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Hiking up to Spillway and Helen Lakes

We couldn’t wait to get up to higher country to see if the lakes were still frozen over. We discovered the answer to that question, saw some beautiful country, some critters and very cool clouds.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 12 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Range: 9,596′ – 11,069′
Date: June 16, 2015
Maps: Falls Ridge and June Lake Topographic Quads

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 for after the hike and anything else that a bear might find irresistible in the bear box, used the restrooms, then headed up the trail.

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We usually need to to put our water shoes on to cross the Dana Fork but we were able to use the wobbly logs that people had put across the creek.

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We hadn’t gone too far before we spotted this buck. It was not very far off the trail and he moved to these trees as we walked by. It was almost like he was saying, “I see you but you can’t see me.”

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We headed past the old fallen down log cabin and when the trail forked, we took the right fork. The left fork heads up to Mono Pass, down through Bloody Canyon or through Parker Pass. As we moved out of the trees, the view really opened up and we were looking straight ahead at our destination for the day, nestled in the snow streaked mountains ahead of us.

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As we climbed in elevation on the trail, beautiful views of the Kuna Crest, Parker Peak, Mount Gibbs, Mount Dana and Mount Lewis were all along the trail as we paralleled Parker Pass Creek. We reached the outlet of Spillway Lake and wandering along its shores for a while.

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Spillway Lake is where the trail ends. We headed cross country, working our way up in elevation through the trees. My purpose on our approach to Helen Lake was to get across Parker Creek where it was narrow enough to jump across and to avoid the boggy areas. Those boggy areas can make your socks wet in a second when your boot sinks down in them. We had expected mosquitos in this area and they can be horrible here, but we lucked out and had a breeze, which may have helped with that issue. We had sprayed down at the car and had brought mosquito nets for our heads, just in case.

We stayed to the left of the outlet from Helen Lake, climbing up and up through the slabby rocks and boulders. Last year when we did this hike on June 11, this was a snow field. This year, there were a few larger patches of snow left and that was it. Last year, Helen Lake was still iced over but as I reached the outlet of the lake, I can see that not a smidge of ice was on the lake this drought year.

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, Callifornia. 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. 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.

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Steve found a good rock to hang out on, so Gail and I left our packs with him and we wandered along the lake.

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I decided to head up above the upper end of the lake to see what the view looked like. I also had spotted a big snow field and had an idea.

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Ready, set, go! Time to slide down that big snow field on my rear end, also known to our hiking gang as “butt sliding.” It was a good run. Fancy people call this “glissading.”

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I headed back down to where Gail and Steve had found some good rocks to relax on.

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I discovered later that Gail had captured a really nice picture of what I believe is a Belding’s Ground Squirrel. It looks like this critter was posing for her.

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After lunch, we started wandering back down, taking our time. Gail spotted a bunch of small trout feeding along the shallow areas of the lake. We heard coyotes calling nearby but couldn’t spot them.

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We started heading down off of the hill, where we had amazing views of Spillway Lake and the surrounding mountains.

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We had spotted 3 medium snow patches on the way up and knew that we needed to do some butt sliding. Steve had never experienced this fast and fun way to get down the mountain. In addition to these pictures, I have an action packed video of this to better show the technique involved.

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Wandering back through the boggy areas, mountain heather’s pink flowers lined some of the tarns.

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We reached the inlet to Spillway Lake and started looking for Yosemite Toads. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the Yosemite Toad is “threatened with extinction,” requiring protection under the Endangered Species Act. Remaining populations are thought to not be reproducing enough to survive. Vehicular traffic kills, prolonged periods of drought, and disease are contributing to the rapid decline of the Yosemite toad. There are current attempts at various zoological institutions to successfully breed and reintroduce this species back into its native range which is limited to the high sierra.

We had found a couple along the trail but were hoping for more. We were listening for the Yosemite Toad’s “love song,” which can be heard up to 100 yards away, but we didn’t hear any. We finally found a very small one, about ½ to ¾” long. They are very good at blending in with their surroundings. Can you spot it?

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We continued along Spillway Lake, then met up with the trail, following it back down.

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We stopped on the trail to point out some landmarks and Gail looked up to see this incredible rainbow cloud. We watched it for a while and the colors built even more. The clouds looked like two angels floating across the sky high above the Kuna Crest. I shared the picture with the Hanford Office of the National Weather Service and they said that the colors are due to sunlight being refracted by ice crystals in the cirrus clouds.

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Just before we made it back to the car, we passed by an area that usually has a fairly good sized tarn, which can have amazing reflections of the surrounding mountains in it. This year, there wasn’t much water left in it but it was still pretty to me.

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We had Helen and spillway Lakes to ourselves and had a wonderful hike. We were disappointed that Helen Lake was not iced over but it was still very nice. I thought I would leave you with some pictures of Helen Lake from last year so you could see the big difference, but also the beauty.

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Sources:

http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/muirh.aspx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belleville,_California
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=124823226&ref=acom
http://www.sierraforestlegacy.org/FC_SierraNevadaWildlifeRisk/YosemiteToad.php

Prior Blogs in this Area:

https://www.sierranewsonline.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3803:hiking-on-the-mono-trail-to-spillway-and-helen-lakes&Itemid=535
https://www.sierranewsonline.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2229:hiking-with-the-yosemite-toad-to-helen-spillway-lakes&Itemid=535

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