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Steelhead Lake

Hoover Wilderness

July 2nd, 2009

2.9 miles
440 vertical feet
Total Time: 4:38

Starting elevation
10073 feet
Max elevation
10365 feet

Rating: 10/10

Directions: From Tuolumne Meadows, take Tioga Road (Highway 120) east out of Yosemite Park. Turn left onto Saddlebag Lake Road. Follow this dirt road (it's fairly straight and wide) to the end about 2 miles later. Park near the store if you can; if not, there is overflow parking in a large lot further back.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

It was slightly overcast as we drove up to Saddlebag Lake (just over 10,000 feet elevation). I made the mistake of turning right, following the parking sign before reaching the store. I just figured this was the only parking lot. After we prepped and walked the short distance to the store, I realized there was another large parking lot right by the store.

We went into the store to reserve our spot on the ferry. The ferry service runs every half hour, taking hikers and fishermen from the dock to the trailhead at 10:00, 10:30, etc., and going the opposite direction at 10:15, 10:45, etc. We arrived at the store just past 10am. Unfortunately, the 10:30am ferry was already booked solid, so we had to wait for the 11am ferry. I also had to decide when we would return. After a bit of thought, I said to put us down for the 4:15pm return ferry, figuring that would give us plenty of time to complete our hike.

10:30am ferry leaving the dock

While we were waiting, I moved the car to the closer parking lot and we bought 3 bundles of firewood for our campsite. Finally, a little before 11am, we got onto the boat. The boat fits about 10-12 people and covers the distance across the length of the lake in less than 10 minutes. If you're not willing to pay for the ferry, you can hike the trail instead. There's a 3-mile long trail that circumnavigates the lake. However, the trail doesn't look very exciting, being completely exposed on the steep sides of the lake, about 30-40 feet above the water's edge. So if you skip it by taking the ferry, it doesn't look like you're missing anything. With two small children, we pretty much had to take the ferry. Plus, kids love a boat ride.

Also on the boat with us was a man with his teenage son and daughter, going on a 3-4 day backpacking trip. Once we reached the other side of the lake, we all got out. From here, you have two options. Left or right. There's a popular loop trail from here which is about 5 miles. To the right is a trail past a forest service cabin and up to Hummingbird Lake. To the left is the trail to Greenstone Lake. Our little one isn't yet ready for a 5 mile hike, so we'd have to content ourselves with an out-and-back hike. The left path looked more interesting for an out-and-back; I figured we could at least reach Wasco Lake, and possibly Steelhead Lake, before having to turn around.

We left the rocky shore of Saddlebag Lake behind and headed up the trail. After a very brief climb, we immediately began to see some of the beautiful scenery. To our left was now Greenstone Lake, much smaller than Saddlebag Lake, but still larger than most of the lakes on the loop hike. Mountains covered with a patchwork of snow rose steeply from the back the of the lake. Despite all the bare granite above us, there was green around Greenstone Lake in the form of trees and grasses. We stopped on top of a large rock overlooking the lake, enjoying the scene before moving on.

Looking back down at Saddlebag Lake

Mountains above Greenstone Lake

Greenstone Lake

Greenstone Lake

While the skies were mostly cloudy, the sun did break through once in a while. We continued along the trail, which continues to climb gradually. It's generally a relatively wide path, following an old dirt road which has started to narrow a bit as the vegetation grows back. We started to get passed by many hikers in both directions, including a few dogs. Many people carried fishing rods.

Greenstone Lake

Ponds above Greenstone Lake

Greenstone Lake

There was water everywhere -- in the form of snow on the mountains, water in the lakes, ponds seemingly everywhere, and also some running water on the trail in places. There were even patches of snow next to or on the trail in a few places, leading to some brief snowball fights. The trail started to level off, and I stopped at the next pond we saw. I immediately noticed the reflections in the pond, then moved around the pond so that the mountains in front of us would line up just right and be reflected in the pond. I took several pictures here while other hikers came and went. It was at this point that I thought to myself that this hike has an embarrassment of riches and there was no other rating to give it except a 10. And this was probably before we'd even been hiking a mile. The rest of the hike would not disappoint.

Mountains reflecting in pond between Greenstone and Wasco Lake

The trail makes a short descent down to Wasco Lake. As we approached the lake, we could hear the distinct *ribbit* of frogs near the lake. It was soothing. The trail comes near the northern tip of Wasco Lake. We left the trail and walked to the lake shore, deciding to stop here for lunch. There were a few fishermen further down the shore, but for the most part we had much of the lake to ourselves, away from all the people hiking the trail.

Wasco Lake

Descending to Wasco Lake

I took many pictures of the picture-postcard scene in front of us. Wasco Lake is a long narrow lake, with green shores on the left (east) and a rocky shore on the right. Patches of snow cover the mountains rising behind the lake to the south. It started to rain lightly while we were here, but it stopped very quickly and the sun was out minutes later.

Mountain reflection in Wasco Lake

Tiny flowers at Wasco Lake

Flowers at Wasco Lake

We ate our lunch, skipped rocks, and then were back on the trail. It was almost 2pm. Being conservative, I set a turnaround time of 2:15, giving us almost 2 hours to get back to the dock in time to take the ferry across Saddlebag Lake. If we missed it, we'd have to walk an extra 1.5 miles.

So we continued north along the trail to Steelhead Lake. There was snow on the left and right sides of the trail now, though mostly on the left. Large sections of the snow on the left were turning red, evidence of some kind of algae. We now encountered lots of hikers coming in the opposite direction, a large group that was doing the complete loop in counter-clockwise fashion.

Steelhead Lake

Almost on cue, we reached the southern tip of Steelhead Lake at 2:15pm. It is much larger than Wasco Lake and perhaps a bit larger than Greenstone Lake. Like Wasco, Steelhead Lake is much longer than it is wide. Waterfalls were visible all around, and creeks descended steeply down to the water's surface. Snow patches reached the water's edge, as well. It's a beautiful sight that made me think I was in Alaska, not California.

Trail next to Steelhead Lake

The trail continues north along the eastern shore of the lake. The trail is about 20 feet above the water's surface. I would love to complete the entire loop some day, but not today. We turned around and left the lake at 2:20pm, leaving us plenty of time for the return trip.

Pond above Wasco Lake

We made very good time going back, since it was either flat or downhill most of the way. We stopped on top of a rocky section above the northern edge of Greenstone Lake. While there, I spied a marmot on another ridge nearby. After a short break, we continued down to the dock at the edge of Saddlebag Lake around 3:50pm. We skipped rocks (and there are tons of rocks here) while we waited for the ferry to arrive.

Looking down at Greenstone and Saddlebag Lakes

Greenstone Lake

On the return ferry trip, I think everyone else in the boat had a fishing rod. They complained that the fishing wasn't very good. The scenery, on the other hand, was magnificent. Even with all the hordes of people on the hike, the sheer beauty of the scenery forces this hike to be rated 10. My advice would be to avoid this hike on a weekend, and holiday weeks if you can avoid it. Then you can enjoy that scenery in relative peace.

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