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Helen Lake (Photo by Gail Gilbert)

Hiking up to Spillway and Helen Lakes

How much snow and ice would we find at the 11,000′ elevation above the Mono Pass Trail in August? It was the right time to get up there and check it out. It took us 5 hours and 44 minutes to do this hike but you can follow along on the hike with me on the Doarama link under Maps and Profiles in warp speed.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 10.15 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Range: 9,596′ – 10,961′
Date: August 1, 2017
Maps: Falls Ridge and June Lake Topogs
Dog Hike? No

Crossing Dana Fork

We headed east on Tioga Road, parking our car at the Mono Pass Trailhead, about 5.6 miles east of the Tuolumne Meadows Campground and 1.4 miles south of Tioga Pass. We put our snacks and cold drinks for after the hike and anything else that a bear might find irresistible in the bear box, used the restroom, sprayed down with mosquito repellent, then headed up the trail. About 1/3 of a mile along the trail, we needed to cross the Dana Fork and lucky for us, there were a couple of options to walk on small logs that someone had placed across the creek. We had brought our water shoes just in case but didn’t need them, saving a little time.

Old Log Cabin

This trail was utilized for silver mining that occurred in this area as early as the 1860s. The largest mines were the Golden Crown and the Ella Boss but there were many smaller mining efforts in this area. The Golden Crown Mine was established in 1879 by Orlando Fuller during the Tioga silver boom that also produced Bennettville and the Great Sierra Mine near Tioga Pass. Although the potential of these mines was talked up quite a bit, they were abandoned by 1890. The Mono Pass Trail passed right by what is left of log cabin once occupied by one of those miners.

The trail ran along meadows that were blooming with wild onion and a few wild iris.

After about 2 miles, the trail split, the left fork heading to Mono Pass and we stayed on the right fork toward Spillway Lake.

The trail left the trees behind and the most beautiful view opened up in front of us and yes, that is the water covered trail.

After working our way along the boggy meadow and trail that was a creek, the trail started climbing a bit, following the creek. Another view that I just love is when you reach the top of the creek, just below Spillway Lake, and you can see the beautiful colored mountains.

The trail ends at Spillway Lake and we took a quick look at the lake as we approached it cut since there was a bit of wind that gave us no reflections, we headed up on higher ground to the east, maintaining our elevation with the intent of hitting the approach to Helen Lake without gaining or losing elevation. As we skirted Spillway Lake, we couldn’t help but admire that view though.

We could see where our approach through the saddle and to the left of the creek that feeds out of Helen Lake and it would be through snow. This made me smile, but what was that white stuff drifting above the mountain?  Once we got home, we learned that it was smoke from a fire in the June Lake area.

We found a good spot where we could jump across a small creek that feeds into Spillway Lake.

Time to head up through the snow.

Photo of Me by Gail Gilbert

When I topped over to get my first view of Helen Lake, it was gorgeous, even without any ice on it.

This beautiful lake is named after John Muir’s youngest daughter, Helen Lillian Muir. She was born January 1886 in California and died in 1964. She married Buel Alvin Funk in 1909 and moved to Belleville in San Bernardino County, California. Helen was often sick and the doctors thought that the desert air might help her health improve.

Belleville was a mining boomtown near Holcomb Valley and although the gold rush that hit this area from about 1860 to 1870 was long over, hard rock mining still took place up to about 1919. Helen’s husband Buel is listed as a Farmer on the 1920 through 1930 census in Belleville, owning their property after the 1910 census. The Funks continued to live in Belleville til at least the 1930 census and Buel died in 1934. Helen died in Spokane, Washington and is buried at the Bellevue Cemetery and Mausoleum in Ontario, California.

John Muir with wife Louise, daughters Helen on left and Wanda on right. (Photo courtesy NPS.com)

At 11,000′ elevation, it is a tough life for wildflowers but we found some tucked in the rocks.

We grabbed a flat rock to eat our lunch and admire the white puffy clouds, then walked back along the lake to head down.

Photo by Gail Gilbert

Not a bad view heading down.

And of course, we knew the easiest, fastest and funnest way to get down that snowfield.

Heather was blooming and almost looked like it was providing a pink path for our descent.

We wandered along the shore of Spillway Lake.

We found some flowers along the lake.

We met back up with the trail, heading back down the same way that we had come up to Spillway.

We noticed some flowers that we had missed on the way up.

And just as finished shooting that last flower picture and the camera was still in macro mode, a young deer meandered by and asked me to take its picture. So I did.

We were almost back to the car after having crossed the creek and couldn’t help but check out the fields of blooms along the Dana Fork.


Photo by Gail Gilbert

The mosquitos are out but our bug spray kept them from biting. Don’t forgot to put it on and bring it with you to reapply.

Dog Hike?

No, dogs not allowed in Yosemite National Park Wilderness.

Maps and Profile:

Spillway & Helen Lakes Hike Doarama

Spillway & Helen Lakes Hike Topographic Map

Spillway & Helen Lakes Hike Profile


Helen Muir Bio by Sierra Club

Prior Blogs in the Area:

Hiking up to Spillway and Helen Lakes June 29, 2016

Hiking on the Mono Trail to Spillway and Helen Lakes June 8 2014

Hiking and Fishing High Lakes along the Mono Pass Trail August 14, 2013

Hiking with the Yosemite Toad to Helen & Spillway Lakes June 7, 2013

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