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Fourth of July Lake

Mokelumne Wilderness

Mokelumne Wilderness Links:

September 21st, 2002

8.8 miles
2295 vertical feet
Total Time: 7:57

Rating: 8/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

We started off on the hike at about 10:30am. We started off on a short spur right next to our camp, site 11 of Woods Lake. It quickly joined the main trail, which begins as a fire trail. I'd been on this trail a couple times before (on hikes to Round Top and a a loop of Winnemucca and Round Top Lakes), so the first two miles was pretty familiar territory.

Woods Lake

It was a clear and quite warm day, perhaps in the low 80s. Shortly after starting the trail, we had great views of Woods Lake below. The higher we climbed, the better views we had of the surrounding mountains. Eventually we ducked into the forest and had views of the Lost Cabin Mine. A few months ago, a reader of my web site had asked me if I had any pictures of the Lost Cabin Mine. I didn't have any at the time. But I remembered this and decided to take a few pictures. It helped that I was now passing it in the morning, rather than in the late afternoon as I had the two previous times (coming in the opposite direction).

Ruins near the Lost Cabin Mine; I've been told this was used to pull the ore cars out of the mine across the creek

There are signs which tell you that the cabin resides on private property and you cannot cross that invisible mine. We passed above it and I took my pictures. Higher up, we came up on some ruins which included the rusted remains of two very old cars. After passing the ruins, we continued our climb through the forest.

The trail eventually climbs out of the forest, affording great views of the landscape to the west. We stopped here and enjoyed the shade of one of the few trees here, taking a break to eat a snack.

Cammy and Jason checking out the view looking west

Continuing up the trail, we shortly approached the plateau where Round Top Lake sits. It's a beautiful sight, backed by Round Top and the Sisters mountains directly behind it. Despite it being September, there were still visible patches of snow on the north-facing slopes. There are several groups of twisted trees here, but I'm not sure what kind they are. They grow in clumps with perhaps a dozen trunks all sprouting from the same place. Perhaps some kind of pine tree adapted to the harsh conditions which must exist here during the winter. From the geography, it would seem likely that there are strong winds blowing from the west here during the winter. There doesn't appear to be anything to stop the wind for miles.

Trees by the shore of Round Top Lake

Round Top Lake

We stopped briefly at the top for about 10-15 minutes. We saw a few people fishing, and some campers as well. There are stakes numbered for each camp site, though I'm not sure if reservations are required, since it is part of the Mokelumne Wilderness. We took the trail to the right (to the left is the trail to Winnemucca Lake). It starts to descend slowly as it wraps around The Sisters to the south.

Caples Lake

Round Top Lake sits at about 9300 feet. After climbing about 1100 feet in a little over 2 miles, we now started a descent of about 1100 feet in 2 miles. We first passed a large patch of snow just to the left of the trail. The trail then turns south, with great views of Caples Lake below to the north west, and Thunder Mountain and Kirkwood ski resort to the west.

It is open forest here, but if you need a shaded break you can almost always find one on the trail within 5 minutes. At some point there is a unmarked fork in the trail. There was a X made of rocks on the trail to the left, so we took the one heading down and to the right. Eventually the trail reaches two metal stakes, probably the remnants of an old trail sign. A faint trail is visible heading up Fourth of July Peak to the southwest. At 9536 feet, it's only about a 350 foot climb and probably affords great views. But our path today would lead us down to the left, into a large amphitheater.

Hikers on the backside of The Sisters

Fourth Of July Lake from above

The trail descends the backside of The Sisters, which is quite barren near the top. There are large talus fields above the trail. There are a few small trees along the gently switchbacking trail here, but for the most part it is pretty barren. I suspect this may be the result of avalanches during the winter.


About halfway down, we noticed a few bright blue wildflowers. I was a little surprised to see any wildflowers at all, since it was mid-September. For the most part, there weren't -- desperately dried-up mule ears were the rule here, but there were a few scattered flowers here and there. Shortly after passing the flowers, we entered a forest of what I believe is Ponderosa pine. The color of the bark is just beautiful, reminiscent of sequoia trees.

Close-up of a flower

We slowly switchbacked down the trail. Fourth of July Lake is actually visible near the very top of the trail, but from here it looks close enough to touch. Unfortunately, we were now traversing the "switchbacks of death," in the sense that they were so long and flat that you wanted to throttle the trail designers to death. In that sense, they're much like the 99 switchbacks on Mt. Whitney.

