My family and I have been hiking the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains for years. But as a middle-age mama, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a bit spoiled. (Or am I just getting old?) When I go hiking, I want a big payoff with a minimum amount of effort. In other words, I don’t want to break a sweat but I still want to be awestruck by the scenery. Believe it or not, it’s possible. Very possible. Both of the following are my favorite family-friendly day hikes in the Eastern Sierra near the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California. Each trailhead starts at around 10,000 feet so the hard grunt work is already done (read: few switchbacks) freeing you to just hang back, slow down, and enjoy the view.
Little Lakes Valley
This moderately strenuous 10-mile hike meanders past a series of pristine mountain lakes, lush meadows festooned with wild flowers, and babbling freshwater streams, all nestled within a wide-open valley framed by towering snow-capped peaks. But it’s only during the first mile when the trail parallels Rock Creek that you get an aerobic workout climbing several hundred feet. Before long, however, the trail flattens out and the views open up.
Don’t miss the rocky ridge overlooking the north end of Marsh Lake where you can easily climb up for a panoramic view of the valley. (Look for an unmarked trail off to the left leading towards the lake.) At Box Lake, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the deep turquoise water 50 feet below. Scramble down–if you dare–to take a dip. Long Lake is perfect for a picnic with its generous grassy shoreline. You’ll definitely need to fuel up for the next segment of the trip as you climb in elevation again to reach Morgan Pass. At 11,000 feet take in the spectacular view of surrounding peaks–Mount Abbot, Bear Creek Spire, Mount Starr–or boulder hop among the massive granite monoliths at the foot of Mount Morgan, a 13,200-foot steel-grey pinnacle. From the pass, you can turn back and then detour off the trail to explore Gem or Chickenfoot Lakes (both are a short distance off the main trail and well marked). But if you have the time, continue farther on to the stark, lunar-like landscape of Upper and Lower Morgan Lakes.
To get to Little Lakes Valley, take Tom’s Place exit off Highway 395 just south of Mammoth Lakes, and follow signs to the end of Rock Creek Road. Look for Mosquito Flat trailhead.
The fun begins at the historic ferry landing at Saddlebag Lake just outside of Yosemite National Park’s east entrance, where a water taxi whisks you one-and-a-half miles to the other side of the lake ($11 for an adult, round trip). Scramble up the rocky shore to begin a spectacular five-mile loop that circles past trout-filled lakes hidden among an amazingly diverse landscape. But be sure to head out counterclockwise to save the best part of the journey for last. The trail starts out flat and dry–the ground completely carpeted with jagged stones of rust, brown, and grey–but soon drops into a rocky, narrow valley funneling you to the banks of Helen Lake. Navigate carefully around its craggy shores (especially when wet) and cross a primitive bridge to the other side of the lake. Here the trail slowly rises out of the basin, across abundant snow fields–yes, even in late summer–and parallels bubbling, snow-fed creeks bejeweled in wildflowers. After traversing some slick rock, you’ll crest a hill and Shamrock Lake comes into full view. Several little islands–each its own private oasis–adorn its crystal-clear waters and fields of California corn lilies grow all along its shores. If you have the time, detour about a mile off the trail to explore the remains of the old Tungsten Mine. Or, continue on and marvel at the sheer granite walls fortifying the western banks of Steelhead Lake, nestled in the shadow of glacier-covered North Peak. From here it’s all downhill past lodgepole and whitebark pine and the emerald waters of Greenstone Lake back to the ferry dock. This is a must-do summertime hike.
To reach Saddlebag Lake, take highway Highway 120 from Lee Vining, just north of Mammoth Lakes. Look for the turn off to the right, just a few miles south of Tioga Lake. Follow the dirt road until you hit the Saddlebag Lake parking lot. Pick up your water taxi tickets inside the charming little general store.
Remember, weather in the High Sierra can change in an instant, so dress in layers, bring plenty of water, and be sure to pack insect repellent!