A pitch for walking in the Saddlebag Lake area

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(I want to start this by saying that this trip was Richard’s idea and he spent about three-quarters of it waiting for me to catch up. It was the longest I have walked since my foot gave out about six months ago and Richard’s patience approached angelic levels. Thank you, Richard. You are a Mensch, my friend.)

A funny thing happened on our trip to Yosemite to take a walk in Tuolumne Meadows, we ended up at Saddlebag Lake (mostly near Saddlebag Lake, actually). Saddlebag Lake is one of my guilty pleasures. You can drive up, park your car, walk a hundred and fifty feet, take a boat across the Lake, get out, walk another 150 feet, and you are in The High Country. Somehow, it seems a little too easy, a little cheap and it is; there is no suffering involved. Just Pleasure.

Any trip to The Sierras from The Bay Area, involves going through The Great Central Valley and, to me, they are always linked. In the late 60’s, when I was going to the Sierras a lot, I had an un-airconditioned 1966 Corvair convertible and The Valley was always Hotter than a son of a bitch. We would drive across it on Friday nights, stopping in small Valley towns, along Highway 99 before it was a freeway, to get a Giant Orange Juice – from a building that was round and orange! – on our way to The High Sierras. When we got there, we already looked like we had been backpacking for two days, now Richard and I ride in comfort looking at Outside Temperature to see how hot it is.

This year, it was hotter and drier than usual, and it is only July!

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Don Pedro Reservoir is way down (although as a useless-reservoir-and-the-boating-it-encourages critic, that doesn’t dismay me).

Saddlebag Lake area -9682We drove by the cremains of last year’s Rim Fire and it was not as desolate as Smokey the Bear would have us think it would be. Now there is dry grass between the trees, proof of the new grass and new life in the fire-caused clearings.

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Like anybody and everybody else, I cringe when I read or hear about wildfires or forest fires and I live in an wild-place/civilization interface so I certainly don’t want this area to go up in flames, all that aside, however, the ecosystem needs these fires. It is our ecosystem too – now – even if we were once interlopers, and it has evolved with these fires. In their wake, there is always new life.

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The weather forecast had been for thunderstorms during the day and a 50% chance of heavy showers that night so Richard and I decided to camp out in a motel, in Lee Vining. That complicated our trip because we had to check in before 4:00 PM which meant we would have to drive through Tuolumne Meadows on the way to Lee Vining and, then, drive back into Yosemite. We decided, instead to spend a couple of hours wandering around the Lee Vining River Valley, off of the Saddlebag Lake Road.

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We were walking at about 9,600 feet and it was late spring with wildflowers blooming (including wild onions).

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We ended the day by dropping back down to Mono Lake where we watched the sunset from the Dining Terrace of the Whoa Nellie Deli.

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The next morning,  as we were  driving up Tioga Pass, Richard suggested that we go to the Saddlebag Lake area rather than Tuolumne. He had never been there – I can understand why, it is not a place the cognoscenti go which is why I feel slightly guilty – but, I think, he was a little surprised by the highness  of our walk the day before. So we drove up,  parked our car, walked a hundred and fifty feet, and got on a boat. It was spring in the High Sierras on the other side of the lake. Saddlebag Lake area -9773

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About 145 to 66 million years ago, the Farallon Plate dove under the North American Plate, heating and pushing magma up under an eastern California that wasn’t there yet.  That magma lifted, twisted, and metamorphosed the rock – a combination of volcanic flows, volcanic ash, and sedimentary rock, called Country Rock because it was there before the magma- that it pushed through. About twenty million years ago, this whole area started lifting again and, as it lifted, it started wearing down by being exposed to weather, a process that is still going on.  The core of that lifting mass is the Sierra Nevada, forming what John Muir called the The Range of Light. About 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago, glaciers carved huge valleys into the bright granite. About a week ago, we got off the boat at Saddlebag, on a Saturday morning. We were standing on Country Rock: the rock that was here before the Sierras.

We are standing next to Saddlebag Lake, in a garden of yellow flowers – Mimulus guttatus, I think – in chips of shales, but just to the east of it is the contact zone where the twisted, distorted, Country Rock hits the Sierra granite and, beyond that, the bright, white Sierra Nevada massif itself. Saddlebag Lake area -9776

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What I most like about this area is that it seems like a collection of Zen Gardens. We are at 10,000 + feet, one of the harshest environments on earth and everything is so delicate, so refined, elegant.

