“Glorious!” “Bully!” “O the Joy!” How many other historical figures can I quote to describe my hike up to North Peak? John & Elizabeth O’Neill (perhaps not as well known as Muir, Roosevelt, or Clark) write in their book, Tioga Tramps, that the view on North Peak is “one of the best! Far below, the turquoise Conness Lakes, and thrusting up just across the way, the spectacular peak of Conness. To the north and east you can gaze down dizzying steep cliffs and snow and ice couloirs.” Truly, the day was perfect. Once I left the shuttle boat that transported me across Saddlebag Lake, I encountered no one. A clear blue sky, slight breeze, and moderate temperature made for ideal hiking weather. Fall had begun her colorful painting on the landscape and hues of yellow, red, and orange adorned the vegetation. Delicate white alpine gentian flowers still dotted the terrain, the last vestiges of summer.
A second day in Tuolumne and the weather proved to be just as fair as yesterday. Fall also brings the comforting hues of yellow and browns. The aspens had just begun to don their yellow fall cloaks and I predict next weekend will be peak season. I wanted to climb North Peak today, but since I’d been feeling under the weather, I decided to take a less strenuous hike. Instead, I wandered around Twenty Lakes Basin and visited just about every lake I could find on my topographical map. I only encountered one other hiker the entire day—the benefits of late season treks!
Although I’ve hiked in Twenty Lakes Basin numerous times, I had yet to research the origins of the diverse names given to the lakes. Here’s some of what I found in Pete Browning’s very useful book, Yosemite Place Names.:
Saddlebag Lake: “undoubtedly named for its shape—two partly rounded ends with a narrowing middle.”
Wasco Lake: “Named by Al Gardisky in 1932 after the town in which a close friend of his lived.”
Z Lake: “Named in 1932 by Al Gardisky for its shape.”
Cascade Lake: “Named by Everett Spuller in 1932 ‘because of the cascade coming down from the glacierette from North Peak.’”
Steelhead Lake: Named by Al Gardisky in 1932 and refers to the steelhead trout he planted in the lake.
Shamrock Lake: Probably given its name by the USGS during its 1905-1909 survey; possesses three lobes like a shamrock.
Helen Lake: Named in 1932 by Al Gardisky for a ‘lady friend.’”
Twin Lakes: Once again named by Al.
Odell Lake: A friend of Al’s.
Hummingbird Lake: “Named in 1932 by Al Gardisky because at one time he saw many hummingbirds there.”
Obviously in 1932 it paid to be a friend of Al.
My favorite lake? Twin Lakes. Climbing over rough metamorphic rock, you suddenly descend into this private alcove of sunlit water surrounded by white bark pine trees.
Before heading home after our members’ meeting, I always try to work in a hike. Despite my not being prepared for wind chill in the thirties, I decided to bear the cold and hike anyway. Frostbite is overrated.
I explored the lakes scattered around the region of the Sierra Crest from Mt. Conness to Gaylor Peak. As long as the wind didn’t blow (which was not often), I was relatively warm, but I didn’t mind the discomfort as the more spectacular the scenery got, the easier it was to dismiss the longing for gloves. My tour of the lakes included Shell, Fantail, Spuller, Maul, Green Treble and Alpine. At Maul Lake, under the watchful face of Mt. Conness, I watched Clark’s nutcrackers play, and a raptor soar overhead.
On my way back to the car, I stopped at the historic cabins of Bennettville, relics of the brief mining boom in this area.
Well, I was made to eat my words. It actually can rain sometimes in California. That day, we took the boat across Saddlebag Lake and began our hike up to North Peak. As we strolled though the lovely basin that contains Conness Lakes, the tops of cumulus clouds peered over the Sierra crest.
Watching the clouds, we began climbing, and sure enough the cumulus clouds became cumulus congestus and were heading toward the cumulonimbus stage very rapidly. Thinking we still had time to reach the summit before the thunderstorms were fully developed, we continued up, but a half a mile from the peak the first roar of thunder sounded. I turned to Shad and said one word, “DOWN!”
Shad, having never been on a high mountain pass during a thunderstorm, continued to snap photos as I scurried down the mountain in record time. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I love to watch storms, yet after having been caught a few times in high places with my hair standing up on end and the thunder sounding like a gunshot next to my ear, I always try to avoid such situations!
As we strolled back past Conness Lakes, my pace more leisurely now that I was near some cover, we watched the gray clouds build in strength and surround the ridge. Two brave souls had hiked up one of the remaining snowfields and we followed their small distant forms as they sailed down on skis.
We ventured over to the east side to take advantage of the natural hot springs (and of the famous Mobil Station cuisine—the fish tacos are worth a drive!). Because of a rockslide, we had to wait in a long convoy to return to the park and only had a half-a-day to hike. A friend recommended Twenty Lakes Basin and we decided to give it a try. It’s a quick jaunt up into the high country and alpine lakes abound (hence it’s name), perfect for swimming if you don’t mind cold water.
And despite the cold water, we take a swim in Hummingbird Lake, which is quite a contrast to the warm hot springs we had just visited. As we dry off, we gaze at the glistening granite of North Peak. We see no sign of hummingbirds, but we do see several Clark’s Nutcrackers frequenting the trees around the lake.