After the tortuously long descent, made worse by the fact that we were now very hungry, we finally made it down to the eastern side of the lake. We made our way over to the shore, past a few backpackers setting up camp and through a nice conifer forest. The lake is definitely worth the trip. It shimmered underneath the high sun, backed closely by high granite walls to the south (very similar to the one above Jennie Lake), and to the northeast. To the east, the mountains are a bit more distant. There are small beaches here and there around the lake, and at one of them, we had the misfortune of witnessing a naked man walking around. Thankfully, he was far enough away that we couldn't see much detail.

Jason admiring the beauty of Fourth Of July Lake

I saw one man fishing down the shore from us, and some kids playing on the far western shore. We settled ourselves down onto the beach for lunch. I rinsed my hands off in the lake; the trail is quite dusty, and it was very refreshing to splash the water on my hands and face. The water was also quite cold. There wasn't any visible snow on the mountains above, but the water was cold nonetheless.

Fourth Of July Lake

After lunch, Jason and I started to try to skip rocks. We quickly turned our attention to a fallen log, a very small portion of it sticking up above the water's surface about 60 feet away from us. We took turns trying to hit it with a rock, but it proved elusive. It's harder than you might think, particularly because the rocks have no consistency. I came very close early on, but in the end it took me about 50-60 throws before I finally nailed it. I wouldn't have done it if there were other groups of hikers around, but we were pretty isolated so I felt okay about it.

Fourth Of July Lake

After the rocks, I turned my attention to taking photographs. The mountains reflected nicely off the water, though not as well as I'm sure they would later in the day. After staying at the lake for a good hour and a half, we finally left around 3:30pm, starting the climb back up to Round Top Lake. We decided we would try to avoid the switchbacks of death by trying to follow the more direct route on the west side, which was clearly visible near the top. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to follow near the bottom, as we soon found out. We lost the trail quickly, scampered up a gully, and ended up rejoining the original trail about 200 feet up. At least we avoided most of the switchbacks.

Ponderosa pine above Fourth Of July Lake

The late afternoon light was particularly beautiful on the ponderosa pines. I was sorry to see them go as we hiked higher and higher. We stopped a few times and were caught by some hikers with two dogs. One of them slobbered all over my knee before continuing up the trail. Dogs seem to like doing that to me for some reason. Maybe he wanted all the salt on the surface of my skin.

Ponderosa pines

We climbed and climbed; it was still hot even in the late afternoon, though there were some nice cool breezes occasionally. We topped out around 5pm. Jason and I dismissed ideas about climbing up to Fourth of July Peak because of the late hour and the fact that we were running out of water. I'd underestimated how much water to bring. We'd each brought about 80 ounces of water, plus two 32 ounce bottles of Tang and Gatorade between us -- so almost 100 ounces of liquid each. It wasn't quite enough. If I had to do it over again, I would have brought my water filter and used it at Fourth of July Lake.

We made our way back to Round Top Lake. We sat down and rested right next to the shore where we'd earlier seen a man fishing. The light was beautiful, with Round Top bathed in late afternoon light and reflecting in the water. I set up my tripod to take pictures of it, but my picture was marred by people on the opposite shore. We sat and ate some snacks while I waited and waited, but they refused to leave. Meanwhile, we witnessed a woman on our side of the lake catch a trout. She was very excited and we cheered when she lifted the fish out of the water.

Round Top looming over Round Top Lake

I told myself that as soon as I put my camera equipment away, the people on the far shore would move. But I couldn't wait any longer. We packed up to go. And there they went, right on cue. I decided to unpack my camera equipment and let the others go on without me. I figured I'd catch up on the descent. I took a few pictures, but there was still the woman fishing in my picture. Oh well.

I packed up and descended quickly towards Woods Lake. After a few minutes I caught up to the others. Jean and I stopped for a few minutes while Cammy and Jason continued their descent. The trail at this time of day (it was past 6pm now) is almost completely shaded and doesn't provide my photo opportunities. So Jean and I raced down the trail, trying to catch up. We never did. Despite our rapid descent, Cammy and Jason kept their lead, just beating us into camp by a few minutes. In fact it was still light when we arrived, plenty of time to wash up and have a great meal. We arrived right on the heels of our campground neighbors, who had done the Winnemucca Lake / Round Top / Round Top Lake loop.

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