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We are walking up into a cirque below Mt. Conness and, as we get higher, storm clouds are coalescing into thunderheads. Saddlebag Lake area -9820High on the mountain, to our left and way above us is the last vestiges of the Conness Glacier, mostly covered in scree. For the first time in all the years that I have been coming here, I realize – with mixed emotions – I will probably outlive it.
Saddlebag Lake area -9813It starts to rain and the glacial polish on the wet granite shines in the fading light as we turn around and head back to the boat landing.

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An hour or so later, driving through Yosemite on 120, it starts to rain and Richard says the thermometer reads 56°. About and hour and a half after that, going through the valley, it says 90°. We are almost home, in time for me to watch qualifying for the German grand Prix.

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7 thoughts on “A pitch for walking in the Saddlebag Lake area

  1. Oh, the Sierra..wow. What’s the deal with the boat?
    Lovely pictures, lovely trip. That orange place being “Orange Julius”, right? they made a drink with oranges and an egg, mixed on the spot…I remember it from when I was in Claremont…

    Happy trails!


  2. Oh Steve, I don’t normally post comments but just had to respond to this lovely pictorial essay. I, too, remember, the Mammoth Orange on Hwy 99, seen in the 1940’s and on. And the juice was fresh and greatly appreciated in those lovely hot days before air conditioned cars.

    And I’ve hiked into Saddlebag. We took a friend who was not accustomed to the HIgh Country because we knew about the boat. And were grateful for it. I loved it all and your trip with Richard has made me want to go back. But I am sorry you missed spending time in T. Meadows. I’ve just been reading the biography of Carl C. Sharsmith, the preeminent ranger-naturalist for the Meadows. Fascinating man and most interesting era. We were fortunate to have a couple of walks with him in the 80’s. I think you and Richard would like the book.

    Hope to see you soon, Steve. Best to you,

    1. Sally, first off, I am thrilled you read my blog. I don’t think that are many of us who even remember the Old 99, let alone the Mammoth Orange, those were the days before Highway 120 was improved from Groveland to the Park entrance.

      I would love to get together, lets bug Richard.
      With love

  3. Taking an unexpected visual walk down memory lane was sheer pleasure! I have hiked or strolled the loop of lakes in back of Saddlebag Lake, starting as soon as gas rationing ended after WWII. I learned to row on Saddlebag Lake. I have climbed Mt. Conness twice and backpacked to the Gaylor Lakes. So many stories. So much family memories.

    If you have been going to this area since the late 60s, perhaps you are familiar with the Slate Creek area in the valley below. We camped there for a month every summer. Over the years I have seen trees fill meadows, granite boulders decompose, Junction Campground flooded, snow falling in August, identified countless wildflowers, and enjoyed some of the best times of my life. Family and friends were devastated and angry when the decision was made to close the road to our favorite spot and expand the boundaries of the Harvey Monroe Hall Natural Area. Now from this vantage point, I can see that it was a necessary decision.

    I remember when the dam at Saddlebag Lake was replaced. We were warned that we might not be able to get out of our campground and drive across Saddlebag Creek. The fishing in the creek was wonderful when they were draining the lake.

    My last trip to the area was Labor Day weekend in 1998, and I camped in the Saddlebag Lake campground for the first time. Walking was problematic and painful because I was still recovering from a shattered ankle. I probably won’t be going back again because I have lived in Bozeman, Montana since 1994. Even though I am surrounded by mountains and countless streams, my favorite place is still in the Sierra, just a short distance from Tioga Pass Road.

    Someone mentioned Claremont. Do we have another connection? I graduated from Pomona College.

    Thank you for such a pleasurable morning!


    1. Sue-
      First, thank you for reading my blog. How did you run into this post? No, I don’t know the Slate Creek area, please tell me more. I’ve hiked to Gaylor Lake from the Tioga Ranger Station but have never spent the night (I assumed it was too close to the road although we used to start the “season” at Budd Lake which is now too close). The first time I went over Tioga Pass was in August of 1956 and I remember it being gravel, is that right? I went to CMC and took several classes at Pomona in the late 50s, early 60s and I am still very fond of Southern California although I live in Silicon Valley.

      1. I found your blog when I was looking for photos of the area. I started with Ellery and Tioga Lakes, and one thing led to another. Among the photos of Saddlebag Lake was your photo of a creek I have fished. That listed your blog as the source.

        The world is shrinking, thanks to technology. Not all good. Not all bad!

        I suspect you can access my e-mail address since I had to include it to be able to post here. I need more space for writing a description of Slate Creek and other day trips. Reflections on Carl Sharsmith, Claremont, Palo Alto, Stinky’s and more.


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