunately, the raging creek is 6- to 7-feet deep and extremely dangerous. Until the creek's flow declines significantly, hikers must detour east and then north to the meadow known as "Beehive" before turning again toward Laurel Lake.

What would normally be a two- to three-night backpacking trip of moderate difficulty is currently a difficult trip of 12 miles because of the additional distance. The upside is that you get some views overlooking Hetch Hetchy Reservoir along the way. Conditions change and you have to make a judgment call about the safety of crossing when you get there. On our trip we found a convenient tree to use as a bridge.

Laurel Lake makes a great base camp for day hikes to Vernon Lake (4.5 miles away). Surrounded by granite, Vernon is slightly higher in elevation and looks more like a high country lake.

I've never seen such an outstanding display of wildflowers in the middle elevations. Mile after mile of trail was lined with blossoms. A few snow banks lingered in the shade at Beehive, but the main challenge was the marshy meadows. At Beehive and on the final approach to Laurel, waterproof boots or some water shoes that you can change into are recommended.

Laurel Lake isn't an easy trip, but it is well worth it. Wilderness permits are required for the trip and can be obtained from the Groveland District Ranger Station of the Stanislaus National Forest 209-962-7825.

I can't avoid mentioning safety every time I write about the outdoors. This year is an extremely dangerous one — many rivers are closed, and "open" doesn't necessarily mean safe, even for people with a lot of experience. Carelessness and unpreparedness are common themes in wilderness accidents. It's also what I see when I am on the trails — people not taking risks seriously.

Last Wednesday's tragedy at Wapama Falls involved the deaths of experienced hikers who encountered highly unusual circumstances. It is also important to remember that danger is present at all times and can sometimes result in tragedy for the best prepared.

Even rangers aren't immune to wilderness danger. No matter who you are, it is important to exercise constant vigilance and good judgment. Check conditions before your go and continually reassess your surroundings throughout your journey. If you have any concerns during your hike, it is always better to turn around and return to the trailhead.

Training in first aid and wilderness safety can be acquired through organizations like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, local community colleges, UC Merced's Outdoor Adventures program, the National Outdoor Leadership School and classes offered at REI.

There are also many helpful books and experience can be gained by hiking with people who have years of expertise.

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman and local historian who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the Western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.